Student-led group pinpoints solutions to youth violence
on February 4, 2010
The youth-led Heal the Streets fellowship program, sponsored through Oakland’s Ella Baker Center, hosted a Solutions Salon on Saturday in West Oakland. The Solutions Salon was intended to engage community members, youth and policy makers in a dialogue about violence prevention in Oakland, and concluded with a question and answer session with local leaders including City Council members Nancy Nadel and Rebecca Kaplan.
Heal the Streets is a ten month paid fellowship designed to create social change by empowering Oakland teens to advocate for violence prevention policies. The program, which began last October, has ten fellows ranging from age 15 to 17 and hailing from different Oakland neighborhoods. “We wanted to train young people pragmatically and give them their own voice,” said Crystallee Crain, the program’s director.
Crain said the fellows are split into two teams, each tasked with discussing the root causes of violence and brainstorming possible solutions with other Oakland teens and community members. Over the past few months the teams have been conducting research through focus groups and community strategy sessions. The groups meets weekly to discuss their violence advocacy prevention projects, and also learn skills like public speaking and critical thinking.
Crain said the first team is focusing on jobs and unemployment, and the second team is focused on ways the community can heal its social environment. The first team presented the results of their findings on Saturday, and the second team will hold an event to present their findings later in the spring.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, approximately ninety people filled the rows of chairs facing the stage in the multi-purpose room at the West Oakland Public Library. Some sat chatting together holding small children on their laps, while others sat quietly, patiently waiting for the program to start. A large projection screen bearing the Heal the Streets logo stood onstage beside the single table designated for the panels. Friendly, bright-faced fellows buzzed about the room in preparation for their first public event—a few stood near the door, greeting people as they entered, while others straightened items on the table of refreshments.
As the program began, four fellows sat onstage at the panel table to discuss strategy sessions that had been held on January 16th. The strategy sessions covered four topics: ways to protect oneself on the street, general concerns about violence, violence in the media, and job resources. The team had chosen these topics based on research they had conducted in focus groups last fall.
The young man who conducted the strategy session about safety said that poor education and easy access to weapons were major contributors to violence among teens, and that unemployment is also a critical factor. “When the parent can’t get a job anywhere, the oldest child may feel like they need to bring in everything for the family,” explained fellow Rodquel Branch, 17, of Skyline High School. She said this added pressure would often compel that child to do whatever necessary, including illegal activity, to bring in more income.
Brian McAlister, 17, a fellow from Oakland Tech High School, presented results from his strategy session called “What’s on your mind?” which discussed concerns residents have with violence in Oakland. “There needs to be more police officers from our community that know our community better,” McAlister said. “A lot of police officers come [to Oakland] with stereotypes.” McAlister said that residents in his group wanted to find ways to improve that relationship, and suggested hiring more police officers with ties to the community, or holding a community dinner that police officers could attend in their civilian clothes.
Another fellow, 18 year-old Jerrica Webb of Skyline High School, conducted a strategy session focused on violent messages in the media, including video games, movies and music, and asked participants to examine the effects of those messages. The audience listened attentively, nodding in agreement, as Webb described how such media can be misinterpreted by younger kids, or can lead to increased aggression in youth or cause residents to fear each other.
Fellow Rickiea Lacy, 17, who attends the Youth Empowerment School, said that the working group she had organized that discussed barriers to employment, and also provided information for interviewing and other jobs skills.
The presentation was followed by a question-and-answer session with a panel that included Oakland councilmembers Nadel and Kaplan and two students, Eric Adams of the Student School Board and Nikita Mitchell, a member of the nonprofit leadership development group Youth Together, and vice president of the All-City Council, which represents students from each school in the Oakland Unified School district. The audience submitted questions to the panel on plain white notecards, while a fellow moderated the conversation.
One audience member asked what the panel members intended to do to employ people from the community in the police department. Nadel said that the city could not legally require officers to live in Oakland, and that many native Oakland applicants have criminal records, thereby disqualifying them for positions in the police department. She acknowledged that relationships between the police and neighbors needed to be improved, and hoped the hiring of new police chief Anthony Batts would make a difference.
However, the panel unanimously disapproved of Chief Batts’ proposed youth curfew, which would prohibit minor from being outside after 10 p.m., unless they were headed to a specific destination. “Anything imposed on students where there’s no student engagement, no parent engagement, and no community engagement will not work and will not be effective,” Mitchell said, drawing loud applause from the audience.
A question asking how the state budget cuts would affect youth community centers and violence in Oakland drew a wide variety of responses. Mitchell and Adams were frustrated with the effect of the cuts on the school’s already lean budget. “They’re not looking at their priorities correctly,” Mitchell said. “Obviously our students are not the top priority, obviously the teachers are not the top priority, because if so, they would direct more resources to them.”
Nadel said the budget cuts would negatively impact youth and adult education, health care, and substance abuse treatment. Kaplan agreed and criticized the government’s practice of funneling money to new state parks, rather than funding improvements for existing parks. She encouraged the audience’s registered voters to sign the petition to create a ballot measure barring the state from taking local government money to fund their issues.
The panel was asked what steps they were taking to decrease violence in Oakland. Mitchell and Adams discussed the recently implemented Restorative Justice initiative in the Oakland school district, a program that emphasizes getting students to work together to repair the harm caused or revealed by criminal behavior. It is a philosophy of which Nadel said she has been a long-time supporter. Nadel added that she is working to bring the Restorative Justice philosophy to the juvenile justice system as well.
Kaplan also mentioned the importance of re-entry programs, which are aimed at helping formerly incarcerated people return to society. ““We have a system problem where people make money based on keeping other people in prison,” she said. “There’s not a lot of motivation to help people turn their lives around.” Kaplan also said there may be a state grant for re-entry housing, and she would look into applying for it.
Kaplan said she is also in talks with the police department to keep minors out of the criminal system in the first place by not arresting them for prostitution. Kaplan said these children should be treated as victims of sexual exploitation, and not as criminals.
Finally, the panel was asked what measures they would be taking to create more jobs in Oakland. Nadel reminded the audience that creating jobs in a bad economy is difficult and said the current strategy focuses on applying for stimulus grants to develop more green energy related jobs. She said doing so would promote social equity while improving the environment. “It’s not going to be enough, but it’s something,” she said. Nadel added that the city had provided some of the start-up capital for the worker-owned Mandela Food Co-op in West Oakland, and she encouraged continued support for the grocery store.
Kaplan pointed out the changes the council had made to city zoning, including easing requirements for obtaining a conditional use permit, which makes it easier for small businesses to set up shop. Kaplan also said there were state grants coming next year which focus on “transit-oriented development,” or developing housing and businesses near public transportation hubs, and she thought Oakland would be well positioned to obtain them.
Fellow Elona Everett, 17, of Mandela High School, said she was pleased with how the day’s event had turned out, and was enjoying her experience with the program. “I’m very proud to be part of Heal the Streets,” she said. “ It helps me learn more about what I’m doing and how I can help in my community and in the town I live in.”
Everett was also happy that she could help with the entertainment portion of the afternoon. Elona is a poet and a member of Youth Roots, an after-school program that provides youth with opportunities for “anti-oppression work” through activities such as performing, video arts, and adventure education. Following the question and answer session, several Youth Roots members read dramatic poetry they’d written, drawing on their own experiences or those of other kids they knew. A captivated audience, many students themselves, listened intently to the poetry. Following the readings, several rap groups also performed, drawing enthusiastic cheers and impromptu dancing from the audience.
Longtime East Oakland resident Stephen Gilbert had heard of the Heal the Streets program, and he attended the Solutions Salon to see how the group was progressing. “It’s good to see youth involvement,“ he said. A retired BART employee, Gilbert spent last summer teaching culinary skills to young adults through the Oakland Green Civic Campaign, and he is also involved with the Urban Peace Movement. He agreed with much of what the panel had said, but said he had also “heard it all before.”
Gilbert stood in the library’s lobby, hands in his pockets while inside the multi-purpose room, the Youth Roots performers had the crowd cheering and clapping. Around his neck hung a single dog tag, bearing a photograph of his son Daniel, who had been gunned down in 2007 after leaving a friend’s house in East Oakland. Gilbert attributes Daniel’s death to the random violence that plagues the city, and works to focus on reducing the conditions that create the culture of violence. “That’s what community involvement is all about,” he said, “to fight for those improvements, to fight foreclosures on homes, fight for better wages, or to improve funding for services and education.”
He appreciates the opportunity Heal the Streets provides to direct young people’s energies in a positive direction. “I like the idea—giving kids a chance to get active in their community and then give them the tools and the skills to get active in their community,” he said. Gilbert looked away. “It’s something that’s needed,” he said.
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