More of a police presence and better police community relations are good ways to prevent violence, but a group of young men in Oakland are trying a different approach. They call themselves "Warriors for Peace,” and they are part of a violence prevention program that equips and trains teens to make films about Oakland. The hope is that from behind a lens, they will see their city, and themselves, a little differently.
Recently, twelve young men within the program curated a screening of their latest videos at The Spot, a youth center in Oakland's Chinatown. Nineteen-year-old filmmaker Geoffrey Dang presented the first film screened that evening, "Where You From? Oakland."
Fellow program participant, and filmmaker Phuong Dang, also worked on the film. “We wanted to show the violence in Oakland, but also how beautiful Oakland is,” Phuong Dang says.
For Geoffrey Dang, the project was also a chance to experience new parts of Oakland, like the north side. Though he has spent his whole life in Oakland, it is an area he rarely sees. “They had us out there with cameras, trying to capture every beautiful thing we could in Oakland,” Geoffrey Dang says, “and from that we saw so many art pieces around, so many random taggings, you start to look at Oakland in a different light.”
E’Quacy Parker walks around his East Oakland neighborhood, and points out some of the places he filmed for his project. He has lived here for five years, and he says that it is mostly peaceful, but that things can change from block to block. “It’s just once you start to get into High Street and then past that, then that’s when it starts to get a little rowdy,” Parker says.
Though Parker’s film is about teen-dating violence, interviewing people on the street got him thinking about violence more generally. Just last month, a deadly shooting took place only a couple of blocks away from Parker’s house. He says the gunshots are common sounds. “I’m used to them, unfortunately,” he says, “I shouldn’t be, but I’m used to them. You hear them, you hear them.”
Oakland is a young city – 40 percent of the total population is under the age of 30, and many of those young people grew up with violence. Over the last five years, nearly 90 percent of homicide victims in Oakland were young males. One fifth of Oakland high school students say they’re involved in gangs.
Back at The Spot, Geoffrey Dang says he and his friend recently saw a woman forced into a car in the parking lot of a Jack in the Box. “You see these things everyday, and you get used to it, it’s part of your life,” he says. “Crazy stuff happens out here. And this program, we’re able to talk about crazy things happening.”
For his video, 21-year-old Darien Jefferson interviewed other young people about their perceptions of violence. “Most of the youth said we need role models, positive role models, and that’s what I wanted to get in the films,” Jefferson says, “Like a youth voice toward violence.”
Warriors for Peace is intended for young men – there are no women in the group. The Spot’s Director, Sherilyn Tran, says that was an intentional choice. “They’ve been socialized to be really tough,” Tran says, “and so we thought maybe isolating the young men in a group just by themselves, without any fear of women in the room feeling they have to show themselves in a certain way, just so they can be honest and open about it.”
Tran says giving the young men a creative outlet is a key goal of the program. “When you talk about mental health it’s usually taboo – are you crazy? What’s wrong? Do you need to walk in a counselor?’” she says, “So we wanted to do it in a strategic way that they didn’t feel like there was anything crazy to share about your feelings. And to be able to do it on a video opens up the door for other young people to feel they aren’t alone.”
Covering the walls of The Spot are hints that the young men are indeed letting down their guard. Cut-outs of backpacks say “Whatcha packin?’” – a street phrase typically meaning “What weapon are you carrying?” But in this case, the backpack contains things like siblings, religion, a fitted cap.
“When you’re here, you’re with the community and everything,” Geoffrey Dang says, “And it’s like a safe place to be.”
The young filmmakers will be submitting their videos to San Francisco film festivals this fall.