'Gang whisperer' interprets for those wanting to help

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By Petula Dvorak
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The teens lean all the way back in their chairs, so low they're like tables. Hats are down tight; they won't take them off no matter how many times you ask.

Arms are crossed. They never look right at you. They're mean muggin'. Hoodies go up. You don't exist.

You can call them street kids, at-risk youths, gang members, crew members, juvenile delinquents, abused children, thugs, rebels, whatever.

When you're one of those people who are there to throw them a lifeline, to show them someone cares, to give them a chance, to try to make a tiny opening in that closed-off, scary world they are sealed shut in, sometimes all you can call them is frustrating.

And that's when you call Thandor Miller, the gang whisperer.

Miller is your interpreter, an anthropologist who can translate their impossible-to-fathom culture, habits and language.

"That right there, the arms crossed thing," he says as he pulls out a metal chair and perfectly splays his 58-year-old body into that posture that drives so many teachers, counselors, probation officers, volunteers and mentors mad.

"That's 'cool pose,' " Miller explains to about a dozen adults who work with these kids and came to Miller's workshop to learn better ways to break through. "And cool pose is not for adults. It's not for you or about you. It's for the other guys. It's for the girls. It's a survival technique, a coping mechanism to hide self-doubt. A ritual."

The grown-ups take notes. They are filling up their field guides, understanding the ways of these strange creatures they want to help but don't always understand.

They flip through their workbook, "Navigating Youth Culture and Street Code."

The old-school approach to these kids was simple: The adult needed to establish dominance, respect and rules, Miller explains. Sit up. Take your hat off. Listen.

That's what we heard when were young, right?


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