OAKLAND -- All three of his sons are incarcerated. One has been in prison for five years, another for seven. His youngest has been in for nine years, since he was 17.
Glen Upshaw Sr. knows firsthand about crime and youth violence, and it is his personal experience that drives him to work within Oakland to prevent others from going to jail. Upshaw said his time in jail and visiting his sons in prison motivated him to find a way to combat violence.
Upshaw worked as a violence interrupter with Oakland California Youth outreach for more than a year. In January, he started Men of Influence, a group of 10 to 12 men, some of whom are ex-convicts, who are dedicated to curtailing the violence in their communities.
MOI's motto is "One youth at a time, one community at a time." Keeping youth and young men out of jail and out of crime's way is essential.
"It's something I would hate for anyone else to have to go through when I can try to save some of these youths' lives," said Upshaw, who served time in prison for armed robbery when he was 18 and later went to jail for assault. "It's been a real rough road for me, but it just drives me to try and prevent anyone else from having to go to prison for any such reason."
Every member of MOI has either dealt with crime firsthand or has had friends or family members who were victims of violence. Although not every member holds a college degree, they each wield influence within the community.
"This community street stuff, we are geniuses. We have Ph.D.s in this street stuff," said Richard Shaw, co-founder of MOI. "We have a universal language ... the street language that not everybody knows how to speak."
MOI's main objective is to reach out to people of influence to use as contacts when conflicts occur in their communities. The group has a hotline for community members to call when an issue seems like it could escalate into violence. The group will send a member to try to resolve the problem before it gets out of hand.
"We're trying to get a relationship with the youth to stop all this violence and have some respect for their community," Upshaw said. "It's a whole different era nowadays, and the youth are more violent than they used to be. They're quick to pull a trigger, so we have to have a strategy going in."
The strategy involves an MOI member contacting the point person in the area, who will then help the member get in the door to resolve a situation. Sometimes when members go into hostile environments, they will pass on what they learned to another member, who might spend time and mentor those involved in the conflict.¿ Even when a situation is resolved, members will still conduct follow-ups.
Although initially the group was focusing on East Oakland, they have dealt with situations throughout the Bay Area. Upshaw said he hopes the idea behind the group will spread so community members will feel empowered to mediate conflicts as well.
"I would just hope that some people would take the measures that we take in being responsible for their communities," Upshaw added. "It's about speaking up and being a man of influence."
Lucius, 62, who declined to give his last name, contacted MOI recently because of problems with youth in his East Oakland neighborhood. He said feuds in the area had gotten out of hand, and he felt the youth needed mentors. He said he has seen all types of crime, including drug dealing and shootings.
"I like the fact that their main goal is to keep these kids alive and free," Lucius said. "It's starting to get a little bit better, and the fact that we have somebody to talk to these kids, like the Men of Influence, it's really good."
MOI member Lamar Allen grew up in Oakland and said as a youth, he has dealt with some of the same issues. His role with the group is to show youths that there are alternatives to crime and violence. Allen, a graduate of Cal State Long Beach, said he returned to Oakland because it is his community, and he feels he can have a bigger impact.
"The biggest advantage of a group like this is, hopefully, it'll ignite other people to take action," Allen said. "We just want to show that presence that we're not afraid to tell these kids that we care and show them we care."
MOI is not funded, but Upshaw said that doesn't hinder their efforts. Members meet every weekend to discuss the conflicts resolved throughout the week, as well as to plan events to bring the community together. They are currently making plans for their "Family for Life" day. The purpose of MOI events is to get the community comfortable with the group and to create unity.
However, the main goal of the group is to have an impact on crime and the homicide rate and to provide a positive influence in Oakland.
"It's been a long time since Oakland's been safe, but we want to bring it back to where it's somewhat more peaceful than it is now," Upshaw said. "We want to make a difference in this year's homicide as best as we can. We are at risk in these things that we do, but we're just hoping for the best."
What: "Family for Life" day, food and school supplies for children who are heading back to school
When: 10:30 a.m. Aug. 31
Where: Rainbow Recreation Center, 5800 International Blvd., Oakland
Info: 888-224-9575 (hotline), http://www.menofinfluence.net