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BUSD’s Susan Craig (foreground) adds ideas during workshop on gun violence. Photo: Lance Knobel
BUSD’s Susan Craig (foreground) adds ideas during workshop on gun violence. Photo: Lance Knobel

Following the recent shootings of former Berkeley students in Oakland, a coalition of groups held a workshop Friday, May 24, to try to figure out ways to reduce the vulnerability of young people in the city. The meeting was spurred by the murder of 17-year-old Olajuwon Clayborn, another incident in which a Berkeley High student was left in a coma and later died, as well as other shootings with Berkeley student connections.

Berkeley Alliance, which coordinates the city’s 2020 Vision program, brought together representatives from Berkeley Unified School District, Berkeley police, City of Berkeley staff, and community organizations to work on violence prevention ideas that have emerged from 2020 Vision workgroups, including greater mental health suport, case workers for at-risk students, case managers for high school students, adopting training program, and community engagement in a citywide anti-violence campaign. 

Before the two dozen participants in the workshop split into small working groups, a number of speakers stressed the importance of taking action.

“A lot of the meetings I go to are just check-the-box meetings. I don’t want to keep going to check-the-box meetings,” said Pastor Michael McBride, executive director of Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action. McBride is also the national campaign director for Lifelines to Healing, a countrywide effort to reduce gun violence. “The only city in this region that is not investing in these gun violence strategies is Berkeley. And I have people telling me that Berkeley doesn’t have a gun violence problem. But we’re sitting around this table because we do.”

McBride’s stress on Berkeley’s need to act was echoed by Pastor Michael Smith from McGee Avenue Baptist Church.

“We do understand that the nature of what is going on with many of our young people is that they are transitional. Berkeley is a transitional city and it’s been a transitional city for a long time,” Smith said. “The result is we have kids from all over in the school district: they may be in Richmond, they may be in Oakland, but they’re our students and we have to deal with it. Many of these young people that we bury they ended up in Oakland for whatever reason. But they are still our kids.”

Joseph Marshall, founder of the Alive & Free Movement and director of San Francisco’s Omega Boys Club, agreed with the need to take a wider perspective.

“It’s not a Berkeley issue, it’s not a Richmond issue, it’s a people issue,” Marshall said. “We’re always fighting from behind if you just talk about fighting it in my city.”

Marshall’s Alive & Free program has been adopted at Berkeley Technology Academy, Berkeley’s high school for students deemed at risk of not completing their education. Alive & Free works to change beliefs, attitudes, values and actions that promote violence. According to B-Tech counselor Debra Clark, “it really made a difference” at B-Tech.

“A third of our students are homeless. School is the safest place for them. Once they leave, their lives are so unprotected,” Clark said. Implementing Alive & Free at the beginning of this school year, “changed the whole climate of our school. It may sound like a lot, but we only had two major confrontations last week.”

But Marshall cautioned that consistent action is vital, particularly at an early stage — ideally, before high school.

“In medicine, you don’t want to treat people on the operating table, you want to treat with prevention,” he said. “You don’t want to come together after something has happened, you want to prevent it happening.”

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Acting co-superintendent Neil Smith talks with Omega Boys Club founder Joseph Marshall in a breakout session during the meeting on gun violence. Director Julie Sinai and Deputy City Manager William Rogers listen. Photo: Lance Knobel

McBride said one of the keys to reducing violence is focusing Berkeley’s efforts.

“Not everyone in the community is engaging in violent behavior. It’s a small number of folks that are driving the violence. It’s part of the ecology,” he said. “We should be able to siphon off the group of kids that we need to target, that we need to be intervening with.”

School board director Julie Sinai pointed out that both BUSD and the city were in the late stages of preparing their budgets for the coming year. If consensus on priorities could be reached, she said, it could be a time “to incorporate new dollars into the activities we’re talking about.”

“It takes money, a couple of hundred thousand dollars,” McBride said. “I hear we don’t have it because we gave $300,000 to the Edible Garden.”

Deputy City Manager William Rogers said it was important that the group continued to get together and have an agenda for what it is going to do.

“I want to make sure we have a group that is actually going to push this forward,” Rogers said.

“If we don’t stop it now, we’ll just get a new crop of kids,” McBride said. “The ones that don’t die will perpetrate it.”

Berkeley community remembers teen slain in Oakland [05.08.13]

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...