“A Wake Up Call”: The Suffering of Systemic Violence in Student Lives
(Part I of a 4 part series on the 4 Noble Truths)
To live and to learn: For many youth in America, these two objectives prove a daily challenge.
While some of the nation’s students access the kinds of educational and economic opportunities that epitomize the American Dream, others are left with the very real ramifications of global capitalism’s foundational inequality. This is part I of a 4 part “Four Noble Truths” series that seeks to understand how low-income youth of color suffer (disproportionately) from the historic effects of systemic violence. It focuses on the case of youth in Oakland, CA, a city which has garnered much recent attention for its growth, gentrification, and ongoing educational disparities.
Many of the students in Oakland who experience direct suffering from the legacies of social, political, and economic inequality live in economically distressed, racially segregated neighborhoods where the schools are underfunded. Violent crime in these areas is often high; one of the many effects of the historic underdevelopment of what K. Wayne Yang refers to as the postcolonial ghetto. For some Oakland students, the walk to and from school is a precarious journey that offers no guarantees of survival. In fact, San Francisco Chronicle education reporter Jill Tucker found that “Since 2002, the number of African American men killed on the streets of Oakland has nearly matched the number who graduated from its high schools ready to attend a state university.” In a nation that has demanded that No Child be Left Behind, a disproportionate number of low-income students of color in Oakland, and many other cities across the nation, are sometimes left for dead.
Unfortunately, this is not a lesson in hyperbole. Rather, it is an exploration of what journalist and writer/producer David Simon terms, “Two Americas,” deeply divided. This reality produces profound effects on the lives of low-income youth of color, particularly in regards to how such systemic inequalities manifest as structural (high rates of incarceration for black males) and individual level violence (which includes police brutality). Take, as one example, the experience of 16-year-old Joseph Hopkins, a student at Castlemont High in East Oakland.
In a story on gun violence in Oakland which aired on NPR last December, Joseph shared a very recent encounter with gunshots that occurred right outside his school.
‘We just, like, heard gunshots,’ Joseph explains. ‘We just…turned around and started running. That’s the closest I’ve ever came to almost, like, actually getting shot.’
As the story continued, journalist Denise Tejada revealed,
In the Castlemont neighborhood, homicide is the leading cause of death for young people. And according to the Oakland Police Department, there was an average of three shootings a day between March and October within 1.5 miles of Castlemont High, including one last April when bullets came through the front door.
Javier Arango is another example. He was 14 when he was left paralyzed after being struck by a bullet. In “Life, Death, and PTSD in Oakland,” Rebecca Ruiz chronicled Arango’s struggle with the emotional trauma of both the shooting and living in what he described as the war-like conditions of East Oakland. Ruiz detailed how many youth in Oakland suffer from the traumatic stress of living with normalized violence, and reports that
these conditions can shackle a child, dragging him down as he tries to forge bonds with others, stay engaged in school, and dream of the future.
Indeed, the effects of such trauma on students’ educational outcomes can be factors that keep them situated within the samsara of systemic oppression. Ruiz documented the story of 19 year-old “Hayden,” who dropped out of high school after the death of an uncle (she lost a total of three uncles and five friends to gun violence).
Stunned by her uncle’s death, she felt incapable of sitting in a classroom. Instead, she frequently left class at Oakland High School and boarded the bus to visit her uncle’s nearby gravesite. She just wanted to talk to him.
Stories of violence affecting youth in Oakland are repeated with frequency, urging us to open ourselves and listen mindfully to the experiences of young lives organized by systemic suffering. In Part I of this Four Noble Truths exploration, we are joined by students from an East Oakland High School (all names changed to protect their safety) who have offered to share their reflections1 on the varied impact of violence on their lives and learning opportunities. By engaging with these stories from a place of Buddha nature, we can open our hearts and minds to the interconnectedness of our experiences and the collective karmic2 effects of global capitalism.
In the words of one student, these stories “should be like a wake up call”—a chance for us to awaken to the suffering of many of the youth in our communities.
We invite the contribution of additional stories, questions, remarks, points of disagreement in the comment section. Please keep in mind that these are the stories of real students, who may be stopping by and participating in the comments. Let’s be mindful of moving the discussion in a meaningful direction.
STUDENTS OF OAKLAND
Self-description: I am a Latina who is fourteen years old and a freshman.
Reflection: Everyday I hear gunshots, ambulances rushing fast to get to the victims on time, music of cars that is as loud as a concert, helicopters searching for criminals, cars speeding in the streets, cars making donuts in the street corner, and families weeping desperately for their dead loved ones.
Since my dad works late at night and my mom does not drive, I sometimes need to walk to school or/and from school. I do not feel safe going to or from school because I have heard of kidnapping in the neighborhood and people gone missing. Additionally, I see gang members hanging out in the street corners, people selling drugs, intoxicated people walking down the streets, and people starting fights.
I am concerned that kids and teenagers that live in urban communities will give up in their education due to their family problems, violence around them, peer pressure, ignorance, and their lack of supplies and money to study. These kids should have counseling, financial help, and be taught moral values because if we do not do this, this cycle of not improving will continue in urban communities and it will worsen for future generations to come.
Self-description: I am a 17 year-old female and I am a senior.
Reflection: My experience with violence in my neighborhood or in my community is awful. I have lived all my life in Oakland through Seminary. Around my neighborhood there has always been a lot of violence. I remember when I was around 7 years old, me and my cousins were playing at the Rainbow Park on Seminary. We were playing soccer when we saw two guys running in the park to hide. They looked terrified and that scared us so my oldest cousin, who was 16 years old, tried to take us back home as soon as possible because he kind of knew it wasn’t a good sign. We were only 5 blocks away from my house and when we were half way to my house, we heard gunshots. I remember I got supper scared and started crying. Luckily we were right in front of a house and the people from there told us to go inside their house. A nice lady let my cousin borrow her phone and he called her dad to tell them we were fine, since we knew they were scared looking for us. The police instantly came and blocked the street and didn’t let anyone pass. I remember that my parents weren’t allowed to pass to get us from the house so we had to wait until everything was solved. The criminals were found after 30 minutes but to me it seemed like it was 3 hours because I was afraid and all I wanted was to go with my parents. Finally, when my mom came to get us she appreciate the lady and tried to give her money as an recompense but the lady didn’t accept them. Anyways, my mom was really glad she had let us in her house. I had also experience another act of violence when we had a party at my house, celebrating my father’s birthday. I also hear gunshots almost every night and all we can do is lock ourselves in the house and try to be safe.
I feel safe in school because I know there is a lot of security and whenever there is any violence going on around the school or near, the school goes on lock down. During a lock down I feel safe because the school gets locked and it is hard for someone to brake in. But once I step out of school my security reduces because there is no one guarding me. I hardly walk to my house. My dad always picks me up due to the violence in my community. One day I was walking to BART with my friends to go to our Peralta college class and out of the sudden a young guy pulled up on a bicycle and tried to snatch my gold chain away. Fortunately, he failed and just went away. At that moment I just thought so many things. I thought he might come back to knock me out or even shoot me because I saw him straight to the eyes and I will recognize him if I see him again, so I thought he will try to damage me so [I] wouldn’t snitch on him or something but he didn’t, he just ran off.
Self-description: I am a male Latino living in Oakland, California. I’m 17 [and] will turn 18 in one week. I’m currently a senior. I hope to graduate on time. I like to learn new stuff.
Reflection: I have heard and seen violence in my neighborhood taking place. It has never affected me because it never happened to me. Even though I know some people that had died because of all the gang violence. People also tell me how much they hate it because they sometimes get robbed. In general violence does not affect me or my education.
I have a couple of questions about the safety on my community. One question that I have is when is the gun use rate coming down? One concern that I also have is that the violence will never stop. I’m also concern about the safety of my sisters that sometimes have to walk home from school. I’m concern that since our community is broke not enough programs to help me reach a better education will be created. I’m concerned about someone innocent getting shot because all of these drive-by shootings taking place. I also have concerns about less programs being created because there’s no money.
Violence affects people in different ways: physically, emotionality and mentality. These things keep people from achieving their goals. This impacts my education because students and teachers feel threatened. This impacts us because teachers think that if we come [from] a certain place we are going to act like it. They should also know that we get judged because the certain community that we come from.
Self-description: I am a female, tan, 14, in the 9th grade. I am a Pacific Islander.
Reflection: There is a lot of violence in my neighborhood, a person even got shot right in front of my house. The fact of the matter is that violence is everywhere and no matter what anyone says or does it seems to never stop.
The only concern I have is that children who are younger than me, like who are still in elementary school, will catch on to what is happening. They will commit crimes, and be influenced in a negative way. That they won’t care about their education anymore. They will soon be running this country and I would love some peace at mind knowing that I am in good hands.
I guess [Turning Wheel readers] should know that it is heart wrenching always hearing about violence in their community, but one step can lead to a big impact. Everyone needs help in their own way and we as people should come together and help them figure it out.
Self-description: I’d say I’m a pretty awkward person that can laugh at anything. I’m Tongan. I’m a female. I’m a senior. I’m 17. I’m a member of the LDS church. I’m different.
Reflection: In all honesty, if there’s violence in my neighborhood, I wouldn’t give it any mind because if my family’s not involved, than neither am I. I never really came across neighborhood violence. In every house I ever lived in, everyone was respectful of each others’ property. Except for when dogs would always poop on our lawn, and parking in front of the neighbors houses. For some reason the neighbors always complained that we parked in front of their houses, and it’s usually the people that park their cars in their driveways. It made no sense to me, because most neighbors only had one car.
I mean, I honestly do feel safe. I’m used to everything that happens here in the town. It’s a way of life, like something you can’t really change all at once, and some people don’t wanna change it. Its not as bad as the media says it is. I guess when you live in a “dangerous” environment, you learn how to live with it. Everyone out here’s pretty cautious. Going to and from school, I see no danger in that. I have never came across any life threatening situations here. When you live in peace, peace lives with you. I feel safe. This is my hometown. I was raised out here. I really don’t see the harm outsiders would, because I live with this everyday. It’s normal.
[Turning Wheel readers] should know, everyone struggles in a different way, and that everything is not the way it seems, but then again I am only speaking for myself. I mean, I’m pretty sure that there are people that have it really bad, like some can’t go to school because they wanna hustle or make fast money to help their single guardian pay the bills or something like that. When it comes down to opinions, there will always be different ones because we all live different lives. We may be in the same town, but we all have different lives and daily duties to tend to. I can’t really speak for anyone else, but yeah.
Self-description: I’m an 18 year-old Hispanic male that is currently attending his last school year.
Reflection: Violence in my neighborhood has made me the person who I am today. I have ran through many obstacles in my life. Since I was young, living the life of a survivalist has been the only option I have. While many of my friends gave up their life for the streets, I chose the books over the gun. At the age of 10, I was introduced to gangs by a friend. I was at the point of joining when my mother told me to never join any gangs, because I’m just another dead body for their army. I guess the streets and violence in them made me into the person that I am today.
I don’t ever feel safe. Not even in the comfort of my own home. When I go to school I always have to be aware of my surroundings. Ever since I was young, I learned that Oakland wasn’t a very safe place. The other day, I was walking to school and I saw guys smoking crack around the corner and not only that, but I’ve seen people stealing from others. I’ve seen car chases, car accidents, dead bodies, fatal shootings, children murdered, and many other things that a young kid shouldn’t see. Guess that’s just how it is out here.
Most of the kids I know don’t become outlaws and criminals because they choose to. Most of them don’t know any other way. They have no official guidance in their life. It’s just part of their daily, everyday life out here.
Self-description: I would describe myself as a young [man] trying to make a living for his family and himself. A have plenty of characteristics that make me who I am. I am perfectly capable of completing any task, along with achieving anything I set my mind to, due to my confidence, self esteem, and determination.
Reflection: My experience with violence is massive, it has up to this point ruled my life. I was a troubled youth who was a cause of violence. I was involved with gang activity and other subjects. However, I began to see the error in my ways so I joined a group called youth brigade. We help reduce violence in Oakland. Yet his change in my life was short because my family was forced out of there home due to an act of violence towards our home. A man was shoot and killed on our doorstep by a gang and my family was seen as the killers, so we were at risk. As we were forced out of our home we became homeless for a while about a month. We finally settled in back in Oakland and we choose to move forward.
I moved to an area that is called Dimond district, I honestly don’t know why. We moved there because we met the requirements for the apartment. It is close to multiple stores so shopping is easy. One of the best parts is the lack of gangs that hang around the neighborhood. The neighborhood also created its own neighborhood watch, which patrols around keeping the area safe. The only issue is the distant miles between my school and I. It may not be [much] but paying a hundred dollars a month for transportation is a little overwhelming.
I am concerned about my education mostly because I am in a difficult situation. My grades are not the best, simply because I missed a month of school. Also, I might have to graduate late from school simply because I lack credits. All in all, I try my best to get trough school. I often wonder if the world made it harder for me to make it to college just because I am an immigrant. Maybe the risk of not graduating was a lesson a needed to learn because I am trying to do all I can to graduate and in the future attend a college. My plans for my education is to graduate then go to a two-year college, which is [when I] will transfer over to a university.
[Turning Wheel readers] should not feel pity for the locations who are engulfed in violence or comment on it with a sorry tone. They should act and help those in need. I have been through much violence in my life but that has only made me a warrior, someone who is willing to challenge the odds and come out on top, a leader in my city who tries to change the world for the better. Education is one of the greatest tools you can offer people dealing with violence. You can teach them the different path of life and how to identify a root cause of violence. I identified mine. I am working hard to create music that will change the bad images laid upon my city. I was told hip-hop had the power to corrupt young minds and I thought if it has the power to corrupt young minds then it also has the power to uplift them. So to this day I am trying to uplift the minds of others, because the young kids we see today will someday be our future.
Self-description: I am a 17 year-old female, and a senior. I am Mexican.
Reflection: The violence in Oakland is really bad. It is not safe to walk around these streets during the day or night. The violence here has affected my education in different ways. But one way are the lockdowns at my school. When lockdowns happen my education gets interrupted and the students get distracted. This is really bad because my school is located in a dangerous area. This is how violence affects my education.
I do not feel safe going to and from school. Recently, around two years ago, a little innocent boy was shot just because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. My mom, sister, and I pass by where this happened because it is our way home. It is really scary walking home thinking you can be the next victim. I’ve witnessed people getting robbed, all the time. I don’t carry any jewelry anymore because one day my friend got robbed on her way to her college class. Ever since then, we avoid wearing attention jewelry or pulling out our phones. My neighborhood is not safe.
I feel worried that one day one of my close friends can be the next victim, because we always take the same route to go home. There is at least a lock down once a month at my school, and this really bothers me because it interferes with my education. My school is not located in a safe area.
Self-description: I am a caring oldest sibling with responsibility tied to my hip. I am a senior who has encounter abuse no kid should ever, yet I live in the present. I am a student with big goals and things to accomplish. I consider myself as a resilient person and a successful Latina from a single parent household with a lot to achieve.
Reflection: Growing up in Oakland I didn’t go out much because of the violence in my neighborhood and areas surrounding my school. A few years back, I remember having lockdown after lockdown. Policemen were looking for someone in the area or something had happened in school. My neighborhood was a lot worst not because there were drug dealers in the corner, but because it was a one- way street. A policeman told me that it was one of the dangerous streets just for being a one-way street and with all the violence that accrued every day it was a nightmare. I at a point couldn’t study for a test because the police was investigating a murder and was interviewing everyone that head or said something. Ever since I moved, I haven’t had a problem studying for anything.
I feel safe in my school, but it wasn’t always like that. When I first arrived the school was divided into gangs and there were constant fights and class disruptions. The rules became stricter and the detention lasted forever so the kids could learn and the violence could stop. It did. The kids slowly started following the rules and the ones who didn’t left. Now the only kids who have detention are the ones who arrive late to school or don’t have their uniform. It’s highly rare when my school has a fight or let alone any type of violence therefore, I feel safe.
My current concern for my educational opportunities is the budget for my school and how it affects not just the students but the teachers and principal, too. At the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year my school was not given the money for transportation to the college classes that the juniors and seniors take. That was a concern because coming from a low-income community, money was hard to come by. Some students didn’t have money of their own so they couldn’t attend their classes.
My experience with violence has been limited to the things I do and the places I go, yet, just because I’m not in the middle of it doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect me. One of the most important persons in my life had to move away for some time because of the violence accruing in his neighborhood. It was hard for me, especially because school was the last thing I was thinking about and my grades suffered. I slowly had to cope with the absence but I used the thought of violence taking someone away from me as motivation to change things. I am now in a youth group provided my clinic and we are focused in violence prevention in our neighborhood.
Self-description: I am a young Latina living in Oakland. I am a 12th grader. I am a daughter of a hard-working woman.
Reflection: As we all know violence is a big part of Oakland. We hear it almost everyday. Either someone gets killed or someone gets robbed. I have personally experienced getting robbed and shooting. One day, I was on my way to pick up my little brother from school. While I was walking a young teenager snatched my gold chain. I was really scared even though he just snatched it. I have to walk to school everyday in the morning and in the afternoon. After what happened I’ve been scared to walk in Oakland because I feel like it’s going to happen again. My cousin was also killed in Oakland. I was very closed to him and that affected my education because I was going through a lot of things when that happened. I would miss school very often or go to school but not pay attention but after time passed I got better. All this made an impact in my education. Sometimes I felt like giving up, not do my homework, or even miss school.
Like I said before, I don’t feel safe walking from home to school because I feel like there’s going to be a shooting at anytime since I live in a neighborhood where a lot [of] this happens. I pick up my brother from school being scared that something might happen to him. I also don’t feel safe wearing anything that’s worth a lil bit of money because I feel like I’m going to get robbed or something. Sometimes on my way home with my little brother I see people smoking weed or even people doing cocaine on the street like it’s nothing. I personally don’t like that because they are giving a bad example to the little ones. I hate that my brother has to see that even though he is young and doesn’t really know much, it’s still a bad example for our youth. But I just say to my self “it’s just Oakland.”
I have a lot of concerns with my community. I hate the fact that every one says it’s one of the baddest place but they don’t see the beauty in it. All these teenagers trying to succeed to get out of here. All these little kids experiencing what’s going on in Oakland. Most people living in Oakland are low-income. We don’t have the greatest opportunities for our education, but students who try hard to be someone in life find those good opportunities that are given to the low-income class. I worry that my brother struggles in the future with his education.
I think people have a lot of different points of views. People who don’t live in Oakland don’t know what we go through. They don’t know about our education and how it is affects us. Living in Oakland is not easy. I love Oakland even if it’s full of violence but I am scared of it at times. There’s great people living here as well as bad people. As a community, we can change Oakland but I don’t know when that might happen since a lot of people don’t want to help because they are scared.
 To focus our attention on the students’ messages, I have edited some of the content for spelling and punctuation. However, I have preserved the grammar to reflect both the students’ self represented voices and the structural conditions of their learning. Although I was given permission to share some of the students’ real names, I have used pseudonyms for all the students in the interest of their safety. Additionally, information that identifies the students’ school has been removed.
 I’d like to thank Hozan Alan Senauke for introducing me to the phrase “collective karma” a few years ago. It has since provided me with a powerful way to think about socially engaged Buddhism and social justice.
Funie Hsu is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Davis in the School of Education. She was a former public school teacher in Los Angeles.
About BPF’s The System Stinks
Buddhist social justice curriculum
To help promote collective liberation and subvert the highly individualistic bent of much mainstream dharma these days, Buddhist Peace Fellowship presents our second year of The System Stinks — a collection of Buddhist social justice media named for the favorite protest sign of one of our founders, Robert Aitken, Roshi.
This year, we’ve asked some of our favorite dharma teachers, practitioners, and activists to reflect on the Four Noble Truths — suffering; the causes of suffering; cessation of suffering; and a path to cessation — from a systemic, social justice perspective.
Other Buddhist groups from around the world have also used the Four Noble Truths as a lens for social movements: for good examples, the International Network of Engaged Buddhists, and the Sarvodaya movement in Sri Lanka. In a U.S.-based context (not predominantly Buddhist), where mindfulness is increasingly separated from ethics, we are eager to uphold this social justice tradition.
If you like what you see, please comment and share to show the world another side of Buddhism!
We are deeply grateful to the teachers and practitioners who lend their voices to this cause. In alignment with our media justice values, all contributors to the 2014 series have been offered humble compensation for their work.