Lifelines: 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 wanted 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.  My community organizing network 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 building strong relationships between local community, social services, and police can fundamentally alter patterns of gang and drug violence.

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

This was different! It was a strategy that wove new relationships between community, social services, and police, to take a stand together, in order to protect and support a group of young men who have been marginalized.

It was hard work to get this new strategy off the ground in Oakland. A lot of people said it couldn’t be done. But my team of community leaders and I met with the police chief, we met with the department of social services, we met with job-training programs, we met with church leaders and community-based programs, and we got them to commit to work together for the Ceasefire violence prevention model. We mobilized thousands of people to stand before the mayor and police in support of Ceasefire. We declared: “This is the new way to handle violence in our city. This is what Oakland should invest in.”

And we won!  Oakland hired street outreach workers to build relationships with young people involved in violent circles to interrupt conflicts. The police started partnering with community and social services to connect potential offenders with help. We built an alliance between community, faith leaders, social services and police that hadn’t existed before. 

It was an uphill battle, but we slogged along because we knew that Ceasefire 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. 

Oakland is still changed. This week, eight years since we started our campaign in Oakland, the East Bay Times ran the headline: "Steps Towards Peace: Ceasefire seen as a cultural shift in Oakland," reporting that Oakland has a 30 percent decrease in homicides. The article states that Oakland has undergone a transformation, that the city is different because of its commitment to build new relationships and persevere to achieve new outcomes for the people who need it most.

I’m proud to have worked, with community leaders, to catalyze this change. I’m proud that over time (which is how culture change works!), we moved Oakland towards more peace and justice for the families and communities who deserve it. Bravo, Oakland!

Photos:Oakland Community Organizations

Photos:Oakland Community Organizations