By Regina Jackson, President and CEO,
East Oakland Youth Development Center

Oscar Grant, Devonte Riley, Phillip “Tooda” Wright: the list goes on. The nation is on high alert. Protests in Ferguson and around the world highlight and delineate a historically unequal justice system.

In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, these protestors are just “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Sick of watching the African-American male become an endangered species. Tired of them neither being respected nor valued in this time and space.

Protest signs state, “Not again,” “Am I next?” and more poignantly, “my Blackness is not a weapon.” While the protests against inequality continue, the important question is, what is the connection between outcry and the statistics that paint African-American males nationwide as synonymous with failure? They are the lowest achievers in education, highly unemployed and best known for the greatest representation in prison population, but why? These are symptoms, but what is the diagnosis?

Here in Oakland, there is an effort to answer these questions from the inside out. Stephanie Fong, a student in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, is conducting her master’s thesis, dubbed “The Portrait Project,” in collaboration with the East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC). Using self-portrait photography, interviews, and group discussions, the study seeks to understand how young men of color describe their identities and what influences, both positively and negatively, the way they see themselves.

Further, what impact does the way young people see themselves have on their decision-making, mental health, and resiliency? A group of 13 males, ages 18-24, eagerly accepted the invitation to identify and reflect on root causes of their journeys toward success. There is something so powerful in this formal recognition that they are the subject matter, and experts in their own experience.

From GED graduates and current college students to college scholars and a professional artist, all of these men of color call Oakland home. When asked how Oakland resonates with them, many regarded Oakland as their beach, their place of refuge. Oakland is their hope for a brighter future, their common identity. Oakland represents both the breathtaking sunrises and the malevolent storms, a city of yin and yang. They discussed the “beach” concept, and through three meetings, a one-on-one individual and two group sessions, they shared their experiences and clarified their respective identity formations.

What we learned was that this test group had quite a collection of personal narratives, outlining frustration, anger, and lack of support. They also shared stories of resiliency and perseverance, revealing a commitment that they would be part of the new statistic: the successes Stephanie and her team are just beginning to analyze.

As a professional leader in the work for two decades, I am eager to see what the research reveals. This work has psychological implications for African-American males and can inform youth development across the spectrum.

Opportunities for expanded resource landscapes are also being provided through President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, an effort to create infrastructural education and mentoring support for men and boys of color. The disease that is the prejudicial treatment and permissive failure of African-American males must simply be eradicated, for it is an infection that has plagued our society interminably. It is an ailing blemish, on not only what the establishment of this great nation represents, but also the example we set as a world leader.

We must acknowledge and end the daily messages we give to this group that tell them they are not welcome and they are not enough. Oakland itself is often portrayed as “not enough,” especially by comparison to the rest of the Bay Area, even though we lead the charge when it comes to issues of diversity and environmental responsibility.

Oakland is San Francisco’s expendable stepchild. Being from Oakland puts a general bull’s-eye on African-American males and is a daily reminder that not much good is expected from them. They are often randomly pulled over by police and followed through department stores. In many cases, they are treated more like criminals than a citizens. They are slighted by the barrage of questions they get from people: “Are you on parole?” “Do you have money for that?”

In general, they are ignored when walking public streets as if invisible. Even Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks owner, said publicly, “I’ll cross the street when I see a black kid in a hoodie.”

Only when given the opportunity to engage are people pleasantly but obviously surprised to hear about their educational and leadership accomplishments. Even these opportunities are limited to where they are and how they look when they are there. The more professional and clean cut, the more acceptable. Collectively, they agree that, in spite of this treatment, no one cares more about Oakland. They are a Warrior Nation. It is not just our basketball team, it is the never-giving-up in the struggle to survive and thrive.

Despite the violence, racial profiling, gang warfare and social roadblocks they experienced growing up in Oakland, they value more the grit, code switching, and underdog mentality that resounds in them and their “Oaktown.” Like Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz, ”There’s no place like home.”

Notwithstanding the scars and pain, they have a fearless conviction to be victorious. Some have had to go away to school to appreciate the extensive depth of Oakland; all of them seem to have learned that beauty is more than skin- or city-deep.

It is in the roots, the struggle, and like the mighty Oak grown from a small acorn, the Oak in Oakland is strong. Determination is what they use to negotiate the waves of life experience. Community keeps them grounded and balanced, even when the tide is low, shorn with rocks and scattered with shells. These young men work through it because they will not be denied that majestic sunset. They see the value in themselves and their City and would challenge anyone to a debate on the resplendence of Oakland. Yes, Oakland is their beach, their oasis; it is mine, too.

We must move to that place of awareness where we discover the beach under our feet. Forget the palm trees–we’ll keep the oak. Our city is exquisite and unique. It is the culture, the mindset and the resilient people that create the spicy blend that is Oakland. Perhaps we can all see the beauty in our men and boys of color and write a new narrative, one male at a time.

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Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland.
For guidelines, see: http://oaklandlocal.com/guidelines.
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9 Responses

  1. Lollie

    Despite how the media tries to portray black men, I adore how the youth of Oakland still create a definition that is true to their intrinsic value. The ability to have a strong sense of ‘the self’ illustrates their resistant nature to accept anything beneath their true worth. Oakland has grown to be a great city because it is a reflection of its people and their resilient nature. It’s important that black men continue to have places like EOYDC that support and enhance their positive image. It’s no wonder that so many have the urgency to come back and contribute to the next lineage of youth. I love this article and there is nothing more necessary than us creating our own stories and legacy. After all, it will be all we have to look back on.

    Reply
  2. Michael

    This just shows that as a black community we have something to strive for. We have the ability to be great with young men like this growing up in Oakland and are focusing on becoming something great and not be a statistic. The EOYDC is a great place and Regina Jackson who is mother to many is always doing great things for her kids and the city of Oakland. Great article.

    Reply
  3. Lionel G.

    This is a great and satisfying piece. Being one of the delegates of President Obama’s “My brothers Keeper” initiative, as well as one of the young men who participated in this discussion of what it means to be a young black man in Oakland, I can personally say that this article accurately portrays what me, my friends, and other Black and Brown youth feel daily in Oakland. Participating in this personal conversation with UCSF student Stephanie Fong and other African American youth, helped me to realize that it’s more than just a few youth who feel the same as I when approached by law enforcement. We all agreed that it’s an uncomfortable and uneasy feeling to be watched, talked to, or engaged in any communication with police. And i personally don’t feel like that’s how it should be. I want to be able to feel safe and protected by the police, not the opposite. Many articles don’t accurately portray what exactly goes on within the city of Oakland, especially allowing the youth to express our feelings in a comfortable way. This article does a great job of doing just that. It was a great site to see when i walked into The Impact Hub in Oakland this past December and saw 100+ youth, educators, community activist and leaders, and CEO’s gathered to hear what me and some thirty youth had to say on how do we prevent what happened in Ferguson, Missouri from happening again. It was a stimulating conversation to say the least. Also in attendance was the author of this article Ms. Regina who is the CEO and President of the EOYDC. Ms. Regina is one of those community leaders who listened and who continues to listen to Oakland’s youth when we speak. Being apart of the EOYDC has provided me and others the kind of support that can save lives and change the future of Oakland

    Reply
  4. Alfonzo

    This article should be a perfect example of what we as a black community need to do and act on in order for stereotypes to not be represented for us by the media instead of being recognized for who we are personally and as a unity. It is a blessing to know that there are organizations like EOYDC still around this world we live in which can help black men understand their roots and have their own sense of personality, but just African American men, but women as well. Articles like this will spark the mind of another individual to speak their mind and will help along the future.

    Reply
  5. Thomas

    As a participant in Stephanie Fong’s study, I must say It served as a form of therapy for me. We discussed a wide range of topics that are not talked about on the day-to-day: the private school experience in comparison to the public school experience, Oakland’s portrayal through the media, etc. Being apart of that space proved to be much more beneficial than I expected. It brought a sense of value for our thoughts and opinions as Black men, which are often silenced and left uncared for in this society. Much thanks to Stephanie Fong for creating that space, and much thanks to Ms. Regina Jackson for informing me about the study.

    Reply
  6. Brittany

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and especially admired the reference of Oakland being a beach and oasis to many. Being away from home for a year I found myself missing Oakland more than ever. I’ve spoken with people from different walks of life and sadly to hear Oakland is often portrayed in a negative light; when in fact we have so many positive individuals doing and rising above negative stereotypes. I also find it important that we don’t give up on our city or each-other, because community has proven to guide us in the right direction of making a change. Local Organizations such as EOYDC has helped so many youth and fueled that determination in which we need to empower one another.

    Reply
  7. Taylor

    Oakland really is a great place. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of trauma that the community faces. It comes out in different ways. Oakland is my beach but there is much healing to be done for others to see that.

    Reply
  8. Aja

    The pride I have for my city, only those who are Oaklsnd residents will understand. My city has instilled in me a desire to lead. So many on the outside, have a bad distaste for Oakland because of the negative portrayal shown by the media. But no place has accepted, protected and embraced me like my own. Ms. Regina, I tip my hat off to you for providing an accurate description of Oakland,CA.

    Reply
  9. Simone Pierre

    Oakland is a place that has many generations of African Americans who contribute locally, but have a global effect. Oakland is also a hub, for starting trends and setting a national pace for advances athletically, politically, socially, and academically. Although the media continues to portray negative behaviors and effects of black men and boys locally, the community has proved otherwise. The EOYDC is a major contributor in influencing young black men from Oakland to channel their energies into positive actions that can benefit a better tomorrow for their communities. The passion, resilience, and dedication of the community drives our focus not on what has been, but what could be. Young black men with the support of outreaching community members are encouraged and mentored on how to obtain their education and later return to apply their knowledge and skills to further improve the lives of those around them. The EOYDC supports youth and cultivates them to be today’s and tomorrow’s leaders.

    Reply

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