By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — As word spread that 17-year-old Afrika Owes was arrested and accused of ferrying guns for a Central Harlem street gang, those who know her said they could not believe the news.
Just last year, Owes was a student at the prestigious Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. Officials there say she withdrew for personal and academic reasons in May and was facing disciplinary charges, but they never saw anything like this coming.
"There is a fair amount of surprise at hearing this because there was nothing to indicate she was involved in anything like this," said David Thiel, director of communications for the school. "She was a worthy candidate and had extremely compelling and excellent academic credentials."
Even when she returned to New York, the Rev. Vernon Williams, who works with youth gangs in Harlem, said he saw Owes out on the streets sometimes, but just thought she was a kid who was on the outer circle of the gang culture.
"I'm very shocked about Afrika because she is such a sweet girl. I didn't think she was involved to that extent," said Williams. "But kids can sometimes be chameleons."
And gangs are exploiting that to their advantage.
District Attorney Cy Vance said Wednesday that gangs "2 Mafia Family," also known as 2MF, and "Goons on Deck" used girls and pre-teens to perform tasks such as carrying guns or drugs for them. Fourteen members of both crews were charged Wednesday. Owes' purported boyfriend, Jaquan Layne, was also among those arrested.
The district attorney's office said the crew, which operated around 137th Street and Lenox Avenue, recruited kids under the age of 16 to carry guns and drugs and to perform shootings and beatings. Girls, like Owes, were recruited to carry weapons because the gang felt they were less likely to be stopped by police.
Jill Greenbaum of the Schools Unite Network, a group that seeks to use electronic communications to warn children, parents and the authorities about signs of trouble, said girls are vulnerable to gang recruitment. The group is launching an effort to work with parents in Harlem to counteract the influence of gangs on young women.
"It goes to a self esteem issues with girls. We need to start early talking to girls about the importance of self esteem and making sure they are aware of how they can be used in these circumstances and how their lives can be ruined because of a peer pressure situation," said Greenbaum.
Parents of young kids also should know that they are at risk, she said.
"The most vulnerable segment is the middle school kids. These are not bad kids," said Greenbaum. "These are good kids who may feel they need to join a gang for self preservation."
Both Williams and Greenbaum said it comes down to knowing what issues young people are facing in their peer group, and who their children are spending time with — both in person and online. Some of the alleged gang members arrested Wednesday were extensive users of online social tools like MySpace and Twitter, according to the DA.
"A lot of parents are not aware of what their kids are doing on Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes they don't know that those outside influences have real world consequences," said Greenbaum.