Our “Unsung Heroes” recognized in The Guardian

Posted: December 13, 2019

Executive Director publishes Op Ed

The unsung heroes of Oakland’s drastic decline in gun homicides. Gun violence is a health crisis. More policing isn’t the solution – it lies with communities themselves

by Anne Marks, Youth ALIVE! Executive Director

This opinion piece was published in The Guardian on December 12, 2019.


There is a saying, made famous by the criminal justice reformers Glenn Martin and Piper Kerman, that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, but are also furthest from the resources and power to address it.

No one is closer to the decades-long epidemic of violence in Oakland than those who have grown up around it, those who live daily with the specter of violence, whose sleep has been punctured by the sound of gunfire, whose lives are forever marked by the pain of loved ones lost. Now that Oakland homicides are finally on the decline, it is these people, and the organizations within which they work, who are the unsung heroes.

At Youth Alive!, Oakland’s anchor community-based organization for violence prevention, intervention and healing where I work, we employ and serve people who are directly affected by gun violence: those who have been injured, those who have injured others, and the loved ones surrounding these often overlapping groups.

For Sherman Spears, his own experience of being shot and treated at a local Oakland hospital was a turning point in his life. He founded Youth Alive!’s Caught in the Crossfire, the first hospital-based violence intervention program. It has become a national model to reach young people like himself, to prevent retaliation and to promote healing and a positive path forward.

For Marilyn Harris, losing her only son to homicide led her to a new purpose. She founded the Khadafy Washington Project to provide help, hope and healing instead of anger, revenge and despair.

Glen Upshaw built a team of what Cure Violence, a not-for-profit organization specializing in health approaches to ending violence, calls “credible messengers” – people who can draw on their own histories and relationships in Oakland neighborhoods in order to broker truces before the guns come out. The team’s street-based outreach and conflict mediation relies entirely on homegrown talent, wherever it is implemented.

There are many factors that influence homicide rates but efforts like these play a fundamental role. In a national study of the crime drop between the 1990s and the 2010s, the NYU professor Patrick Sharkey and his colleagues found that in a typical US city, each additional not-for-profit group addressing violence in a community decreased the homicide rate by about 1%.

Yet the truth is that many American cities are still stuck in the wrong paradigm. Criminal justice approaches to curbing gun violence are based on a bright line distinction between victims and perpetrators. But those who do harm have almost always experienced it themselves first – 90% of juveniles in the justice system have suffered violence, a recent study by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network found, with on average five violent traumas reported per child.

The emphasis on the victim/criminal distinction also assumes that punishment of those who caused the harm is sufficient care for those who have been hurt. But we know that the impact of trauma on victims has long-term effects that can only be healed in community. And that healing breaks the cycle of violence.

We need to address violence as a health problem, not a criminal justice one. Law enforcement has a critical role as a partner, but police-led efforts cannot be the only approach to public safety. We’ve seen in cities like Chicago that when community-based strategies are defunded, violence increases. When all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. And our communities are not nails. We are people.

In Oakland, the growth of the not-for-profit sector addressing violence has been a critical piece of the story of the decline in homicides. In the past 10 years, Youth Alive! tripled in size – the equivalent of adding two new not-for-profit groups to the city. In the same time period, we saw some of our CBO partners newly incorporate, or move to Oakland, or substantially expand their programming to address violence.

Read the rest of this piece at The Guardian online.