Shykelah Birchett skims her fingers across the dark arc of her bangs, pushing them behind her right ear. She slips her house key on and off the clasp of an “I love Jesus” lanyard and passes her right hand over her left forearm, where Mini Mouse is tattooed in pink and red. She talks softly as she makes these small movements, recounting her final conversation with her older brother.
“I talked to him on a Sunday,” she says. “He called and asked for Mom. I asked him where he had been, and he said, ‘I’m going to be away for a couple days, but I’m going to come back home.’” She told her brother she loved him. “Okay, I love you,” he said. “Put Mom on the phone.”
As Birchett talks, the piercing above her upper lip catches bits of sunlight and her gold hoop earrings glint. It’s hot, and she’s sitting in a patch of shade in a parking lot on International Boulevard and 90th Avenue in East Oakland. She’s here, some 75 blocks from her apartment near Lake Merritt, to look at a billboard. On it a boy is pictured holding a framed photo of a happy-looking child. The billboard’s message is in Spanish, but it translates like this: “He was my little brother, only three when we lost him. Stop the Killing, Start the Healing.”
This billboard, one of several like it standing above East Oakland buildings, is meant to show the personal cost of gun violence, a cost Shykelah Birchett knows intimately. She lost her brother, Isaac Turner, Jr., two days after that last phone conversation. Birchett was 14, and a few weeks into her freshman year at McClymonds High School in West Oakland, when she was pulled out of class to take a call from her sister. “He’s gone,” she remembers her sister saying. Her 17-year-old brother Isaac had been shot in the neck near 65th Avenue and International Boulevard the night before, her sister told her, and he was dead.
Birchett was stunned, she says. “I didn’t know what to say–I was just crying, just tears constantly coming,” she says, with a weariness that makes her seem much older than 17. “I didn’t understand. I can’t even explain how hard it was for me.”
She didn’t talk about Isaac’s death, she says, until she joined a youth leadership program last year and worked on the anti-violence campaign that eventually led to a series of billboards, including one that told her family’s own story. In it, Birchett was pictured wearing a solemn look and holding a framed photo of her brother, taken on his 16th birthday. It read “He was my brother. We lost him when he was 17.” The Shylekah and Isaac billboard used to stand here, above the Ace Cash Express adjacent to the parking lot, but someone scrawled graffiti on it, and it was taken down for reprinting. For now, another billboard takes its place. Eight-year-old Axel Nava is shown with a photo of his little brother, Carlitos, who was three when he was shot and killed at a taco truck near 66th and International last year.
Nava and Birchett are the face of an anti-violence effort headed by an Oakland youth leadership organization called Urban Peace Movement, with support from Messengers 4 Change, one of the city’s violence prevention programs, and the office of Oakland mayor Jean Quan. These two young people, and a few others, agreed to share their families’ tragedies with the public because they hope showing the firsthand toll of street violence might make a difference in Oakland’s perennial problem—and maybe cause a few people to reconsider before pulling the trigger.
“Hopefully it will put in their minds (that) families are really impacted by this,” Birchett says. “Maybe they’ll think, ‘What if this was my family, or what if this was my niece or my little brother or my mother?’ Maybe it will put something in their heads like ‘This isn’t the right thing to do. I can handle this in a different way.’”
If things had been handled differently, she says, her brother might still be alive. Birchett had talked to him two days before his death. “What could have happened in that amount of time?” Birchett asks.
What did happen isn’t clear to her. She’s been told her brother took a phone call, that he walked out of his uncle’s house, and ducked his head into his friend’s car and that the friend shot him. Birchett doesn’t know what happened between the two. She says the friend was subsequently incarcerated for two years–not nearly long enough in her family’s view.
What she knows is that her brother was her friend and confidante. Birchett is the youngest of three sisters and six brothers, including Isaac; she talked to him about her life, and he offered an older brother’s advice. He told her about his life, too. She knows her brother was a happy person whose optimism made him nice to have around. She knows he loved music—he wrote poetry and raps, and songs, which he loved to hear her to sing. One Mother’s Day, when the family was gathered at her house, she recalls, she and Isaac surprised their mother with a song he wrote for her, bringing their mother to tears.
She knows that he got into fights at school and caused trouble, but she doesn’t know what his street life was like. “The brother I knew wasn’t with the violence thing, the street thing, none of that,” she says. “He didn’t let me see any of that. It was shocking to me. I didn’t know why it happened. I was confused. I was real confused. Part of me still is confused because I didn’t know.”
Brichett says that displaying her loss for all to see is rewarding, ultimately, and she’s glad she did it. But it wasn’t an easy decision to make. “I wasn’t going to do it at first because I was scared and emotional about it, I didn’t think I could do it,” she says. “But something just made me say ‘I think this would be a good thing. I think this would make people realize that this is not the right thing to do. You don’t always have to take it this far, there’s other ways you can solve things.’”
The idea for the “Stop the Killing, Start the Healing” billboard campaign originated with Urban Peace Movement last year. The Oakland-based non-profit recruits young people, mostly from local high schools, to participate in an eight-month leadership development program called Peace Ambassadors, which teaches them how to heal from trauma and advocate for peace, says Xiomara Castro, associate director of Urban Peace Movement. They also plan one community organizing project, she says, and the cohort decided last fall to concentrate on a public awareness effort targeting gun violence. They called the campaign “Stop the Killing, Start the Healing.”
The ambassadors wanted to use candid illustration to show how gun violence has impacted them. “A lot of young people in our program have lost friends, cousins, family members,” Castro says. “They really wanted to highlight their own experiences.” Birchett and three other members of the program agreed to appear in posters that would show them holding a photo of the loved one they lost to gun violence. (Axel Nava is not part of Peace Ambassadors, but Messengers 4 Change asked him to participate). “I think it’s easier to bond with somebody who’s been through the same thing you have been through because they know how you feel,” Birchett says. “That’s why we chose people who have been through violence and been through experiences that have impacted their lives.”
In the spring of this year, Urban Peace Movement organizers created an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for publication costs, and exceeded their $5,000 goal. The ambassadors researched which areas in Oakland are most affected by violent crime, and started distributing the posters in these neighborhoods. They put them up in liquor stores and other venues in downtown and North Oakland and in East and West Oakland neighborhoods.
The posters became billboards with the help of Messengers 4 Change. Urban Peace Movement has collaborated with the city program for years, Castro says, and when the coordinator saw the posters at a Willie Wilkins Park event earlier this year she took the idea to the mayor’s office. “We fell in love with it because it was a very simple concept and very powerful at the same time,” says Reygan Harmon, a public safety advisor to Quan. “We knew we were going to be launching (Operation) Ceasefire, which is focused in East Oakland, and we wanted to build this onto that,” she says, referring to the city’s latest attempt at reducing gun violence, a program that singles out certain known offenders and offers them a choice between either education and support services or harsh targeted scrutiny from law enforcement.
City officials wanted to see the posters presented in a larger format, Harmon says, so they made a deal with Clear Channel Communications to put the images on billboards for significantly reduced fees. “They really liked the work,” Harmon says. The billboard campaign may expand into West Oakland, she says, but for the moment the signs are concentrated along International Boulevard between 57th Avenue and the Oakland-San Leandro border.
In the middle of this expanse, near the billboard above the Ace Cash Express, 52-year-old Donald Jefferson is standing on the sidewalk in the heat, campaigning for Councilman Larry Reid. He squints up at the huge picture of young Axel and Carlitos, and though he doesn’t speak Spanish, he knows what the sign says–he lives nearby, he says, and he’s seen the English version of the billboard. “The killing is constantly increasing,” he says. “The killing is just so close. It could be you.” Jefferson starts walking, flyers in hand, hoping to reach more voters. “The signs can catch the conscience of some people,” he says. “If it only reaches one person, then it’s served its purpose.”