Oscar Grant, Devonte Riley, Phillip "Tooda" Wright, the list goes on and on. For years, the nation has been on high alert. Protests and cries for change and unification 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 demonstrations against inequality continue, the more important question is, what is the connection between the outcry and the statistics that paint African American males nationwide synonymous with failure? They are the lowest achievers in education, highly unemployed and best known for the highest numbers in prison population representation. But why? These are symptoms but what is the diagnosis?
Locally, here in Oakland, California, 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 identity 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 journey toward success. There was something so powerful in this formal recognition that they themselves were the subject matter and regarded as the experts of their own experience. Ranging from GED graduates and current college students to college scholars and a professional artist, all of these proud 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 3 meetings, a one on one individual and two group sessions they shared their experiences and clarified their respective identity formation.
What we learned was that this test group had quite a collection of personal narratives outlining frustration, anger, and a lack of support. They also shared stories of resilience and perseverance revealing a commitment that they would be part of the new statistic: the success dynamic.
Stephanie and her team were just beginning to analyze the data. As a professional leader in this work for over 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. This disease that is the prejudicial treatment and permissive failure of African American males must simply be eradicated. It is an infection that has plagued our society interminably. An ailing sore 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. Hell, we even have 3 sports teams!
Oakland is San Francisco's expendable step child. Hailing from this town 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 racially profiled, followed through department stores by employees they are treated more like a criminal than a citizen. Even more so when engaging with law enforcement, they are slighted by the barrage of questions they get, "are you on parole, where are you headed, whose car is this"? Conversely, 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. But 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. "In spite of being treated as if we have leprosy, no one cares more about Oakland." said one young man. "We 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 experience growing up here they value more the grit, coat 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 what we call " Tha Town"; 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... And perhaps we can all see the beauty in our men and boys of color and write a new narrative throughout this nation, one male at a time.