‘Men of Influence’ Bring Parenting to Oakland’s Toughest Streets

Upshaw knows the streets. He was raised in East Oakland. He even did a little time as a young man for robbing a grocery store and later, as an adult, for domestic violence.

Now he works as a counselor for California Youth Outreach.

“I live it, I see it, so I’m trying to make it better for everybody else,” he said.

One afternoon, Arnoldo Garay happened to be at the rec center playing basketball.

He was bouncing the ball when one of the elder men told him join the circle.

Arnoldo ended up sitting with the men for hours. He opened up to the group, telling them about dealing drugs and spending time in a psychiatric hospital. One of the men gave Arnoldo his cell phone number and told him to call if he ever needed anything, day or night.

“I think it’s actually pretty cool because it’s people trying to help give back to the community,” Arnoldo said. “And some of us really just need the help, you know?”

Lamar Allen is one of the Men of Influence.

“We have to become the elders, we have to adopt these kids in a sense,” said the 44-year-old Allen.

An elder can be 29 or 60, Allen said. The important thing is for Men of Influence to recruit teenagers in order to work toward actually stopping the shootings.

“We just wanna show the kids that’s out here now, feeling hopeless, that we care,” Allen said. “And put the gun down.”

That’s exactly what 29-year-old Greg Johnson is trying to do with Damarea, who is about to become a father himself.

Damarea said he is determined to do a better job than his father.

“I don’t want my child to feel toward me how I feel toward my father,” he said. “Like feel neglected, feel like he could have been there. The same old story.”

Johnson gives Damarea rides to basketball games and shares parenting advice. In return, on a recent Saturday, Damarea helped Johnson and other members of Men of Influence pick up trash in the streets.

“If you don’t lead ‘em, somebody else is lead[ing] ‘em,” Johnson said. “You don’t ever want the wrong person to lead ‘em, so that’s part of stepping up. You see him out here helping, he being a productive community member, so that’s all you could ask.”

Filling a Vacuum

But raising a son in East Oakland can be incredibly hard, as group founder Glen Upshaw knows. Nearly 10 years ago, two of his sons were having problems with another group.

Upshaw stepped in to help resolve it, and he believed he had.

“I thought it was squashed,” he said. “But somehow they started shooting at my sons, and I don’t know where my sons got some guns from … but they started shooting back, and an innocent bystander got shot.”

That innocent bystander turned out to be the child of an old friend. Upshaw’s sons went to prison.

Upshaw said maybe if the Men of Influence had been around back then, that killing could have been prevented.

Oakland Crime and Prevention

What Next?

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