There is a youth program in Oakland that shows results, and there is a documentary film that showcases the program. “A Place Named Destiny” is a feature-length video about the Destiny Arts Center in west Oakland where young people, mostly from nearby McClymonds High School, are taught martial arts and dance. In the process, they learn how to pursue personal transformation and social activism.
The film had its premiere at McClymonds this spring. It will be screened in Berkeley 7:30 tonight at La Pena Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave.
The centerpiece of Destiny, and the film’s subject, is art center’s performance troupe. The Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company auditions hopeful dancers from the neighborhood and beyond to work up an annual performance at McClymonds.
The film shows the students doing not only the hard work of creating and performing a show, but also the “heart-work” of meditation and group encounter meetings to promote community strength and spiritual growth under the guidance of Sarah Crowell, the performance company director.
Crowell starts every dance practice with meditation. The filmmaker, Paul Ginocchio, said that Crowell believes her work at Destiny is of body, mind, and spirit. Some of the students – eager to dance – only grudgingly submitts to meditation exercises, at least at first, but by the end of the journey the payoff of personal triumph and group cohesion seems to make it worthwhile.
Oakland-based Ginocchio spent years as a producer for KRON-TV news. He was burning out on reporting about crime and poverty in the Bay Area when he decided to focus on positive things. “That’s where me and news clashed,” Ginocchio said. He found the Destiny Arts Center to be hope inside a ghetto. “We need more positive media images of young people to counter the stereotypes that young people are violent, unambitious, and unthinking.”
Most of the young people in the program, however, are misfits in neighborhoods patrolled by gangs and thugs. Racially mixed, some are too white or not black enough. Chanel, one of Ginocchio’s main subjects, is a lesbian in a place where homosexuals are often beat up. One teenager says she’s outcast as being too smart, and another speaks with a proper diction that sets her apart from street slang. These are not kids who aspire to life on the streets.
“It’s really hard to get them,” Ginocchio said of the young people entrenched in street life. “When you go into an impoverished area, there’s a real strong energy.” But channeling that energy is difficult. “They are normalized to dysfunction.”
The young people of Destiny put amazing energy into their dancing, which is the film’s greatest appeal. Their playfulness and enthusiasm, sweat and determination, are edited alongside anger and tears. Ginocchio filmed the long process of working up a dance show, but he did not take his cameras to the student’s homes. Through cameras Ginocchio gave to two of his principle characters, viewers get a glimpse into their lifestyles. Chanel Baty used hers to interview students and faculty about homosexuality at her school. Sam Mende-Wong took a camera home to the upscale Piedmont area when he received his acceptance letter to Bard College.
A longtime Destiny dancer, Mende-Wong also acts as a youth leader. In the film he talks about violence prevention and community building. Like every earnest inner-city activist, he warns that, "violence beget violence. It is just a cycle and we need to stop the cycle."
Whether the cycle will ever be broken – whether or not poverty will ever be divorced from violence – is a battle that social workers will always be fighting. But if it can happen in small pockets around Oakland, Ginocchio’s film shows that it can happen in places like Destiny.
WHO: Destiny Art Center
WHAT: “A Place Named Destiny”
WHEN: 7:30 tonight
WHERE: 3105 Shattuck. Ave.
COST: $5 to $15