Youth debaters Elisa Saavedra and Kyla Wheatfall with Superior Court Judge Charles A. Smiley III. Photo by Howard Dyckoff
In a season when Oakland city officials are at a loss for how to calm the streets, some of Oakland's youth have put forth ideas.
Three high school students and one college student with the Bay Area Urban Debate League took to the podium at the Alameda County Board of Supervisors chambers one night last week to debate how to improve relations between law enforcement and the community. Seventeen-years-old and 20-years-old, these youth said their lives have been touched by violence, shadowed by violence for some. With homicides in Oakland near record levels, they called for new approaches.
Video by Barbara Grady
"Government is disconnected from the community," Saavedra argued.
The solution, they proposed, is blanketing the city with youth-run recreation centers; in community youth would work out their difference in peace. What they described as self-sustaining youth centers would be staffed by recent high school graduates who want to give back to their neighborhoods. They'd work in exchange for loan forgiveness on tuitions, Saavedra said.
Shah Turner, a junior, and Christopher Marquez, a senior at Skyline, countered that government is necessary and good, but that people don't have to abdicate their power to it. Instead they can participate in it, taking leadership roles to assure that government is by the people.
"We need to encourage people to be their own leaders," Turner said.
They argued that the answer to the current dysfunctional relations between many Oakland residents and the Oakland Police Department is for communities to come together across generational and racial lines and then take government into their own hands at the local level. People of all ages, races and walks of life would come together this way and self-govern.
"Our proposal is making sure constituencies are not left outside." Turner said that people within those tight communities would then build trust in each other and solve problems and conflicts. Schools too should be run by local, neighborhood level districts.
An audience that included Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan; Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, Alameda County Superior Court Judges Charles A. Smiley and Kim Colwell; Sikander Iqbal, director of Youth Leadership Development at Youth Uprising; Venus Jordan, Deputy District Attorney for Alameda County; and other notables sounded impressed by what they heard. The event was hosted by Supervisor Carson of District 5.
"I am really impressed by the messages of self empowerment," Oakland Police Department Sgt. Holly Joshi told the youth. But she asked how the youth debaters proposed to reach out to the most at-risk youth in their community.
The answer: "You get up close and personal," in inviting disengaged youth to participate in youth centers, said Wheatfall.
"If there were more youth leaders like myself and my colleague out there, my belief is there would be less drug trafficking and less human trafficking."
Asked what they thought of the Oakland City Council's decision to hire crime consultant William Bratton, the controversial former police chief in Los Angeles and New York who is credited with reducing violent crime in those cities, but to advocate stop and frisk and other controversial means, the youth had opposing views.
Wheatfall said an outsider is not likely to understand Oakland's issues.
"They will bring what they thought worked somewhere else," said debater Wheatfall. She said an outside consultant is unlikely to win the trust of people the police need to build relations with. "A gang member is more likely to talk with someone from Oakland."
Turner said it will be useful to have an outsider's fresh perspective on problems here.
Neither side addressed the $250,000 price tag of the consultancy.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Charles A. Smiley presided over the debate. He noted adults talk about solutions to community violence and police-community relations as they sit in Council chambers and meetings.
"These youth are living it," Judge Smiley said.
A video of the full debate can be viewed here.