Stories about gangs and gang violence are often fodder for movie and TV scripts. O’Neill Associate Professor Dena Carson says she watched those shows growing up in a small town in southeast Kansas. True crime television is what sparked her interest in criminal justice.
Now, she’s using her research skills to look beyond the portrayals that plague movie plots and news headlines. She wants to learn more about the young people involved in gang life.
“A large portion of my work really focuses on understanding the impact of these individuals on their communities and in schools,” she explains. “Some of my work with interviewing young people who’ve been in school with students involved in gangs generally finds the kids who are in gangs just don’t have that much impact on the day-to-day life of other students.”
She adds that while gang members do behave differently than other students, they also have many similarities.
“They hang out with their friend group, just like any high school clique does,” she says. “They’re thinking about assignments, working through their day just as any other student would.”
She knows that because she’s spent time talking with young people who’ve been in gangs as well as those who’ve been impacted by violence. Doing so helps her serve as a mythbuster of sorts for gang stereotypes.
“The most dangerous misconception we have about gang members is that they can only be people from marginalized communities,” she explains. “White individuals are also in gangs, whether they’re in urban or rural areas. We can’t forget rural areas also have this issue. We know rural areas are underfunded and undersupported in gang prevention efforts.”
Prevention and intervention are both critical parts of her research mission. In fact, Carson was named a 2023 Research Frontiers Trailblazer at IUPUI for her work to find ways that can help leaders better understand young people in gangs and, hopefully, design programs to support them and the broader community.
“As a society, we would save ourselves a lot of money and time and heartache and consequences if we could start violence and gang prevention a lot sooner and do primary prevention work,” she says.
That’s one reason she enjoys teaching the next generation of leaders. She knows they’re the ones who will be able to combine research like hers with their O’Neill education to make a difference in the future.
What do you enjoy about working with students?
“The thing I like about the classroom goes back to the myth-busting. In my Crime and Public Policy class, students are surprised that practitioners and policy makers are sometimes unable to use research to make decisions about criminal justice policies. That’s because, oftentimes, these decisions have to be made really quickly, whereas the criminal justice and research processes are both really slow. I really like the surprise and when I can see them understanding that things actually are really complicated, especially in criminal justice.”
Why should students choose to come to O’Neill?
“One of the wonderful things about O’Neill is the amount of community-based research we do. This allows us to expose our students to many different kinds of problems on the local level, as well as larger global problems. Our students really get a holistic look at how these problems and solutions interact.”
“Whether it’s public health, psychology, sociology, social work, philanthropy, O’Neill classes are very relevant to other degrees across campus. Even within our degrees, O’Neill students can reap the benefits of being in a program where they can be enrolled in criminal justice classes and also take public affairs classes that are still extremely relevant to their career goals. An O’Neill degree helps set students up to be very attractive in the job market.”