O’Neill Associate Professor and Director of O’Neill’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety program Dena Carson is being honored for her work understanding youth gangs and youth violence. Carson was one of eight IUPUI faculty members recognized by the university as 2023 Research Frontiers Trailblazers.
The Trailblazer Award honors IUPUI associate professors who have made exceptional contributions to areas in their field of research within the first three years of their academic appointment. It’s not first time Carson has been recognized for her work. In 2019, she was awarded the prestigious Tory J. Caeti Memorial Award from the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Section of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.
Her most recent research projects have focused on the processes that impact whether a young person can leave gang life, how youth gangs and their members impact schools and communities, and how certain risk factors in a young person’s life impact whether they join a gang in the first place.
“I am thrilled to receive the IU Trailblazer award,” Carson says proudly. “I believe my work is very impactful and it’s really nice to have that recognized.”
Her work impacts gang prevention and intervention. One of her projects examined whether youth gangs interrupt daily school routines for students. What she found was that, overall, students who weren’t in gangs weren’t fearful of going to school with those who were, and that the presence of gangs in schools did not lead to many interruptions for other students.
“This shows something very important—that the youth who are in gangs are just that: they’re youth,” she says. “They may be going to school and trying to get good grades and better themselves, just like their peers.”
She says this understanding can help leaders develop interventions that help young people leave gang life behind, a decision that is critical not only for the individuals themselves, but also for communities at large.
“One of the greatest issues facing our society right now is gun violence,” she explains. “We know a portion of that violence is caused by people in gangs. If we develop strong intervention programs targeted at gangs, we can actually reduce gun violence as well.”
Carson’s view of gang life isn’t limited only to an American lens. She partners with other researchers from around the world to trade knowledge about what the concept of a gang means in other countries. She’s learned many nations have imported American stereotypes about gang life.
This global collaboration means she has access to information that isn’t publicly available in the United States. That’s part of what makes her work unique. But so is the data she’s generating on her own here at home. That’s because she doesn’t shy away from sitting down with the young people who are living the life she seeks to understand.
“Some researchers may be hesitant to sit down with hard-to-reach people or at-risk populations,” she says. “But that’s one of the things my research does. I’m talking directly with people involved in and affected by gangs. I’m getting to talk to people who’ve been in a gang and are trying to break away from that life or who have already done so successfully.”
Carson says she also wants to help reduce the stigma attached to these young people. Her research has found that this stigma was created by American pop culture, movies, and music.
“There are a lot of media representations of what a gang looks like, what a person in a gang should look like,” she explains. “This stereotype often includes Black and Brown faces, particularly male Black and Brown faces. That type of representation perpetuates a lot of stereotypes and information that is, at best, inaccurate and, at worst, harmful.”
Carson says her findings indicate most media portrayals of young people in gangs simply aren’t true. One of the most damaging media messages? That gang membership is for life.
“There is no research to support that,” she says. “A young person’s time in a gang is often short-lived—maybe one to two years.”
She stresses there’s also no research to back up the idea that those in gangs are participating in violence and crime every day.
“While all research points to the fact that these young people are certainly participating in more violence than their peers, there’s nothing to indicate they are committing violence at every turn,” she explains. “They are doing many of the same things we all do—playing video games, hanging out with friends, going to school.”
She says that’s what she really wants people to take away from her research.
“These young people are so much more than just perpetrators of violence—and they deserve the opportunity to better themselves.”