LA Youth Fast for Central American Youth – ‘We Are Just Like Those Kids’

By VoiceWaves Beat Reporter Michael Lozano

Editor’s Note: This week a group of young people in Los Angeles went on a seven-day fast to call attention to the welfare of children who are crossing into the United States to flee violence in their home countries.

LOS ANGELES – Young people are once again leading the moral charge on a humanitarian issue that they say has been hijacked by politics.

Eight Los Angeles youth between the ages of 14 and 22 are fasting this week to call attention to the welfare of the tens of thousands of Central American children who have entered the United States to flee violence in their home countries.

Eighteen-year old Yamilex Rustrian says she decided to participate in the seven-day fast to remind the country whom the White House and Congress are seeking to deport: “These are children, not animals,” she said. “They still deserve to have human rights.”

The youth are spending their nights inside a giant white tent encampment perched on the grass lawn of historic Olvera Street in Los Angeles, hoping that Washington, D.C. politicians will consider treating the 50,000-plus children coming into the United States as refugees.

Attitudes towards the migrant children have clearly become politicized. Forty-six percent of Democrats support speeding up immigration proceedings even if those eligible for asylum may be deported, as do 60 percent of Republicans, the Pew Research Center reports.

But the fasters say they want to keep politics out of the discussion.

“This a little different from the Dreamers’ movement,” Rustrian said, who is a DACA recipient. “We recognize that this is a humanitarian crisis.”

It isn’t the first time young people have positioned themselves as the moral compass on an issue. From Dreamers (undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children) to the “undocuqueer” (who identify as both queer and undocumented), American youth in recent years have pushed for a critical dialogue on what they see as today’s most pressing civil rights issues, calling attention to the human faces behind the numbers.

The fasters say they see part of themselves in the migrating children. Some of them, too, fled to the United States to escape violence in their native country.

“I was just like these kids 12 years ago,” said Rustrian, who left Guatemala in 2002 after her father was killed as a result of gang violence. “I didn’t run from my country because I wanted to. I had to,” she said. “The violence and poverty was too much.”

Rustrian was six years old when she and her younger sister Yosselin left. Their father, a bus driver, had been assassinated. He was shot nine times while working his shift.

“I was five. I honestly didn’t know what was happening around me,” said the younger Rustrian. “I know some of the kids (migrating now) probably don’t have their parents (either).”

The sisters trekked through the desert for days to reach the United States.

“It was hard,” the younger Rustrian said. “I remember my sister was about to faint. They didn’t even have waters for us. We were the only little girls there.” The coyote hired to guide them was someone they didn’t even know.

Simon Gun, 19, who is also fasting this week, said he, too, can relate to the migrating children on a personal level.

When an economic crisis hit his home country of South Korea in 2001, Gun’s family moved from apartment to apartment. He remembers each one being smaller than the last.

“It couldn’t get any smaller, so we went to the U.S.,” explained Gun, a Dreamer who is now attending UC Irvine.

Alease Wilson, an African-American biology student at East Los Angeles College, said she was shocked to see people protesting the child migrants on TV.

“I’m so close to their age,” said the 18-year-old.

Wilson’s mother, Kawana Anderson, was astounded at her daughter’s initiative to join the fast. “I had no choice but to step in and support her, which she’s doing to support other kids,” said Anderson.

President Obama has called for $3.7 billion to deal with the border crisis. His plan includes speeding up deportations, resources, and assistance to Central American countries.

House Republicans are working on their own plan of about $1.5 billion to send in the National Guard, speed up deportations, and undo protections granted the children under a 2008 law that guarantees immigration hearings to minors from countries not bordering the United States.

“Either they’re going to get killed or they’re just going to die from hunger,” said the older Rustrian, worried about the children’s fate.

The fasters are demanding refugee status or asylum for the migrant children, with some hoping President Obama might take executive action.

“This is the country of opportunities. If we call it that, we should truly show that,” the older Rustrian said. “The statue of liberty says ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’” she said. “Why don’t we do that?”

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Khalid’s Corner: Thought is Power

by Khalid Elahi

You are, what you say you are.

People are unconscious of their power. To be anything in life, you have to tell yourself what you are. It starts with saying,”I am____”

What you put after “I am” will propel you to become just that.

Every day you are working towards what, and who you think you are. Everything I ever told myself, I was. I became. It wasn’t by accident.

This rule doesn’t just work for some people; it works for everyone. Your speech is important, and words are everything. You have to erase the words “can’t” and “never.” Can’t means, insecurity. Inability. Never means, not ever, at no time.

It is my understanding that to be a winner you must release negative ideas and focus on the positive of what you can truly become.

Why Doctors Medical Center Can’t Close

Commentary, Melvin Willis

Back in March 2014 while I was visiting my mom at her home she suddenly lost her breath, and couldn’t catch it. Her breathing was so labored she could barely talk. An ambulance came and took her to the nearest public hospital, just 5 minutes from her house—Doctors Medical Center.

The team there quickly went into action and by the time I arrived, she was stabilized. Now, the fate of Doctors Medical Center is undetermined and I keep wondering what if her ambulance drive had been fifteen, or twenty minutes longer? That’s about how long it’d take to get to the next nearest public hospital in Oakland.

Thankfully, my mother’s health is good now, but anything can happen in the future, and until now, she has always been able to rely on Doctors Medical Center when a real emergency came up.

Doctors Medical Center is the only public hospital that serves West County residents; it has 25 emergency room beds and serves 40- 45 thousand people per year, according to California Nurses Association spokesperson and registered nurse (RN) Liz Jacobs. But, the hospital is on the brink of closure. A closure that I, along with other members of the community, is fighting.

Earlier this year, a parcel tax measure to generate funds to go toward keeping the hospital open failed to get the necessary support. Just a couple of weeks ago, the county approved an emergency influx of six-million dollars to keep the hospital open while officials try and figure out how to keep funding it.

I work with a community group called ACCE (Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment) and we’ve attended several meetings with the Contra Costa County supervisors, as well as health care board meetings to constantly call on our decision makers to do whatever it takes to keep the hospital open. We think it would be catastrophic for everyone in West Contra Costa County if the only public hospital that serves this area closed. In many of the meetings I’ve been to, I’ve heard many community members say, “If the hospital were to close people will die.”

I understand the sentiment, Doctors is my hospital too. Until I got health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, I’d go there when I got really sick or injured. It was comforting to know that I would be treated at Doctors Medical Center.

The most recent proposal is to down size the hospital and keep only the emergency services open. Those who needed to be admitted to a hospital after emergency care would have to be transferred to a different location for inpatient care. But, this proposal is far from popular.

“We need a full hospital and we can not accept stripping Doctor’s down to only an emergency room,” said Mike Parker, a Richmond mayoral candidate.
Others have expressed their personal issues with Doctors as well, from the quality of care to the condition of the building. Despite these problems, the hospital is an important part of the community. It may have its fair share of issues but it is there as a safety net, and to service the health of our community when a real emergency arises.

If the hospital were to close it would be devastating, and the problems we have with it now will be nothing compared to the ones we’d have if Doctors shut down. If someone were to have a heart attack or severe asthma attack, the chances of them surviving a 15 to 20 minute trip to a hospital in Oakland become extremely low.

There continues to be an ongoing effort to save the hospital from closing. Community groups like ACCE, RPA (Richmond Progressive Alliance), REJC (Richmond Environmental Justice Coalition) and the California Nurses Association (CNA) know how important this hospital is and we are all working together to ensure that Doctors stays around for the long term.

On July 1st 2014, there was a rally in front of Doctors medical center with about 150 people against the closure of the hospital or it being downsized to a emergency care only center. “Our union, that is the nurses at Doctors Medical Center believe that the only sustainable solution would be for Contra Costa County to take over Doctors Medical Center and make it part of their medical system,” said Maria Sahagun, a nurse at Doctors and also part of CNA.

Doctors is an important part to many people in the community and for my family too. My mom is in good health now, but anything can happen at any time. I want to be able to know that if my mother’s health becomes compromised again, there is a hospital not to far from where she lives. A full hospital that can take care of all her medical needs and that is close enough for me to visit her. That is what everyone who depends on Doctors deserves.

From the Beast to the Fridge – A Salvadoran Youth’s Journey to the US

Commentary, Luis Cubas

RICHMOND, Calif. – From the moment I woke up, I realized there was something unusual about the morning. The sun wasn’t out, the birds weren’t singing, and instead of the school bus my dad would be taking me to school. 

I soon realized why that bus hadn’t come: walking to school my dad and I passed two white sheets lying on the ground, both of them stained with blood.

We later learned the victims were two local kids killed after trying to run away from gang members who were chasing them. It was 2006. A month later I left El Salvador and headed north for the United States. 

It still feels like yesterday, and I realize as I watch the stream of young people flowing into this country from Central America that I was not the first, and I won’t be the last. 

“I left El Salvador because of the violence in my neighborhood,” said Carlos, 17, “and because I know the country is poor, and if I stayed there’d be no opportunities available for me.” (Carlos’ name has been changed to protect his identity.)

He arrived in Richmond in June, after an arduous four-month trek of nearly 1700 miles.

From bad to worse

The situation in El Salvador was already bad when I left. The cost of living was rising, surpassing what ordinary citizens could afford, while homicides were increasing with each day. Things only seem to have  gotten worse. 

El Salvador is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, with the average person earning somewhere around $3,700 per year, according to World Bank data. About 35 percent of the population lives in poverty. The country also has one of the world’s highest homicide rates, at 91 per 100,000 residents. That’s just behind Honduras, which has been labeled by some as the murder capital of the world. 

“I knew that I could lose my life at any moment if I stayed,” said Carlos, who like many others left El Salvador unaccompanied. “I worried that I’d be followed and pursued [by gang members], which happened several times when I was there.”

Carlos says he’s one of the lucky ones, not just because he made it to the United States, but also because he’s still alive. 

“One of my friends was confronted by gang members and killed … the other one was killed because he attended a school some gang members didn’t like. That’s why they killed him.”

Hell on earth

“I left El Salvador and when I got to Guatemala, I crossed all the way to the border with Mexico. That’s the hardest part of the journey. You could say that’s hell on earth … since this is where you have to take the ‘beast,'” he says, referring to a network of freight trains used by migrants to cross Mexico.

When Carlos reached the border with Texas, he was found and detained by border police and later moved to a detention center where other immigrants were held. Carlos spent almost a month there before he was allowed to leave. 

“They call it the ‘fridge,’ since the place is always really cold,” he explained. “People were telling me about it when we were on the way to the border, but I had no idea that I was gonna end up staying there … they never lower the air conditioner and we don’t have blankets to cover ourselves with. You don’t know if it’s day or night.”

Carlos describes the rooms he and the others were housed in as “little white boxes” that were so cramped that some detainees were forced to sleep sitting or standing up. 

Carlos noted that on at least one occasion some detainees protested the conditions. “When they would distribute the food, sometimes they would laugh; one time they threw two granola bars in the air to see who of us would catch it first. For the ones that were there, it was an offense.”

Carlos is now awaiting his court date to find out whether he will be forced to return to El Salvador. “I see the news,” he said, “and things look more dangerous now than before.”

With DACA, I Can See My Future More Clearly

By Manuel Martinez

I’ve called Richmond home since as far back as I can remember, but it was just two years ago that I finally felt like this place accepted me—and it was thanks to a little blue card, my social security number.

From the moment I got my “documents,” my outlook on life changed, and so did my future.

I was born in Mexico, in Irapuato, a city a few hours north of Mexico City in the state of Guanajuato, but it has never been home to me. Before I was two-years-old, my family moved from Irapuato to Richmond.

Throughout my life, I’ve felt disadvantaged because I wasn’t born here. The fear of deportation set in after watching an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid on television — and that fear, I’ve come to realize, kept me from dreaming that life could be whatever I wanted it to be.

I didn’t excel in school, nor did I feel motivated to try. Growing up, I became accustomed to the idea that working construction jobs with my father was my future. I just figured higher education was not in the cards. My mother, the most educated in the family, had finished the equivalent of high school in Mexico. After she graduated, she joined the military. My dad did as his father had done and dropped out of school at 16 to also join the military.

During my own high school days in Richmond, the “career days” and field trips to universities unsettled me. Why should I think about applying to a four-year college, or waste time building a resume or cover letter when no one would hire an “illegal alien?”

That word, “alien,” hurt. It was the ultimate contrast between me and everyone else. A word usually reserved for green, science fiction beings from another planet. The only difference I could see between my friends and me was that my parents had me in Mexico. I was labeled an “alien” because of something over which I had no control.

And so, my disinterest in school continued until my junior year of high school.

The day that changed my life trajectory started like most school days. But then my mom mentioned that I’d be leaving school early to go to the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco to request my Mexican passport. She explained that President Barack Obama had signed an executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that made people like me eligible for a social security card and a work permit. It took a few months, and a lot of work on my parent’s part—as well as an immigration lawyer in Berkeley—but before long I had a greenish-blue piece of paper with nine digits on it in my hand, and I felt like I finally belonged.

Instantly, I was motivated to turn my grades around. I was eager to finally have a proud answer to the question, “What are your plans after high school?”

By my senior year, I was blown away by the amount of support that was available. I borrowed hundreds of dollars worth of study guides for college related tests. Twice I took the SAT test—for free. Four California State Universities waived my application fees. Life was a lot brighter.

Along the way, many teachers and services helped me, but one of the best support systems was the College and Career Center at Richmond High School. Staff members at the Richmond High career center are genuinely concerned for students’ future. They were always there to answer any questions I had.

Another huge pillar of support for me was my English teacher Ms. Navarro. She watched me grow from a lazy, immature sophomore to a motivated, responsible young person. She was able to answer many of the questions I had and she understood what it was like to feel suffocated by the pressure of being the first in the family to pursue a higher education.

When I finally received my letters of acceptance to college, I cried. My mother cried also, telling me as she wiped away her tears that this was proof her sacrifices were worth it; that the days she and my father had taken off of work to march and rally for immigration reform had culminated with this moment.

I stood there holding my acceptance letter, relieved that after so many years of indifference I was able to salvage my academic career.

Next month, I’ll start classes at San Francisco State University with plans to major in Computer Science. But, my story and struggle is far from finished. While I’m grateful for DACA, the access I’m granted under it doesn’t make me eligible for many types of financial aid. So getting a degree will mean taking on more debt than I like to think about. My hope is that in four years, at my graduation, I’ll say it was all worth it.

At the end of the day, all I want to be able to make my family and all of those who helped me proud. And with the support I’ve received to this point, I doubt there is anything that’s going to stop me now.

Basketball Camp Offers Healthy Fun for Richmond Kids

Photo Essay, Jennifer Baires

Bending slightly at the knees, Keyahlah Bean lifts a basketball over head and leans back before releasing the ball into an arc that ends with a trip around the rim of the basket, before falling through the net with a swish. “Yes!” the ecstatic eight-year-old yells, jumping up, hands raised above her head in victory.

It’s Keyahlah’s first time playing the game. She says her family signed her up for the free basketball clinic, sponsored by the health food company Nutiva and the E.M. Downer Family YMCA, just last week, and she has already made up her mind to return. “I am coming back next year,” she says while sitting on a bench watching the older kids play.

Keyahlah was one of 45 kids who showed up at the second annual Richmond Youth Basketball Camp. The event ran all day, and with the help of volunteers from Nutiva and players from the Pinole Valley High School girls’ basketball team, the kids worked on dribbling, shooting and defending.

The gymnasium at the YMCA on South 20th Street was split into different sections, with the younger, less experienced ballers taking up the back half of the gym and the advanced players scrimmaging in the front. Shouts, squeals and laughter rang out as the kids, ranging in age from six to 12, ran around for hours, alternately working together and competing against one another.

“I just started playing basketball, but…” nine-year old Marcus Griffin said as he took a break between drills to catch his breath. Before Marcus could finish his thought an errant ball bounced by and he was off, chasing it down and heading towards the basket.

The camp, a spokeswoman for Nutiva said, is part of the company’s mission to support healthy communities through its nonprofit, Nutiva Nourish Foundation, and a way to be more involved in the Richmond community now that its corporate offices and warehouse are up and running in the city.

For the kids, it was a summer day full of feats and failures in basketball, and new friendships formed on the court—at least for a day.

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Q&A: A Positive Experience, Foster Care from a Youth’s Perspective

EDITOR’S NOTE: There are over 58,000 children and teens in California’s foster care system. These young people are removed from their families, and cared for by the state, because of abuse and neglect at home.

Julia Gayfield, 21, is a multi-racial, former foster youth, living in Richmond. She was removed from her parents and placed into the foster care system twice, once as a baby placed with a family and once again as a teenager placed in a group home.

Gayfield currently resides in transitional housing with other foster youth, and enjoys poetry, rap, and art as well as basketball, football, and soccer. She says walking along the marina helps her stay calm, and she describes herself as a woman that, “just wants it to be peaceful.”


Richmond Pulse: Why did you enter foster care?

Julia Gayfield

Julia Gayfield

Julia Gayfield: I entered the foster care system when I was a baby because my mom and dad were on drugs. I went back with my father from ages 3 to 17, and then I went back into the system. My sister called CPS [Child Protective Services] and all three of us were placed in foster care.

RP: What do you think people should know about foster care that they probably don’t?

JG:  Being in foster care can be stressful and lonely because you cannot be with your family that much. But, even in a foster care you can get help. They have events to interact with other [foster care] teens. That’s how I met my girlfriend when we were 17-years-old. They got this program called ILSP, that stands for Independent Living Skills Programs, all around the state that can help with jobs, schooling placement and so much more. I am thankful for them. They took me places and paid me for doing my chores and getting good grades.


RP: What most surprised you about your experience in the foster care system?

JG:  It was better than being with my parents. In the foster care system I got help with a lot of stuff like school and housing placement. I have learning disabilities, but I was still able to graduate from high school.

RP: If you could change something about your foster care experience what would it be?

JG: I got placed into foster care too late. I could have been in a better place.

RP:  What did you appreciate about foster care?

JG:  Everything, to be honest. I’m just happy they still help me today with school, and finding jobs and a better place to live.

RP: Do you think you are better off now having gone through foster care than you were when you were with your biological family?

JG: Yes, because I might not have survived to today. My mother passed away, and my father and I don’t talk. But, I want to see my father again and tell him that I am doing better. I’m not on the streets and I am working. That I am a growing up to be a good, responsible woman and that I miss and love him and he is a good father.


Remembering Kevin Weston: Super Communicator and New Media Pioneer

By Russell Morse

Kevin Weston, accomplished journalist and long time New America Media family member, died Monday at his home in Oakland after a nearly 2 year fight with leukemia. From 1999 to 2010, Kevin worked as the organization’s Youth Communications director, but his legacy reaches far beyond that title. Kevin was a teacher, an activist and multimedia visionary. He was a mentor to hundreds of young writers, filmmakers, artists and photographers finding their way, many of whom have gone on to great success.

Russell Morse and Kevin Weston

Russell Morse and Kevin Weston

I was one of the young people Kevin guided and encouraged as editor of Youth Outlook. My story is a familiar one among the veterans of YO: I spent my teenage years in juvenile hall and came to New America Media through YO’s sister program, The Beat Within. I started writing for Youth Outlook and early in my time there, Kevin came in as the head of the magazine. He trusted our impulses and gave us the tools and encouragement to tell the stories we deemed most pressing.

Mizgon Zahir, a former colleague of mine, came to our offices at Kevin’s insistence after a chance meeting in 2001. Reflecting on his influence in her life, Mizgon said, “As a young writer, I was afraid to talk about taboo topics related to the Afghan community, but Kevin taught me how to find my voice. He taught me about courage. He showed me how to take risks to help others and advance myself.” Mizgon’s story, the first she’d ever written, ran on our cover. That was a month before 9-11 and long before the government’s invocation of the oppression of Afghan women as a justification for war. Beyond foresight, it was downright clairvoyant. But we came to expect that from Kevin. He was dialed into the world in a way that seemed almost extra sensory.

His legacy is solidified as a media pioneer in what’s now referred to as The Bay Area Style of Journalism, an early ancestor of citizen journalism that combined multimedia storytelling and activism with the emerging technological tools of the 21st century. The Pacific News Service model of journalism encouraged community members, mostly media outsiders, to tell their own stories relating to themes ignored or fumbled by mainstream media, like incarceration, environmental justice, violence and immigration.

Kevin’s contribution to this model was that he was among the first to encourage the use of internet-based media platforms to bypass traditional news outlets. It is called The Bay Area Style because it was informed by the proximity to Silicon Valley during the communication revolution, a tradition of progressive politics in the region and the Bay Area’s place in history as the home of the free speech movement and the Black Panther Party. Kevin combined these sensibilities into a vision for a future we now take for granted, but was bizarre and beguiling in 2000 when he first encouraged us to approach media and activism in this way. He often said that “protests are corny,” and that the future of activism and organizing was a convergence of media, networking, technology and communications. The role that twitter played in the Arab Spring is one example of this vision come to fruition, ten years later.

Kevin was also an insistent outsider, suspicious of formal institutions, including traditional media organizations and universities, for their corruptibility and traditional, stubborn modes of thought. When I was considering majoring in journalism at San Francisco State University, he told me “I’ve seen a lot of good writers ruined by J-School.”

Kevin’s work at New America Media was reflective of the times we were living and working in. The first decade of the 21st century was an incredibly violent, tumultuous time and Kevin saw and professed a connection between violence in poor communities and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He encouraged us, as reporters, to find global connections to the local stories we pursued.

4413_82023904721_8228581_nEven Kevin’s style of dress was reflective of his dynamic and unique perspective on the world. In the years that we worked together, his typical work outfit consisted of a dashiki, worn under a tuxedo jacket with camouflage cargo pants, Adidas shell toe sneakers and an Oakland A’s baseball cap with his bushy afro pushing out of the sides. Many of the aspects of Kevin’s identity were present in this outfit: he was a Black man, a playboy, a soldier, a hip-hop head, a sports fan and a proud Oakland native.

Kevin’s editorial style was famously minimalist. He offered selective guidance but readily hounded writers on deadline in the gruff style of Perry White, Clark Kent’s editor at the Daily Planet. An often-recounted story involves Kevin trying to encourage a young woman who was well past deadline to get her story finished. After several patient minutes on the phone, Kevin stood up, held the receiver a foot from his face and said, very slowly and quite loudly: “It’s. Not. That. Hard! Just write what happened!” It’s a funny story, but it’s also an implementation of his journalistic philosophy. His job as he saw it was not to tell us what the story was or tinker with our copy. He trusted us to gather the facts, to “write what happened” and put our version of it out to the world. In my case, he called me when I was past deadline and simply asked “Do you still write?”, adding an affectionate expletive in the place of my name.

At the front end of the editorial process, though, Kevin was incredibly engaged, gentle and encouraging. We often had contributors who had never written anything in their lives and thought they didn’t have a story to tell, but Kevin brought it out of them. Malcolm Marshall, a long time friend and collaborator of Kevin’s compared it to a magic trick. “Kev could pull something out of a kid who didn’t even know they had it in them. He could pull a rabbit out of a hat.”

Kevin’s neatest trick, though, might have been his ability to tame and balance the different projects of New America Media itself, an outrageously diverse, often chaotic newsroom. In the early 2000s, we had scholars, young people fresh from juvenile hall, activists, members of the ethnic press, homeless youth living off the grid and recent college graduates, all sharing the same space. We were all in the service of a common goal, but balancing those energies took an incredible amount of finesse and it often fell to Kevin to maintain the peace. Or to disrupt it, depending on what he saw fit.

The Youth Communications projects of NAM came about in the early 1990s, when America’s young Black men were sensationally and shamefully characterized in the mainstream media as “Super Predators”. Sandy Close’s counter was that this generation of young people was not super-predatorial, they were super-communicative. Kevin was a supercommunicator: a journalist, a rapper, an editor, a DJ, a public speaker and a conversationalist who lived to engage the world, challenging hypocrisy and abuses of power right up to his final days.

r_morse_kevin_weston_500x279In 2005, NAM hosted an Ethnic Media Expo at Columbia University in New York City. One late night, after celebrating the success of the event, I found myself in a rap cypher with Kevin and several New York City rappers on a street corner in the Lower East Side. It quickly became a battle between us and the New York guys, one of whom rapped that he’d finish us “like the Son of Sam”. Kevin was next and he rapped “serial killers? yeah, we can talk about that/I’m from the bay, the home of the Zodiac/but Einstein Berkowitz is up under the jail/while the Zodiac’s still out there and YOU’VE GOT MAIL!” Everybody cheered. That line ended the battle and the guys all slapped our hands before we walked on. Earlier that day, I was with him at a reception in The New York Times offices, where I watched Kevin, while eating shrimp and drinking a Heineken, tell one of their higher-ups, “Print is dead.”

Q&A: College Bound Brothers

Interview • Dr. Joseph Marshall

ED Note: The following conversation took place on 106 KMEL’s show, Street Soldiers, between host Dr. Joseph Marshall and Zach Calbo Jackson and Akintude Ahmad, two members of the College Bound Brotherhood. The College Bound Brotherhood is a network of grantees and partners that seeks to increase college readiness, enrollment, persistence and graduation rates for African American males. The Brotherhood’s work is strategically organized around the Oakland, San Francisco, West Contra Costa, Hayward and Antioch school districts.

Over 100 college-bound high school seniors were recently celebrated at the College Bound Brotherhood graduation celebration at the Kaiser Center in Oakland on May 29. Ahmad and Jackson both graduated from Oakland Tech High School and will be attending Ivy League universities in the fall.

Dr. Marshall: It was wonderful to see all these young men movin’ forward with their academic lives. I met these two young men that I just had to bring on the show. One of them is going to Yale and another is going to Cornell University. These two young brothers are from the same high school, which happens to be Oakland Tech. Now, you would not think that Oakland Schools would produce people that go to Yale and Cornell. So joining me for a few minutes to talk about how they did this are, Zach Calbo Jackson and Akitunde Ahmad.

How were you able to pull off getting into Yale and Cornell?

Akitunde Ahmad: There’s a lot of hard work, a lot of time management and just staying focused. A lot of people ask, “is there some secret to it,” and in reality there’s just not. You just know there’s a certain amount of work you have to do, a certain amount of time you have to put in, in order to do well in your classes and you just have to set aside time to make sure that it happens.

Zach Jackson: It’s not a fun process. As Akitunde said it’s a lot of work and a lot of late nights and study sessions and just a lotta, lotta focus is required.

DM: To do this I know you have to dare to be different and I know it’s not an easy process. What got you on the academic track and allowed you never to get off?

AA: I think it really just starts at a young age. A lot of people feel like education isn’t as important when you’re younger, but that’s really the most important years because that’s the time that allows you to get used to the process. Get used to structure and being able to go to school, pay attention, come home, do your homework as soon as you get home, and then as you get older and the curriculum gets harder, and you have more things going on it makes it easier to adjust to all that. Because, you’re used to it.

ZJ: I’d have to say pretty close to the same thing. I think when you have such a pattern of working hard and doing, you’re learning and going through this process of doing homework and writing essays and papers it just comes easier after time. Because, you’ve been doing it so often.

DM: I was one of those gold star, straight-A students and then I started getting teased. They call me a mama’s boy, a square, a punk, a nerd, a sucker, a mark and they actually told me I was “acting white” for being smart. Did you get any of that coming through? A lot of folks can’t handle the peer pressure, when it comes to being academically inclined and moving forward with it.

AA: I feel like we’re moving forward to a more progressive era where I think there’s a decline coming to that but there’s definitely still the people that feel the need to say things like that. But, for the most part, I don’t feel like I receive too much negative backlash from it.

ZJ: I feel like when you are, I guess, considered to be a smarter kid you tend to hang out with people like you. And so, that peer group that you’re with won’t call you a nerd. Won’t call you a geek, whatever. But at, at the same time, you almost learn to embrace it. I feel like for some the stigma has kind of gone away for what is a geek and what is a nerd.

DM: I put the point out there that there is help available if you want it because I know a lot of young men, young men and women, who say, “Man, I just want some help, I just want some help,” and they get the help and they still won’t take advantage of it. You have seen that if you’re willing to do right, people are willing to help you. What are your thoughts on why folks just won’t take advantage of the opportunities that they have in front of them?

AA:   I feel like a lot of people don’t see enough people that look like themselves, that came from the same background as themselves, make it academically so they feel like either an athlete or an entertainer are the only ways for us to be successful. But, the more people that they see coming from situations like themselves actually achieving it, the more likely they are to believe that they can. And the more likely they are to accept the help when people are trying to give it to them.

DM:  Well, I just want to say congratulations to both of you. To me this is a just great because I’m personally into academics. The community is proud of you. What a great example, and you know Barak Obama would love you. Because, as far as we’re concerned, you hit the pinnacle. You are alive and free and educated.





Starting a National Conversation About Boys and Men of Color

by Edgardo Cervano-Soto

Last February, President Obama announced “My Brother’s Keeper,” an initiative to foster collaboration between private businesses, non-profits and local governments to support young men of color. It was in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death two years earlier, that the President had ordered his staff to develop an initiative that would address the major issues impacting black and brown young men in the U.S., including education disparities, high incarceration rates, and unemployment. It was a monumental moment for President Obama, who for much of his two terms has avoided making race a centerpiece of his political agenda.

The My Brother’s Keeper initiative was the topic of a live online forum that took place on June 6, moderated by Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of The California Endowment, a private health foundation that hosted the online discussion. Dr. Ross was joined on the forum by Heather Foster, Public Engagement Advisor to the President, and by popular entertainers India Arie, Wilmer Valderrama, and Romeo Santos.

The one-hour conversation covered a variety of topics and presented current data that paints a picture of the challenges facing young men of color. For example, one-third of African American men will be imprisoned in their lifetime; Latino young men are four times more likely to suffer from post traumatic stress disorder than white young men; and approximately one-third of young men from Southeast Asian refugee communities will not finish high school.

My Brother’s Keeper is placing a special focus on education and school environments. Forum participants discussed research showing that if a child can’t read well by the 3rd grade, he will likely fall behind and drop out. Furthermore, suspension doubles the chances of dropout and triples the chance of entering the criminal justice system.

A good portion of the forum was dedicated to the question of mentorship: How can mentorship impact and guide young men? How can mentorship be of service to combat each of the disparities and challenges impacting young men of color?

As for the forum participants, Wilmer Valderrama and India Arie are celebrities who have shown a passion for activism in the past through their participation in political organizations. Valderrama is very active in the VotoLatino group, and has been an advocate for immigration reform. He spoke about the need for communities of color to build capital to gain recognition from political parties. The singer India Arie spoke on how to influence consciousness through her music. Romeo Santos talked about how family values can be the basis to providing support to young men.

Though each celebrity spoke on the necessity to support young men of color through representation in media and personal values, the conversation lacked specifics. The stars rarely touched on the specific issues of suspension rates, high unemployment, etc.
The conversation never seemed to truly identify specific issues faced by young men of color – even though the initiative itself is race specific.

In one question, Dr. Ross asked how the entertainment and music industry could encourage a shift to positive representations of young men of color rather than reinforce negative stereotypes. This was a complex response that showed how entertainment and media respond first and foremost to money. Valderrama used the example of studios choosing to stick to old ideas — for example in films and TV shows — until a non-stereotypical Latino or Black film shows it can make money.

For me, this led to the conclusion that our consumer power, and not our activism, can sway the media industry. Only having money and the privilege to spend it will force media corporations in entertainment to wake up and create more “real” programming for black and brown people.

Overall, I found the conversation with celebrities to be a curious way to garner attention for Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative. In my opinion, I wish the discussion had done a better job of hitting on the specific issues facing young men of color — suspension rates, incarceration rates, unemployment and the current “stop and frisk” and “stand your own ground” policies — that are overwhelmingly threatening black and brown bodies.