The Oakland Entrepreneur Building Safety Nets for When Social Services Fall Short

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Desire Johnson-Forte, Executive Director of The BIZ Stoop.
Desire Johnson-Forte, Executive Director of The BIZ Stoop. (Luis Montoya)

For some young folks, there comes a time when they age out of child-serving social services. Their safety nets get thinner and they can struggle to find their footing with limited resources or experience. These sixteen to twenty-four-year-olds are sometimes called "transitional age youth" or TAY.

This is the crowd that Desire Johnson-Forte helps. She cares because she was once one of them.

Desire is currently the Executive Director of The BIZ (Black Intergenerational Zeal) Stoop. The organization has been around for six years, and has worked with about 50 young folks each year.

At The BIZ Stoop they take a holistic approach to supporting young people. To increase Black life expectancy they address fatalism through group conversations. They help young folks from the East Bay tell their stories to shift public narratives about them. And they support young people build businesses and careers through coaching, economic education and financial support in the form of micro-grants.

Desire, also the founder of Damn Good Teas,  has been doing this kind of work since she was a young person transitioning into adulthood, dealing with all that life threw at her.

This week Desire shares a bit of her story, why her work is important right now, and how she grew from a place where she needed assistance to being the person who provides.

Below are some lightly edited excerpts of my conversation with Desire Johnson-Forte.

Desire:  ...I started organizing in elementary school, to get teachers and support staff to stay at our schools in Oakland.  And that grew into further community work around sustainability and getting young people a voice and platform.

Desire: When I was 18, I came out as a survivor of long term assault by someone close to my family. That was the scariest thing I probably ever did outside of moving away from home because that put reality in my lap. Even though I had been presenting symptoms of something deep going on, no one could really put their finger on it, or maybe they were not comfortable pushing the conversation. When I got to living independently I just had to come out with the truth... I didn't want to carry that pain and shame far off into my life and just never get to heal about it… so it ended up coming out.

Desire: It motivated other folks to come out to me. So I started a group for survivors on my campus and I went to Mills College... I was surprised at a women's college there wasn't any like ongoing support group for survivors. And that's how I really started cutting my teeth, creating ways to address the needs of people who are living at the margins or carrying a lot of burden.

Pen (narration): After college, Desire worked with the youth impact hub. It’s a building just north of downtown Oakland and runs supportive programs for 18 to 24 year olds. Desire focused on developing a business plan, and that’s where the idea for The BIZ Stoop originated…

Desire: How do we address the roots of fatalism, shift the wealth narrative, shift the health narrative and earn our keep? Legitimately earn our keep so we can sustain ourselves where we choose to live, where we choose to have family and where we choose to make community. So that is what the BIZ Stoop is about.

Pen: You're tackling some huge issues… like fatalism is something that I've dealt with in my circle from a young age 12-13 being like, I'm not going to live past 18, 21, you know? And then by the grace of God making it past that age, then wrapping my mind around that like, ‘oh, i gotta get a job, a place to live, and things like that.’ What you're saying about helping young people transition into society is really important work...

Pen: Now you're on the other end, creating programs that build similar skills. What do you make of this journey so far?

Desire: It goes back to my own life in progress. I know that these are the challenges I've had to overcome. I had to go to therapy. I've had to build healthy relationships. I also feel very connected with my ancestors, whether I've known them or not. In current time, to decades and centuries ago. They made it through some shit! So it's my duty to make it through in this life...

Desire: I live in a quote-unquote dangerous environment, so community violence is a possibility, but also self-inflicted harm is a major possibility and having the tools to heal yourself are essential, I believe, to be able to wake up and feel like today I can try again. And then being in a positive affirmative community that is also going to challenge you. And I don't think that we should continue to make people go to very extreme situations to access the support that they need to stabilize.

Pen: Seeing your trajectory, how far you've grown, where you've come from and the work that you're doing now... Is there ever a moment where you just look up and you're like, I'm so glad I helped this young person because you can maybe even see yourself in them?

Desire: I think about that a lot... I hope that I'm doing what's right, and it's only through that data, through the conversations with young people, when they say 'thank you' that I know that I'm doing what's right, that I actually did help somebody.

Desire: It makes me very happy when I learn other people have taken their ideas seriously... get recognition, get the funding, get the customers, get whatever to keep doing that ‘cuz the low wage working class struggle that we've had to endure and watch our parents endure is to too f***ing much.

Pen: Thank you for sharing that... Through your career in doing this work, I'm sure you've seen some changes. What are the more significant things that you've seen change when it comes to working with transitional age youth?

Desire: Well a lot of us have basically aged out of the resources that would usually be available. It's terrible when you start your healing process and then it's ripped out from under you. So a little bit of change I've seen is some programs have expanded their age to 26 to maybe 27 years old. As you get older, there's more responsibility, of course, of course, but there should still be a basic level of some network support because people are still suffering.

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