Back in 2008, when local residents and organizers began planning a teen center, they couldn’t know that as it neared completion in 2013, the $190,000 in funding necessary to run the center and have actual programs might not be available.
When Liz Derias, formally of Oakland’s Leadership Excellence, led a group of West Oakland youth in the design of a community center for youth and by youth, the mission was clear, “to serve and protect youth primarily in West Oakland, regardless of background,” through personal development, education, job training and the arts.
Beginning in late 2008 and through the fall of 2009, Derias and her team of youth interns, selected from West Oakland community organizations, worked to develop and implement a 63-question survey that would become the formal foundation of the West Oakland Youth Center, a project initiated by community members and pushed along by former District 3 Councilwoman Nancy Nadel nearly five years earlier.
“Ideas sprouted in 2003 by Nadel after a visit to McClymonds High School,” Derias said. “The city had stopped investing in that part of Oakland, and McClymonds’ students started talking about what they wanted in their community.”
Emptying her account of District 3’s discretionary funds, Nadel spent $850,000 to purchase the former Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, an 8,812 square-foot building on an 11,130 square-foot lot at 3233 Market Street in 2007. Through the efforts of Nadel and other community members, nearly $7 million in total funding for the design and construction of the center would be raised over the next year, including $1 million from the West Oakland Project Area Committee and a $5 million grant through California’s Proposition 84 designated for community revitalization and park development.
By the time Derias and West Oakland youth began developing their survey, the focus was squarely on programming and architectural design.
“After Nadel secured funds, I was hired on to develop the project, create what the project would look like and recruit a number of youth interns into stipend positions,” she said. “We designed what outreach would look like, worked with a community advisory committee to advise on the best ways to move forward and worked with an architect to layout the design based on the survey results.”
The results of the survey were promising, and opening the center maintained a solid footing in the wants and needs of the West Oakland community. With nearly 80 percent of the 108 survey respondents unemployed, job training became the focus of the center’s proposed programming. Computer labs, classrooms, offices, a stage and a full-service kitchen were included in the building’s design to provide a wide array of job training possibilities aligned for West Oakland’s youth.
The survey went so far as to recommend the church’s former parking lot be converted into a covered seating area because a majority of respondents indicated they would walk or take the bus to the center, making a parking lot unnecessary.
But although construction of the youth center is set for completion this summer, programming and staffing dollars, estimated at $190,000 for the first year by a city report on funding priorities for the upcoming budget, have not been allocated and may be close to nonexistent.
“It was a different world eight years ago when they bought the building,” Casey Farmer, community liaison and policy analyst for current District 3 councilwoman Lynette McElhaney, said. “PayGo funds have been eliminated, redevelopment is defunct.”
Now, four years removed from Derias’ survey and without public funding, community organizations, including Attitudinal Healing Connection who helped administer the 2009 survey ,and Hands Helping Hands, continue to search for programming possibilities that would create a pipeline between the youth center, other community organizations and opportunities for education.
“We’re still putting together a program for the facility,” Derrick Bulls, executive director of Hands Helping Hands, said. “We’re looking at Laney College’s Gateway to College program as well as combining GED courses and job training with counseling and support.”
And despite the funding challenges, McElhaney’s office plans to organize a grand opening ceremony if and when programming dollars can be found, according to Farmer.
“We’re excited to promote a new building that has exciting serves for youth,” she said. “But it’s an opportunity that will go unfulfilled as long as program funding is unavailable.”
With the final vote on the city’s budget set for the end of June, public funding for the center is still possible, but not likely due to limited resources and an abundance of funding requests, leaving open the possibility of a beautiful, but empty, youth center waiting for funds for staff and programming.
Yet regardless of the uncertainty looming in the youth center’s future, former councilwoman Nadel is still holding out hope that the center’s mission will not fall by the wayside.
“As much as I would have liked a seamless ability to open immediately, it doesn’t look like that will happen,” she said. “It’s a problem of the way our society doesn’t fund things properly. The city hasn’t made a mistake. The city has found a need and gone little by little to address that need, but that doesn’t mean money can’t be secured.”