Like many other bloggers during the past several weeks, I have been preoccupied with the presidential election contest between President Obama and Governor Romney. An African-American person in the audience at the town hall debate at Hofstra University last night asked what the candidates were going to do to make his life better over the next four years. This prompted me to think about an urgent issue confronting the Bay Area and San Francisco and many communities throughout our nation.
A case study is Darion Eastman. At 22, he was a drug dealer and robber in Richmond, CA -- on track to an early and violent death. "I was supporting my family with what I was doing, but I was also putting myself at risk of being killed," he admits. The murder of six of his friends was the wake-up call Darion needed. A friend told him about the Omega Boys Club, the Bay Area youth program that provides at-risk teens with guidance and support to create lives of contribution, service and success. "Omega changed my life," he says.
Those same words now echo around the Bay Area and even the world, thanks to the courageous determination of my friend Dr. Joseph Marshall, co-founder of Omega, which celebrates its silver anniversary October 25. Through the work of Omega, Joe has turned a culture of violence around for thousands of kids by reframing violence as a disease and offering safer, more personally and socially productive alternatives.
A former public school teacher, Joe founded Omega in 1987 with Jack Jacqua, a middle school counselor. "Back then, something terrible seemed to be happening every day in San Francisco," recalls Marshall, the Executive Director of Omega. "The drugs, the gangs, the turf, the funerals -- we had enough of it and we knew that something had to be done. Omega was that something."
The inaugural class at Omega had just 15 youth from the streets of San Francisco, and they just kept coming. They made "Alive and Free... and Educated" their watchwords and the program flourished. Beating the streets became their mission -- and there is no doubt they've accomplished that many times over looking at the awards, the popular book (Street Soldier), PBS documentary and Dr. Marshall's invitations to travel and share the program abroad.
I met Joe about two years ago. As we talked, I mentioned the two most important dates in the history of African-Americans -- 1619, when slavery began, and 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation. "There's another," he interjected. "1980 -- the introduction of crack cocaine into the U.S." That insight hit a nerve, so I started to have some serious discussions with him and visited the Omega Boys Club.
After that, from my reading, observations, and experiences, for decades now, I am convinced that the principal influence on African-American juvenile delinquency and gun violence is the breakdown and absence of a functioning nuclear family unit. This, of course, was first brought to national attention in 1965 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor, in his controversial report to President Lyndon B. Johnson, "The Negro Family: The Case For National Action."
So much of the problem with African-American youth, especially males, is the absence of a continuous positive male presence in their lives. It's time we come to accept that this is a reality -- and also accept that it is unlikely in the near term, if ever, that there will be the rehabilitation of the traditional African-American family to provide a stable structural framework. It is simply not there anymore. The only way to resolve this problem is to stop dwelling on the past and start dealing with what we can actually do about it.
There are plenty of experts, think-tanks and non-profits trying to figure this out but they're dealing with the symptoms, not the disease. We have to encourage another kind of environment to develop and grow in place of the family. The Omega Boys Club is confronting this disease, and I think Joe Marshall has the cure. What Joe appears to have done with Omega is create a substitute paradigm for the breakup of the African-American family. It could be the template for the very survival of urban communities, especially our young men.
Darion Eastman is one of those young men who attended the Tuesday night classes Omega offers called Omega Leadership Academy where 1,300-plus kids have received academic development and life skills education, including college preparation and scholarship support -- at no cost to them. Omega has taken minority kids off the street and turned out no less than 176 college graduates and 40 graduate school graduates to date.
"Attending Omega meetings was a shock to me," says Corey Monroe, another successful alumnus who was tempted by a life of crime. "I'd never seen kids mapping out plans for their lives before. Here were young men and women who were giving up the street life that looked so good to me... That's when I realized that those who were staying in that life were ending up dead. I decided I didn't want to die."
The Omega Training Institute teaches violence prevention/conflict resolution skills using its Alive & Free Prescription violence prevention methodology. It has worked with Bay Area schools to achieve a violence-free learning environment. Omega has trained 4,000-plus adults who work with youth, including police officers, youth development workers, and 1,177 school faculty and staff at 17 Bay Area schools impacting more than 15,000 students.
Omega also has had an award-winning, weekly, nationally syndicated call-in radio show called "Street Soldiers." For the past 20 years, it has dealt with the pressing issues that young people face, reaching 150,000 listeners. And there is so much more, including the Alive & Free Movement and National Conference.
I'm privileged to be one of the people who will be keynoting Omega's 25th celebration, which will highlight some of the kids (now all grown up) who have transformed their lives because of the program.
Corey Monroe and Darion Eastman began their lives like so many African-American inner city kids, but Omega helped them transform what they thought was impossible for themselves. Corey now works with both the San Francisco Sheriff's Department and in Special Education with the San Francisco Unified School District. Darion graduated from Tennessee State University with a degree in Criminal Justice, is married and the father of two. He is the Center Standards Manager for the Treasure Island Job Corps.
I believe there's hardly a more worthwhile endeavor or institution in this country (particularly here on the West Coast) than the Omega Boys Club. As many people who read my blogs know, I was lucky enough to have been the personal lawyer, close friend, political adviser and draft speechwriter of one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If he were here today, I believe he'd be congratulating Joe Marshall and wrapping the mantle of his leadership around Joe's work. (Help me, somebody! Do I hear an Amen?)
Dr. King might remind us, in the words the great gospel lyricist James Cleveland, that "Nobody told us the road would be easy. But, Lord don't believe you brought me this far just to leave me."
On Omega's 25th anniversary, I join with Joe and all his kids -- past, present and future -- to help foster a new paradigm of excellence and survival for our children. May they remain alive and free.
The celebration will be held Thursday, October 25, 6:30 to 9 p.m., at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. A VIP reception will begin at 5:30 p.m. with live music followed by a hosted bar and general reception at 6:30 p.m. The main event will kick off at 7:15 p.m. with dinner and presentations by Omega alumni and students, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Dr. Joseph Marshall and, finally, myself.
Tickets are available for $250 for individuals and $125 for alumni. Some sponsors include PG&E, the San Francisco Giants, Wells Fargo, Comerica Bank and AT&T. Tickets and sponsorships are available by contacting Omega Development Director Iris Fluellen at (415) 826-8624 or firstname.lastname@example.org.