by Débora Silva
On a recent Thursday afternoon in Oakland, students of Castlemont High School transformed their classroom into a theater. Chairs were placed around the room, forming a semicircle to accommodate the audience, made up of teenage high school students.
Three students played the roles of a family (a mother, a father and a 7-year-old son named Junior.) In the drama, Junior returned home from school to face his parents after receiving a bad report card.
“How the hell did you get an ‘F’ in English?” the father asked. “Are you stupid?”
Junior kept his head down.
“You should act like a man,” the father said.
And that’s where Caheri Gutierrez, a 23-year-old woman who has dedicated her life to mentoring teenagers about causes and consequences of violence, interrupted the actors and paused the scene.
“How do you think a seven-year-old boy feels?” Gutierrez asked. “Give me some words, emotions.”
The audience shouted from the back of the classroom.
“Scared,” said one student. “Hopelessness!” shouted others. “Suicidal!”
Gutierrez wrote the words on the white board in red marker.
“And what were the very last few words that the dad said to the son?” she asked, as she walked around the classroom.
A handful of students yelled, “Act like a man!”
“Do you think that a seven-year-old boy knows how to act like a man?” she asked, raising her eyebrows. “And how do you think Junior’s dad learned how to act like a man? Maybe he was also put down by his father? It’s like a cycle.”
Gutierrez, a member of violence prevention group called Youth ALIVE!, organizes these weekly “Teens on Target” workshops to try and teach high school students about the cycle of violence – and to try and break it. The workshops offer tools to assist students in taking on leadership roles in violence prevention efforts.
“Violence, specifically gun violence, is something we have a lot in the city,” Gutierrez said. “If we don’t educate our kids, and ignore this issue, we are never going to solve it.”
Gutierrez’s workshops target youth that live in neighborhoods with high crime rates. The program is particularly meaningful in a neighborhood like East Oakland that sees higher violence compared to the city as a whole.
“I feel like raising awareness for a core group of students around violence prevention is very important to school and community change,” said Castlemont Principal John Lynch. “They build their leadership voice, their critical thinking around violence and their abilities to advocate for change with adults and peers.”
Castlemont students meet Gutierrez twice a week and participate in workshops with the goal of becoming “peer educators.” Gutierrez also works with students at Reach Academy, Elmhurst Community Prep and Roots International Academy, among other schools. At the end of the course, the students give presentations at middle schools in Oakland. They receive a monthly stipend for their work and gain bonuses for engaging in community events.
“The kids [from middle school] see these youth and they say, ‘Okay, he just told me the real facts about gun violence,’” Gutierrez said. “He is telling me that it’s not cool, so it might not be cool to do this. That makes the difference itself.”
TNT trained 25 Castlemont students last year, Gutierrez said. This year so far, 33 young people are getting prepared to engage in workshops in Oakland’s middle schools.
“Sometimes people of Oakland won’t listen to someone with a badge, a certificate, a degree from Stanford,” Gutierrez said. “They will listen to you if you have some credibility, if you look like them, talk like them.”
And Gutierrez is the kind of person who “is like them,” she said. An East Bay resident since she was 3 years old, she has experienced violence firsthand. In 2008, Gutierrez was riding in her friend’s car near San Leandro Boulevard and 98th Avenue when someone drove by and shot in their direction, hitting her in the jaw.
While hospitalized, Gutierrez met Tammy Cloud, a staff member with Youth ALIVE!. Cloud was conducting a program called Caught in the Crossfire, a hospital-based peer intervention program that supports youth who are recovering from violent injuries.
Gutierrez left the hospital after several months and multiple surgeries to reconstruct part of her face. With the support of Youth ALIVE! programs, she said, she gained strength to persevere.
“My mom is a Latino woman, immigrant, who didn’t really know how to speak English, how to navigate systems and services,” Gutierrez said. “There were so many services and resources that I could receive by being a victim. Youth ALIVE! helped me to find these services and to keep my life going.”
Gutierrez’s officially joined Youth ALIVE! as her first job after the shooting. She frequently visits schools to speak with kids about violence, from causes and consequences to solutions. For her, she said, the work is part of her own recovery process.
“I find that being here is like my therapy,” said Gutierrez, who still carries a scar on the right side of her jaw. “I get to process what happened to me. It keeps me going.”
While interacting with students brings healing for Gutierrez, teenagers at Castlemont say her presence provides comfort in their classroom.
“She understands your side of the story,” said Jazzmine Fromayan, 15, who joined the program because she was “tired of seeing family members and friends dying in the streets.”
“Some students don’t have the right role model to tell them about life, they don’t have a big brother or big sister to tell them, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’” Fromayan said. “Here, we all communicate in the same way.”
Youth ALIVE! is an organization based in Oakland that aims to intervene in the violence plaguing communities at risk. For more information about the organization, visit: www.youthalive.org
Débora Silva is a student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She wrote this story as part of her coursework for a class called Journalism for Social Change offered at the Goldman School of Public Policy.