“We used to call it the Urban City Rez when I was growing up. We had people like me from the Crow Nation, Sioux Lakota, Apache Pomo California natives, and Navajo tribes. All the different tribes. We all came together in the Fruitvale District in Oakland in the 80’s and early 90’s.
“But in the last couple decades, a lot of families got pushed out because of gentrification. My family is one of the last of the original families in the neighborhood who still own our home. People I knew and grew up with were evicted, or they just had to move. The Native American population here has gotten very small. And for those who are left, there’s always tension with new neighbors who’ve moved in. They are always calling law enforcement on young people for just hanging out.
“I work for Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice. The acronym is CURYJ – we pronounce it “Courage.” We do a lot of work with young men and women of color in the community, including many Native young men and women like the friends I grew up with. My family has deep roots in the community, with five generations in Oakland. This gives me a lot of privilege in working with folks who are impacted by gang and police violence because it makes it easier to relate. We try to reach out to young people who tend to get left behind – the ones teachers are calling the police on, the ones who get tagged by the system as the ‘worst of the worst.’
“I can relate to these young people because I was in their shoes not too long ago. I got profiled and targeted as one of the Norteno Gang Injection in the Fruitvale District, and what was known as the Mexican/Chicano area of East Oakland. That was during the time of the gang injunctions in California, when you could be arrested for just hanging out and doing nothing. CURYJ was one of the organizations that fought and won the fight against gang injunctions, and that’s one of the things that got me involved.
“My grandfather always told me about who I am and where I’m from. He made the Native American traditions come alive for me. He taught me how our communities have been fighting for dignity and respect for hundreds of years. That’s why I am so focused on helping Native young people connect to their heritage through CURYJ. We have ethnic studies programs, we organize sweat lodges, and we try to educate people so they learn to be proud and feel like they are part of their tribe.
“I also work with a lot of other young people from different cultures. Whether they are African American, Southeast Asian, Mexican or Chicano, at CURYJ we help people find their voice, learn about their history, and get in touch with their roots. And it’s all so they can move forward and be proud of who they are.
“Looking to the future, I want to see more of our young people of color getting more involved in the policy process. I learned how important that is when I was working with CURYJ to pass Prop. 57, which ended the process where prosecutors could arbitrarily file a minor’s case in adult court. We went around registering voters and building support in the community. And, when they tried to bring stop-and-frisk to Oakland, we stopped it. Those were big wins for us, and they happened because people used their power and their voice.
“And now there is so much more we have to do. We need to make it so people and families can stay in their communities. We need young people to be safe from profiling, whether it happens in the community or in school. We need to end mass incarceration and put the money into creating jobs and opportunities for young people.
“CURYJ is working for all of these things and more. When I walk out my door in the morning, I feel like I am already at work even though I am not in my office. Just being in my community and talking to people and offering them whatever hope and support I can – that makes me feel good.
“We talk about helping young people dream beyond bars. That’s what this work is about. We need to help young people connect with their past, present and future. I’ve seen what happens when we do this, and it’s a powerful thing.
Michael Angelo Muscadine is a cofounder and senior life coach with Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ) in Oakland.