Associate professor of sociology Victor M. Rios recently received a $305,019 contribution from the William T. Grant Foundation to study how youths involved in gangs relate to various authority figures in their community.

Rios is the author of Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, which examines how certain laws and policies affect inner city teens. His study will span about 10 years and consists of sample groups from Los Angeles, Fresno, the Bay Area and local communities.

According to Rios, who has been studying at-risk youth for over 10 years, his research aims to determine methods to effectively encourage adolescents toward more productive social interactions.

“I hope to uncover the processes that help young people desist from or abandon crime and health-compromising behaviors and help [them] to live more productive lives,” Rios said in an email.

Rios said his work is inspired by his own experiences growing up in a disadvantaged area, where community role models positively influenced the direction of his life.

“I myself had a rough upbringing — forced into the streets at a young age, having to develop survival skills,” Rios said. “I ended up in ‘juvy’ a few times, but with the help of programs, good teachers, a good police officer and many college student mentors, I changed my life around.”

Fourth-year sociology major Elsa Hernandez, who facilitates group meetings for the young men in the study, said Rios has become the same type of mentor that helped him as a youth.

“[Professor Rios] is definitely very involved in the local community and a positive role model around here because not only does he look like us, he also talks like us and when I say us, I mean Latinos here in Santa Barbara,” Hernandez said. “I remember meeting him and I shared how I was a student at Santa Barbara City College, but didn’t really know what my future education plans were … I connected with him the summer before I started UCSB and he brought me onto his research team.”

Rios’s team focuses not only on the specific subjects, but also fostering relationships among the group members to establish a community foundation of unity and support, according to third-year sociology major Amy Martinez, the lead research assistant for professor Rios’s study.

“[Being a part of this research group] gives a sense of a collective; it’s technically a research group, but we are also finding who we are,” Martinez said. “Everyone on the team has a story — I mean, of course, everyone has a story — but we all have a reason to be there. For me, it was my brother that brought me to this work.”

Fourth-year sociology major Luke Genung said the diverse group is driven to make a lasting impact in the community.

“I feel inspired to work with a team so passionate about what they do,” Genung said in an email. “These people all bring something different to the table, yet we come together once a week to create positive change in the Santa Barbara community.”