East Oakland's peaceful Youth Uprising

Youth Uprising member Javae Reed is challenging the social inequities that plague East Oakland

Six months ago, Javae Reed could hardly have pictured himself as part of the solution to the problems that plague the East Oakland community where he grew up. Fresh off an incarceration in Reno (Reed had relocated temporarily to be with his mom) on charges of robbery, the 19 year old didn’t have a history of positive association with the system. But thanks to Youth Uprising, a youth advocacy non-profit -- which celebrates its fifth anniversary with a gala fundraiser Tues/25 -- Javae has landed a job, and got his driver’s license. Not to mention the fact that he’s performing policy work that will make a real difference for other young people like himself.

“I always had this potential in me,” Reed told me over the phone as he sat alongside YU director of strategy and investment director Maya Dillard-Smith. “I just needed that guidance to find it.” After hearing of  Youth Uprising through a friend upon his return to Oakland, Reed went to check out the program. The next day, he found himself heading out for a Youth Uprising LeaderShift retreat with 29 other young men, a trip which focuses on teaching individuals who are already leaders among their peers how to use their charisma and intelligence in a constructive direction.

Reed, a naturally outgoing guy, immediately found his niche. “By the second day, everybody was social, I got comfortable, the staff showed me support, we had fun. I became a part of the YU family,” he recalls. 

It’s indicative of the community-driven nature of YU that Reed was able to connect so readily. The organization celebrates a multi-pronged approach to youth empowerment, focusing both on physical (they operate the most used health clinic in Alameda County) and interior needs (a full purpose media lab gives participants a chance to use their voices artistically, and YU sponsors dance, theater and fine arts programs).

Reed was chosen to become a workshop facilitator, and the organization got to work helping him overcome the obstacles to employment for a young black man in Oakland. Through the Mayor’s Summer Jobs Program, they placed him as a janitor, enrolled him in a computing class to further develop his potential.

And then he was tapped to play a larger role. East Oakland is one of the 14 neighborhoods Building Health and Communities, California’s largest health care foundation, has chosen as a major aide recipient through 2020. Research was needed, however, to identify just how that money was to be allocated.

Who better than the area’s youth themselves to figure that out? Youth Uprising, the lead agency on the project, put Reed and a team of his peers in charge. They were tapped to draw up a survey for their neighborhood that touched on health and safety issues, then gathered responses, and presented their findings to BHC stakeholders (perhaps not surprisingly, national health care reform topped the list of concerns they uncovered). Their conclusions would drive $10 million in social investments.

It was an empowering experience. “You know these things are right, but you’ve never walked in my shoes,” Reed tells me. Although he’d never located himself in politics before, he can now say confidently “I speak for myself -- and my generation.”

Reed’s lightening quick transition from disenfranchised youth to community leader is just the kind of change that Youth Uprising wants to keep on the country’s to-do list. “Some people believe the investment should be on the back end with incarceration,” says Dillard-Smith. “But we’re building up social enterprises.”

Which hasn’t been easy in an era of social service mass murder -- but YU is pulling through. “We’ve got to have a diversified funding strategy, because the needs of this community are not going away when the funding does,” Dillard-Smith says.

YU’s developing ways to get businesses involved in a way that touches more than just the youth they served. They’ve teamed up with Silicon Valley corporations to keep their data entry programs from being outsourced overseas. “The young people we work with are incredibly computer literate, even when they can‘t read and write,” says Dillard-Smith. They’ve set up their own youth run Corners Café, which gives chosen program participants a chance to develop job skills in a real life environment, and is set to cater your next event.

With all this self made empowerment, it should be no surprise that YU was lauded by US attorney general Eric Holder as a “perfect example” of how change can happen in our beleaguered country. Check out their anniversary on Tues/25, featuring civil rights activist Lateefah Simon  -- you’ll join the Uprising, too.

Youth Uprising 5th Anniversary Event
Tues/25 6:30-8:30 p.m., $50 donation
8711 MacArthur, Oakland
(510) 777-9099