After 20 years, Youth Alive continues its fight to end gun violence among Oakland’s young people

A Teens on Target leader teaches a workshop to middle school students based on Youth Alive's violence prevention curriculum. This month marks the organization's 20th anniversary. Photo courtesy of Youth Alive.

A Teens on Target leader teaches a workshop to middle school students based on Youth Alive's violence prevention curriculum. This month marks the organization's 20th anniversary. Photo courtesy of Youth Alive.

Over 22 years ago, Deane Calhoun sat in a meeting that would forever change her life and the lives of thousands of Oakland teens. In 1989, Calhoun, then a public health worker, listened in horror as Bruce Kennedy, a teacher at what was once known as Castlemont High School in East Oakland, told her and a group of other school district and city council officials that students had been caught playing Russian roulette in the locker room. In another instance, Kennedy said, a kid pulled out a gun on the school bus.

Calhoun soon met with some of Kennedy’s students who, like her, were concerned about the ready availability of guns in urban communities. “They really got it. They knew the causes of violence and were distressed that the gun industry and beer companies market to youth,” Calhoun recalls. “They would say, ‘Why can we walk to get guns, drugs, and alcohol, but we have to take the bus to get school supplies?’”

Over the next two years, Calhoun worked with the students to form the basis of an Oakland-based organization that is now called Youth Alive, a group that works to reduce gun-related injuries and retaliatory violence among young people by providing hospital-based assistance and peer mentorship training. Officially launched in 1991, Youth Alive is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month.

During the organization’s 20 years, some of the crime and gun violence trends in Oakland have changed, but two things remain consistent: Young people make up a high percentage of Oakland’s homicide victims, and many are killed by someone using a firearm.

According to a 2006 study conducted by the Alameda County Public Health Department on violence in Oakland, 20 to 24-year-olds made up the biggest group of homicide victims between 2002 and 2004, and 15 to 19-year-olds were the next biggest group. According to Oakland Police Department records cited in the report, 11 percent of homicides were due to retaliation and 19 percent were because of an argument. According to the OPD records in the report, 66 percent of these homicides—many of which were committed against young people between the ages of 15 and 24—were related to gang and drug activity.

In a youth homicide study conducted between 2001 to 2011, the Urban Strategies Council—which works with, and collects data for, agencies like the OPD to reduce poverty—found that 97 percent of homicide victims under the age of 18 were killed with a firearm.

This kind of data was not as readily available in Youth Alive’s early days in the 1980s, when nothing was digitized as it is today. Calhoun recalled how she—along with her partners from the school district, County Board of Supervisors, and Highland Hospital—would have to print out data on large pieces of paper and lug them around in huge bags. However, the public health department’s 2006 report did show that the overall percentage of homicides as the cause of death for all age groups—by firearms or otherwise—has dropped since the 1990s, from 42.7 percent in 1992 to 20.2 percent in 2004.

Today, Youth Alive trains teens to lead violence prevention workshops with younger students, and hires young adults to work with youth who are in the hospital recovering from violent injuries, urging them not to retaliate against their attackers. Over the last 20 years, Youth Alive has trained over 900 young people in Oakland and Los Angeles to be peer educators for over 45,000 teens. In 1996, Youth Alive was presented with the Crime Victim Service Award from former US Attorney General Janet Reno and President Bill Clinton.

One component of Youth Alive is a peer mentorship program called “Teens on Target,” or TNT, which hires high school students and young adults in East Oakland to train middle school students, and their peers, about violence prevention strategies. “You can get lost when you’re just responding violence. You forget who you can be, and who you are, and what talents you have,” Calhoun said, on why it’s important to train young people for leadership roles.  

Teens on Target also works at a public policy level by encouraging youth to participate in the legislative process regarding issues that affect them. In 1989, TNT youth helped to pass the assault weapons ban in California—which became a federal law in 1994 under then-President Bill Clinton. The federal ban made it illegal to manufacture certain semi-automatic guns for civilian use. Before this ban—which ended in 2004 and has yet to be renewed by Congress—no definition of an “assault weapon” existed. To support the ban, TNT youth traveled to Sacramento where they met with individual legislators and provided testimony about gun violence before committees.

In 1991, TNT Youth also worked with the Oakland City Council to get rid of 110 of the 115 gun dealers in the city who were selling weapons out of homes to people in their neighborhoods. They made presentations to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors and the Oakland City Council, which passed a ban on residential gun dealers.

Calhoun said getting involved with the legislative process was a way “to show young people what democracy looks like,” and become spokespeople for their communities. “It’s so easy to feel like a victim and it makes you passive and paralyzed,” Calhoun said. “The program helped [them] to figure out a way they could thrive, and have access to power so they could help get things changed.”

Speaking to elected officials, however, is a fraction of what Youth Alive’s young leaders and staff members do every day. A critical aspect of the organization’s mission is to prevent young people from seeking retaliation after a friend or family member has been shot. Called “Caught in the Crossfire,” this arm of the program hires young adults as intervention specialists to help other young people who have suffered violent injuries. They visit victims at the hospital, provide follow-up assistance such as driving them to and from their doctor’s appointments, and generally just spend time with them.

The peer-to-peer format of the program is a central part of the program’s effectiveness, because it gives young victims of violence someone their age to talk to—not just medical staff, law enforcement or other adults. “You can’t build a relationship with someone you don’t know unless you have something in common, unless you know where they’re coming from,” said Anne Marks, who took over as Youth Alive’s executive director in 2010 after Calhoun retired. “And if you can’t build that trust, then you can’t really help them change their lives.”

That’s why, Marks said, Youth Alive staffers focus on relationship building before problem solving. “You know what the very first thing is we come to someone’s bedside with? It’s not a book on preventing violence—it’s magazines,” Marks said. “We’re all humans first, before we are cases.”

The Caught in the Crossfire program had its genesis in the 1989 shooting of Sherman Spears—then 17 years old—who survived the shooting but was paralyzed from the waist down. Spears, who is now a 41 year old East Oakland resident, said in a recent interview that he had been shot by guys who were actually looking for his friend, with whom they had gotten into a dispute earlier in the day. But they stumbled across Spears instead, he said, and thought he was “the next best thing.”

Before long, he said, he was lying on a hospital bed, surrounded by medical staff with whom he felt could not relate, as well as friends who wanted to help by seeking retaliation against the shooters.

Spears said he did not want to continue the cycle of violence, and so he began to work with Calhoun and other volunteers at Youth Alive—at that time still a fledgling violence prevention program—and began to visit young people at Highland Hospital who had also been victims of violent crime. There, Spears would spend time with victims by their bedside not only as a shoulder to lean on but as a voice urging them, and their friends, not to retaliate.

When Caught in the Crossfire first began, Spears was the only intervention specialist visiting young people, and he only worked at one hospital: Highland, which is notorious for receiving a high number of gunshot victims. Once the program caught on, Youth Alive staff assembled a team of young adults led by Spears. Marks added that TNT members have never been mentors in the hospital.”It would be impossible for a lot of reasons, not just the age (most young victims of gun violence are between the ages of 19-24) but the availability, and also there’s a hospital badging process that takes a while before anyone can go into the hospital to do the work they do,” she said.

“Because our staff are from the community, have been in similar situations, or know someone who has been, they have insights on how someone will connect with this program,” said Marla Becker, today a public health researcher at UC Berkeley who worked at Youth Alive for 13 years and directed the Caught in the Crossfire program in its infancy. “It’s really about building the relationship with the young person, and recognizing that it takes time to do that.”

Today, the program has four intervention specialists, as well as a program coordinator who serves young victims at the Children’s Hospital of Oakland and the Eden Medical Center in addition to Highland Hospital. These specialists provide support and mentoring to victims while in the hospital and after they are released, juggling 10 to 12 cases at time.

There’s no real way of measuring how many retaliations have been thwarted as a result of Youth Alive’s efforts, Marks, Calhoun, and Becker said. “It’s not a number that gets quantified,” Marks said. “We can only tell by what we hear, so we can only tell if there’s a discussion of retaliation. The OPD can’t even tell you if a shooting is connected to another shooting.”

But Marks said that Youth Alive staffers feel confident they’re making a difference. “Nationally, 44 pecent of young people who are shot return to the hospital with another violent injury. However, less than 2 percent of Youth ALIVE!’s clients return to the hospital with another violent injury,” because of Youth Alive’s engagement, Marks said. “We have millions of stories of dudes walking up in the hospital, tapping their guns” on their hip or in their pockets, signaling that they are ready to retaliate on behalf of an injured friend or family member, she continued, “and we have guys saying ‘Naw man, don’t do that.’”

One of Caught in the Crossfire’s greatest accomplishments, Becker said, was helping to make violence prevention among youth a national conversation. In March 2009, with the help of funding from the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Benefits Program, Becker founded the National Network of Hospital-based Violence Intervention Programs. The network is made up of trauma surgeons, medical staff and community-based organizations around the country interested in establishing programs like Caught in the Crossfire in their cities.

The group doesn’t know many cities that have directly implemented Caught in the Crossfire’s model, but there are currently 19 members in the network. In addition, Youth Alive’s young leaders have worked to create a violence prevention curriculum that has been used in similar programs in over 20 cities. In some other cities, Becker said, Youth Alive also provided technical assistance to groups interested in starting up their own unique programs.

“That’s the strength of the agency as a whole. It’s not just about getting the money to serve youth and that’s it. It’s figuring out what is the most effective way we can provide these services,” Becker said. “Youth Alive can’t do it alone. The more agencies or hospitals that have violence prevention on their agenda, that’s what’s going to make a difference.”

Despite these efforts, though, Youth Alive staff say that it is still much too easy for Oakland’s young people to acquire a firearm. “We’ve asked young people, ‘If you need a gun in 24 hours, could you get one? And the majority says ‘Yes,’” said Marks.

It’s not necessarily because gun legislation is lax, said John Torres, Youth Alive’s director of programs. “Gun legislation has gotten more stricter, I’d say,” Torres said. “It’s really about a younger population now having access to [guns], and having the fear that they need guns to protect themselves.” Torres and his colleagues said kids can get guns from just about anywhere: their neighbor down the street, their friends or a family member.

“I don’t know if it’s becoming more common, but it’s no longer surprising,” Torres said about seeing 10, 11 and 12-year-olds getting caught with guns. “The difference from even 10 years ago is that now 10-year-olds don’t feel safe, because they see how sporadic violence can be—that it can erupt anytime, anywhere.”

After 20 years of working with young people in Oakland, Youth Alive staffers have seen changes in gun violence trends, including in what precipitates it. Calhoun said that in the late ‘80s and much of the ‘90s, gun violence among young people used to be over protecting one’s turf. “Kids would say, ‘We don’t get around much, so our neighborhood was our country,’” she said. “A lot of the violence we saw wasn’t gang-related, it was more of this turf stuff—when you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

But today, several Youth Alive staffers said, the violence that once erupted over turf has become more focused on interpersonal relationships. “It’s become, ‘This guy is talking to my girl, so my gang or crew is going to get that guy. And now that guy’s crew is going to get back at us,’” Marks said. “We ask youth, ‘Why are people fighting?’ and they say, ‘Disrespect.’ Very often it’s a fight over a girlfriend or a boyfriend.”

As a result, gang violence has also become more “chaotic,” Marks said. Twenty years ago, people primarily committed violence based on orders from a gang leader. Now, she said, gang violence is more disorganized. “It used to be that police officers knew who were calling the shots—or the ‘shot callers’—so you could predict where violence could happen,” Marks said. “And now it’s just not as easy to predict where.”

Torres, who is familiar with the history of Latino gangs in San Francisco’s Mission district, where he grew up, said there’s been a structural change in how gangs operate. “A lot of gangs started with a vision about protecting their population, or protecting a certain neighborhood. There was more social and other issues that people were trying to deal with,” Torres said. “When law enforcement eliminated the leadership, that’s where the chaos kicked in.”

“The older set of shot callers went away for 20 years,” he continued. And when they came back from prison, he said, “the newer, [younger shot callers] have no respect for elders, even if they wear the same [gang] colors.”

Over the years, Calhoun said, some Youth Alive staffers sensed a certain “heartlessness” developing in the crimes young people were committing. She said staffers expressed concern that there seemed to be less remorse when somebody got shot. Staffers “weren’t saying that more kids were getting involved in violence,” Calhoun recalled, “but they were seeing that the violence seemed to be a little more cold-blooded.”

Kyndra Simmons, who has been the program manager for the Caught in the Crossfire program for the last nine years, said she noticed that young people were committing more “heinous” crimes at a younger age. “Nine years ago when you heard of a 15 year-old getting arrested, you knew it was because they stole a car or got caught shoplifting,” she said. “But the nature of crime has gotten more violent in addition to more sporadic,” including crimes like home invasions, strong-armed robberies, and murder.

And while Marks said she wasn’t sure if she’d use the term “heartless” to describe the kinds of gun crimes youth are committing, she does feel it is becoming more disorganized. “I don’t know what’s more heartless—killing someone for financial gain, or because he talked to your girl, or because he shot your friend,” she said. “None of it seems particularly heartfelt.”

In addition, Marks said, guns have gotten more deadly. “There’s been a militarization of the gun market,” she said. “They’re easier to fire, they shoot bullets more quickly, and the bullets themselves are more deadly.” Marks added that a particular kind of bullet—often referred to as a “cop-killer” bullet because it can pierce body armor—was once produced for military consumption but is now sold for hunting. “It used to be if there was a drive-by that you could hide behind something,” Marks said. “But [these bullets] can go through all kinds of things.”

Another part of the problem, said Calhoun and Marks, is that it is hard to get illegal guns off the street. The Firearm Owners Protections Act of 1986—a federal law backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and overseen by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE)—banned the US government from keeping a computerized national registry which links the source of illegal guns and their sale. This means that an official in Oakland can no longer contact the Bureau to find out if a weapon was used in another crime in another city because, under the act, it does not keep these records.

The law also has a “safe passage” provision, which says that individuals cannot be arrested for a “firearms offense” if they possess a gun and are traveling through a state with more strict gun laws than where they are traveling from. This means that despite California’s ban against certain kinds of weapons, people can bring them in from states with laxer gun laws. “It might be harder to get [firearms] in California, but it’s easier to get [them] in neighboring states” like Arizona or Nevada that don’t have as strict gun laws, Marks said. “You could probably get it from someone else. Guns travel from point of original sale.”

Guns are also exchanged illegally on the street. Simmons, a Berkeley native who spent most of her teenage years hanging out in Oakland, said that proof of this is that the same gun is often used for multiple crimes. It used to be, she said, that “when someone shot someone with a gun, the gun was disposed of, but nowadays these guns are being passed around.” They’re also being sold openly on the streets, Simmons said, making it easier for young people to obtain them.

That’s how Artijane “Smooth” Wickliff, a 17-year-old honor student at Castlemont High School said she got her gun. A TNT leader since September, Wickliff said she was able to get a small handgun from someone who lived down the block in her neighborhood. “Man, you can get a gun at any corner, for $50, easily,” said Wickliff. “I know because I had one.”

Wickliff leaned forward. A pair of headphones once blaring “Boyz to Men” were wrapped around her neck over a red collared shirt and pristine white argyle sweater. She added casually that it was “easy to get an AK-47 off the streets” these days, and that “OGs hanging out on the corner always say, ‘The bigger the gun, the more respect.’”

Wickliff joined TNT this September, and no longer carries a gun. She said that over the last year she had gone from being in trouble with the law to pulling a 4.0 grade point average, and has already been accepted into three colleges. TNT “gives me outlets to talk, and express my image of what I want Oakland to be,” Wickliff said, adding that the program has kept her busy and out of trouble.

La’Ban Wade, a sophomore at the University of California at Berkeley who now sits on Youth Alive’s board of directors, agreed about how easy it is for young people to get firearms. “It’s really easy to get a gun,” said Wade, who is from East Oakland. “You can ask around and get the kind of gun you want. It’s as simple as a phone call.”

Youth Alive, which started out with Calhoun and a few partners from outside organizations, hospitals, and government agencies, now employs 13 full time staff members and 30 young people who receive stipends for their work as TNT mentors. Recently, Youth Alive has added the Khadafy Washington Project to their list of partners—the project offers emotional and financial assistance to family and friends of homicide victims. One of the new issues Youth Alive is beginning to focus on more heavily is domestic violence, which the organization’s young leaders have said is a major concern.

Incorporating young people’s ideas into its programs in a substantive way is one of Youth Alive’s greatest accomplishments, Marks and Calhoun both said. “We’re very effective on the ground, and very thoughtful in making sure that what we do is effective,” Marks said. “We’ve been really involved in advocacy and evaluation, which service organizations don’t normally get involved in.”

But funding, especially in an economy in the throes of a recession, remains a persistent problem, not only for nonprofits like Youth Alive, but also for victims and their families, Torres said. As of this March, the California Victim Compensation Program (CalVCP), a statewide program overseen in Oakland by the DA’s office of Alameda County, “has diminished their resources,” Torres said. “So part of the challenge is we have to figure out where to get these resources” for victims and their families, such help dealing with medical bills, for which CalVCP once provided funding.

Youth Alive staff know that it’s hard to make cultural changes when it comes to crime—not only in how the community responds to it, but in preventing it from happening altogether. In Oakland, Wade said, “you can walk less than a block or two and get to any kind of liquor store on the corner. You have people hanging around outside at midnight or 2 am, like it’s noon, and when you see that you clearly know that they’re up to no good.”

Despite these challenges, on their 20th anniversary Youth Alive staffers remain hopeful that their work with young people and their families will continue to help the community. Calhoun, Marks, Torres and Simmons all said that they hope that their capacity to show youth across the county that there is an alternative to violence will continue to grow.

“People look around at all the violence and say, ‘What’s wrong with all these young people?’” said Marks. “And we think that young people aren’t the cause of violence. They are the solution.”

 

Correction: It is not that “44% of people shot will be shot again,” but rather that 44% of those who have been shot would return with a violent injury, and less than 2% of Youth Alive’s clients who have been shot will return to the hospital with a violent injury. Also, TNT youth have never been Caught in the Crossfire mentors, for reasons beyond age limitations. Oakland North regrets the error.

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