Olis Simmons: Bay Area's Boom Not Benefiting Oakland Youth


Olis Simmons, 54, President/CEO of Youth UpRising
Has lived in Oakland for 30 years

How did you come to the Bay Area?

I came from Manhattan straight to Oakland. When you are from Manhattan, it is the megacity of all cities in the world. And I wasn't looking for another city, and San Francisco in comparison is quite a small place. I was looking for a feel, a tone, a texture, and Oakland offered that. It feels like home to me. Often I get on a flight, and people say, "Where do you live?" And when I say Oakland you can feel them pull away from you, ever so slightly lean away.

What do you make of this latest boom?

I think that it highlights both the  division in America that has come up most perceptibly around race and some of the #BlackLivesMatter issues, but it also represents a tremendous opportunity for us to be much more thoughtful and to get it right this time. To really think differently about what does it mean as a nation to be "indivisible" and what does it mean for us to really make sure that there's a place for everybody at the table. "Right" would look like a mixed-income opportunity: that you have neighborhoods that are not all affluent or all poor, but in fact we begin to really deliver on the American Dream and create an opportunity for people across a much broader range ... to live in a neighborhood where all the benefits of a healthy community are available to everyone in our nation.

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Is this boom having any benefit for the young people you serve at Youth UpRising?

No. And that's not just the truth in East Oakland. We work in a neighborhood that we call the Castlemont Community, at Census Tract 4097. That neighborhood really has been untouched by the boom. We have seven times the national crime rate in our neighborhood. And so the interface between crime and gentrification -- or "boom," as some people will call it more politely -- isn't often explored. But the truth is people are not running into a neighborhood where homicide is the leading cause of death. We also, though, have the cover of that to allow us an opportunity to really advance an agenda that's a mixed-income housing, as opposed to a displacement, strategy.

A young staff member at Youth UpRising was recently shot dead, years after turning his life around. Tell us about him and how you view his passing in light of this boom.

(He was) Born and raised in Sobrante Park, mother strung out on drugs, father completely absent. At 9 years old, really started fending for himself on the streets. And came to us six years ago, I promise you, the kind of kid you see and you cross the street. I promise you. Very dark, very large, and looked menacing, because life had not been good to him. But as you began to love him, because love changes everything, he unfolded and became by far the best worker on our janitorial crew. .... The problem is that as you become softer, but you're still living in a hard place, you become much more at risk. He was shot in the head in a dispute with someone else that was ultimately about $8.

And we should be ashamed of ourselves. As we drink our lattes and we commute back and forth with our heated seats and the comfort of what we've been fortunate enough to have, what is our responsibility to other Americans? And how dare we pathologize them for a failure that they were born into? That they didn't create, but they suffer?

But simply bringing more tech jobs to East Oakland wouldn't solve the problem, because it would displace these struggling young people, too, right?

The beauty of our economy and capitalism is that we can specialize. I just need (tech firms) to be an economic engine. Young people are dying in your backyard for a job. They're dying! And you have an obligation to that as a corporate citizen, as an economic member of this region. If you don't want to hire people, let's have a job creation strategy that's based on procurement. Let's onshore Oakland. Let's bring dollars back in these communities. Because the real test of a country is not how the affluent are doing, but how the affluent treat the people who are lesser among them.

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Curious about the boom/bust cycle that is reshaping the Bay Area? Check out our Boomtown series.

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