So during his visit this week to California to bolster gang prevention efforts, he made sure to make a stop in East Oakland on Tuesday for a tour.
Youth UpRising, Holder said, exemplifies the kind of approach to preventing youth violence that the Justice Department wants to include in its mission under the Obama administration in reducing crime. The center follows a public health model for preventing violence and crime.
"We don't want to get tough on crime," Holder said during a news conference at the center. "We want to get smart on crime."
The center, which opened five years ago, has served 5,000 youth, most of them black and Hispanic and living in the low-income neighborhood surrounding the center.
The colorful, comfortably-furnished facility offers a cornucopia of free services to help pull youth off the streets and put them on a trajectory toward a productive life. Services range from computer labs and a multimedia room to an amphitheater for performing arts and a cafe which hires the youth.
Holder seemed to relish his interactions with youth at the center as he toured the various facilities.
At the Youth UpRising's dance studio, instructor Antoinette Wilson, 21, described some popular moves she teaches, but ones clearly unfamiliar to Holder. One called "dance battles" drew a bewildered look on his face. But soon Holder said "I got some moves," tilting his shoulder slightly as he walked past a dance video.
When visiting the Arts and Expression Lab, he sat down with three young men composing a song for a young woman one of the men was interested in. He shook their hands, saying "How you doin', man?" As one sang the lyrics to "Shorty, Will You Be Mine?" Holder said he wondered how his wife would respond to being called "Shorty."
"Can you write me a permission note?" he asked, as the young man who wrote the lyrics grinned.
Holder seemed impressed by the YU Counts program, which offers the kind of data processing services that increasingly are being contracted abroad. The program uses youth for data entry, at affordable rates. Simbarashe Sherry, 25, showed surveys he and two others were working on for an ambulance service, entering statistics on various aspects of its operations. Sherry described his dream to see the business dramatically expand and create jobs in Oakland employing youth.
"This is probably one contract away from really taking off," Holder said.
Holder also visited the career center, which helps youth chart a path to the future. It also provides practical support like resume and cover letter preparation, and a loan of a business suit. At Youth UpRising's highly-regarded health clinic, he shook his head at hearing that post-traumatic stress disorder is the chief complaint of youth visiting the clinic. There's also a wait list for mental health services.
Leading the tour was Olis Simmons, director of Youth UpRising. Also joining was Dr. Anthony Iton, a senior vice president with the California Endowment, which helps fund Youth UpRising, as well as Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums and Police Chief Anthony Batts.
Iton, who recently left a position as director of the Alameda County Public Health Department, said Youth UpRising was an initiative of the health department, as violence is increasingly viewed as a public health threat that responds to the same kinds of interventions used for diseases.
"It's the health department that decided this had to happen," Iton told Holder.
Rachel Davis, managing director of the Prevention Institute in Oakland, said Youth UpRising exemplifies the kind of new approach needed to effectively reduce youth violence.
"We increasingly are hearing mayors and police chiefs saying 'We can't arrest our way out of this,'" Davis said.
A report released today by the Prevention Institute, called UNITY, outlines the connection between violence and community health. Residents in violent neighborhoods, for example, fear going to a park or walking outside for physical activity. And supermarkets are far less likely to open in neighborhoods with a reputation for violence. The report describes a pilot project in Minneapolis which reduced juvenile crime by 40 percent over a two-year period by following a three-tiered public health approach: First, education and support; second, targeted interventions for at-risk youth; and third, rehabilitation.
Programs like Youth UpRising are typically funded through local sources, but Holder said the Justice Department runs a division focused on crime prevention. He said the department will be examining ways to support the expansion nationwide of centers which prove to be effective in reducing youth violence.
For Wilson, the 21-year-old dance instructor, there's no doubt Youth UpRising has saved lives. Wilson, who said she had a troubled youth and was a "fighter," now plans to major in criminal justice and minor in music next year. And she's seen her friends' lives turn around under the care and guidance of the center's staff.
"I know they would be killed if they weren't here," she said. "Or if (the center staff) didn't help them, they weren't ever going to go back to school."
Suzanne Bohan covers science. Contact her at 510-262-2789. Follow her at Twitter.com/suzbohan.