Last week, a staff member at Oakland California Youth Outreach (OCYO), Louie Serrano and one of his coworkers were walking through East Oakland when they saw two men in a heated argument. Because Serrano’s teammate knew the young men from the neighborhood, he was able to calm them down, pointing out the insignificance of the quarrel. It was a lucky intervention. Both men were carrying guns and the argument was escalating. “Somebody was going to die that night had we not been there,” Serrano says.
Created in 2011, the nonprofit OCYO provides support to youth who are involved in gangs or criminal behavior in the East Oakland communities of Elmhurst and Havenscourt. Staff act as case managers, helping the young men and women find jobs or temporary homes, supplying them with food, and acting as mediators in cases of conflict. The goal is to help interrupt the cycle of retributive violence that many youth in Oakland get caught in. Geoffrey Godfrey, the director of OCYO, describes the program as a steppingstone for young people hoping to break free of gangs and street violence. “We can’t miraculously change their socioeconomic circumstances,” Godfrey says. “But what we can do is give them a voice, empower them, listen to them, try to satisfy their basic needs.”
According to Godfrey, the street outreach teams are placed in neighborhoods where they have acquaintances so that they’re familiar with the cultural climate. The teams then try to establish relationships within the community, while also identifying key players in areas that have been recognized by the Oakland Police Department as having high crime rates. “They get wind of something transpiring, and they’re so connected to the communities that they’re able to get in and talk to the parties before it happens,” says Godfrey.
Because all of the staff members are from Oakland, Godfrey adds, they know the culture of the streets and many of them have walked in the shoes of their clients. With the exception of Godfrey, most of the staff were formerly involved in street life before deciding to turn their lives around.
Along with providing support to youth in need, OCYO also leads ‘Oakland Gang Awareness Trainings’ to give insight on the trends of gangs to professionals who work with at-risk teens in Oakland. Godfrey notes that Oakland gangs are different from others around the country in that they are diverse, and membership is often defined by where a person grew up. The Norteños, one of the most notorious gangs in the city, is traditionally Northern Mexican, but in Oakland has members that are African-American and Asian, according to Godfrey. As he puts it, the mentality is: “We grew up together, so we’re going to rock together.”
The trainings attract a variety of clients including Oakland Unified School District teachers, probation officers, case managers and youth intervention specialists.
Lasting from one to eight hours, the trainings explain aspects of gang life, like the fact that most gangs follow a chain of command, with the ‘general’, or leader of the gang, often directing underlings from behind bars. “Usually the shots are being called from inside a prison,” Serrano says.
The programs also provide tips on how to identify signs of gang membership. Carlo Tateo, who runs the trainings, teaches the significance of different attire in criminally involved youth. For example, a gang member planning to commit a crime might wear an inconspicuous outfit, like a black hoodie, so that he can blend in with the people in the neighborhood. The hoodie can also help a perpetrator evade police, since the description will match that of many other young men in the community. In some cases, the classes may include a description of the different weapons used on the streets, the nicknames for them, and where they might be concealed; baggy pants, for instance, might be used to hide a heavy weapon.
Formerly an at-risk youth himself, Tateo was involved in street life for 10 years, but got out of it because he knew that he would either end up in jail or dead.“I knew that an education was needed,” Tateo says. “I was ready to leave that part of my life behind.”
Now, Tateo says, OCYO staff members are seen as role models in their neighborhood because they managed to turn their lives around. “Everyone is here to change Oakland,” he says.
An ‘Oakland Gang Awareness Training’ will take place in Oakland on November 21 at 9 am. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.