OAKLAND -- Anesha Harris and Lee Simmons, both 17, are no strangers to violence in Oakland, where they have both grown up. The two teens have witnessed or had friends who were victims of break-ins, robberies and assaults -- incidents they say have been traumatizing.
Harris and Simmons were among about 40 Oakland residents who turned out for a forum on violence Wednesday night to voice their concerns. The forum, hosted by the Oakland Tribune and Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, touched on the efforts underway to reduce violence in the city.
The pair, who attend Castlemont High School, were among only a handful of youths present to discuss youth violence and how to prevent it, which became the main theme throughout the forum.
"We all want to repair the community. I think us coming out and participating in this forum will help in reducing crime," Simmons said. He added that he hoped to see the community become more united.
Harris voiced her concerns about police interaction, the lack of safe and diverse activities for youths, and the lack of a diverse police force. She was joined in her concerns by the three panelists who spoke about ways to decrease violence in the city.
"We have been struggling with a serious crisis of crime and violence, as well as a serious crisis of unemployment and lack of economic opportunity," said Rebecca Kaplan, an Oakland councilwoman and forum panelist. "These two crises are fundamentally intertwined."
Kaplan said the city needs to focus on increasing public safety and expanding access to opportunities in order to help decrease crime. She added that moving forward she will work with police officers on their positive interaction within the community and work toward recruiting a more diverse police force to repair the rift between police and the community.
Panelist Alex Briscoe, director of the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency, said that the health department will further commit to distilling data to drive greater alignment between the city and county on the violence prevention plan, recommit to providing more employment opportunities for young people and develop a peer leadership group in every school-based health center.
"In the Alameda County Public Health Department, we have long seen violence as a chronic disease," Briscoe said, "and one of those rare diseases that has been made by human hands and therefore can be unmade by it."
Some ideas for these changes came from Gretchen Musicant, commissioner at the Minneapolis Health Department who used Skype to participate in the forum. Musicant described the Minneapolis' plan, which she helped develop, that is in place to reduce youth violence.
The "Blueprint for Action: Preventing Youth Violence in Minneapolis" has had an impact on decreasing violence in the city, Musicant said. Over the years, there has been a 49 percent reduction in juvenile violent crime, a 66 percent reduction in incidents involving guns and juveniles, and a 39 percent reduction in firearm-related injuries in Minneapolis youths and young adults, she said.
The blueprint has four goals: 1) every young person must be supported by at least one trusted adult; 2) the city to intervene at the first sign of risk that youths and families will be involved in violence; 3) work to get youth back on track; 4) recognize that violence can be unlearned.
"To launch an effort with that kind of collective expectation it is a very positive thing," Musicant said. "It gives you some momentum."
The three Oakland panelists discussed the work they have seen implemented in the city to help reduce crime and violence. This includes the creation of prosocial places of learning, a Caught in the Crossfire program to work with youth recovering from violent injuries and public safety strategies, among other things.
Panelist Anne Marks, executive director of the Youth ALIVE! program, which has a mission to prevent violence and develop youth leaders, said that more resources are needed ¿for a comprehensive violence prevention strategy.
"The key is not what the strategy is; the key is to stick to the strategy and fully fund it," Marks said. "Until we invest at the level that these things demand, we're not going to see the change we want to see."