Ten years ago, Richmond, CA was among the most dangerous cities in the country, with 47 murders per its 100,000-plus residents. A California state senator compared the East Bay neighborhood to Iraq. Street violence was so rampant that, at one point, the City Council debated on whether or not to declare a state of emergency in order to raise funds to fight the crime wave.
How could a young person possibly feel safe growing up in a community like this?
The answer for many is a place called the RYSE Youth Center, an unassuming building tucked away on a quiet corner of 41st Street, with words like FUN, CREATIVITY and SAFETY adorning the outside walls in brightly-colored spray paint. This is the sanctuary of RYSE Inc, which recently received a $25,000 grant from the Starbucks Upstanders Challenge.
A Home Away From Home
Established in 2008 out of a need for local adolescents and young adults to find positive reinforcement in their lives and express themselves in a secure, welcoming environment, the Center has served more than 3,500 Richmond youths, ages 13 to 21, from a variety of backgrounds and orientations (12 percent of members identify as LGBTQ+). Ninety-two percent of members eligible to graduate high school are more confident that they will do so since participating in RYSE; 98 percent say they feel safer at the Center than anywhere else.
But RYSE is more than an after-school program. It’s a philosophy, embodied in the organization’s Theory of Liberation, which empowers young people to make a difference.
“I was always the problem kid in my family, so I did not always see eye to eye with the adults until I became a member at RYSE,” says Dalia Ramos-Mucino, 23, who first joined the Center as a 14 year old and is now a member engagement coordinator. “The staff was always so welcoming and made me feel so cared about that I eventually just started calling RYSE my home and my second family.”
There are more than 25 workshops at the Center, from youth organizing to media and the arts. As explained in their Upstanders video, anybody can show up to RYSE and find an outlet for his or her creativity. Members write songs and poetry, record music videos, and hone their photography skills. They put on plays, make t-shirts, and have serious roundtable discussions about the issues affecting their lives.
“If you look at our YouTube channel, there’s a number of videos just about what it feels like to be a young person: the pain, the loss, the sadness they feel in seeing what’s going on close to them, but also all over the country,” says Kanwarpal Dhaliwal, RYSE’s co-founder and Director of Community Health and Integrative Practice. She mentions that the money from the Upstanders contest will be used “to continue providing holistic programming, including platforms for creative expression, healing, leadership, and community-building.”
Confronting the Issues That Matter
Members are encouraged to use the tools at the Center to tackle difficult topics. That includes police violence, which hit close to home in 2009 when 22 year-old Oscar Grant was gunned down by a BART officer at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland, just a few miles from Richmond. Riots erupted across the city, and the wounds from that trauma festered with each cop-related death across the U.S.
For RYSE member Gemikia Henderson, the tipping point was the 2012 slaying of Trayvon Martin.
“I remember waking up and feeling like something needs to be said,” Henderson — who created a video at the Center called “Street Literature” about the Martin shooting — told SF Gate. “And then a lot of other artists started making statements on the subject, and I thought, what artist in Richmond will do something? Who is going to represent this community?”
To make sure members’ voices are represented, the RYSE Center includes programs related to criminal justice education, informing members of their rights and opening a dialogue with the systems that they interact with on a daily basis.
“It’s also important that we do programs across all areas, in terms of what’s going on with the federal administration, what are young people’s rights around DACA, what are families’ rights, what are the resources we have in our community,” explains Dhaliwal, who says that RYSE partners with the local police department, schools and the juvenile justice system, acting as an advocate for members.
RYSE-ING to the Occasion, and Beyond
The belief is that the life skills and lessons learned from RYSE will carry over as members transition into adulthood, and perhaps join the Center’s staff, like both Ramos-Mucino and Henderson did.
“We want young people to see themselves running the organization, whether it’s in two years, 10 years, 20 years,” says Dhaliwal (about a third of the current staff consists of former members). “And that will really feed into them taking ownership and building power to run the city.”
Adds Ramos-Mucino, “A lot of people don’t know how smart, talented, and special young people are in my community. They don’t know all the positive things they have to offer.”
You can help with the Center’s mission, either donating directly or purchasing gifts through Amazon Smile and selecting “Ryse Inc” as your charity of choice.
As those in RYSE stand up, the rest will hopefully follow.
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