This is an excerpt from reporter Scott Johnson's blog, which focuses on the effects of violence and trauma on the community. Go to www.oaklandeffect.com for updates on his reporting and www.insidebayarea.com/oakland-hotspot for updates from the Oakland Hotspot.
Last night I¿ attended my first debutante ball. The event itself took place in Berkeley; it was a lovely waterfront gala affair where floor-to-ceiling windows gave attendees a crystal clear view of the San Francisco skyline and the two bridges. A few windsurfers were still ripping across the water outside as the sun set.
The debutantes themselves were billed as "Diamonds in the Rough."
The folks who organized it are from Acts Full Gospel Church, which sits squarely in our hotspot zone. As it happens, this was the first debutante ball that the church has staged. It was an overwhelmingly African-American crowd. Many of the men wore tuxedos and the women were decked out in full-length ball gowns of various extravagant colors and schemes. Waiters wore white gloves. I saw an 8-year-old girl with a pair of purple gloves that stretched up well past her elbows. Turns out she was one of the featured singers. I sat down briefly with Wendell C. McCoy, a senior assistant pastor at Acts and the evening's MC.
"We wanted to help present our young ladies to society, to help keep them on the right track," he explained. "We wanted to show that we can do something positive. Usually when you hear Oakland you always hear something negative, but we are raising these girls to become young ladies and not just street women. They're going from adolescence into womanhood and we are introducing them to society."
I asked him what this entailed. He paused for a moment, looking out at the crowd that was gathering, an illustrious Who's Who of some of the Bay Area's most accomplished and prominent African-American citizenry. There was Teresa D. Cox, the evening's keynote speaker, businessmen and women, pastors and ordinary folks from around the area.
"Well," he said, "they'll learn the curtsy and the bow instead of being out on the streets. A lot of positive things are happening with young people in lieu of all the negative stuff you hear about."
He thought about it some more.
"You know, it's an elegant affair," he said, sweeping his arm outward across the crowd. "A lot of folks here have never had this, you know, white tablecloths and so on, and these girls are learning etiquette, and all these people here are mentoring them. This will make a big difference in their lives for a long time."
Pretty soon the girls came out. They were indeed very beautiful and poised. Dressed in long white dresses, wearing tiaras, they came in on the arms of their anointed "beaux" who stood solemnly at their sides as they paraded around the room to thunderous applause.
Over the next hour or so they did various dances (which you can see in some videos at www.insidebayarea.com/oakland-hotspot).
Bob Jackson, the Bishop at Acts Full, came on to say a few words.
"I'm almost in tears to see this," he said. "It just goes to show you that not everybody in our community are thugs and hoodlums." The crowd roared its approval.
"I'll see you in church on Sunday," he said.
Just before dinner was served I found Sandy Bradley-Claybrooks, the 57-year-old brain behind the idea of the debutante ball. She didn't have much time to chat. She was shy, she said, and also had many things to do. I asked her why she decided to organize the ball. She didn't hesitate.
"All the killings," she said.
This surprised me. It was, after all, such an elegant affair, as McCoy had pointed out. How did these two worlds -- the killing and the caviar -- collide? And in such refined circumstances? Then Sandy told me a story about how, in the course of her work with the church, she had come across a young man in nearby Richmond who told her that he was a "gangbanger (her words)." They got to talking about the violence and Sandy asked him where it all stemmed from. "Why are you all killing?" she asked the boy.
He told her that the violence was, in short, a terrible love story gone bad. He told her that girls sometimes became too friendly with guys from different neighborhoods, or flirted with one too many boys, that they were, in effect, causing mayhem in the already crowded, overly hormone-charged atmosphere of adolescence. Only here, in the hood, those dynamics often became life-or-death scenarios.
"He told me that the guys, they have to man up, they have to stand up, and that's what causing so much of this violence."
I had heard this argument before -- the "girls are at the root of all the problems" argument -- and hadn't believed it. Mostly, I had heard it from former and current gangsters themselves, who told me that trouble over women lay at the root of all the violence.
But this seemed too facile, too sexist and easy and open to misinterpretation. Yet here we were at a debutante ball, and I was hearing it again.
Sandy continued. "I decided that if we pulled all the girls in and started teaching them about how valuable they were, what power they have to influence ... "
She trailed off and began to cry. Then she digressed and told about how her own granddaughter had come to her one day recently, visibly upset, and asked her for help because of her own problems, presumably with boys. "I knew I had to do something about it," she resumed. "These guys are fighting for girls, over a rumor, a threat, they're defending themselves and people are getting killed."
I looked out at the ball once more. There had been a lot of praying throughout the evening. A lot of "Amens," and "God Bless Yous," and "Praise Jesuses."
But the people here had come for something more, it seemed to me, a sense that here in this room was a cohort of 14 young women, age 16-19, in whom they could place their hopes, women who gazed out at the massive body of water separating them from the chaos of East Oakland and saw some chance of redemption and success.
Right now, on this night, it was hemmed in by the curtsy and the bow, by the niceties of society and the gentle twirls on the arms of their beaux, but these women will eventually go out into the world. Maybe they'll return to East Oakland one day and bring all the harnessed power of that room to change those streets.
Contact Scott Johnson at 510-208-6429 or firstname.lastname@example.org.