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.
By Regina Jackson, President and CEO,
East Oakland Youth Development Center
* This piece was published in Oakland Local. It 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.