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Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets

Sudhir speaks with NCPC’s Kelsey Tokar about the role respect plays within gang culture, and the value of building a trusting community, even in the toughest of times.

Gang Leader for a DaySynopsis

The story of the young sociologist who studied a Chicago crack-dealing gang from the inside captured the world's attention when it was first described in Freakonomics. Gang Leader for a Day is the fascinating full story of how Sudhir Venkatesh managed to gain entrance into the gang, what he learned, and how his method revolutionized the academic establishment.

When Venkatesh walked into an abandoned building in one of Chicago's most notorious housing projects, he was looking for people to take a multiple-choice survey on urban poverty. A first-year grad student hoping to impress his professors with his boldness, he never imagined that as a result of the assignment he would befriend a gang leader named JT and spend the better part of a decade inside the projects under JT's protection, documenting what he saw there.

Over the next seven years, Venkatesh got to know the neighborhood dealers, crackheads, squatters, prostitutes, pimps, activists, cops, organizers, and officials. From his privileged position of unprecedented access, he observed JT and the rest of the gang as they operated their crack-selling business, conducted PR within their community, and rose up or fell within the ranks of the gang's complex organizational structure.

In Hollywood-speak, Gang Leader for a Day is The Wire meets Harvard University. It's a brazen, page turning, and fundamentally honest view into the morally ambiguous, highly intricate, often corrupt struggle to survive in what is tantamount to an urban war zone. It is also the story of a complicated friendship between Sudhir and JT-two young and ambitious men a universe apart. 

Biography – Sudhir Venkatesh is William B. Ransford Professor of Sociology at Columbia University in the City of New York. He is a researcher and writer on urban neighborhoods in the United States (New York, Chicago) and Paris, France. His most recent book is Gang Leader for a Day (Penguin Press). Gang Leader received a Best Book award from The Economist, and is currently being translated into Chinese, Korean, Japanese, German, Italian, Polish, French and Portuguese. His previous work, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor (Harvard University Press, 2006) about illegal economies in Chicago, received a Best Book Award from Slate.Com (2006) as well as the C. Wright Mills Award (2007). His first book, American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto (2000) explored life in Chicago public housing. His other writings and stories have appeared in The American Prospect, This American Life, and The Chicago Tribune, and he is a frequent commentator on National Public Radio.

Other ongoing research projects include a study of immigration and settlement in the suburbs of Paris, an in-depth study of re-entry among the formerly incarcerated in New York, and a long-term project on sex work in New York and Chicago with the economist (and Freakonomics author) Steven Levitt. His next book, under contract with Penguin Press, will focus on the role of the black market in the revitalization of New York in the last decade.

Venkatesh has produced several documentaries. The documentary film, Dislocation, follows families as they relocate from condemned public housing developments. The documentary aired on PBS in 2005. He directed and produced a three-part award winning documentary on the history of public housing for NPR. He has currently finished At the Top of My Voice, a documentary film on a scholar and artist who return to the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia to promote democracy and safeguard human rights.

Venkatesh received his Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Chicago. He was a Junior Fellow at the Society of Fellows, Harvard University from 1996-1999. He is currently Director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy, and Director of the Charles H. Revson Fellowship Program, both at Columbia University.

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