Violence prevention graduates take their lessons to the streets

College of Alameda staff congratulate graduates of Violence Prevention Initative Certificate Program. Photo by Nicole Jones.

Shrinking school budgets and cuts to classes and staff are serious problems that will need answering, but it's gradution season, and that's cause for putting those problems aside for now and celebrating. So, congrats to all the graduates! Teens are preparing their caps and gowns, 20-somethings are waiting to be handed their Bachelor’s degrees. But there’s one group of college grads that is celebrating a different kind of academic achievement.

This isn’t your standard liberal arts college course where theory dominates the learning. And these aren’t your typical, college-aged students. They’re police officers, probation officers, street outreach workers and counselors – ripe in their professions, and hungry for more knowledge on how to make their communities safer.

Last week, this first class of 15 students graduated from the new Violence Prevention Initiative Certificate Program at the College of Alameda. It’s the first certificate program of its kind in California, where the learning starts in the classroom and continues on streets of neighborhoods most plagued by violence.

KALW’s Nicole Jones visited with the students on their graduation day and brought back this report.

*     *     *

NICOLE JONES: Humanist Hall in Oakland is swarming with graduates tonight. It was accidentally double-booked, so two graduation ceremonies are taking place right now. High school students from the anti-violence program called Youth Together were up first. Following them, graduates from the College of Alameda Violence Prevention Initiative Program, or VPI.

The double-booking mistake turned into something of an opportunity for the groups to apply what they just learned about community-building and cross-generational collaboration. These are things that VPI graduate Yaseem Bell considers crucial in her line of work.

YASEEM BELL: This is a really good experience because this is about being in the community, but now we’re not in single cells. Everybody has the same goal: working in the community. But we’ve kind of working in all these individuals groups. As a result of this class, we are working as a group in all sorts of configurations for improving the community. It’s exciting this way.

GRADUATION ANNOUNCER: Our first person who we’re going to welcome with their certificate is Yaseem Bell...(applause)

Bell is one of the first 15 students to graduate from this new one-year certificate program. It’s the first of its kind in California. Over the course of the year, students discuss the conditions that lead to violence in urban communities, its impact, and possible solutions. But instructor Crystallee Crain says what makes the program unique, is the requirement of 75 hours of community service.

CRYSTALLEE CRAIN: A lot of times college certificate programs are about theoretical topics that no one really knows how to apply like women’s studies or gender studies, or you know, African American studies. And this is actually a certificate program about the applied application of social change. It’s about community ownership and people saying, "Well, this is my neighborhood, I need to have the agency to be able to make the change that I see fit."

Violent crime is a persistent issue in Alameda County – less than five years ago, the rate of violent crime there was almost twice the national average, and the City of Oakland alone accounts for 60% of the violent crime in county.

Back in 2005, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors decided to create what they call a "Violence Prevention Blueprint Plan.” The blueprint is the county's guide for supporting violence prevention efforts for youth and reentry populations. It led to the launch of the Alameda County Violence Prevention Initiative, and to creating the certificate program in collaboration with the College of Alameda.

ROBERT BRIMM: The idea that we brought together was that we would go to the community to ask them what they needed, as opposed the college saying, "We have this," so in other words, we weren’t going to say, "If we build it they will come." We were saying, "what would you like us to build, and we’ll build it."

Robert Brimm was on the design team for the Violence Prevention Initiative.

BRIMM: So what ends up happening is we went to the community and the number one thing they told us they need is in violence prevention.

The students came with diverse experiences in violence prevention – they span the spectrum from police and probation officers to street outreach workers and anger management counselors.

One of Crain’s students is the father of two boys who were with Oakland resident Oscar Grant the night he was shot by a BART police officer.

CRAIN: We have him, who’s a police brutality activist in the class and a police officer in the class. And that kind of space is why this program is unique, because we were able to navigate a conversation about police brutality with a police brutality activist and a cop in the room and nobody left.

Oakland school police Lieutenant Steven Faharo says it was a natural decision for him to sign up for the course.

STEVEN FAHARO: The network potential is incredible as far as where I can go and who I need, if I need some help in a situation, I know exactly who to call. We walk the same walk, everybody in that classroom. I think it was meant for me to be there.

Faharo’s fellow student, Kelvin Potts, is an anger management counselor for at-risk teen boys in Oakland. He says what he’s learned in the program has been invaluable to him.

KELVIN POTTS: There were some moments in that classroom where I got close to the people and the energy and vibration there was really tremendous. I am actually a survivor of violence and destructive lifestyle. So this is my passion, this is what I do to feed my spirit.

Instructor Crystallee Crain says nearly all the students have gotten jobs at the organizations where they volunteered. Many students say they’ll keep their commitment to violence prevention by continuing their education. But they all say that the real learning comes when they take their skills back to the streets that inspired them in the first place.

In Oakland, I’m Nicole Jones for Crosscurrents.