Where can you go on Friday evenings to chat with your neighbors, connect with community organizations, challenge your friends and family to a potato sack race, all while inherently fostering a safe environment?

The Third Annual Friday Summer Nights at the Park series began last week and is happening every Friday through August 15 from 6 – 9 p.m. These free weekly gatherings include everything you’d want on a summer evening spent outdoors: barbecue, raffles, games, mural painting, and of course the distinguished Oakland dose of community educating and resourcing by local organizations.

Friday Summer Nights is hosted by Messengers4change, a community outreach project of Oakland Unite that confronts violence among youth in particularly susceptible neighborhoods of Oakland. Modeled after L.A.’s Summer Night Lights program, Oakland kicked off its rendition in the summer of 2011 at Willie Wilkins Park as an intervention in the disproportionate rate of crime within the area.

In a city where homicide is the leading cause of death among young people, and gang activity is the most common cause of violent crime, keeping youth positively active in the community is crucial to their successful transition into adulthood.

Reygan Harmon, the Ceasefire Project Director of Oakland Police Department, who has been involved with Friday Summer Nights since its inception, notes, “Kids operate in the context of their family. They’re not influenced just by their peers, but by their immediate environment. The summer parks program engages the whole family. It takes a village to raise a child, and this program attracts that village on a consistent basis.”

Oakland recognizes summer as an especially vulnerable time for youth in rough neighborhoods to get caught up in bad situations. The lack of everyday structure combined with lack of constructive resources can turn kids towards street life.

Akil Truso, Area Team Leader of Oakland Unite, reflects on the impact Friday Summer Nights has had on its communities while in session. “My personal experience [with the parks program] has been that if you keep people occupied, it helps keep them from feuding.”

Truso is definitely on to something there. During the three six-week periods that Friday Summer Nights has been held at Willie Wilkins Park – located in a part of town that is historically the most violent area in the city – police incidents within the park’s vicinity had decreased by a remarkable 48%.

It’s been said many times, but it can’t be emphasized enough that developing positive rapport with those we live next to is what keeps our neighborhoods healthy and secure. “Law enforcement officials can make arrests, but it’s events like these, where residents are able to build relationships with each other, with street outreach efforts, with county and service providers, that helps keep the community safe,” says Harmon.

The different service organizations that showcase themselves at the parks series are also deeply rooted in community efforts to engage neighbors with each other and network through their resources. In the past, the parks program has provided free HIV screening, immunization for kids, and backpack giveaways. Last Friday in West Oakland, the City Slicker Farms informational booth was giving away free seedlings, while in East Oakland, CARD distributed free emergency blankets and practiced “MacGyvering” common household items into useful tools in dire situations.

Friday Summer Nights is happening at two locations in East Oakland: Willie Wilkins Park at 1100 98th Avenue, and Carter Gilmore Park at 1390 66th Avenue, and at one location in West Oakland on Brockhurst Street between Market and San Pablo. Come out to enjoy an evening of lighthearted fun, solo or bring company!

About The Author

Simone writes about the currents circulating beneath mainstream, with a focus on non-profit developments and at-risk youth enrichment. Outside of freelancing for Oakland Local, she works in the foster care system of Contra Costa County and nerds out on literary magazines. Simone also spearheads the Community Voices section of OL. Contact her at simonelarson@oaklandlocal.com

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