African-American youth filled the first two rows of chairs lining the congregation room of the Acts Full Gospel Church in Oakland on April 27, clad in white T-shirts reading “OAKLAND NAACP Youth Leadership Conference.”
Some held slips of paper from an earlier exercise in their hands, with their colleges of choice written on them: Stanford, Yale, Berkeley. Other youth, about knee-high, still looked forward to the first grade.
Most of the older youth arrived as early as 8 a.m. to help set up the event, then waited patiently for the headliner at noon.
Looking down on them from center stage sat former Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan, OPD Lieutenant Kirk Coleman, Assistant District Attorney Terry Wiley and the president of the Black Youth Leadership Project, Loreen Pryor. The NAACP representative expected to join them on the panel was absent.
“No adults can speak to this panel!” facilitator Martin L. McWilson said to the grown-ups in the audience. McWilson is a trustee for Area 2 of the Alameda Board of Education. “Youth, this is your chance to ask us questions and tell us what concerns you, what you think about us.”
Questions trickled in, at first. A boy no more than 8 years old was the first to speak up.
“What can young people do to stop the violence?” he asked.
Coleman was the first to respond to most of the questions, including this one.
“You have to communicate with your friends,” he said. “Let them know that violence is not acceptable in your community.”
Meanwhile, the meeting rooms in the front held teen contestants for the NAACP’s “ACT-SO” program. “ACT-SO” stands for Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics and several teens at the event had their creative performances evaluated for the upcoming program.
The competitive air of the evaluations matched that of the panel. Many of the teenage students had questions for Jordan, who resigned from his 19-month position as Oakland Police Chief on May 8.
“Where I grew up, kids thought violence was cool, too,” he said. Jordan shared an anecdote about his adolescence at Stone Mountain High School in Georgia, when he and a friend, by some stroke of callousness, brought a gun to school.
“That’s what we thought was cool, long before violence had gotten to the place it was today,” he said. “So how am I sitting on this panel today? One day, I made a choice. To say, ‘Y’know what? This is stupid.”
His best friend, the other man with the gun, ended up in prison at 22, serving 25-to-life.
When asked about the possibility of officer-enforced youth curfews in Oakland, Jordan stressed the importance of a community consensus.
“We [the police] can’t enforce what the community won’t,” Jordan said.
Debra Carter-Kelly, an author and speaker at the event, described the audience of young people as “blessed” to have aspirations towards higher education and a meaningful, straight-laced career. Her husband, Kevin Kelly, elaborated on her feelings.
He said that many kids who live in disenfranchised communities like East Oakland, as he did, hardly have the opportunity to see beyond their block or street. For these kids, even Laney College can seem like a faraway option.
“College isn’t for everyone,” he said. “But the option for college is.”
Cross-posted from Laney Tower.