First Person: Berkeley Fights the War on Drugs —With Paintbrushes

By Sally Hindman
Thursday April 30, 2009 - 07:33:00 PM

It’s the corner of Ellis and Woolsey Street in the heart of South Berkeley. A young black male with dreadlocks opens the door of his grey BMW and unloads four plastic bags from the front floor of the car, as his counterparts in the back seat tell jokes and the radio blasts rap music. Dressed in a dark hoody, wearing dirty jeans dangling from his thighs, he opens the back gate to a neighborhood yard and he stashes the bags behind a garden trellis on the house’s patio. He drives off in a hurry. It’s nearly 6 p.m. in the Lorin District where a half block down the street three young black men sit on logs in front of a grey blue house, actively making drug deals this July evening, as their family members have for most of the last 20 years.  

I live in the house where the men stashed the bags. I’ve been trying to make friendly conversation with the dealers across the street since we moved in five years ago. They generally grunt or ignore me when I say hello. Midwestern girl-next-door type that I am, it makes me feel bad, but I know they are “very busy.” I’ve always been amazed at how hard these young people work! 

As I leave the house this particular morning, one of the men from across the street gets up from his log seat and crosses Ellis Street to approach me. I feel a sense of delight. Finally the neighbors are reciprocating my friendliness! “Hey, what are those dudes doing in your yard every day?” the neighbor asks casually. “What dudes?” I wonder aloud. “You know, those guys stashing the bags,” he elaborates. “Oh, them,” I say, realizing he didn’t just come over to say hi. “They’re youth artists painting wooden art benches down the street. The group I work for is painting art benches on Adeline. They’re storing art supplies in our back yard.” “Art supplies?” he asks. “Yea, you know, paint brushes, tubes of paint, plastic tarps.” “Right, you told us about that group…I was just curious.” He ends the conversation a bit abruptly and returns to his perch, as a young man approaches on a bicycle from around the corner.  

When we started Youth Spirit Artworks with the support of the City of Berkeley back in 2007, we set out to “compete with the corner” on every level. We wanted to beat them in creating an appealing extended social community (they’ve taken over the role the Church used to play in a lot of people’s lives). We wanted Youth Spirit artists to have more fun than they were having on the corner. And we wanted our youth to make just as much money as the guys sitting on those logs were making!  

That day last summer, at least in the moment, we were winning! With the City’s backing, the hard work of local Councilman Max Anderson, and the big team of folks who’ve come together to close Berkeley’s achievement gap, (including Darryl Moore, Max and Kriss Worthington from the Council pushing for youth jobs money), a cadre of young people whom the dealers might have wanted sitting on the stumps with them, were indeed involved in a competing enterprise, not fed by needles and guns, but by paint, paint brushes and humble minimum wage salaries. It seemed telling that the local dealers thought we might be encroaching on their “turf.” We were—but not in the way they had thought we were! 

Support by the City for the interfaith community art making and job training efforts of Youth Spirit Artworks (first called YaYa California), through grant money and provision of Youth Works teen employees is one of the hip, very creative, and even GREEN vehicles the City has committed resources to in its nonviolent war to get youth to finish high school, go on to college, or vocational training--and get off the streets and street corners. New life at Berkeley Technology Academy (fueled most recently with the exciting injection of California Dept. of Education 21st Century grant funds), as well as steps taken by the City of Berkeley for its 20/20 Vision Plan to close the achievement gap, and the innovative emphasis of Berkeley Community Fund’s new college scholarship program, have together already had a palpable impact. 

At a community art making day on the corner of California and Harmon Street two weeks ago, I eavesdropped as six of our South and West Berkeley youth artists casually “talked college.” Two had just returned from BTech’s spring tour of historic black colleges and were deciding whether they’d head for four year college right away—or get there by way of a stop at a community college. Another youth spoke of her scholarship application to the Berkeley Community Fund and her upcoming interview—seeking funds that she is hoping can pay for her studies at SF State where she’s already been accepted. Another youth was excited about her work as part of Berkeley City College’s PACE program, and the personal support and encouragement she was receiving through that effort.  

What’s the sound of a gun not going off, of drugs not being injected, of handcuffs not being closed on a youth’s wrists? As we sanded and dug out grout together on the mosaic street barricades we were completing that afternoon, Bertolt Brecht’s words came to mind, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”  


Sally Hindman is director pf Youth Spirit Artworks.