On Friday, over 60 Havenscourt neighborhood residents gathered at Carter Gilmore Park in East Oakland to attend “Friday Summer Nights at the Park,” a weekly series of family-friendly fun nights hosted by Messengers 4 Change, a coalition of Oakland organizations and residents working together to decrease violence. At the same time, a similar party was happening further east at Willie Wilkins Park in the Elmhurst neighborhood. The goal of these Friday night events is to decrease street violence by turning strangers into neighbors.
“Some of these guys don’t even know each other,” said Ronald Wysinger, the East Oakland lead organizer for The Way Out, an organization that teaches Oakland teenagers that disagreements don’t have to turn into violence. Wysinger was managing Carter Gilmore Park’s Friday’s party, making sure everything was running smoothly. “So when they come together, they find out that that guy wasn’t as bad as I thought he was. They get to talking and find out that they’re both good people.”
According to Jennifer Argueta, Messengers 4 Change’s community-building coordinator, “Last year, when we ran this program at Willie Wilkins Park for 6 weeks, crime in that area decreased by 51 percent in the neighborhood.”
In spite of the overcast sky and the slow creep of an impending major temperature drop, the good energy and spirits at Willie Wilkins Park were palpable. The joyful shrieks of children running around the park, hula hooping and climbing over the playground equipment were audible above the thumping bass from the funky old school R&B tracks the DJ was spinning. A delicious smoky haze from grilling burgers and juicy jumbo hot links floated at the front of the park, enticing partygoers to queue up in front of the two volunteers manning the barbeque pits. Nearby, a picnic table had no sitting room left because it was full of children waiting for their turns to get a lovingly applied face painting job that would transform them into calaveras, Mexican-style skulls.
The scene warmed the heart of 55-year-old Julee Walker, who lives on 81st Street “right in the midst of the madness.” Walker said she doesn’t leave her home at night at all because of her fear of gun violence. “I don’t want to be a victim of bullets. They don’t have names on them,” she said.
On Friday, Walker brought her two-year-old great-niece Akira, who preferred to shyly observe the festivities from the safety of her auntie’s lap. “I really appreciate this,” said Walker as she smiled and hugged Akira tighter while watching a group of partygoers dance. “That’s what we need to do to come together as a community; blacks, whites and Mexicans.”
Messengers 4 Change, as well as several of the groups the umbrella organization represents, are funded by Measure Y, which Oakland voters approved in 2004 to fund violence prevention programs, add more police officers to the streets and keep all of the city’s fire stations open. The primary goal of the violence prevention initiative is to reduce shootings and homicides in targeted neighborhoods by 20 percent by September 30, 2013.
According to the Messenger 4 Change’s website, the city received a Community Violence prevention Demonstration grant for $2.2 million over three years (Oct 2010 – Sept 2013) from the federal Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The funds are being used to support an array of programs that help people access services like health care and conflict mediation, find out how to find work and go back to school, and sign up for government benefits like food stamps and Social Security.
One of those programs is The Way Out, and at Friday night’s event Wysinger was busy handing out the prizes for its many raffles and contests. As Wysinger grabbed a megaphone and reads out a series of numbers, two sets of happy prize-winners strolled up to the front to claim six-packs of free tickets to the Oakland Zoo. The third set of zoo tickets posed a challenge, though. The numbers were repeated and no one stepped to the front. Wysinger handed the megaphone to one of the staffers who read out the numbers in Spanish. A man bashfully approached the pair to claim his prize.
In spite of the night’s fun vibe, Wysinger and his colleagues were taking things seriously. “This area is a hot spot,” he said. “A young man, Hadari Ascari, was murdered a couple of days ago in this area. We’re here to show love, and show the people that somebody cares and about them.”
Wysinger’s colleague, Shawn Vasquez, works for Healthy Oakland, a faith-based nonprofit organization that is also funded by Measure Y and provides free medical care to Alameda County residents. Sometimes Vasquez and his colleagues use barbecues to create connections. “We go to the hot spots where there’s a lot of crime, shooting and violence,” Vasquez said. “We try to go right there and set up our barbecue pits, feed the homeless and the needy and just try to give back to the community and let the youngsters know ‘Put the guns down.’”
The mix of outreach and play seemed to be working, although a light drizzling of rain and further dip in temperature caused the fun to end earlier than it had the
previous week. Nataly Hernandez, who lives off 65th Street, was beating a hasty retreat with her mom and siblings as the weather got colder. “This is a great place to get to know people in the neighborhood,” said Hernanadez. “I don’t go to the [local] school, so I don’t know a lot of people.”
Hernandez’s mother’s added a quick comment in Spanish: “This is good because people get to enjoy and have a good time.”
Sisters Yolanda and Faviola Gutierrez, who live off 73rd street and Holly, discovered the party by chance while riding bikes through the neighborhood with their kids. “This is good for the kids and the community,” said Yolanda. “They should do this more in different areas,” added Faviola.
As the drizzle got a little harder and the staff and volunteers hurried to clear things up, the Gutierrez family saddled up on their bikes they promised to come back again.
The Friday night parties at both parks will continue every week until August 10 from 6-10p.m. Wysinger says they can always use more volunteers.
See Messengers 4 Change for more details about future events.