“My name is Quanieka Colbert, I’m in seventh grade, and when I grow up I want to be a veterinarian,” the young girl said in a barely audible voice, as she stood in front of an audience of her peers. Colbert was one of the dozens of middle and high school kids seated near the front of the large conference room at Merritt College, where the Stepping Up For Peace: Youth Empowerment Conference was taking place.
Over one hundred students and parents gathered for the conference that was a collaboration between the Criminal Justice Department at Merritt College and the Oakland Police Activities League (PAL), a non-profit organization that aims to forge a relationship between kids and cops. Oakland PAL is staffed with members of the police department, and it offers a variety of sports, activities and programs for kids ages 5 to 18 years old, including camping trips and track and field.
Adult students wearing dark blue t-shirts with the words “Criminal Justice” imprinted on them, students from the Merritt College Administrative Justice program, assisted with the event, setting up food tables, escorting participants and handing out gift bags.
Many of the kids attending wore the white “Step up for Peace” t-shirts provided as souvenirs. One by one, each student stood to introduce themselves and give similar reports of their future plans – doctor, police officer, football player – per the request of Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts, the event’s keynote speaker.
Batts spoke to the mostly-youth audience about his life growing up in south central Los Angeles. “I grew up in an area that had a lot of shootings, a lot of prostitution, a lot of drugs,” he said to group of students. “I was scared to death that I wasn’t going to make it, that I was going to make a mistake that would stop me from achieving what I could achieve.”
He spoke on the importance of working hard and getting an education, but most importantly, he said, was that he believed in himself. “One thing you’ll have to do is face the fear inside of you,” Batts said. “Because one thing that will hold you back, is the fear inside yourself, that you’re telling yourself that you’re not good enough.”
“Don’t ever let anybody say you can’t do what you want to do, ” Batts told the students.
Alameda County Juvenile Court Judge Trina Thompson also addressed the audience, and she reminded the students that the community wanted them to succeed. She said there were many resources out there, but it was up to them to ask. Attendees received a guide of public youth resources they could access for help (with homework, with drugs, counseling, etc.) or for diversion (free recreational activities) inside their gift bags.
Thompson referred to her own experience as an African American female judge when she said, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you don’t look the part.”
Following the morning speakers, 12-year-old Quanieka Colbert said she enjoyed the program so far. “I’m liking it,” she said. “I like what the police officer said about believing in yourself.”
Students split off into gender-specific workshops for the rest of the morning. Boys were invited to attend a leadership workshop that focused on the importance of staying away from gangs, drugs and guns. Motivational speaker and Violence Prevention Network Coordinator Keven Grant led the boys’ leadership workshop, and he talked about life on the street: what it’s like, how easy it is to get caught up in it, and ways to avoid it.
In an interview following the workshop, Grant said he liked to use an analogy he called the “leather jacket.” Say your mother bought you a new, $1000 leather jacket, he said, and your friends told you that you had to take it off to hang out with them. Grant said of course, this gets the kids hyped up when he asks them how strong they would be to say no to their friends. Then, he tells them the jacket is their mother’s advice — whereas a few years later, the jacket would be buried in the closet, but the advice would stay with them. He explained, “I ask them, ‘So how many of you when you get to school and your friends tell you, forget what your mother says, let’s cut class or smoke some weed? How many of you threw away your jacket?’” This question is typically followed by kids raising their raising their hands in admission, saying, ‘Oh, I get it.’ Grant says this analogy-approach, where he talks to kids using examples they can relate to, goes a long way in communicating his message to them.
Over in the girls’ leadership workshop, Chief Janeith Glenn-Davis, the California State University East Bay Police Chief, spoke with the students and answered their questions on what it was like to be a police officer and a leader in a male-dominated career field. One young woman raised her hand to ask if it was still possible to get a career in law enforcement if they had made some mistakes in their past. Glenn-Davis assured her it was still possible, as long as they were up-front and honest about it, and could demonstrate they had learned from their mistakes. She advised those interested in law enforcement to start making good decisions right now. “Choose the people you hang out with very carefully,” she said. “Be a leader, make your own decisions so you can recognize that the decisions you are making right now could impact your future.” Annette Blue, an engineer, also talked about her career as a professional green builder and renewable energy consultant.
Event organizer Margaret Dixon said one purpose of the event and the other workshops was to expose kids to career fields they might not have considered, but also to get them thinking about personal responsibility. “We understand that a lot of things happen in their lives that they have no control over,” she said. “But we do know that knowledge is key and today is about empowering them to say ‘hey, I can take full responsibility for my life and my decisions, and I understand consequences,’” she said.
Dixon is a professor in the Criminal Justice department at Merritt College, a role she assumed five years ago after 25 years as an officer with the Oakland Police Department. Dixon said she has been involved with youth her whole career, particularly as a track coach for the PAL team. She worked with PAL to organize the conference with community partners, including the Golden State Warriors and the City of Oakland, to name a few, to empower youth to help establish peace in Oakland communities.
Students also had the option of attending a workshop entitled “Sports and Education: A Healthy Alternative.” Many of the young people expressed an interest in becoming professional athletes, and the workshop encouraged them to think about potential backup careers as well as the positive influence sports had on their lives.
Several of the boys were hanging out in the shade after the sports workshop. When asked about their future goals, 11-year-old Marcus Duran said he wants to be a baseball player when he grows up. Marcus said in the workshop they talked about backup plans, staying out of trouble and staying in school. “They said you still need to get an education, and if you go to jail they mostly won’t want you,” he said. When asked about his backup plan, Marcus said he had one: soccer player.
Anthony Vazquez, 12, also attended the sports workshop. He said his backup plan was to do computer graphics for video games. “I want to make them more realistic,” he said.
The event was open to parents, for whom a workshop was also scheduled. Officer Mildred Oliver, the executive director of PAL, sat on the panel of experts, which included representatives from Child Protection Services and social services, for the parents’ workshop. She said much of the discussion revolved around foster kids. “A lot of our kids involved with crime are products of the foster situation,” she said, adding that a lack of consistency between homes and a weak transitional phase, when kids are transferred out of foster care to becoming adults, contribute to the problems.
Oliver said the parents’ workshop also discussed how the community could help kids by policing itself. She gave the example of a kid who may be marking a wall with graffiti. “We’ve gotten to the point where kids expect us not to say anything,” she said, but that by speaking up, kids will start to realize that their community cares about them and what they do. “Once we start creating this atmosphere of success and high expectations, then kids will start performing again,” she said.
The afternoon portion of the conference focused on getting the kids to start thinking about college, including presentations from Merritt College students and a workshop on preparing for college.
“Youth need to have access so they can see that they fit into a college environment,” Oliver said. She explained that while many of the high school kids had already made up their minds on college, it was important to address the middle school students. “A lot of the middle school kids don’t think of it as a reality or are not thinking about it,” she said, pointing out that middle school kids should start thinking about so they can be on the right track through high school.
“We want this to be an avenue for them,” Dixon said. She said oftentimes college seems so far out of reach for these students. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, I can’t even dream that,’” she said. “But we know that it’s possible, and it’s people here that are going to make that happen.”