Young people turn personal ordeals into stories through Oakland film project

Participants at the Warriors for Peace project edit their stories at Chinatown Youth Initiative in Oakland. Photo courtesy The Spot.

Participants at the Warriors for Peace project edit their stories at Chinatown Youth Initiative in Oakland. Photo courtesy The Spot.

Geoffrey Dang (19), a former third grade tutor, was waiting at a bus stop in Oakland two years ago when seven men approached him. One of them stopped, held a gun to him and demanded that Dang give him everything he had, he said. He refused, and the assailant walked away, but that incident, followed by another close encounter with armed robbers, taught him to constantly be on his guard.

Dang is one of 12 young men of color from across the Bay Area who were provided with an opportunity to document their lives and produce short video stories dealing with pressing issues for young people in Oakland. On Wednesday, June 20, Dang and the other participants will present their video productions and narratives at a “Mini Documentary Premiere” to be held in Oakland, marking the end of 32 weeks of hands-on training in the production of short video narratives and interviewing skills that have enabled them to tell stories based on their life experiences.

This new pilot project, titled Warriors for Peace, provided psychological counseling while also teaching the young men storytelling skills. The program began last summer and is run by the Chinatown Youth Center Initiative (also known as The Spot).

”All the young men in the program have been exposed or involved in violence in some form or another,” said Sherilyn Hue Tran, the director of the Chinatown Youth Center Initiative. ”They’ve either been victims or crime or in some cases have engaged in unhealthy and negative behavior themselves.”

Warriors for Peace participants work on their stories. Photo courtesy of The Spot.

“In general the streets are dangerous, but it can be pretty tough here in Oakland,” said Dang. His Warriors for Peace team produced Where You From? Oakland, a short video that tries to gauge the attitudes of residents about violence in the city. “Everyone I worked with has a pretty good idea of how dangerous it is on the streets.”

Warriors for Peace  was initiated by The Spot in partnership with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Oakland-based Kaiser Permanente, Community Health for Asian Americans and Youth Movement Records, which provided technical training on the use of iMovie, Final Cut and other video production software.

Psychologists from Community Health for Asian Americans helped with mental health counseling in an effort to provide a way for the the participants to deal positively with past traumatic experiences. Oakland-based filmmaker Ben Wang, Peter Kim, the directing manager for Street Side Productions at the East Bay Asian Youth Center, as well as Luke Soriano of Beats, Rhymes and Life also helped with production and advising the Warriors for Peace project.

Growing up in Oakland, some of the young people have faced gang violence, violence within their families, incarceration and incidences of drug and substance use, issues that Michael Tran, the coordinator of the Warriors for Peace project, said affect a lot of young people in the city. “Initially, I was actually very nervous, and the reason I say that is because this is something that is relatively new. We are dealing with a lot young men who are trying to address heavy and sensitive issues,” said Tran. “Society has raised them to have their guards up and our biggest challenge has been to break those barriers and create a safe space that allows us to approach those subjects.”

Many of the young people picked to be pioneers of the Warriors for Peace project didn’t know each other. Tran was charged with personally supervising the project and taking the young men on outdoor activities like hiking and using communication tools like icebreaker games to get them to learn to work with each other.

Tran said teaching troubled young people to redirect their energy creatively was one of the key objectives of the project. “To my surprise, the young men opened up very soon,” Tran said. “They were very cooperative, very open-minded.”

Armed with handheld cameras and state-of-the-art video editing software, the four teams each produced a five-minute video documenting life in Oakland and revisiting some of their own experiences. The four productions approach the issue of violence in different social settings and from different perspectives, while also trying to dispel some of the stereotypical portrayals of Oakland as a violent city.

Where You From? Oakland deals with public perceptions of violence and crime in Oakland. Dang and his team went out into the community and asked other young residents how they felt about violence and what they are doing to stay off the streets and out of trouble. The experience, he says, has changed his life. “I know a lot of friends who were involved with drugs and they had to go to jail for it,” Dang said. “This is what I am trying to avoid, and this program has allowed me to bond with others well.”

The project was conceived as part of The Spot’s effort to deal with increased cases of violent deaths among young men of color, a trend Hue Tran said continues to claim the lives of younger and younger individuals. “The idea came that a lot of young people in Oakland never really have proper ways to share and talk about the trauma that happens in their lives on a daily basis,” said  Hue Tran.  “A lot of the young people in our community are exposed to this trauma and they cannot cope positively, and they end up finding ways to cope negatively.”

Warriors for Peace, Hue Tran said, is aimed at helping the young people to learn to deal with their experiences and move forward.
The participants, between the ages of 17 and 20 years old, were each recruited from different of the city, including playgrounds, through referrals from probation departments and through schools and counselors. The Spot targeted young men who had been exposed to violence within the family unit or in their immediate circle of friends. Each of them was given a journal and asked to write down their thoughts before acting upon  them, a technique devised to help them to think over issues before they react.

“Journaling and sharing helped them see what they had been going through and critically analyze the root causes of the issues they had been dealing with, enabling them to move forward,” Hue Tran said.

Each one of the young men will receive a $200 stipend when they complete their training Wednesday, after which Hue Tran said The Spot will begin planning for a second run of the project in the fall. ”We’re hoping continue the program in the fall if we are able to secure more funding,” Hue Tran said. ”Depending on the funding, we may increase our capacity to serve more youth.”

Hue Tran said The Spot was considering retaining some of the 12 young men as mentors for the next Warriors for Peace project and eventually expand the project to include young women as well.

The “Mini Documentary Premiere” will be held from 5:30 to 8pm  on Wednesday, June 20, at The Spot at 299 13th Street, Oakland. You can get more information about the event here.

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