Oakland youth organizers discuss healing from trauma during Impact Celebration

Panelists speak about trauma and youth during the Impact Celebration at the Oakland Museum of California on October 17.  
(Pictured from left to right:
W. Kamau Bell, Desi Cortijo, Kasi Jones, Armon Hurst, De’Mario Lewis, and Tom Alexander)

Panelists speak about trauma and youth during the Impact Celebration at the Oakland Museum of California on October 17. (Pictured from left to right: W. Kamau Bell, Desi Cortijo, Kasi Jones, Armon Hurst, De’Mario Lewis, and Tom Alexander)

The staff of the Fred Finch Youth Center celebrated their third annual Impact Celebration this week at the Oakland Museum of California. The center provides housing  and health services for “transitional youth,” a term used by the center’s CEO, Tom Alexander, to refer to young adults 18 to 24 years old who have experienced trauma.

The organization offers job training and safe housing for children who become adults when they turn 18, exceeding the age of care in legal systems. “When youth are in foster care and turn 18, the services for them get cut off. We are here to provide transitional help, mental help and tools for them to live successfully in society. We built 60 to 70 units of housing for young adults to live comfortably and affordably. We provide mental and behavior services to help people overcome their trauma,” said Alexander.

People in the foster care system who’ve experienced trauma need proper and personalized treatment, so they can heal in a healthy way, Alexander said. Professionals at Fred Finch “try to meet people where they are” by giving them “the opportunity to be more than what they’ve experienced, because they deserve to know they are more than their trauma,” Alexander said. Most of clients at Fred Finch Youth Center have survived different types of trauma such as sex trafficking, physical and mental abuse, or addiction.

Dozens of guests from different nonprofit groups in the Bay Area networked throughout the evening, discussing effective ways to help former foster youth, meeting in the concrete foyer leading to the James Moore Theater, where a panel discussion was held. The guests discussed ways to improve the foster care system over Tuscan chicken pasta salad, crab in a lettuce cup, as well as various cheese and meats.

The Fred Finch Youth Center has three housing sites. Rising Oaks in East Oakland, is for young people who are on probation, are participating in extended foster care, or have been legally released from the foster care system. Coolidge Court, also in East Oakland, is a housing site for young adults who have mental health disabilities. Turning Point, in Berkeley, is for homeless youth as young as 12. Each of these sites provides crisis intervention, therapy and counseling, mental health and substance abuse assessment or treatment, employment placement and training, financial literacy training and permanent housing placement. On average, the length of stay has been four to five years.

“Fred Finch is a place of hope. I was 16 when I came to them, and they gave me a place to stay and job training. If I had not found Fred Finch, I would be dead. People who have experienced trauma the way I had for years need to be reminded they are needed in society,” said Desi Cortijo, a former recipient of services from the center.

The center has locations and provides services in Alameda County, Contra Costa County, San Diego County, and San Mateo County. Alexander said, “We try to reach as many people as we can.”

He went on to say, “trauma is universal. It’s not just happening in one place or to a certain type of person. We may not know trauma to the same degree, but everyone has it and that’s why it’s so important to allow people their space and time for healing.”

The featured panel speakers spoke about how they survived trauma and how they are working to help support those who have survived trauma. The guest speakers included Cortijo; De’Mario Lewis, administrative coordinator of Urban Roots, a non-profit organization in Oakland; Armon Hurst, a leader at Youth Alive!; and Kasi Jones, a peer mentor for the Fred Finch Youth Center. The panel was moderated by W. Kamau Bell, the host of CNN’s docu-series United Shades of America.

“This center was originally an orphanage 125 years ago that provided housing to children. But people change, and because people change, so does the needs of those people,” said former Fred Finch CEO John Steinfirst during the panel discussion. “So, the center started providing help with mental and behavioral health and substance abuse. We know that turning 18 does not always make someone ready to face society and its challenges, especially when that person has faced a tremendous amount of trauma from people who should have protected them. These people have been abused and neglected in ways that are unimaginable, and to tell them to go be successful in society is unrealistic and inhumane.”

Hurst, a high school senior, said he was caught in the crossfire when bullets were shot in his direction on five separate occasions. “People ask me if I feel safer at school or at home, and I honestly don’t know if I feel safe in either place,” he said. Two of the five shootings happened near his school in the past two months, said Hurst. This traumatic experience led him to want to help other youth seek out ways of healing.   

“People who have never been to Oakland say it’s a bad place,” Hurst went on to say. “Without struggle there is no progress—Frederick Douglass said that. I am the progress of Oakland.”

The John F. Steinfirst award was presented by Steinfirst in honor of the late Prince White. This plaque is given to people who are working to create awareness and support to those who have experienced suffering. White was the former deputy director for the Oakland social justice organization Urban Peace Movement. He passed away in August from an autoimmune disease (see full story here). White spent many years in the foster care system, where he endured abuse before being reunited with his biological father. During White’s time with Urban Peace Movement, he worked to lobby for laws that protect teenagers from being tried in adult court or placed in adult prisons.

His wife, Claire White, accepted the award on his behalf. She said, “Prince was committed to working with what he called ‘opportunity youth’, people from the age of 18 to 26. He never shied away from a difficult conversation because, he knew in those conversations there was room for growth. Even when you’ve lived and survived your own trauma you, may not be prepared for certain conversations.”

“The trauma he endured and survived did not push him away from a call to revolutionary action on behalf of his community. Instead it led him to it,” she continued, referring to the difficult childhood he endured.

Kaila Mathes, a youth coordinator of Urban Peace Movement, said in an interview before the panel that it was an honor to celebrate White’s life because “his work was his life.”

“Prince grew up in foster care and knew trauma and abuse first-hand. He dedicated himself to dismantling systems of incarceration, which is a huge trauma that many black young men face,” she said.

“As an organization, Urban Peace will honor Prince by continuing to work to create spaces to uplift youth of color. I hope that movers and shakers continue to recognize Prince and his efforts to heal those who are suffering from societal systems,” said Mathes.

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