Dr. Prince White, a deputy director for the Oakland social justice organization Urban Peace Movement, died on August 24 from a rare autoimmune disease he had been battling since May. He was 37.
“He was one of those people who saw light in people, and Oakland needed that. He committed his life to fairness and justice,” said Nicole Lee, executive director of Urban Peace Movement. The organization advocates for social and economic justice in communities of color and works to build youth leadership in Oakland.
White was born in Seattle, Washington. According to his wife, criminal defense attorney Claire White, the boy, his mother and younger brother were homeless until White was 7 years old. He was then placed in foster care in Fresno, California. “Prince knew first hand that foster care could be an abusive situation for everyone involved because he experienced abuse and neglect in a lot of those homes,” she said.
White and his younger brother were reunited with their father when White was in the seventh grade, she said, and they moved around California before settling in Sacramento. “Prince grew up in white neighborhoods and he learned young about class struggles. Being black in foster care, teachers treated him differently. He was labeled a problem child and would often get suspended or brought home by the police. That’s why he worked so hard to encourage youth to continue their education even when they felt they had been wronged by the system,” she said.
Prince White did not start formal school until he was 7 years old, according to his wife. But in a year’s time, he was able to successfully move ahead three grade levels through testing. When he was 15, he tested out of Malachi Eyerman High School in Sacramento. White then attended Sacramento City College. He eventually went on to receive a Ph.D. in media studies at Howard University and he became an adjunct professor at Sacramento City College.
Through teaching, White gained additional insights into some of the problems facing young black students, and this insight led him to activism. “Prince taught a public speaking class one semester and almost all of the students were black men. Pretty early on in the semester, the attendance started dropping due to life circumstances like family illness and lack of transportation,” recalled Claire White. “Prince did what he could, but that wasn’t enough to help those men. He felt shackled and he realized he would have to meet black men in similar situations on their level, and he couldn’t do that in academia the way he wanted to. So, he started looking in Oakland at social justice work to build on his and my shared idea of prison abolition.”
White transitioned from teaching to working for Urban Peace Movement. He worked with the group for three years on campaigns like “1400 #Jobs4Freedom” to help residents of Alameda County who were formerly incarcerated find long-term jobs despite discrimination. “He believed communities of color deserved more than what they got, and he dedicated his life to working on that. Prince wanted to work with youth to encourage them to build the future they deserve, instead of seeing prison as the only option,” said Lee.
White was a facilitator for the DetermiNation Black Men’s Group, a program through Urban Peace Movement. The mission of the group is to create campaigns and programs at the state and local levels to aid young black men in California in improving their lives. “I would rally the men and he would educate them. He would come to me to translate his academic language to something everyone can understand,” said Leo Mercer, a youth mentor for the group. “DetermiNation is an unorthodox healing group for black men who’ve been to prison or are close to the street life.”
After being released from jail in 2015, Mercer said he was ordered by a court to attend leadership training with Urban Peace Movement. He eventually started attending the men’s group where he met White. Mercer recalled calling White after being pulled over by the police and White staying on the phone with him during the encounter he said that was the first time he realized he didn’t have to fear the police or be nervous in those situations. “I was the one in handcuffs or facing a case, so, I always felt uncomfortable in those kinds of places. I wouldn’t have the confidence to walk into a courtroom and know my power if I hadn’t met Prince,” said Mercer.
White and his colleagues spent years advocating for Proposition 57, which California voters passed in 2016, allowing inmates the opportunity to reduce their sentences by participating in academic or rehabilitation programs. The law also prohibits prosecutors from directly filing charges against youth to in adult court without a judge’s approval. Prince and Claire White worked together on the “Free DaJon Ford” campaign. DaJon Ford was a 17-year-old from Oakland who was charged with robbing 14 people at gunpoint. He was charged as an adult and spent four years in jail awaiting trial. Ford had no past criminal record but was facing a maximum sentence of 60 years in adult court. During his four-year wait for a trial, he was offered a sentence of 14 years in prison if he pled guilty to his charges, but Ford declined the plea offer.
“DaJon reminded Prince of his brother, who is in prison for armed robbery,” said Claire White. “When Prince’s brother was arrested, we didn’t know how to help him, and Prince felt hopeless like most people do in those situations. DaJon was different. Prince could do something, so he did.”
Claire served as Ford’s attorney, while, in collaboration with Urban Peace Movement, and members of the Oakland community, worked to get over a thousand signatures on a petition and hold protests in front of the jail, asking for Ford to be released or tried in juvenile court.
“It was unlike anything I had ever seen in my life,” she recalled. “Political officials who wouldn’t even endorse a flavor of ice cream were willing to come forward and link their name with DaJon Ford. He became a symbol for Proposition 57.”
In two months’ time, Ford was released from jail on an informal court probation, which, according to Claire White, will help him eventually get his record sealed.
White says her husband felt Oakland was like home, and that it has revolutionary spirit. She said he had big dreams for Oakland and that he was not shy about sharing his dreams for the beloved city. “Prince came to Oakland not because he felt he could bring something to Oakland, but because he knew the power that was already here,” she said. “Prince never talked about a way out of the Oakland. He always talked about ways to build it up. He wanted to build a historically black college in Oakland. Prince felt the college and the city could sustain each other. He wanted to work to build up urban farming in Oakland, so everyone wasn’t so reliant on outside resources. Prince wanted to create a gentleman’s club for black men to come together and work on healing in a healthy way and talk freely.”
In addition to his beloved wife, White also leaves behind three young sons. There are currently no funeral plans in place. A memorial will be announced at a later time.
Lee created a GoFundMe campaign to help his White’s family offset the cost of his illness, which so far has raised over $20,000.