Oakland, California— The gunshots. The headlines. The seemingly endless stream of young black men sent to early graves. It all becomes part of the fog that seems to distort the narrative of this city.
Once ground zero for the Black Power movement and any number of progressive ideals, Oakland has become more widely regarded as some sort of Camden, New Jersey of the West; a little piece of Detroit nestled on the wrong side of the Bay Bridge. Largely segregated and depressed economically, it sits neglected in the shadow of Silicon Valley and San Francisco. It is America’s robbery capital, where black boys have been as likely to die by the bullet as they are to graduate from high school college-ready.
This is the story of Oakland that outsiders are most familiar with.
But there’s so much more to the city’s narrative than the fog of pathology and hurt. On the ground there is hope and a whole generation of students, activists and organizations fighting to reclaim and rewrite that story. At the center of this reclamation are black men, a demographic in Oakland and across the country most often the victims of persistent gun violence and myriad social and institutional failings.
Nearly four years ago, the Oakland Unified School District launched the office of African American Male Achievement (AAMA) and became the first district in the country to create an office explicitly dedicated to bolstering the lives of black boys. Today it touches hundreds of young lives through its Manhood Development program, an effort that puts black male teachers into classrooms filled with black boys. The instructors serve as mentors who teach critical life skills but also fill the void where many students may not have a father-figure or positive male role model.
“We come from revolutionary leaders,” Chris Chatmon, executive director of AAMA told msnbc. “We come from grassroots mobilizing and organizing. I’d like to say right now based on what I’m seeing within the system as a parent and resident in Oakland, there is this quiet storm happening and people are mobilizing. There’s a feeling that failure is not an option.”
So far, the efforts have shown modest yet promising signs of success.
By being consistent in their lives, loving, open and honest, their whole attitude and outlook on life begins to change, said William Blackwell, an instructor with the AAMA.
“I harp on the relationships,” Blackwell said. “The relationships of just knowing that after you’re around these kids day after day, they aren’t just kids, they’re your little nephew, your little cousin, those are your family members.”
But the efforts to save, protect and grow positive life outcomes for black boys in this beleaguered city go well beyond the school system.
“This is a defining moment and we really cannot afford to let our young men down, we cannot afford to let future generations down and we have to press on,” said Cedric Brown, managing partner at the Oakland-based Kapor Center for Social Impact. In recent years the Kapor Center has funded programs aimed at minority youth to the tune of about $20 million.
“We can’t continue on the treadmill we are on now, this kind of cradle to prison pipeline. We cannot continue on that path,” he said. “There is no way to incarcerate every black and brown young man in this country. So why not recognize their value and really try to tap into their value and the worth and potential of the populations that are here. These are deserving young people. And I really believe that.”
On a recent afternoon, Joevonte Kelly, 21, of the Black Organizing Project, mused on the dire state of Oakland’s black community. He riddled off a list of ills including police abuse, black-on-black violence and the cycle of incarceration, unemployment and poverty.
“You want to talk about peace?” Kelly mused on a recent afternoon. “The 21 years since I been born black people out here don’t know no peace.”
But ever since an arrest a few years ago and 5 months in jail, and the impact it had on his own family, he has committed himself to reversing as much of that cycle as he can.
“I used to fight myself before I had mentors,” Kelly said on a recent afternoon. “But now that I’m an organizer it’s like, you need a job, you need resources, come talk to me and I’ll help you find what you’re looking for. I know where all that’s at.”
He spends many afternoons organizing residents against various local injustices and causes and has become a mentor for younger guys in the neighborhood.
Kelly admitted though that his commitment is also closer to home. On that afternoon at the Black Organizing Project headquarters, his younger brother, JaJuan, 14, hung on his every word.
When asked who the most important male role model in his life was, JaJuan said his older brother without an ounce of hesitation.
“I’ve seen him go through so much stuff,” JaJuan said. “And he made it through it all.”
“He’s got his head on right,” Kelly said, gesturing over to his little brother. A big smile spread across the younger boy’s face.