Community leaders gather to celebrate the Khadafy Washington Foundation’s 10th anniversary
on March 4, 2011
If Marilyn Washington Harris’ life were a poem set to music, each syllable would rise to the rafters, a deep melody of hope sung with slow strength. On Thursday night a song like that opened a ceremony honoring the tenth year of Harris’ struggle to ease the suffering of mothers of murdered children.
“To go from here and spread this love He gave to me, to show someone who’s lost and help them find their way, the way to truth and faith so they can be free like me,” sang Terri Moore of the Community Christian Church for Christ at an intimate gathering held Thursday night to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence.
The lyrics aptly described Harris’s journey from a heartbroken parent to a community leader, which began in August 2000, when her 18-year-old son Khadafy Washington was shot and killed. In 2001, she started a foundation named after him to meet the needs of homicide victims’ family members. The foundation provides immediate counseling, help with funeral arrangements, support groups, and an occasional meal for about ninety days after the loss of a loved one to violent death.
“Thanks to God that I am able to stand up here without crying,” said Harris after accepting multiple plaques and commendations presented during the gala to award the organization’s work. “Today is Khadafy’s birthday. My son would be twenty-eight years old today.”
In addition to Harris’ friends and family, the gathering at Scott’s Seafood Restaurant in Jack London Square included Oakland Chief of Police Anthony Batts, OPD Captain Ersie Joiner, city councilmember Patricia Kernighan, and representatives from the offices of Congresswoman Barbara Lee and councilmembers Ignacio De Le Fuente and Rebecca Kaplan.
De La Fuente’s staff member read a commendation declaring that March 3 will now be the “Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-violence Day” in the city of Oakland, and
Batts spoke for nearly twenty minutes, touching on Oakland’s gang injunctions, the city’s dwindling number of police officers—down to 666 from 803 when Batts took office in late 2009—and its homicide rate, saying that 1,172 people have been killed in Oakland since 1990. “Things don’t move at the pace I want them to in Oakland,” said Batts.
He even made a jibe at his recent attempt to leave the city for another police chief job. “So, anyone hear about that bald guy going to San Jose?” he quipped.
With a lack of funding and no end to the crisis in sight, Batts said that community involvement would be more important than ever to curb the violence threatening Oakland’s young people. “I am going to need everyone to act like Ms. Harris,” Batts said.
Harris’ relationship with the Oakland Police department is a long and friendly one. Officers call her whenever they feel support is needed for a victim’s family, oftentimes in the middle of the night. Harris will, at times, do the same.
“There are only three numbers that when I see them on my phone I jump to answer it. That’s [my wife] Mrs. Joyner, Chief Batts and Marilyn Harris—and not necessarily in that order,” said OPD Captain Joyner. He called Harris a tenacious woman who was unwilling to take “no” for an answer when it comes the needs of her foundation or the people it serves.
Harris had no experience running a business or a nonprofit when she started the foundation in 2001. She had been working for the city government for fifteen years when her son, the third of four children and her only boy, was shot. He had recently graduated from McClymonds High School and was preparing to begin studying at Oakland’s Laney College in the fall.
Shortly after his death, Harris arranged for billboards to be posted around the city with a picture of Khadafy and the words “Do you know who killed me?” Harris says she has no idea why her son was targeted, and his murder remains unsolved today.
Though supported by friends and family, Harris did not have the benefit of a foundation like hers when she lost her son. “I based the foundation on the things I wanted and need when my son was killed, but there was no one there for,” she said. Among those things she needed, Harris said, was advice from someone who had gone through the same thing who could help explain the process of making funeral arrangements, finding out information about the police investigation, help her get victim’s compensation, and simply be there to listen.
As she told the audience at Thursday’s gala, “I am not a special person, but I saw a need.”
Once she decided to start her own foundation, an attorney friend helped her fill out the paperwork to apply for legal non-profit status, which was granted in 2001. She took days off work, and dedicated her weekends to working on the foundation, but in 2003 she quit her job to begin running it full time. Since her foundation’s beginning, she has helped over 800 families through the same process she went through. She recently expanded her board of directors to include other community leaders, and employs volunteers to help with house calls, although she still makes many of them herself.
The Khadafy Washington Foundation has recently joined forces with Youth Alive! a non-profit with offices in Oakland and Los Angeles that offers services intended to break the cycle of violence, including in-hospital counseling and support for victims of violence, urging them not to retaliate.
In reflecting on her foundation’s tenth anniversary, Harris said that the circumstances of her work, and the reality of serving the families of homicide victims, can be difficult. “It’s not like any other nonprofit, where I have some good days and bad ones. They’re all bad because of the kind of work we do,” Harris said. “I still cry. I am human. Tears will come to my eyes because when I see another mother crying—it reminds me how hurt they are. My own pain has not gone away. It’s not as bad as it was, but it’s still there and it will never go away.”
But as Harris acknowledged the difficulty of the work she does, she was quick to point out that her son’s death, and the last ten years of her life, have not been in vain. “Out of the ashes of all this have come friends, neighbors, and others who also want to stop the violence along with young men and women who’ve vowed never to pick up a gun,” Harris said.
At the end of Thursday’s gala, Harris said she was pleased with the evening, and honored to be recognized, but that “the hardest part of this is the fact that there’s a need for it. It doesn’t feel right that we even have to have a foundation like mine. I am honored that people thought to do this, but in the next ten years, I’d like to be out of business.”
To make donations or offer volunteer services to the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence, call (510) 838-1706 or visit the organization’s office at 1156 8th Street in Oakland.
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