By Daniel Weintraub
The numbers are all too familiar in East Oakland. Nearly one quarter of the community’s residents live in poverty. Unemployment is 27 percent. The teen birth rate is three times the Alameda County average. And all of this in the context of greater Oakland, where the high school drop out rate is 44 percent and homicide is the leading cause of death for young people age 15 to 24.
Amid this crisis, the Youth Uprising center on MacArthur Boulevard, spotlighted by US Attorney General Eric Holder Tuesday, stands like an oasis of hope.
Created five years ago with funding from the Alameda County Health Services Department in a building that was once a health center, Youth Uprising now serves about 5,000 registered members and 250 to 350 daily visitors.
The center has a dizzying array of services. Counseling. Health care. Job training and readiness, including a closet full of clothes for member to borrow for job interviews. A computer lab with 20 Internet-linked machines. A music production center, dance hall and, soon, a skateboard park and basketball court. The youth at Youth Uprising even run two businesses — a cafe and a data processing service for technology firms.
All of this is centered around a theme of violence prevention. This is done overtly through counseling, mediation and restorative justice programs, but it is also woven into everything the center does. The violence prevention team, for example, sits at cubicles in the middle of the music production center.
“We’re a center that believes in community and community transformation and the power of young people to do that,” said Omana Imani, Youth Uprising’s deputy director.
The center trains youth to think and talk about what is happening in the world and in their neighborhood, and leads them to think about how they can make change. It gives them opportunities to personally transform their own lives, and it gives them job skills that can carry them into a productive future.
“They can see that they can make decisions that change their lives, and that gives them hope and a vision for the future,” Imani said. “Getting people to invest in a vision for themselves can be tricky when they come in with so little hope.”
Antoinette Wilson was in that position. Now 21, Wilson first came to Youth Uprising when she was 16 to compete in the center’s “Dance Battles.” The child of an alcoholic mother and a father who has been in jail for most of her life, Wilson left her adoptive mother and was living on the streets. She had been repeatedly suspended from school for fighting. Her life was going nowhere, in other words.
“I used to be very angry,” she said. “I was rebellious. After I came here everything started to come way easier.”
After getting hooked on the center through the dance program, Wilson got counseling, she says, “without really knowing it.” Later, she attended a women’s retreat.
“I learned how to talk about what was bothering me,” she said.
“In talking to people who had been through far worse situations than me I could see there was a hope,” she said. “They showed me, your problems are because of you, not nobody else.”
Wilson got a job as a janitor at the center, and has since become a dance choreographer.
“A lot of kids in Oakland are hurting,” Wilson said. “They don’t know how to show it. You can do that here. Here I feel protected. I’ve never felt so protected in my life. When we come to the center we feel like a family. This is a really safe place.”
Marcus Churchwell, who works for the center’s cafe, had a similar experience. He first came to Youth Uprising because the football coach at neighboring Castlemont High wanted his players occupied in the hour between the end of classes and the start of practice.
He later returned on his own and went through leadership training.
“This place helps people stay out of trouble,” Churchwell said. “People who see each other on the streets and might give each other trouble, they come here and don’t even pay attention to each other. It’s like a big family here.”
Nicole Lee, director of Urban Peace Movement, a local nonprofit that works with high-risk youth on violence prevention, said Youth Uprising is part of a broader effort to transform the “culture of violence” in Oakland.
The idea, she said, is to work from the ground up to rebuild community ties so that people see there is an alternative to violence. And that starts with youth.
“We’re training young people to be ambassadors, to spread a culture of peace,” she said. “We’re trying to get people out of their houses and talking to each other. We need to provide young people with opportunities and prevention instead of only dealing with the crises on the back end.”
Later this year, the center will host a special program through which 400 Oakland police officers will meet in groups of 12 weekly with 18 area youths. Called “Code 33″ — the police code for “Emergency, Clear the Air” — the program aims to bridge what can be a huge divide between the police and the community, especially young people.
“They will begin to talk about how they perceive each other, what they think of each other,” said Jacky Johnson, who came to the center as a youth and is now its manager of outreach and events. “We’re hoping the police will be able to take that back to their work and approach young people with the new knowledge that they have.”
Police Chief Anthony Batts said he hopes the program helps “build relationships” with young people so “we are not just dealing with suppression.”
Holder, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, agrees. He came to Youth Uprising Tuesday for a closed-door round table discussion with local officials, community leaders and youth. Afterward, he said he is a big supporter of programs that seek to help create conditions that can reduce violence or stop it before it starts.
“The Justice Department is not only about enforcement,” he said. “Prevention has to be a part of effective justice programs.”