Social work student rises from Blood gang to pursue college degree

by | Jul 26, 2018

Harold Crawford aims to work with at-risk youth, helping them avoid some of the pitfalls he experienced in his own life.
Harold Crawford

Harold Crawford is set to graduate this December with a degree in social work and aims to work with at-risk youth, helping them avoid some of the pitfalls he experienced in his own life. (Photo by August Jennewein)

As social work student Harold Crawford sits in the lounge of Bellerive Hall at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, he sports dark jeans and a black YouthBuild T-shirt from a recent two-year internship at the St. Louis organization focused on helping at-risk youth.

He mentored young guys, not unlike himself more than a decade ago, struggling to walk the straight and narrow. He helped them with their homework and offered general support.

“A lot of those guys, that’s their last limb,” Crawford said.

Not so long ago, you couldn’t catch him in an outfit lacking the color red. It’s how Crawford let people know he belonged to the Bloods, a gang with Los Angeles roots and known for its infamous clashes with its rival LA gang – the Crips, who wear blue.

“I never really did care for the color blue,” said Crawford, who is 36 and let that life go dormant to pursue a BSW at UMSL. “Red everything was pretty much my attire, and I had to have my red chucks on.”

Dating to the late 1960s and early ’70s, the Crips and Bloods rivalry inspired and fueled gang culture across the country, including in St. Louis. That’s where Crawford, at 17, officially claimed his roots to the Bounty Hunters – a specific set of Bloods out of Watts, California, from which his connections came – although his exposure to gang banging first came through his brother, a Parker Estates Gangster Crip in Oklahoma City. Crawford had lived there through junior high.

“I would go over to his house and like all these guys, as they got older, you could see how the lifestyle had changed them, how they lost their innocent look,” Crawford said.

His brother is 40 and still gang banging.

“For me, there was a lot more money involved with the guys I was involved with,” Crawford continued. “It seemed like the Crips, all they wanted to do was just go around and terrorize every damn body.”

When he became official, Crawford lived on Compton Avenue in South St. Louis and attended Marquette High School in west St. Louis County through the desegregation program.

After he graduated, Crawford said he spent the first part of his 20s “failing at everything.” He flunked out of St. Louis Community College–Forest Park and was kicked out of the Marines for fraudulent enlistment after lying to get in.

Hustling paid in ways he wasn’t finding outside of gang culture. Crawford was a soldier for his crew, meaning he’d proven worthy of rank. He was loyal and dutiful and didn’t complain about carrying out tasks.

Times got tough, especially after his mother moved to west county, and he chose to stay in the city. He lived in an abandoned house for awhile, eventually upgrading to sleeping on the basement floor of a friend’s place.

“Everybody I was associated with at that time, literally we’d be hustling toothpaste and shoe strings,” he said.

Crawford stopped hustling for the most part at 25, when he started taking classes at St. Louis Martial Arts Academy.

“When I got into that, a lot of things changed,” he says. “I was getting older, and I started working. You really don’t have enough time to be involved in all that and you can’t go on a block and hustle your rock when you’ve got this job.”

Unfortunately, struggles with alcohol plagued Crawford, who went through a merry-go-round of low-wage jobs that he’d lose. He’d turn to hustling again for quick cash, and he’d move from place to place, living out of a hotel and his car at different points.

“I could make money faster, but at the same time I was getting older and the quality of life was you always gotta watch over your shoulder, always a game of cat and mouse,” said Crawford, who was nearing 31. “I was just getting tired of doing that and tired of these jobs.”

He took a drug assessment course through the Substance Abuse Traffic Offender Program and enrolled at Bridgeway Behavioral Health.

“The counselors there were really impressive,” he said. “I realized how powerful human services were and what a social work degree could do.”

Crawford quit drinking, earned an addiction studies certificate, returned to Forest Park on academic probation and completed his associate degree while holding a job at JB Goods on Manchester Avenue. He transferred to UMSL to complete his bachelor’s degree in social work thereafter.

“I caught myself doing homework in the parking lot on breaks,” he said. “It’s been tough, but I’m making it through.”

Crawford still has his connections and “homies,” but even they advised him to stay his course and keep away if he could.

As an undergraduate, he’s held two practicums, including one at Bridgeway, where he worked with recovering addicts. His other practicum was at Better Family Life, a St. Louis nonprofit focused on providing education and business opportunities that help unite and develop the local community. Crawford conducted research on charter schools for the organization.

He has found that his social work courses help him make sense of his past and articulate things he’s experienced but never really talked about. That was especially the case in Associate Teaching Professor Linda Wells-Glover’s class on internalized oppression.

“I didn’t realize how hurt or damaged I was,” Crawford said, “or how desensitized I’d become to things. Like I had turned all emotions off for survival.”

Crawford also took Assistant Teaching Professor Elián P. Cabrera-Nguyen’s course on human behavior.

“He was one of the most engaged students I’ve ever had, and I have never encountered anyone quite so eager to learn,” said Cabrera-Nguyen in an email. “He grew up in poverty and has dramatically turned his life around. I have no doubt he will be successful.”

Crawford’s on track to graduate in December. He’s not decided yet on what comes next, but in his heart he knows he wants to help make the world a better place.

“It’s kind of like I’m making up for lost time,” he said. “I would really love to work youth and K-12 education. Combining social work and education somehow is probably what’s best. It’s the golden ticket, for real. What they don’t know will hurt them.

“Because, I’m still a soldier,” he continued. “I have that spirit and duty to go wherever I’m most needed.”

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