On July 5th, 2014 a group of 14 African American men departed the East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC) , en route to a 14 day stay in China. These young men went from Deep East Oakland to the Far East with one goal:
To change the world… and the world’s perspective of them.
The young men, five undergraduate students and nine high school students, were accompanied by three chaperones (I was one of them). This method of mentorship was designed by Ms. Regina Jackson, CEO of EOYDC (and a chaperone on the trip as well), as a part of her organization’s Brotherhood Across America- youth led college mentoring model.
The college students, all STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors, were selected in order to provide linked learning opportunities, which would give exposure to career possibilities to the younger men. In addition, the brotherhood mentoring circles were aimed at building strong individual character, as well as the collective group identity– which is EOYDC’s tagline: “building character to build communities”.
Fittingly, the community’s character was a driving force in getting the young men to China.
Sponsored by local businesses, churches and organizations, the group– known as the Think China 2014 delegation, arrived in China with a world of support under their wings.
The voyage was a part of the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, which was signed by President Barack Obama earlier this year, as a part of the White House’s focus on education. At its heart, the trip was a great opportunity for a cross-cultural exchange, as well as a chance for the young men to develop core values for the White House Education Initiative.
Because of the weight of their responsibilities, the gentlemen were lead through a rigorous schedule of classes and site visits; interspersed with character/ team building activities and fine dinning in China.
The young men saw Buddhist Temples in Hangzhou and department stores in Shanghai. They visited the Great Wall of China and the Xixi Wetland nature reserve. They went to automotive plants, made dumplings, learned Mandarin, studied the Chin Dynasty, talked modern politics, and even found time to eat KFC AND Peeking Duck (not at the same time) … And of course, they drank lots of tea and ate plenty of rice.
All of the young men journaled throughout the course of the trip, as was a requirement. Everyday, a different young man who be held responsible for submitting a journal for publication through EOYDC’s website.
While the young men enjoyed the trip and blogged about it, I stood back and took it all in– through my camera lens… Here are just a few of the many moments I captured while we were in China.
A Black man, with a red hoody on, wearing a beanie, rode past my little Asian coworker on bike and snatched her phone out of her hand.
This isn’t about the $400 dollar phone. This isn’t about my “little Asian” coworker. This is about Black men.
I fit the description of the Black man who snatched her phone…
She might have said he had dreads- so the style of the hair differs. And on that day I was wearing burgundy, not red; but close enough. I’m not heavy set- I’m skinny. But mannnnnn, if she filed a police report I’d be a suspect… I could just imagine myself walking out of the office, mounting my bike (which I ride everyday), and riding through the same area where the incident occurred … I’d be a suspect.
Heavyset or skinny. Dreads locs or fresh cuts. We all look the same to cops.
I left out of the office, rode my bike to the high school where I held an after school program, and asked my students a number of questions…
“Have you ever been robbed?” … “Have you ever robbed/ thought of robbing people?” … “Do you ever get looked at as a thief or criminal?” … “Do they ever fear Black men?”
The conversation that came out these questions showed that we suffer from the thought of Black men being malicious, criminals, animals… these were the opinions of Black male and female high schoolers… And myself.
On many accords I felt the same.
I’ve been in their position. As a Black man, I’ve been in fear and I’ve been feared. How do we correct this mindset within high schoolers? For my little Asian co-worker? Or, for that matter, white America?
… Especially if it is something that is pervasive within our own people/ community.
My co-worker is a loving-fighter. A poet born in the Philippines. A Pisces. And an experienced educator in Oakland, Ca. She took the incident in stride. I recall how she retold the account to me, “For real, bro!?!” she yelled at the man as he took the phone and continued down the block. “I even called him ‘BRO’!… ” She said to me with exclamation. She maintained her stance of love.
She didn’t let one person’s actions change her perspective on all people.
That was the answer.
But is it possible to maintain your outlook on life, after seeing what life presents? Fully?
Seriously… Don’t you have to change to the environment as a means of survival?
… Or can you change the environment enough so as to ensure survival?
One glimpse of the police motorcade, and I flashed back to my DC days …
As a student at Howard University, I spent five years in the Nation’s capital. A Presidential parade was nothing new to me. Although the eyes of the Nation were focused on my hometown, I was more concerned with simply going home.
I closed my books and came out of Oakland’s main library: Hungry. Frustrated. Feeling pissed. Plus I had to piss…
“If all these badge rockin’ overseers (officers) weren’t around- I’d water this shrub.” I remember thinking to myself as I copped a squat next to a bush. The police wouldn’t let me cross the street; they told me that the President would be passing in ten minutes… My thoughts began to race, so I held my bladder, and blasted off a couple of tweets:
“If i pass this class, I can save myself. If I save myself, I can save my people”
“… No matter what the President does… “
“(I’m sitting next to a bush, tweeting… surrounded by policemen.)”
If I pass this test I can graduate undergrad. If I graduate undergrad, I can start grad school. When I finish grad school, as a professional journalist with a teacher’s degree, I will be able to access and allocate resources that we all can use to better our community.
In the grand scheme of things the, Presidential election does matter. I know it does.
Do I have any voice in that matter- honestly, I don’t know. I know- 1 vote, 1 person. I know the electoral college. I know that large “Political Action Committees” are BIG sponsors of campaigns. I also understand that there is a lot that I don’t know.
I understand that there is a Black man in the most powerful office of all of the land… I understand that very clearly…
But I’ve only seen that via media. And I don’t always believe the media… especially media about the government.
In person, I’ve seen some things:
In September of 2008, I was in Denver for the Democratic National Convention.
In November of 2008 when the news was announced that Senator Obama had been elected as President of the United States of America, I was on Howard University’s campus in Washington DC.
I was even in Nation’s Capital on the frosty morning of January 20, 2009 during the inaugural celebration of America’s first African-American President.
I saw it. I didn’t understand it. But I saw it.
I didn’t vote in the 2008 election… I know, I know…
I support the image of a Black man in the Oval Office, it speaks volumes as to how far this country has come. But the politics behind it- I still question. I figure I fall into the fray, full of Black folks who feel the same way; untrusting of our government. Untrusting is an understatement…
Look man, I’m coming from Oakland, Ca. A place where people have seen the underhandedness of local governing bodies time and time again. In the past four years- we’ve seen blatant dirt on the hands of the State (CA budget) , the City (Police), and even the Transit cops (Oscar Grant). To think that the Federal Government- will do something to better the situation in our Oakland neighborhood is behooving, farfetched, and unrealistic to many of us out here.
Well, recently… the Federal Government has done SOMETHING to aid the city The NY Times ranked as “the World’s 5th best tourist attraction of 2012”…
On the same morning that the Federal forces made a move to close Oakland’s famed medical marijuana college… a mass shooting occurred at Oikos University, a small Christian school located in East Oakland. Unfortunately fittingly.
There are people in this city struggling to make ends meet, losing lives to gun violence (with both policemen and black/brown men behind the trigger), and people who have been scarred by the woes of the world. These are the people who don’t trust in the government. On any level.
The 99%er movement, which swept the Nation in October/ November of 2011, took to a different feel here in Oakland. Protesters of all backgrounds combined forces and claimed residency right under Oakland’s main tree- in the center of the city. The local governing officials didn’t take too kind it’s new neighbors, and eventually gave them an eviction notice… in the form of a sunrise police raid. The raid set off a domino effect of rebellious actions on the part of the people- and eventually ended with many reports condemning the City of Oakland’s approach to the Occupy situation.
President Obama’s late July appearance in Oakland was greeted by protesters… per usual. Many of the protesters were fighting global injustices, federal wrong-doings, and for the legalization of medical marijuana… And some protesters were just out there to protest, as many do in this city.
While protesters, fans, and police motorcades focused on President Obama being in town, three notable events occurred in Oakland:
3. The family of Alan Blueford, a teenager who was shot by OPD, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Oakland. Blueford was killed on May 6th. The officer who shot, also shot himself in the foot. The officer’s name has not been released, neither has Blueford’s autopsy records. Therefore, the family cannot move forward with this case.
These are the problems that haunt this town. Local issues. These are the issues I find myself concerned with. Local issues … not National issues.
The people of my city are children who have been hurt by miscellaneous happenings, sisters who have been scarred by society, and people… hurt people.
Just imagine: If cured, what wonders could these people do to change society?
How can we open our doors to the world, if our house isn’t clean?
What is the significance of President Obama leaving the white house, to come to a town where Black and Brown people die in the street- before and after he leaves?
I’ve done a little research; now, I’m sure I could stand to do some more, but this is what I’ve concluded:
I- a young man who watched the 2008 Presidential election process with a lazy eye, a young man who has watched the little (if any) “change” in my local neighborhood with a hawk’s eye, and a young man who is going to the University of California’s graduate school of journalism this fall… I have a responsibility.
One time, an OG Told Me: “We’re not getting older, we’re getting better.”
It made me think…
In life, there is beauty in growing old, why would I want to die young?
In America, why are we glorifying young death and degrading becoming an elder?
In Black America, If they don’t have fathers- where are they getting guidance about manhood from?
In manhood … WAIT … how did I get here?
At 24, I find myself in this strange world called, “manhood”, you might have heard of it… but … not all of my homies made it, some of them never even heard of it.
So, once again I ask: How did I make it to manhood?
As a young man growing up in Oakland, Ca … I followed the OG’s. Religiously.
Their way of talking, thinking, breathing, and blinking… I studied that. Vigorously.
As an 80’s baby, growing up in urban America, surprisingly enough: I wasn’t the only one without a father. Eight of my friends were fatherless too. In turn, we came together as a brotherhood; a fraternal support group. This is sometimes called a gang, a posse, or a clique… na, we were just boys becoming men.
We would pick-up small insight into manhood ( i.e. ideas on approaching women, how to make money double, or even something as essential as: how to fight); we would bring that back to the boys and share the newly acquired knowledge.
From this, I quilted together my concept of manhood.
Through this photo essay, I wanted to recreate that quilt; and show the world my version going from boyhood to manhood.
The project takes the phenomenon that I’ve encountered throughout the process of growing up, and documents it- so now babies of the millennium can find concepts about manhood where they hang out: the internet.
A basic photo essay: head shots of elder Black men, with the addition of clever-wisdom laced quotes. This photo essay is not just documenting elders, no-it’s bridging the gap between generations. It’s giving young men an idea of what they might look like at a later date, and it’s … giving me insight to the problems that plague the black community.
I found a number of the issues that plague Black men in society through my OG told Me project:
– Lack of accountability.
– Communication issues.
– Self destruction.
– Total disregard for another man’s dream…
– Lack of critical thinking.
– Idle time.
Through this same project, I also found some of the blessings that are found in Black men in society…
– Deep beliefs.
– A way of life that is unobserved by others- yet seen everyday: the invisible man.
-The natural occurrence of a rights of passage in the Black community.
The biggest conundrum I found myself facing during this year-long project: Finding the purpose of life…
All around the world people are living for two things: to get older and to get smarter.
This is survival. Basic survival.
However, where I grew up, people are living for two things: to get money and … to get money.
In result, our illusionary pursuit of money results not in getting older and getting smarter- no, it results in us dying young and dumb.
This is not survival. This is basic.
The aging process should be appreciated. It’s the beauty of life.
I haven’t made it all the way-I’m still growing, learning, aging- or as the OG told me, “getting better.”
And I’m enjoying every step of the way.
… And that is why I created this photo essay.
Now the question remains:
what exactly were those lessons that I was taught as I was growing from a boy to a man?
Why is it so much easier to help other people than myself ?
You know that spot on your back where your arms don’t reach? That one spot that always itches but you can never scratch-until you get one of those plastic back scratchers … But of course- that doesn’t suffice: that’s plastic dawg!
Yea, that spot on your back where your arms don’t reach, that’s a constant reminder that human beings are social creatures. We need someone to scratch our backs… I mean, we could use trees like California Brown bears do; at least the tree is living… I bet a that’s more sufficient than an inanimate object … I digress.
So, my itching- or, uh- burning question: Why is it so much easier to help other people than it is to help myself ?
The first thing I did when I came to the realization of this conundrum: post it as my facebook status … and sent a tweet out carrying the same sentiment.
“It is called being selfless. And it is a good thing, for when we lend a hand to another, we are in essence helping to improve ourselves.” Benny “Uncle Punch” Andrews said in reply to my post.
“For two reasons. The selfless part like Bennie said and also it is harder to see the issues in oneself”- Andrew Meyer.
It’s been killing me all week: I can hold it down for the community, for my friends, for my family … but when it comes to self-It never comes down to self…
It’s not a total mutilation of self in order to save the world… na, I’m not that nice. It’s not a: save the world, so I can say I saved the world kind of thing either… Na, I’m not that egotistical. This persona is a product of being aware: I see the bigger picture. I see the young person who is affected by the parents who are unemployed … that… Or it’s the elder junkie who is a product of a broken school system, hit a schnide in the game, turned to whatever drugs were readily available in the community… and then whallah! You have my surroundings.
And as bad I want to get out of here, that’s just scratching my own back… I want my surroundings to change. So, when I walk out the door in the morning I scratch the backs of fiends , “baby mommas” , marginalized youth, ect, ect… And they say it all comes back… They never said it would come back to haunt me.
It’s messing with my mind.
“you fall in the same line as a psychologist with this one. Unable to solve their own problems.”- @Truth_Inception.
He’s right. I can give people the shirt off my back, but have trouble asking for it in return.
“Yes. I dedicated a week to myself and it was the hardest things ever. Very necessary though.”- @OhhMissRiss
She’s right… that’s what I need.
It’s crunch time. I’m 24 ½. It’s time to lock in and focus on something great. But all I seem to care about is socializing, the internet, and socializing via the internet!
I saw this tweet the other day, it simply said that “accomplishments are better than compliments”… and I’m more than sure it’s some song lyrics that were tweeted out of context and quotations- nonetheless, the statement resonated…
I have a number of big time accomplishments within my grasp (graduating, publishing a book, living to be 25…)
And all of it seems so simple: Just do it, NIKE style. But every time I go to move forward… those same friends that are better than back scratchers- are holding me back. They aren’t exactly back stabbers, but nonetheless, being sociable and helping others and wanting to show the world that I’m solid ( That I have a strong backbone)… all of that is holding me back.
So I had to investigate- I had to find someone who has been in my position before. Someone that was destined for greatness, but was suffering from minor setbacks …
So I googled quotes from Michael Jordan:
“To be successful you have to be selfish, or else you never achieve. And once you get to your highest level, then you have to be unselfish.”- Michael Jordan
… I’ll take the words of the man who wore number 23 on his back …
Youth Radio’s Pendarvis Harshaw tries to keep black high school students from dropping out.
By Pendarvis Harshaw
The phrase “I don’t give an F-Bomb” resonates throughout high school hallways every day, especially in Oakland public schools. Which begs the question: how do you get students to actually give a flying F-bomb?
The numbers show that young black men drop out of school at higher rates, and are more likely to be incarcerated than other groups. Earlier this year I worked as an educator in the Oakland schools, in a pilot program designed to prevent young black men from dropping out. My students, all freshmen in high school, were in my class because of discipline issues, low attendance, or academic shortcomings. We called our class the Young Lion’s Lair.
To maintain focus, we did pushups. We did wall sits. We did sets of 20 jumping jacks. And everyone had to stop at the same time, or else we’d do it again.
At the start of class, we’d toss around a tennis ball and review the prior day’s lesson. And at the end of class we’d toss around that same ball and review what we learned that day.
We discussed a holistic approach to manhood. It was protocol for each young man to stand whenever he spoke. And when they spoke out of turn, it was mandatory that they say “I apologize.” I asked them not to say “I’m sorry,” because they weren’t sorry young men.
Attendance shot up. Discipline issues decreased. Their grades didn’t change during the semester I worked with them, but I could tell they were learning. Everyday there’d be a moment when one of my students would have a tiny breakthrough and I’d exclaim “hot damn.” It was equivalent to getting a star in kindergarten, and it was a constant reminder that we were progressing.
One day I asked my students to read aloud from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” They were reluctant to read in front of their peers, but eventually one student began… “I am an invisible man.”
Student after student read with increasing excitement. They were into it, and pleaded with me to bring in additional chapters. It was as if Ellison was narrating their lives. “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind.”
The game changer’s project is a media inititative to change the image of young Black men and Boys in the media by simply uploading the untold; by taking stories of men and young men alike doing uplifting things in their communities, and giving them proper acknowledgment. The theory is simple: become the change you want to see in the world… or in the media.
For more information about the initiative, check the website:
A key part aspect to being able to tell the stories of Black men and boys in the urban underbelly of America is having storytellers on site, and the Gamechangers project specializes in that. With representatives in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Oakland.
(After that minor photo snafu… here is my article)
One pilot class-first time experiment and one fresh Howard graduate take on a shaky school system in the midst of a Black male genocide happening in Oakland, Ca. This past school year the Oakland Unified School District introduced the Nation’s first African American Male Achievement Initiative, which is spearheaded by Chris Chatmon. Three of Oakland’s six public high schools were selected to be a part of this pilot program. The outline to this African American Male Achievement Initiative consisted of seven primary goals: Increasing attendance rates, increasing graduation rates, intensifying middle school holding power, a 4th grade literacy rate goal, to cut incarceration rates in half, to cut suspension rates in half and to decrease the achievement gap. I had 15 weeks to change 15 years of deterioration of the spirit. Before the academia could begin we had to first address the issues that would have inhibited their learning process such as discipline issues, confidence issues, and emotional issues. I brought in a copy of the Oakland Post to the first class I taught. I showed the front-page article that I wrote about Bill Russell meeting President Obama. Accompanying the article was a picture of two of the most well respected Black men on Earth, a powerful image to show a group of disgruntled Black Youth. That same day I asked them: who are you and where do you want to go? These were the questions we as a class searched to answer from there on out. Sure we touched on college, academics, and how to use school as a tool to get out of your current predicament. But nothing got them going like open-ended critical thinking questions. I once asked them, “If you could step out of the door and go anywhere, where would it be and why?” The answers where to heaven, to a videogame, to Canada, to go shopping, to a girl’s house, to Africa to see where my people are from, to sleep, and a young man merely wrote “to a safe place”. The majority of them simply wanted a safe place; and that’s what the “Lion’s lair” classroom was. I am now a proud big brother to 21 young men. Just because classes ended doesn’t mean that the lessons in the classroom stopped. The class is a part of an ongoing process of developing a generation of young men in Oakland, young men with knowledge of self, composure of emotion, and the ability to critically think for themselves. At the end of the day, this was simply about taking young men who are constantly surrounded by death and giving them skills and the inspiration to thrive.
(*Backstory: Joel is my homie from Howard. He was in downtown Oakland the day I went to get the story published. When the people at the Oakland Post found out the Joel was a Howard Grad looking to get into education- they figured they’d do a story on him at a later date, and took a photo of him for good measure…. and they accidentally put his photo with my story. nice. Glad they fixed it tho. Thanks Oakland Post!)
It’s a story of a lost young man, growing-up and looking to his elders for guidance… well, he actually looked to women, cars, and money- but, it just so happened that his elders had the women, the cars, and the money; plus wisdom of how to obtain these things.
The elders would drop wisdom rapped in words so profound that the young man couldn’t help but to write them down…And as a young rapper growing up in inner-city America, he’d quote these elders in his lyrics. But he’d soon find that this process of taking the wisdom from the elders and applying it to his life was more profound than any rap song. Deeper than poetry. and too big for newspaper headlines.
It’s not just about this one young man in America. It’s a universal concept:
Learn from elders. Teach the youth.
It is culture. It is religion. It is the way of life…
It is human nature to want to grow old and gain wisdom as you do so.
Only thing is… out here… We don’t all get to grow old.. and even fewer of us value wisdom…and on top of that…we don’t call them elders… we call them OG’s.
JR Valrey is a renown international journalist who, for years has been focused on producing media that sheds light on the social issues of the oppressed; he has recently published a book by the name of Block Reportin’.
The book is a compilation of over 30 interviews Valrey has conducted with individuals from all walks of life:
Paul Mooney, Cynthia McKinney, Mumia Abu Jamal, Freeway Ricky Ross, Mos Def, and Gil Scott Heron to name a few.
The book opens with an interview with one-time East Oakland drug kingpin Lil D, who is now incarcerated. The interview gives a modest peak into the life of Lil D: his past, his current state, and what he plans to do upon being released.
The first interview was just a taste for the pallet.The second interview was the hook…
Malcolm Shabazz, grandson and first male decedent of Malcolm X spoke to JR about the pressures of baring his grandfather’s name at a young age, the incident where a young Malcolm Shabazz lit a fire to a house that would burn down and take the life of his grandmother- Betty Shabazz, and the growth Malcolm Shabazz has experienced since that time.
His book, Block Reportin’ can be found at Marcus Books, Revolution Books, and a in your neighborhood as JR takes his book on tour… block to block.
I would like to publically salute JR Valrey for his work, dedication, and growth.