2012 California Peace Prize Honorees
Q: Why is community important in promoting peace?
A: I was born and raised in Watts, and I know practically everyone. We [my colleagues and I] have a relationship and responsibility with the community to promote peace. We want our kids to go to school and learn all that they can learn without the fear of being jumped on the way home. We want local businesses to provide a safe haven for youths, not fear them.
Our work doesn't just stop with youth. You have to understand where the crime comes from. Kids from around here are in low-income, single-parent homes. A lot of them start hustling and stealing to support their mothers. So we go to food banks and help the mother find a job or job training. We try to deal with the household as whole and on a continuing basis. We make sure the kid isn't thinking about stealing — that he's thinking about getting his diploma.
Q: What inspired you to start Safe Passages at David Starr Jordan High School?
A: I have done intervention and prevention work since 1999, but I didn't start at Jordan High until 2001. There was a young kid nicknamed Little Donut, and he was part of the Fudge Town Mafia Crips. He was shot and killed on 103rd and Juniper, right where Safe Passage runs through.
I came out to the murder scene, and I remember thinking: "If there was somebody who knew the people in the community who could be trusted, if I could have talked to those guys that shot him, maybe Little Donut would still be alive." I just knew I could have done something to prevent this. So, I never left. I have been right here ever since.
Q: What is Project Fatherhood? How does it work?
A: Project Fatherhood started when Andre Christian, Johnny Bailey, Willie Freeman, Fredrick Smith, Aqeela Sherrills and I came together in the Jordan Downs projects, barbecuing and talking about promoting peace. We had a connection with the Housing Authority and the late Dr. [Hershel K.] Swinger of Children's Institute, Inc., who wanted to start a program. We ended up meeting once a week at the Jordan Downs community center and talked about fatherhood issues and ways to address them. Most of these young men were in gangs, juvenile hall or prison. They were trying to turn their lives around, and we wanted to help. That's how Project Fatherhood was created.
We worked with Congresswoman Maxine Waters and the Housing Authority to get these young men jobs. The Jordan Downs housing project is being redeveloped, and we were able to secure 30 percent of the jobs for our guys. We are in the process of getting them licensed and certified in construction. We want to advocate for the people and the young men that live here.
Q: What inspired you to pursue this work?
A: I was in and out of the criminal justice system for most of my young life. There was a federal agent, David Bunter, who supervised my probation officer. He was worried about me getting back into my old behavior, so he told me about this job as an employment specialist for those released from prison. But employment specialists could do very little. People were returning frustrated and without jobs. I was going to quit when the media visited the program and the P.R. woman wasn't there. In a panic they sent me to speak to them. That's when it all changed.
My inspirations are my loved ones on the block, the people I was in prison with and those who followed. They helped me back then and continue to drive me now. The experience of going through the system and the people I met helped me grow. It made me want to be a better father. It made me rise above. In return, I am inspired to motivate them. I tell them: "We can do this. I came from there too."
Q: How does Street Outreach work? How successful have you been?
A: Street Outreach is made up of teams with seven men, including a case manager that hit the hot spots of Oakland. We walk the streets in three East Oakland neighborhoods, two in West Oakland, and two rotating spots in Central Oakland. We focus on flat land* youth ages 14 to 30 in these communities. *"Flat lands" is a term originally used to describe the terrain of Oakland and its surrounding areas. The phrase is used to distinguish between "the hills" (the more affluent Oakland hills communities) and the "flat lands" (Oakland's more violence and poverty ridden areas, including East, West, and North Oakland).
If you look at the statistics in the areas we work in, you will see our impact. Our homicide rate is down 30 percent, and our violence rate is down, even though the city of Oakland's is up. With the capacity we have and our bandwidth, we're making an impact. We are really impacting the youth we work with because we are blessed to be able to slow the work down and build relationships. We call it a slow dance.
Q: What do think needs to be done to reduce recidivism?
A: First, the approach needs to be changed. Recovery means to get back to what they were before, but most of my guys were addicts and never had anything but addiction problems and jail time. We get these people out of the prison system and tell them to do well, but how do we expect them to do well in an economy that's not doing well, in a community that's doing even worse, and in a household that may not exist?
We have to get enough money into these programs that people can feel it. We have the population wanting to turn their lives around. There are programs that have proven their worth in slowing down recidivism, slowing down addiction and the crimes that go with it. We need to make sure these programs aren't the first ones cut.
Dr. Su Park was ill at the time she was notified by the Foundation of her award nomination. Because of the circumstances, she was unable to grant interviews for the materials the Foundation traditionally prepares, including these questions and answers. In its place, are responses from her colleagues Sue Ann Blach and Saun-Toy Latifa Trotter.
Q: In what way do you believe Dr. Park made the biggest impact in her work to help youth struggling with trauma?
A: Su was able to assess and identify the immediate and long-term needs of traumatized youth. Support ranged from meeting with students one-on-one consistently to offering after hours phone support to ensure their psychological safety. She helped support mental health staff attend workshops and lectures to understand the nuances in trauma-informed care, including leading presentations for school administration and teaching staff to increase the understanding of the behavioral presentation of a traumatized student and effective ways to respond. We offered non-threatening therapies such as yoga and art as modalities in the repertoire of mental health services. Most of all, Su was present for school-wide events, including moments of silence on the anniversaries of significant losses and providing on the spot support when a crisis happened on or near the school. She was able to respond in a personable way; providing an understanding of what she needed to do behind-the-scenes in advocacy to gain more funding to allow access for mental health services for Alameda county youth.
Sue Ann Blach, M.F.T. is a licensed marriage and family therapist and a Board certified art therapists at Youth Uprising/Castlemont Health Clinic, Children's Hospital Oakland.
Q: Would you please explain exactly how Dr. Park normalized mental health for the violence-exposed youth at the two high school sites?
A: Su helped to normalize access to mental health in communities that are saturated with distrust of outside providers because of high rates of violence, poverty and institutionalized racism. She did this by strategically and thoughtfully hiring team members who reflected the community and building personal relationships with community members on every level: students, custodians, security guards, teachers and administrators. Su worked tirelessly to respond to the needs of schools, including: leading the creation of a crisis protocol for the school district; partnering with students to facilitate candle light vigils to recognize losses due to violence; providing professional development training for teachers to support school staff to recognize and empathize with students who were exhibiting behaviors related to exposure to trauma; and provided mental health consultation to principals.
Saun-Toy Latifa Trotter, M.F.T., is a mental health worker at Youth Uprising/Castlemont Health Clinic, Children's Hospital Oakland.