Sherman Spears was ready to make a change. In 1994, he was lying in an Oakland hospital bed with a gunshot wound that would land him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. More than anything, he knew he wanted out of the gang life that had put him there — but he didn't know how to start. His mother was too distraught to help much, and his friends showed their concern by offering to retaliate against the guy who'd shot him. His doctors could care for his physical wounds, but they didn't know how to point him towards a different path. Spears always remembered wishing that someone had talked to him then — someone who knew what he was going through, and could help him find a way out.
Soon, he started visiting shooting victims at Highland Hospital, offering support and advice on how to turn their lives around. His work turned into a pioneering program — Caught in the Crossfire — that advises youth who are recovering from violent injuries. Today, it's part of Youth Alive, a nonprofit that works tirelessly to bring peace to Oakland.
And here's the thing: these programs are working. Yes, Oakland is a notoriously violent city, but it's also home to some of the most effective and creative anti-violence groups in the country. We talked to Anne Marks, the Executive Director of Youth Alive, about the way forward.
Caught in the Crossfire is a 2012 Oaklandish Innovators Award winner. For more information on our grants programs, visit our community page.
Let's start with how you ended up at your job, and what Youth Alive and Caught in the Crossfire does.
I first got into this job through prison re-entry work. Of all of the programs that I got to know, Youth Alive was my favorite. We work with a lot of people already caught up in the criminal justice system, and we also work with people who are at risk for getting caught up because they’ve been shot or stabbed. Once you’ve been affected by violence — when you’ve had someone you love killed or you’ve been hurt yourself — the odds are incredible that you will be a victim or perpetrator of violence again. A lot of that has to do with science and biology — basically it does a real number on you physically and biologically when you’ve had repeated exposure to terrible things like being shot.
And here we are in a community where this happens too often. I just thought what Youth Alive does and the bravery and the commitment with which our staff goes out and works with people is really amazing.
With Caught in the Crossfire, when someone gets shot — when there’s a shooting — some people live and some people die. But we’re always working together. Sometimes we’ll start working with somebody and unfortunately they won’t make it. Sometimes somebody gets beaten up and hospitalized and the next time they come in with a stab wound, the next time they come in with a gunshot. That’s the way that these things escalate unless you intervene and really work closely with them.
Obviously, Oakland gets a lot of press for being a violent place. What are some of the misconceptions you see in the way it gets portrayed?
People like to just say that there is tons of random violence that can’t be counteracted. I think one thing that is really interesting is that Oakland has a lot of programs that have been recognized nationally — that people have studied on the national level and say, “Wow, that really does work.” It’s good to know that a lot of cities around the country take hope from the kind of things that we’re doing in Oakland. There’s actually a lot of resilience and hope in terms of the work that we do.
There are so many people committed to changing the dialogue about Oakland. It’s amazing how many people are former victims of violence or formerly involved in violence who have committed to making this their life’s work.
And then of course there’s the notion that violence is everywhere. And it’s not. It’s really concentrated in a few places. And that doesn’t make it better, but that makes it so we can be smarter about how we go about addressing particular issues.
Can you just walk us through what exactly happens from the moment that somebody lands in the hospital? How do you hear about it and what do you do next?
We work with all of the trauma centers in the county: Highland, Children’s Hospital, and Eden Medical Center. We visit them, calm down the tension in case there was any talk of retaliation, and then work with them from the bedside to help them plan for how they’re going to take care of themselves.
We help these victims with the basics — making sure they have insurance compensation to help cover their medical costs, literally transporting them to their medical appointments. Maybe they need to be re-enrolled at school. Maybe they need to be taken to a job or junior college to get trained for a job. Maybe they need to relocate because someone is coming after them. Whatever it takes to support them.
We’re bonded with them from when we met them, because they were really ready for some change and we came to them as a peer from the community who cares about them. We are part of their lives. We work with them really, really closely from that point on and help them turn their life around.
How do you find the folks who end up helping with the interventions? Are they generally coming to you or are they usually people that you’ve worked with before?
We try to hire people who we know from the community. They’re previous victims of violence themselves or are connected to the issue. You want to find someone who has passion, cares about the community and is smart — then you can train them up on all the specifics. But having that ability to really connect and passion for the issue is really important.
There was this national study done that said that when young people get shot and go to the hospital, 44% end up coming back with another gunshot wound within 5 years. The same study said that 20% of them ended up dying by violence.
And you guys have had some pretty good luck in reducing those numbers with the people that you work with, right?
That’s right. We’ve had two published studies done and they show that our recidivism rates are less than five percent. Meaning less than five percent of our youth get injured again. Which is obviously a lot better than forty-four. One of them showed that two percent get injured again.
Since we started doing this work in 1994, there have been other programs that have sprung up because they have read about us or talked to us. So we have a network of programs — there are 21 across the country that do this work. So one of them in Baltimore did a study and found really significant differences in terms of getting injured again and also involvement in the criminal justice system for people that get connected with services at the hospital bedside.
So this whole violence issue in Oakland, it’s something that everyone who lives here is aware of. Everybody is kind of aware that it is a really complex issue that doesn’t have a quick fix. But for people who want to make things better, what are the sorts of basic things that people who live in Oakland can do to help address the issue?
Oakland has a reputation for being a place that has a lot of crime. But actually we’re a beacon of hope for a lot of other communities because of the work that we do here.
You can get involved with your neighborhood crime prevention council. You can support us financially — not just Youth Alive, but a number of organizations that work in the field.
There are also a number of volunteer opportunities. We’re always looking for people that can provide aid and comfort to families after a homicide. And there are other organizations as well that need that help.
Being involved in your neighborhood crime prevention council, giving your time or your money to the programs that are doing the work, and then politically supporting initiatives that put money into, not just police, but police and community programs.
I’ve got to ask, when you tell people what you do, you must get a lot of reactions from people being, “Wow, that must be really heavy. I could never do that.” — or something along those lines. So how do you react to that? It must be a really intense job to come in and do for you all, but obviously you’re making it work. So how do you handle the intensity of doing that kind of work all year round?
With our staff, we try to focus on taking time to do self-care and that type of stuff. But it doesn’t feel heavy when you have successes. It doesn’t feel heavy when someone graduates from high school. We had a young one who got shot in September; it was her senior year. Now she’s a youth leader and she just graduated and it’s like… you can’t feel bad about that! That’s a great feeling. It’s really motivating.
Are there any other groups or people in particular doing great work in Oakland that you think deserve a shout-out?
Yeah, absolutely. We have a lot of great partners that do a lot of amazing work. Certainly the work we do with homicides, helping those families, we couldn’t do without the Catholic Charities of the East Bay and their commitment to providing ongoing housing and mental health support.
And then we have a great relationship with the folks that do the street outreach work in our community. California Youth Outreach is the bigger of those organizations and amazing in the work that they do. And then we have our youth leadership partners: the Ella Baker Center and the Urban Peace Movement, who we work closely with.
And then of course the hospitals that provide the frontline care. The Children's Hospital Oakland and Alameda County Medical Center are not just partners — they put their money where their mouth is in terms of supporting this work. Because they know that you don’t just care for someone’s physical wounds — you have to care for the entire person.
Do you have one particular success story of someone that you’ve worked with lately?
We have a young man on staff now that was a client. He was shot in the back and damaged his spine. He thought he was never going to walk again and we worked really closely with him, and now he can walk. We got him enrolled in junior college. And so now he’s going to school and he works part-time for us. He just had a kid, so his whole world is different now. That’s probably a good example of the kinds of things that we do.
Anything else that you think people should know about what you guys do?
I feel like what people don’t understand is that these programs are working. They’re really working. Studies have shown that they are. The problem is just less and less money to fund the programs and the basic police services that we need, too. You, know every city that has made a major change has done so because they’ve made an investment. And as long as we keep making an investment of our money and our time, we’re gonna get past this.
I wish there was a lot more coverage of the people that are already working to address these issues in Oakland.
Right. When we had that Oikos shooting, there are a lot of cities that wouldn’t have been able to have a response. But because we were set up with the infrastructure, we were. We worked with all those families. To have a community that really cares about our victims is something special. Other cities take notice — that’s unusual.
And I think Oaklandish is part of that effort to say, “We’re proud to be from here and we take care of our own.”
This week I got a phone call from Memphis; I got an email from Minneapolis. There are cities contacting us in Oakland asking, “How can we copy what you do?” There are people that just think we are the worst, but in fact we really are a model.
There’s this attitude in Oakland — people are really resourceful and innovative with what they’ve got. Nobody is expecting anybody else to come in and fix the problem for them here. That’s something that people here in Oakland are proud of, but that just doesn’t get transported outside the city limits very much.