'Anyone in our way got robbed'

At 14, she was the leader of a brutal New York girl gang. She carried a baseball bat, went 'wilding', and beat up strangers for fun. She expected to be dead before she was 18 - but instead, she turned her life around. Here, Isis Sapp-Grant tells her extraordinary story  
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I was 14 when I first saw the power of violence. At a party, one boy just walked up and spat in another boy's face, then punched him. I was awed that somebody could be that blatant. Despite all the shootings I saw later, it was that that stuck with me. It showed me how you can make people afraid of you.

I was 14 when I first saw the power of violence. At a party, one boy just walked up and spat in another boy's face, then punched him. I was awed that somebody could be that blatant. Despite all the shootings I saw later, it was that that stuck with me. It showed me how you can make people afraid of you.

There was violence everywhere when I was in high school. My group of friends mostly came from single-parent backgrounds, were dirt poor, and felt powerless and as if nobody was listening to them. We got together to watch each other's backs because another group of girls was bullying everybody - but within a few months we went from just trying to protect ourselves to actively looking for trouble.

I took part in my first act of violence one Hallowe'en. I was 14 or 15. A few of us girls were riding the trains with a group of boys that robbed people. The group just got bigger until there were 35 or 40 kids running through the subways. Whoever was in the way got run down or beaten up or robbed. It was totally out of control. I remember grabbing a gold chain from a woman - but I didn't feel as if it was me doing it, because I wasn't really an individual any more, I was a piece of this big mob. My heart was racing with the adrenaline rush. It was like being on an emotional high, where you could do whatever you wanted and it didn't matter. For once, I felt powerful - invincible.

My group officially became a gang - the Deceptinettes - after we joined up with a gang of boys called the Decepticons. They got the name from the bad guys in The Transformers, a cartoon about robots that could change their appearance. I remember sitting in the leader's house and picking out which characters we were - even though we thought we were really important, we were still children. Now, in my work trying to get children out of gangs, I'm reminded of that all the time: they're kids.

To sharpen our fighting skills, we made up a game called "one-punch knockout". We would randomly pick someone - usually schoolkids - as they left a train station, and just try to knock them out. The first girl I hit was huge but, with the taunting and cheering on, I did it. I don't know how badly I hurt her, but she wasn't conscious. We laughed and talked about her - and then we walked away. If you really don't care about yourself, you don't care about anyone else. People become objects and you feel nothing for them. I could watch somebody cry or bleed, and it wouldn't touch me.

But we liked to dress nicely and we prided ourselves on the fact that you'd never know we were gang members - people wondered how we got into the gang, because we were so ladylike. We were angry, angry individuals, though, and we needed to fight. We carried baseball bats and hammers. I was never into heavy drugs, though. We thought of ourselves as soldiers, and soldiers don't drink and fight at the same time. It was us against the world and we were just angry at society.

We didn't plan on living past 18: we expected to go out like soldiers. Once there was a hit put out on my life. I beat up a guy and didn't know that he was the little brother of a big drug-dealer. But I wasn't scared - I just thought, "Whatever". I didn't know how a bullet would feel, but I sort of welcomed the feeling. Those were the kind of sick, suicidal thoughts we had.

Just after I turned 16, I was arrested for assault and robbery. We were acting stupid on a train; I saw a girl with a nice bag and coat and, because I was the leader, some kids who were trying to win my favour robbed her. Two hours later I bumped into the same girl and she rushed me. We started fighting, and the police came.

The two most gorgeous undercover cops arrested me - and when I realised they were paying no attention to me I looked in my little mirror and thought, "Isis, you're just a thug!" Then seeing the fat guards - sitting outside the cell eating cake and barbecued spare-ribs, screaming at you and putting chains on your ankles - was it for me. I wanted out of the gang.

Finally, a really close friend died. He was only 16, but a powerful drug-dealer. He also thought he was invincible. Apparently, he was showing off his gun and when some man asked to see it, he handed it over and the guy shot him. I was very, very close to him - I had a big crush on him - so that really affected me. That night, I was so upset I climbed into bed with my mum. When I woke up, she was leaning over me, crying, and I thought I'd died and was in my casket. Suddenly, I could see I had one foot in the grave - and I decided I wanted to live.

Leaving the gang was very stressful. The Deceptinettes didn't come after me, but I wasn't very popular. When you leave a gang, you no longer have its protection - and the people you've hurt in the past know you're vulnerable. It was tough.

My teachers and my mother worked together to send me away to college, and my probation officer took a chance on me and let me leave the state to go to school in Tennessee. That was my first lesson in value and self-worth: she had more faith in me than I had in myself. I spent 18 months there. When I came back, I was 18 and I immediately began working with at-risk kids because they could relate to me.

Now the Deceptinettes feels like a very vague dream. Yet it's always with me, because of the work that I do. Looking back at the people that I hurt, I haven't made complete peace with it. A big reason I'm doing this work is really restitution. I've often run across people that I hurt. When I was buying shoes for my first job interview, a woman with a baby said, "You don't remember me, do you? If I didn't have my child, I would kill you right now. You don't know how you changed my life." She had a scar on her face. I knew I did that to her but I didn't remember her, and I felt extremely ashamed. I said, "I'm so sorry"; but she stormed out. I felt really guilty - when I eventually saw her again, I begged her forgiveness.

Now, my life revolves around my son, my husband, working with communities and intervening with high-risk kids. I earned my master's degree in l997 and I've started my own Youth Empowerment Mission to help children get out of gangs. It's so rewarding at the end of a workshop when a child says they're dropping their gang colours. It's incredible if you can get somebody to even think about leaving a gang. They think the gang is all they have.

I can see the goodness in these children. If we delve a little below the surface and help them with their struggles with friends, family or school, we can get them out and give them real power in the world - instead of the fake power that they get from being in a gang.