LifeLines: Achieving Culture Change in Oakland

In 2006, I started working as a community organizer in Oakland, California.  I spent the first few weeks on the job driving around West Oakland meeting with church pastors, families who lived in the neighborhood, teenagers at the district high school, and people who ran local service programs.  Everyone was talking about the same thing: gun violence and homicides in Oakland.  145 people were murdered in the city that year.  Mostly men, these were the lives of sons, brothers, nephews, fathers, cousins.  The community was devastated.  And angry.  And wanting to do something about it. 

That’s when I learned about Ceasefire.  Ceasefire is a national violence prevention model that grew out of Boston and was gaining traction in other cities, like Chicago.  Oakland Community Organizations, my community organizing group, flew the Boston Ceasefire leaders out to Oakland to tell us what they did to dramatically reduce homicide in their city.  What I heard hooked me.

Ceasefire is based on the premise that relationships can fundamentally alter patterns of gang and drug violence.  Building strong partnerships between social services, police, local community and churches was the key to addressing the problem. 

Violence isn’t random.  The goal of Ceasefire is to focus on the people actively involved in violent circles, in order to interrupt shootings before they happen.  What’s innovative is that the goal isn’t to focus on possible violent offenders in order to arrest them.  The goal was instead to CONNECT: to connect young people to real job opportunities beyond drug dealing, to connect young people to supportive social services that can help them make different choices, to connect young people to former violent offenders who have changed their lives and could help mediate conflicts and disputes. 

Weaving powerful relationships between community, social services, and police in order to protect a group of young men who have been marginalized, this was different!  Here was an alliance, taking a stand together, with the common goal of giving care and support to young people caught up in violent circles.

It took a lot of effort to get this cultural change off the ground in Oakland.  My team of community leaders and I met with the police chief and the department of social services, we met with job-training programs and other services for Oaklanders, like art and culture opportunities.  We brought thousands of people out in support of this strategy, which we called LIFELINES.  We said: “This is the new way to handle violence in our city.  This is what Oakland should invest in.”

And we won!  The city hired street outreach workers to build relationships with young people involved in violent circles and interrupt conflicts.  The police started partnering with community and social services to connect potential offenders with help, and together these partners let it be known, in no uncertain terms, that gun violence would not be tolerated in the city. 

It was an uphill battle, but we slogged along because we knew that Lifelines was a new chance for Oakland, a new chance for the next generation of Oakland youth.  We were saving lives, and we were radically changing the culture of Oakland. 

So I couldn’t be happier to read the headline this week: "Steps Towards Peace: Ceasefire seen as a cultural shift in Oakland."  With the constant leadership of Oakland Community Organizations, which has been at the forefront of this strategy, Oakland is reporting a 30 percent decrease in homicides.  City officials are celebrating this triumph as the result of a CULTURAL CHANGE—not a program, not a new initiative—but a transformation in city principles that is creating new relationships and new outcomes for the people who need it most.  Bravo!

 Photos:Oakland Community Organizations

Photos:Oakland Community Organizations