Dream, Organize, and Act for Stronger, Safer Communities

by Zachary Norris, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

I grew up in East Oakland, near Fremont High School. But I never saw the inside of the high school until I was in college.

My parents and grandparents scrimped and saved to send me to Catholic school. I never forgot the sacrifice they made to enroll and keep me there. Because of their support and because I had a guidance counselor who believed in me, I went to Harvard. My first year, the student affairs office asked me to help recruit high school students from Oakland.

I went to Fremont High to talk to students — and saw an absence of guidance counselors, the presence of police, and low graduation rates. I thought about how different my high school experience had been. And I reflected on how my friends and I at Harvard were treated very differently for our youthful mistakes, compared with the friends and family I grew up with.

Nearly two decades later, I have held onto that lesson: Each of us is more than our worst mistake. That’s why I am helping launch Restore Oakland, a community advocacy and training center with a restorative approach to both justice and economics to ensure we do not treat anyone in our community as disposable.

Scheduled to open in spring 2019, the new center is a joint initiative of Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United). At Restore Oakland, local residents will dream, organize, and act together to build power and access opportunities to make it possible to earn a better living and build toward a safe and secure East Oakland.

We often think of major social problems as being separate, from the mass incarceration of people of color to segregation in the restaurant industry to cycles of poverty and violence. But these problems are closely interlinked, and that’s what Restore Oakland is all about.

Community members who have been incarcerated may struggle to find jobs when they return to the community. Meanwhile, residents who experience poverty and violence in their neighborhoods may also be harmed by increased policing and punishment.

What’s unique about Restore Oakland is that it will respond to multiple community needs — healing, jobs, advocacy — in one place.

I think of a young man who participated in a restorative justice program run by a local partner, Community Works West. While he was on a path that could keep him out of the youth-to-prison pipeline, his situation was still precarious because he and his mother were homeless. She was doing everything she could to help him avoid ending up in the juvenile justice system, and simultaneously trying to make a better life by attending a job training program, but was struggling to get by after being displaced from their home. When I think of all the people who would benefit from the services offered by Restore Oakland, I think of that young man and his mother.

Restorative justice is a method for diverting young people from the criminal justice system and a proven community healing model. Involvement in a restorative justice program instead of the criminal justice system cuts the rearrest rate for youth by almost half, and for a fraction of what it costs for a youth on probation ($4,500 vs $23,000 per year). At Restore Oakland, Community Works West and Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY) will lead efforts to hold youth and residents who cause harm accountable while keeping them in the community through mediation and conflict resolution.

Oakland is very different now from when I was growing up. My father worked for eighteen years as a shipyard worker before being laid off. Living wage jobs that used to be available to high school grads like him are all but gone. The city has become one of the most expensive places to live in the world, pushing Oakland to become a tale of two cities. A city where students who attend Fremont High have a diminished chance of graduating compared to students who attend Piedmont High.

An Oakland that thrives for all of its residents will only come from real economic opportunity that benefits everyone. To meet this need, Restore Oakland will house a restaurant run by formerly incarcerated people and other working people, and provide training that will give East Oakland community members the experience to access restaurant jobs that provide living wages, such as fine dining servers and bartenders.

To make sure that the solutions we offer are brought to scale, Restore Oakland will be a home for community organizing to hold our elected officials accountable to putting resources behind what works.

Zip codes should no longer determine our life outcomes. Restore Oakland can become a model for reinvestment and equitable community development in other parts of California and the nation. Let’s empower our communities and build cities across the country where everyone has access to dignity, hope, and opportunity.

Zachary Norris is a Co-Founder of Restore Oakland and Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.