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CURRENT ISSUE:  May 5 , 2008
VOL. 46, NO. 9   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
Families at risk of foreclosure find help at Catholic Charities, Concord
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Youth violence: causes, cures

Religious leaders hear new insights
iinto growing urban violence

See the full text of Bishop Vigneron’s remarks

Youth violence is rooted in the rejection of the sacredness of another’s life, Bishop Allen Vigneron told 130 civic and religious leaders gathered for the annual Bishop’s Public Policy Breakfast Forum, April 29, in Oakland.

Bishop Allen Vigneron bows his head after inviting all attendees to stand in silent prayer for the victims of violence during the Public Policy Breakfast.
To combat that rejection, the bishop pledged to lead a quarterly day of prayer and penance for an end to the violence, and to ask for petitions at Mass and individual prayers to the Blessed Virgin Mary as well.

Bishop Vigneron pointed to racism and poverty as causes of youth violence, which is plaguing several East Bay cities, and said that any plan to address these causes must include strengthening families and improving education.

The “crisis of youth violence” in Oakland and Richmond “disproportionately affects low-income people and people of color,” agreed Teiahsha Bankhead, an assistant professor at California State University-Sacramento, and moderator of a panel that spoke after Bishop Vigneron’s presentation.

It is not necessarily gang-related, and most of the victims are not on probation or parole, said Bankhead, a board member for the breakfast’s sponsor, Catholic Charities of the East Bay.

Bankhead noted that 88 percent of homicide victims in Oakland are male. They are overwhelmingly African-American or Latino, and 32 percent are ages 18 to 25.

She said that kids’ overexposure to violence has given rise to a “loss in the belief of a meaningful future.”

But, she added, “It is not a problem with an unknown solution. . . . We know that employment and education work.”

Alameda County Supervisor Nathan Miley also observed that children are desensitized to violence. “They’ve seen so much violence — in the media, in schools. It’s a part of neighborhood life. . . . That shouldn’t be.”

Miley said Alameda County has responded with a plan to “reduce risk and increase resilience.”

He cited discrimination, incarceration, economic disparity, illiteracy, alcohol and other drugs, media violence and mental illness as factors leading to violence and said that youth, families and neighborhoods must counter these ills with good physical and mental health programs, positive family relationships, and artistic and creative opportunities for young people to participate in society.

“We must carry this through forever . . . from preschool to high school,” Miley emphasized. “The kids that are doing this stuff are the kids of kids who did stuff.”

Marguerite Wright, a psychologist at the Center for the Vulnerable Child at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, agreed that violence can be learned from adults.

She suggested a change in the breakfast’s topic from “youth violence” to “youth pain.”

“Youth violence suggests that they are the generators of bad things. In my experience, they are more often the victims of bad things happening to them.”

She spoke of her 5-year-old patient who, in the face of neglect and abuse, wanted a gun because he yearned to be powerful. And the 13-year-old with anger problems stemming from an abusive father.

Teiahsha Bankhead, an assistant professor at California State University-Sacramento, provides background data on youth violence during the Bishop’s Public Policy Breakfast. Bankhead is a member of the board of directors of Catholic Charities of the East Bay.
“Kids have the idea they are bad. We need to create nurturing environments that let them know that they’re good,” Wright said.

That means teaching parents coping skills other than abuse, and helping teachers create “therapeutic schools” where children can take refuge, she said.

Father Jesus Nieto-Ruiz, pastor at Oakland’s St. Anthony Church where a 13-year-old was shot during the funeral vigil for a 15-year-old in March, echoed Wright. “Kids don’t recognize the good in themselves,” he said.

And it is everyone’s responsibility to show them otherwise, said the priest. Kids are not simply the responsibility of their own parishes or families, he noted, “They are our kids, our sons and daughters.”
“Our responsibility is to present our communities with alternatives of life,” he said.

Fostering connections with community and family were the key recommendations from a year-long needs assessment on youth violence in Richmond and Oakland, reported Valerie Edwards of the University of California-Berkeley School of Social Welfare.

The study found that youth, especially in middle school, crave a connection with their families, and that people need pride in and a connection to their neighborhood and community.

The recommendations from the study, Edwards said, were based in “restorative justice”—targeting communities instead of individuals in preventing youth violence. “These are crimes against the community, not crimes against the state,” she said.

Lenore Anderson, public safety director for Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, also emphasized a community plan, requiring “prevention, intervention, enforcement and sustainability.”

To that end, Anderson said, Oakland has enacted the crime prevention initiative, Measure Y, and is working on public safety districts. She said making Oakland a model city is possible, because “this is a city that wants to see a change.”

Maria Barajas was the exclamation point on the statement that change is possible.
The senior at Oakland Aviation High School brought attendees to their feet when she announced that she had been accepted by six colleges.

While impressive for any student, the crowd was recognizing that Barajas had beaten extreme odds — a former gang member who lives in a troubled family.

Barajas said she joined a gang “because I didn’t receive the love of my family” and wanted to “be part of something.”

Although she survived a stabbing, and had friends who had been shot in gang violence, Barajas said it was a teacher who finally convinced her “gangs are not going to get me anywhere.”

Barajas stressed the need for more after-school programs. “(Youth) need to feel important, they have to have something to keep in mind that they like to do,” she said.

She also stressed the need for role models. “We learn from you guys,” she said. “We see and we act from what you guys do. You’re like role models to us.”

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