This is the final installment from reporter Scott Johnson, who has reported on the effects of violence and trauma on the community for more than two years through a fellowship provided by the California Endowment.
Minister Mustafa Muhyee lives in East Oakland. He runs a small church out of a modest white house at the end of a dead-end street where he tries, with varying degrees of success, to improve his little corner of the world. It's a mission that takes him out into the streets every day, and very often it's this world he sees reflected back at him that tells him what needs to be done.
"The first thing that changes anything is environment, if it's unhealthy, if it looks sick, if there are liquor stores on every corner, then that's the environment we're living in," said Muhyee, who is pastor of BASIC (Brothers and Sisters in Christ) Ministry. "We are becoming that environment. East Oakland is not a physically beautiful place, there are no trees, there are too many liquor stores, there are boarded-up houses, and this is what people see every day. And this is what we are becoming."
This was one of the more cogent explanations I'd heard for how the different factors that comprise a community -- physical place, the inhabitants, violence or the lack thereof, trauma and/or mental health -- flow together and form a kind of patchwork. The health of a neighborhood affects the brains and bodies of everybody who lives there. And the converse is also true -- a neighborhood's health flows directly from how its inhabitants feel inside, and how they behave toward each other. It makes sense, then, that any solution should take this back and forth, this constant interaction between people and the world in which they live, into account.
For the last 2¿1/2 years or so I have been reporting from all over Oakland, trying to delve into the mechanics of how these various factors work, and what happens in a given community when something goes wrong. It will come as no surprise to anyone that in many parts of Oakland, something has gone drastically wrong. Homicides remain a plague on the city. Oakland is, literally, the robbery capital of the country, as my colleague Matthew Artz reported on these pages recently. There are entire communities in pockets of East and West Oakland beset by high levels of toxic stress, post-traumatic stress disorder and gang-related violence. Like many American cities, Oakland also suffers from a growing disparity between rich and poor, with some communities accruing resources and the resulting health that comes with it at a much faster pace than others.
And yet we know that Oakland has a huge number of city- and county-sponsored programs aimed at curbing violence, increasing access to opportunity and promoting health. So what's wrong? What is not working? And what needs to change?
The biggest issue, I have come to believe, is lack of leadership. Oakland has no shortage of programs designed to address violence. The problem is that very few of these programs "talk" to each other, or work together effectively. This is the kind of leadership that can only come from the top.
Other cities with violence problems have faced their issues much more effectively. In Minneapolis, for instance, city leaders made a very deliberate decision to address violence in a concerted way after homicide rates spiked in 2006. The plan that resulted, led by the mayor and a very committed council member, led to a 62 percent drop in violent crime over the next four years, in large part because city leaders made it a priority. It took several years "of creating a blueprint to prevent violence over the last four years," says Rob Waters of the Prevention Institute. "You have to get everybody at the table, all the city departments -- transit, the cops, the DA, mental health, public health. It requires action at all levels."
This has not happened in Oakland, yet. And it goes partway toward explaining how, in a city with so many well-meaning, committed people who want to find a way to curb the violence, the problem continues. But even if the programs were all coordinated, programs alone do not a community make. "People need something to do, man; if you look at Oakland, one reason there's so much negativity is because there's no positivity, no skating rinks or movie theaters, nothing positive that would breed community," Muhyee said. "When you get out of school, you don't want to just keep going to programs, kids want to hang out and be kids in a safe environment. So instead of putting so much money into programs, we need recreation, bowling alleys, things for them to have fun."
That kind of safety, a feeling of "organic health," you might say, is also something that needs to flow in both directions. The city could do more to foster the growth of small business in places like the old Antique Row in Oakland, business projects that would show the community that the city is committed to them. At the same time, it would allow the city to invest in itself in a way that would reap long-term health benefits for its citizens.
Anyone who has lived or worked in Oakland knows the law enforcement model alone isn't sufficient. Even with more police officers on staff, Oakland needs to develop a more holistic approach toward reducing crime, one focused on elevating violence as a public health issue and making sure everyone is on board with the idea.
Oakland has taken one positive step with the introduction of the Operation Ceasefire program that aims to curb gun violence by getting shooters off the streets using a carrot-and-stick approach. But this is just one tool in what should be a much larger, much more organized strategy. Ceasefire "doesn't take the place of the citywide concerted, multi-stakeholder approach," said the Prevention Institute's Waters. "That's a piece of a broader campaign, but it can't be the only piece."
Hopefully, going forward, Oakland's leaders and the community itself will reach out to each other to bring all the right pieces together.