By Matthew Rodriguez

Pasadena Weekly Deputy Editor

Building bridges, breaking bread and spreading peace. Those are the goals of Heavenly Hughes and Victor Hodgeson of My Tribe Rise.

“We understand that the ministry of breaking bread is a way of connecting with one another,” Hughes said. “Breaking bread brings a sense of peace and connection, even with tribe members.”

Hughes and Hodgeson created their grassroots activism organization, My Tribe Rise, in 2019 with the broad goal of creating peace in their neighborhood, targeting the warring gangs, the Bloods and the Cripps. Instead of using the term “gang members,” the couple prefers to use the term “tribe members.”

“If you identify someone as a gang member that automatically puts a stigma on the individual — a very bad, negative stigma,” said Hodgeson.

“If you look up ‘tribe’ in the dictionary, it’s a group of individuals that have similar interests. We want to replace the name ‘gang member’ and call them a ‘tribe member’ because tribe members have changed and they are doing more positive things.”

Their experiences with the gangs in Altadena prepared them to be advocates for peace in their neighborhood and the Greater Los Angeles area.

“The thing that stood out to me was their genuine love for that group of people,” said Minister Tony Muhammed from the Nation of Islam and a gang-intervention activist. “You have to have an extraordinary amount of love of gang members who have gone wrong and want to be criminals.”

In the lifestyle

At the age of 10, searching for a place to belong, Hodgeson joined the Altadena Blocc Cripps.

“It was a like a complete freedom by joining them,” said Hodgeson. “It’s like a fraternity [or] a brotherhood. We don’t look at each other as gang members. We look at each other as a family.”

While Hodgeson felt free as a member of Altadena Blocc Cripps, his entire family, especially his mother, grew more and more stressed the longer he was in the gang.

“It puts stress on the whole entire family,” said Hodgeson. “A mother will always be worried about their child being in that lifestyle. It put a lot of stress on her worrying about me.”

In 1986, the life of being a gang member caught up with Hodgeson when he was found guilty of possession of a firearm. As a teenager, he was sent to California Youth Authority for three years. The survival-of-the-fittest type environment forced him to reconsider his lifestyle.

“It taught me to respect the next man,” said Hodgeson. “It also made me want to do something different in life. Sitting in jail, you have a lot of time to think. One of the things I thought of is there has to be a better way to live. This cannot be it.”

While in CYA, Hodgeson began to turn his life around, earning his GED. After he was released, he left the gang and pursued other careers. In 2014, he received his associate’s degree from the University of Phoenix.

‘I don’t feel protected’

As a teenager in the early 1990s, after a string of robberies at the Altadena Supermarket, Hughes lobbied the owners to hire more Black employees.

“Having a black face, having someone that people can relate to and identify with brings more comfort and respect,” she said. “They did hire me at 15 years old. I recall being able to even use the skills of understanding to deescalate when it came to someone coming to steal items in the store.”

Many of the people entering the store were part of the Altadena Blocc Cripps, who lived right across the street. Hughes recalls that she was able to limit the “negative interactions” at the store just by talking to them.

She soon gained the respect of the Cripps to the point where they protected her during a time of an uptick of gang violence.

“It was pretty scary, and I remember my parents were very scared for us to even be outside during that time,” she said. “But it came a time when it kind of switched where I was being protected by gang members…I felt like I knew how to connect and communicate with them.”

However, the feeling of protection soon faded, and the fear of violence rose after her brother joined the rival gang Pasadena Denver Lane, a set of Bloods.

“I began to feel like our family was a target because we’re right here in Altadena where it’s all Cripps living in the area and my brother made the choice to become a blood,” said Hughes. “I was definitely nervous for my brother. There were times when he would be approached in stores with my parents and even my dad was so fearful of some type of violence coming into our household.”

She felt that she had a target on her back.

“Although he told us that we’re protected, I always told him ‘I don’t feel protected,’” said Hughes. “I feel like we’re a target now.”

A tribe of activism

With their experiences with gangs, the two decided to end the circle of violence in Altadena by hosting get-togethers and showing rival gangs that they could coexist peacefully.

“I already came from that culture,” said Hodgeson. “It was easy to connect with them but now we want to steer them in a more positive direction.”

“Tribe members are people just like the rest of us,” Hughes added. “We all need some molding, leadership and mentoring to be able to see the light or be able to walk down a path that’s productive and positive for ourselves and for those around us.”

My Tribe Rise has expanded its purview to bringing peace in their community whether it’s gang violence, police brutality or homelessness.

“Our mission specifically is to bring peace into our community,” said Hughes. “Law enforcement is part of the community. Tribes are a part of the community. Clergy and residents are all part of the community.”

My Tribe Rise will host its monthly Brothers Connecting with Brothers retreat at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, May 8. Those interested can contact My Tribe Rise to reserve a spot. The website is mytriberise.com.