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The gangs that most of the children in the JJC belong to are in Oakland, which, like Newark, is a post-industrial port city. It covers an area three times larger than Newark and holds almost half a million people. It never experienced the exodus that Newark did, and its population has risen during the Bay Area boom, but its fortunes have lagged far behind surrounding communities. When former (and now current) California Governor Jerry Brown became Oakland mayor in 1999, improving schools and lowering crime topped his agenda. But as Brown left office in 2007, he was philosophical about how much he’d been able to achieve. He’d had less success with schools and crime than with downtown development projects, like Jack London Square. Oakland has seen a drop in murders in recent years, from its 1992 high of 174 to ninety last year, but it remains on several top ten lists of America’s most dangerous and violent cities.

In 1997, not long before Jerry Brown became mayor, the Dalai Lama led his first peacemakers conference, at the Bill Graham Auditorium in San Francisco. The conference gave a boost to an already developing network of groups that try to bring together inner and outer peace. In recent years, Oakland has become home to such innovative youth programs as Youth Radio and United Roots Oakland, which use art and performance to inspire and engage young people, and Youth Uprising, a leadership development program for urban youth that sponsors Corner’s Cafe, entirely run by young people. Oakland is home to the world-famous Green for All, the organization started by Van Jones, who is now the leading spokesman for the green jobs movement. The People’s Grocery is celebrated as an innovator in the “locavore” movement for urban farming and food justice, working to create a food system that “prioritizes the needs of the urban poor.”

When Jon Oda and Amani Carey-Simms, instructors in the Oakland-based Mind Body Awareness Project, took me into the Juvenile Justice Center to observe them teaching mindfulness, the first thing that hit me was the edge. It’s in the postures and the facial expressions. There are a surprising number of thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds, some of them already parents themselves. Cops I talked to are very cynical about juvie; they call it “gladiator school.” Oda and Carey-Simms let me know two things before we went inside. First, it’s all about how you conduct yourself and not as much about what you say. Second, the street kids will check you out a little. They have hard eyes and can easily sense bullshit and gaming. They like to “flip it,” too. If you’re big and heavyset, they call you “tiny,” or “slim.” When I meet the first group of five guys in the mindfulness class, we clasp hands and pat each other on the back. Once we’ve sat down and shared introductions, Luis (a pseudonym) gives me—an outsized middle-aged white guy in very ordinary clothes—a quick once over and remarks, “So, you’re a GQ model I guess.” It takes me a minute to get the joke. Luis, 1; dowdy guy, 0.

Jon Oda begins the class by talking about martial arts movies. It’s clear he’s a fan and he knows them frame by frame. And so do the guys in the class. I have no idea where things are going. Eventually, he’s talking about a lone warrior and all the challenges he’s facing, and there are big nods and affirmations all around: “Hella fuckin yeah.” Before long they’re talking about how the lone warrior feels, and not long after that, the students (aka the inmates) are talking about how they feel when they’re angry or alone. They’ve become children again. It’s been all of twenty minutes, and he’s flipped it.

In the next class, which is much larger and contains a more diverse racial mix of both boys and girls, trash talk and posturing are a routine undercurrent. Yet, somehow, after a little while Carey-Simms, who deftly avoids becoming anything resembling a disciplinarian, is able to pull out a guitar and sing a song about peace. Why aren’t they mocking him, I think. It’s because they’re too busy listening.

The Mind Body Awareness Project was started in 2000, principally by Noah Levine, author of Dharma Punx, a memoir which in part recounts Levine’s own transformation while in juvenile hall. In 2006, Vinny Ferraro (left), who also served time in juvie, took charge of training MBA’s teachers. Chris McKenna, a longtime mindfulness practitioner and trauma counsellor who became executive director in 2009, told me the program served 1,200 youths last year in three counties, and “we’re doing it with only twelve instructors, all of whom do this part time.” It takes a particular kind of person to have the credibility and dedication, McKenna said, to work with “traumatized, treatment-resistant populations, folks who aren’t going to sit still for your garden-variety meditation class.”

In addition to recruitment and offering training to people like parole officers, so there is support within the justice system, a major goal for MBA is developing successful aftercare programs for kids when they return home. “In juvie, they’re in the middle of a break in the action, and we have a chance of reaching them, but we need to see them again after they’re out,” he said. “We’re doing that to a certain extent, but we need to do more. We need to get them to a retreat out in nature.”

MBA has been able to start developing a model for doing longer residential retreats, because a youth correction camp in the countryside focusing on drug and alcohol rehabilitation has invited them to do a long-term program. “At Camp Glenwood,” McKenna said, “we’ve had kids in silence for three or four hours at a time. A lot of awareness can come out of a space like that.”

Across the bay from Oakland, at the University of San Francisco, Rhonda Magee works on another aspect of the justice system. In her contemplative law class, Magee said, “We’re trying to help lawyers become the kind of ethically engaged community that the public, and the American Bar Association, have asked us to become.” Magee feels it’s essential that the legal profession become something more than a lucrative dispute-resolution industry. She wants to train citizen lawyers who see themselves serving justice as much as law.

Magee tries to find ways to bring her work outside the walls of the law school and into disadvantaged communities. For one thing, she would like to see more lawyers coming out of these communities. She also has begun to investigate compassionate politics, starting with a workshop run by Oakland activists. “How do you advocate on an issue as polarizing as tax reform,” she asked, “and keep the dialogue civil and help people to understand how we are all interconnected, that we can’t keep marginalizing certain groups?”

As well, she also feels that restorative justice is essential for the inner city. “I’ve been attending a healing circle for people who are victims of black-on-black shootings,” she said. “Like me, they’re all African American, but unlike me, they have all lost a family member to gun violence. I’m honored to be welcomed there. This insane level of violence stems from education disparity, lack of opportunity, poor mental health care. Vindictiveness will not stop it. What people do in a circle like this can heal individual wounds but it can also increase the fellow feeling that we need to reduce intracommunity violence. The people in this group do not support tough-on-crime positions, as you might expect. They see the perpetrator not only as a wrongdoer to be shunned, but as a member of the community to be brought back into the fold.”


Earl Best is a soldier of peace. And he will be sharing with people at the peace summit his experience of the meeting place between inner and outer peace. Known in Newark as the Street Doctor, Best doesn’t go in for activism that involves a lot of paper and lengthy grant proposals and 501(c)(3) status. “I just go out into the streets seven days a week and I feed people who need to be fed,” he said. “I know where they live. I know they’re hungry. I bring them food.”

Best was imprisoned for seventeen years for bank robbery, and spent ten of those years in solitary confinement. During the interminable stretches of time alone, Best searched his soul. He read Gandhi, King, the Dalai Lama, and studied psychology and law. He had to teach himself what he had not been taught in his time on the streets. In solitary, Best told me, “I asked God if he would bless me with release and help me help others if I promised to change my former ways. I have kept my word. I wanted to make a difference in kids’ lives because no one made a difference in mine.” Best became a well-known figure in Newark not long after his release in 2000, and by 2003 he had founded the Street Warriors, with the aim of helping people who are on the streets and helping to get people off the streets.

Getting enough resources and managing an organization has been a struggle. He established a center for the Street Warriors a few years ago, but lost it for lack of sustained funding. So for the most part he does what he does best: direct action. Instead of a building, he has a van—an unsolicited gift from an admirer—and each day he fills it with blankets and food, donated by restaurants and stores or bought by him with proceeds from speaking engagements or small cash donations. When he shows up—at Newark Penn Station, at an abandoned building, at a gas station where people panhandle—he doesn’t just drop off the food. “I stay and hang out and eat with them,” he said. “I’m not there to give them a handout, a withdrawal from the bank. I’m there to give them the hook-up. That’s what the Dalai Lama does. He gives people the hook-up. That’s why I’m so happy to speak at this conference with him. It’s about bringing people peace, helping them find their peace. Peace is about being relaxed, and you know what, food relaxes people. I don’t see people frowning when they eat. Food is peace.”

Food, though, is not always something you put in your stomach, Best said, explaining the other major part of his street ministry. “There’s also food for the mind and for the heart,” he said. “I go into the prisons and the juvenile halls, into the grade schools and the high schools, and I give those kids a different type of food. I give them food for thought.”

I asked why hardened street kids would listen to upbeat messages. Sometimes they don’t, he acknowledged, but if you want them to listen you’ve got to do a few things. “For one,” he said, “you’ve got to use a lot of humor. When you get people laughing, you’re bringing them peace, and then they can listen better. Also, you’ve got to flip the script. If they’re about violence, I show them how in my own life I took the energy I put into violence and put it into peace. I let them know that in any given moment they can make a different choice. You’ve also got to be there for them. I give these kids my cell number, and I tell them I want to be the person they call before they are about to do something bad.

“This is not a job. It’s a mission. Every city in America needs a street doctor. Yeah, we got food banks and other walk-in programs, but you have got to go out to people where they live and show them the example of how you can be.”


Everyone I spoke with would like to see training in peace happen as early in life as possible. That was the inspiration for Mindful Schools, founded in Oakland in 2007 by Laurie Grossman, Richard Shankman, and Megan Cowan, who serves as executive director of its programs. In its first three years, Mindful Schools has taught its in-class program in thirty-eight schools. The current curriculum includes fifteen lessons that are generally presented in fifteen-minute increments three times a week for five weeks. As much as possible, the program involves students in every grade, and the training has been presented at all levels of pre-secondary education. In January 2009, Mindful Schools also began adult professional training for teachers and other professionals working with children.


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