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Ex-offenders and low-income youth help reduce vandalism in Oakland through graffiti abatement program

on November 3, 2011

“This is the second time we’ve had to do this one,” said Brett Bardelle, nodding towards the wall of a Vietnamese sandwich shop on the 1900 block of International Boulevard, on a weekday afternoon. “It’s like a canvas for the graffiti people.”

The wall is made up of 6-inch glass blocks stacked on top of one another and was scrawled with spray-painted initials and largely illegible words and phrases scribbled in white. The glass makes clean-up more difficult for the graffiti abatement crew, which that afternoon consisted of two students from the Men of Valor Academy—a non-profit re-entry program in East Oakland that provides housing, job training and other services to high school drop-outs, recovering addicts and the formerly incarcerated—and Bardelle, their case manager.

About twice a week, a crew of three to seven men drives up and down International and Foothills boulevards looking for graffiti blight to paint over or otherwise remove in the hopes that their vigilance will eventually discourage vandals from targeting properties in the area.

“A lot of it is the Border Brothers,” Badelle said, referring to a small gang comprised of recently immigrated Mexicans who like to leave their mark on International, especially. “Everywhere we go, it’s there. Border Brothers all over the place. We just had to do a headstart school on 90th Avenue. That’s what makes me mad.”

On a more typical job, the crew would simply paint over the graffiti, using paint, solvents and other supplies either donated by local businesses or funded by the Oakland Community and Economic Development Agency (CEDA). This day, though, they had to spray the tainted glass, section by section, with an aerosolized paint remover, wait for the chemicals to activate, and then painstakingly scrape the paint off. The job takes hours, but the men didn’t seem to mind.

“It keeps me busy,” said Jason Christian, 31, as he worked on a small section of glass covered over in white spray paint. “It’s good to get out.”

It also helps that the men earn $12.75 an hour for their work, a practice begun by Men of Valor which is now funded by the Oakland Community Economic and Redevelopment Agency’s Graffiti Abatement Program—an initiative program that partners with service organizations to create job opportunities for out-of-work youth while mitigating blight in the city’s commercial corridors. The city’s partnership with Men of Valor has proven so successful since it began in June—removing about 114 graffiti markings from 88 businesses along Foothill and International boulevards—that in October CEDA decided to expand the program and take on new partners.

“These guys are happy to give back to the community, and make some money at the same time,” Bardell said. “Even without a criminal record it’s hard to find a job. Everybody’s just trying to work hard and get out there.”

Among the residents of the Men of Valor Academy, the graffiti abatement crew is a coveted assignment—chiefly because it pays so well—but also because it gives the men a rare chance to take a break from G.E.D. and other classes, and get out into the community. As a result, it’s only available to senior residents, who have proven their commitment to staying on course by attending classes and regularly volunteering for non-paying jobs liking cleaning up schools.

CEDA funds the materials and stipends for hourly wages, and the Men of Valor graffiti crew adds the agency’s priority redevelopment areas, such as near the Oakland Coliseum and parts of West Oakland, to its existing list of high graffiti zones.

“The City of Oakland has been a huge supporter of our work,” Bardell said, “and every time the redevelopment agency calls with a job, we’re on it.”

Case manager Brett Bardelle watches the Men of Valor graffiti crew clean up a wall in East Oakland.

When CEDA decided to expand the program in October to take on two new partners, they looked for organizations that, like Men of Valor, regard blight removal as an opportunity to create jobs for marginalized youth—especially the formerly incarcerated.  The agency selected Cypress Mandela Training Center in West Oakland, which provides free pre-apprenticeship construction training to community members, and Peralta Service Corporation in East Oakland, which provides construction and public maintenance services. Both organizations create job opportunities for low-income youth, including the previously incarcerated—a high priority for CEDA, according to Dan Seamans, an urban economic analyst who oversees part of the graffiti program for the Oakland Redevelopment Agency.

“Ex-offenders have a really hard time getting work,” Seamans said. “We want to address physical blight, as well economic blight, so we were looking for organizations that could provide job training as well as graffiti abatement services.”

Cypress Mandela, which will be responsible for servicing the city’s West Oakland redevelopment areas, began providing graffiti abatement services as part of its construction and green jobs program a few years ago.

“We wanted to show students in our training program that they can clean up their community and have a positive impact,” said Art Shanks, Cypress Mandela’s executive director. “These same individuals who used to do the graffiti, we train and educate them. We want to help the kids who came out of this community, to make it clean, and make West Oakland a nice area that people will be proud of.”

There are basically three kinds of graffiti, Shanks said, and he takes issue with each. The first is gang-related graffiti, which Shanks particularly disdains, because it’s used to mark a gang’s self-proclaimed territory. “Gang signs perpetuate that this is their territory and they’re going to run the community,” he said. “ And we say that’s not true. We have businesses here that want this to be a safe community.”

The second type is conceptual art, which Shanks describes as “elegant” but still unlawful. “And then there’s the guy who just wants to go crazy and just draw,” Shanks said of the third kind. “No artistic value, not associated with anything, just destructive.”

Seamans argued that, while graffiti may seem like a minor problem compared to other social ills impacting marginalized communities like West Oakland, it has broader repercussions.

“It’s the broken window theory,” Seamans said, referring to the sociological premise that properly maintaining urban environments—keeping them clean of graffiti, for example—can diminish more serious crimes in the area. “Graffiti creates a general climate where people feel like no one cares so they feel it’s OK to litter and create a downward spiral of neglect and blight.”

Graffiti also hurts the city’s efforts to bring new businesses and homeowners into depressed areas, he added. “It’s also a problem for property owners, who are the ones responsible for cleaning it up, and it becomes an extra expense for them,” Seamans said.

“It’s bad for business,” said Bardelle, of the graffiti problem on International Boulevard. “We want to bring money to the city. Everybody’s affected by the graffiti.”

But perhaps the greatest benficiaries of the program are the men who participate in the graffiti crews, Bardell said.

For Christian, who joined Men of Valor voluntarily last June because he said he “needed to break bad habits” and get a roof over his head, the graffiti crew has been a transformative experience. In just a few months, he went from new Men of Valor resident to the inaugural crew supervisor, having been bestowed the formal title after “basically just taking charge and making sure things get done,” according to Bardell. “He made it so I really didn’t have to anything but drive,” Bardell added with a chuckle.

“Well, Dre helps with a lot of it, too,” Christian said, gesturing at his crew partner, 20-year-old Dre’Von Stanley, a resident formerly incarcerated in prison who is on his second tour with Men of Valor.

Badelle smiled. “Mr. Stanley, he was young, but he turned things around,” he said. “Now, I couldn’t ask for anyone better.”


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