Diamonds in the Rough: Oakland program cultivates excellence in young adults

When Erin Clark, 20, discovered Downtown TAY (Transitional Age Youth) in Oakland last year, it’s safe to say she didn’t have a strong sense of herself. As a girl, she had spent time in schools where she was in a tiny minority as an African American and in schools where the mostly African-American student body thought she was “an Oreo.”
“Downtown TAY is the best because it’s centered in culture,” she said. “It helps you discover who are you? Who were you? Who will you be? Why?”

Downtown YAY peer leader Erin Clark
Downtown TAY peer leader Erin Clark

As disorienting as Clark’s childhood was, other young people in East Oakland face even more traumatic experiences. The rate of violence and homicides result in many negative outcomes. Loved ones try to heal from the loss of someone who meant so much to them. Communities become weakened by vulnerability, struggling to remain resilient in environments and climates that seem insurmountable.

Too often we forget the trauma that witnesses or victims of crimes are left to wrestle with – in some instances, for a lifetime.

However, organizations like Downtown TAY work to create a space for young adults between the ages of 16 – 24 years to heal from the trauma they have experienced, with the goal of achieving overall health and wellness.

The mission of Downtown TAY is to “empower the young adult community by connecting them to their culture, inspiring hope, promoting critical thinking and cultivating creativity while supporting their overall health & wellness.”

“It’s a feeling that people have when they come in. Filled with symbols of themselves and the culture,” said Downtown TAY’s program coordinator Desiré Johnson-Forté.

Downtown Tay Desire- Johnson-Forte
Downtown TAY Coordinator Desire Johnson-Forte

Launched in 2013 and located along Oakland’s San Pablo corridor, Downtown TAY offers services and resources such as workshops and one-on-one sessions that connect youth to their culture. It also exposes them to tools for financial literacy, the importance of self-care, and health and wellness – all in an effort to achieve self-sufficiency.

The offices of Downtown TAY are open Monday-Friday from 12 – 7 pm, and also serves as a space for participants to receive one-on-one and/or peer group counseling or support. Johnson-Forté said the majority of the youth who participate are African-American, between the ages of 16-24 years, who have come from the transient/street life and are disconnected from mental health services and resources. Many also face challenges such as lack of housing, personal safety, finances, employment, transportation, and access to food.

For many who walk through the doors of Downtown TAY, complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is also a weight that they carry. For some youth in Oakland, exposure to violence is “an everyday occurrence, and that environment does not change,” Johnson-Forté said. The program is a safe space for them to recalibrate and is a change in scenery that fosters positive wellness practices. “There aren’t many places for Black youth to be – not many safe places to congregate without being harassed,” Johnson-Forté said.

For transitional aged youth like Clark of Oakland, Downtown TAY fosters a sense of consistency and ongoing support in an effort for youth to become self-sufficient. Clark, a junior at Mills College, is currently a peer leader with the program.
During her childhood, Clark and her family lived in Oregon, Stockton, and Oakland – and with each location, she struggled to fit in. “My parents took us to places for a better life – but it was a struggle to navigate and code switch,” she said.

Downtown TAY workshops
Downtown TAY workshops

For Clark, Downtown TAY’s environment cultivates self-determination and leadership building -vital elements to help youth navigate cities like Oakland. Through facilitated dialogue for youth, ongoing support, processing and reflection, youth are able to face the trauma they have experienced as they navigate their path to healing.

Clark explains this process as being like walking through, ” a hall of mirrors and none of them are dirty – and this is scary. It’s really hard for people to look at themselves.” As the youth in Downtown TAY go through this process together, it promotes connectedness and collegiality.

Recently, Downtown TAY has adopted a cohort model in which small groups of youth convene on a regular basis for 2-3 months, creating a space of wellness and healing. Participants also benefit from the social networks they establish amongst one another. Johnson-Forté explains that the youth-driven peer support allows for participants to “move towards a goal of a better path for themselves.”

Upon transitioning out of the program, many of the youth have gone on to gain employment, return to school, and/or establish better living situations. And they are always welcome to come back for more support. “There is no judgment – if you need us, we’re here,” Johnson-Forté, said.

“It is the thing that kept me alive,” Johnson-Forte said about her work with young people. “I dealt with fatalism for a large part of my life. But if I had not attended programs with people that looked like me and connected me to support and resources, I don’t know where I would be.”

Downtown TAY is a program of the Health and Human Resource Education Center (HHREC), a non-profit organization that receives funding from entities such as the Alameda County Department of Public Health and Behavioral Health Care Services, for a variety of substance abuse and mental health prevention programs, and community leadership opportunities.

With programs like Downtown TAY committed to creating better health outcomes for youth, the collective healing that this city needs can become possible.

Author Profile

Katherine Brown was born in Houston, and her family moved to Oakland when she was 6 months old. “I am fortunate to have a loving family and an amazing community of friends,” Katherine says. “I love to help others, which is fused into my life and work.” Katherine enjoys volunteering, dance, and sports, with football being her favorite.

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