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Shanita Talton is a youth advocate with Teens on Target. (Jane Tyska / Oakland Tribune)

She's not the kind of person to get a hoodie made with a silk-screened image of a slain loved one.

She gets no gratification from bragging about how many people she knows who have died from street violence or who carry a gun as the latest fashion accessory.

And she is not like some youths her age who encourage retaliation or mourn by tagging their loved one's names on private property.

Shanita Talton is a youth advocate.

Working with her peers to help prevent violence before it starts, Talton is a youth leader with Teens on Target, an Oakland-based youth advocacy program. Through the program, she has learned how to speak about violence's effect on her life.

"Kids like to hear from people who have experienced violence first-hand," said Talton, 18. "But I tell them that I am here to advocate for my loved ones ahead of time."

Since 2005, Talton has helped organize and lead more than 50 interactive workshops to educate middle and high school students about the root causes of violence — gun and gang violence and family and dating violence.

She works with community leaders and policy makers to push for laws that help stop violence.

Talton said she is a role model and hopes to inspire other youths to change the conditions that put them at risk. Through the years, she has learned how to turn her painful childhood in East Oakland into a positive tool. She draws from her life experiences to educate about the connection between alcohol, drugs and violence.

When sharing her stories, Talton talks about the challenges she faced having a drug addict and high school dropout for a mother and an absentee father. She speaks about the responsibility she assumed at a young age caring for herself and raising her four younger siblings.

As a child, she remembers witnessing some unsavory situations, including run-ins with drug dealers and domestic disputes in the home.

Talton said she remembers when she was 6 years old and first learned how to use the stove.

With her mother often away, Talton stayed at home to baby-sit and missed school days and weeks at a time. She said she only passed sixth grade because she convinced one of her teachers at Havenscourt Middle School to give her extra credits.

"Sometimes I felt like, why even go to school?" Talton said. "But then I said, 'Why give up?'"

Eventually, Talton passed middle school and graduated with a 3.0 GPA She was the eighth-grade class president and won an award for leadership.

Her life at home, however, was becoming more dysfunctional.

"It got to the point where my mom was delusional and I thought she was going to die," said Talton, who's on pace to graduate from Castlemont High School in June. "I actually thought that would be best for everyone because as long as she lived, I died inside."

Talton says her mother, who has been diagnosed with HIV, spent years in and out of drug rehabilitation programs and is now being cared for at a hospice in Oakland.

In 2004, Talton and her siblings were shipped to foster care for a few months before a relative and his wife agreed to take them in, but she said her experience there was similar.

"I felt like I still had to take care of my brothers and sisters and all (the relatives) did was pay the bills and buy groceries," Talton said.

In 2006, Talton said she noticed that her relative was spending the monthly $600 checks for each child issued by Child Protective Services on himself instead of taking care of her and her siblings.

"He was getting free money when I really needed it," Talton said.

Eventually, Talton's relative moved out and her siblings went with him. Talton stayed behind to live with his wife, who she said struggled to make mortgage payments. At times, they lived with no lights or water in the house. When the bank foreclosed on the house, they were forced to move out.

Talton went to live with her godmother — whom she calls her "hero" — for a few months. With her godmother's support, she became an emancipated youth and won a Students Rising Above scholarship through television station KRON-4 designed to help low-income Bay Area students faced with obstacles, such as homelessness, growing up without parents or raising their siblings. With help from a teacher, Talton got an apartment and lives on her own.

"She's strong-willed and all of her obstacles are a part of her makeup," said Leslie Hsu, Talton's mentor and academic counselor. "There have been plenty of times when she's hit rock bottom, but I have confidence in her."

Last year, Talton hit a low point when her boyfriend's brother was gunned down and killed while leaving the movies at the Sony Metreon in San Francisco. Her cousin, Glen Taylor, also was shot and killed, in Richmond in 2006.

"I was infuriated and I didn't want to process it," Talton said. "But I decided to speak up for that little piece of hope that will make people stop carrying a gun or think about what they say and do before they decide to shoot someone."

Talton said that although she talks to students about the causes of and solutions to violence, her main message is compassion.

"Sometimes it's not about the statistics, because many of the people I talk to don't even know how to count, add or divide," she said. "What they want is your number to call you and to know if they can count on you tomorrow."

Next year, Talton is scheduled to attend UC Berkeley. She said she hopes to earn a degree that will help her make an even bigger impact on the community. She wants to create her own major that will allow her to become a community therapist and provide free social services to people.

"I don't want to have business cards because I want to be the person standing in the gap for the community," Talton said. "It's not about business, it's about life."

Reach Kamika Dunlap at 510-208-6448 or kdunlap@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Students Rising Above
Students Rising Above provides educational resources to high school students who are overcoming staggering obstacles to pursue their education and their dreams for a better life. To contribute, send a tax deductible donation to Students Rising Above, P.O. Box 29174, San Francisco, CA 94129; call 415-333-4222; or visit www.studentsrisingabove.org.