East Palo Alto program builds a culture of life

Live in Peace works to change beliefs, values and behaviors that promote violence

With its burgundy walls, Persian rugs, faux-leather seating and black cocktail tables, the basement of the single-story dwelling in East Palo Alto looks like a hip lounge. On a recent Wednesday evening, the band at 321 Bell St. was jumping.

Artist in residence Freddy Lopez, 25, known by the stage name he prefers, "Flopez" (Flow-pez), rapped to the music of the nine-piece Hip-Hop Orchestra.

"The power that I hold inside myself ... Power to the -- power to the -- power of the people," Flopez rapped, rocking and gesturing against the intricate beat and rhythm of piano, horns, flute, electric guitar and bass and drums.

The Hip-Hop Orchestra and a New Orleans-style brass band are components of a growing anti-violence movement in East Palo Alto. Longtime residents are working to create a culture of healing, power and nonviolence in a "Rest in Peace" culture where youth are more recognized for their dying than for their living, they said.

Live in Peace, a nonprofit organization, is working to change beliefs, values and behaviors that promote violence. After working with different organizations, Live in Peace officially launched in 2010. Since then they have offered programs to heal community trauma as well as provided educational opportunities and training to help youth gain meaningful employment.

Using the "Alive & Free" or "Street Soldiers" methodology of the Omega Boys Club in Bayview/Hunters Point in San Francisco, Live in Peace's programs work holistically: College Initiative provides scholarships and mentoring; Music Academy develops high-caliber musicians and uplifts the community; Family Night brings youth together weekly to celebrate successes and share struggles; and StreetCode Academy prepares youth for Silicon Valley jobs.

Live in Peace was founded by longtime community members and activists Heather Starnes and Justin Phipps. But, Phipps said, it is really an organization built by the community.

"We're blessed to be welcomed into the community and to be part of what's present here," he said.

The Bell Street house has become a "second home" for more than 200 young people each week, Starnes said.

Jose Oseguera, 16, is part of the Hip-Hop Orchestra. The programs have kept him on a straight path, he said.

"Live in Peace actually saved me in a way. When I was a kid, I always felt peer pressure, and like, trying to fit in with everybody. ... I'm pretty sure if I never found Live in Peace -- or, actually, found music -- I would just be in the bad crowd. I might also would've been one of those statistics -- be strapped with a gun or just going around doing the wrong thing. So, they saved me from that," he said.

A few hundred feet around the corner on Dumbarton Avenue, a memorial at a telephone pole is a grim reminder that one's face could end up printed posthumously on a T-shirt. Votive candles and crucifixes surround a large photograph of 19-year-old Josue Barbosa Zamora, who was shot dead there on Jan. 13.

Live in Peace aims to replace such pain and trauma with hope and achievement by getting people to realize their own self-worth, Phipps said.

"There are tremendous cultural strengths and assets in this community that don't make it into the papers. There's a real layer of cultural strength that has grown over 40 to 50 years, and it is still very present. We see that in all kinds of ways -- particularly in artistic gifts," said Phipps, co-director of arts and music with Tommy Occhiuto.

"Put a creature in a box that's this big," Occhiuto gestured with his hands, and "it will only grow this big. ... I think there is a sentiment of feeling -- like there's a lack of opportunity for the future. But that comes within other systems that have been set into place in this community historically, which typically have nothing to do with these kids," he said.

"This crew here is a great example of extremely positive energy," Phipps said of the Hip-Hop Orchestra. All came into the program with no musical training, but the students have performed before 500 people at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco and a number of public functions.

Phipps and Occhiuto write the music; Flopez pens the lyrics.

A product of the College Initiative, Flopez attended U.C. Riverside. While away at college, a cousin in East Palo Alto was killed.

"Knowing and hearing about it made me fearful for my family," he said. "Every time I got a call from home ... it made me nervous. ... There is a trauma that has come with seeing the violence."

But his lyrics are all about the positive East Palo Alto -- about self-empowerment, accountability and hope, he said.

"East Palo Alto has a culture of wanting to be heard, of wanting to be seen. ... It's a culture of expressing themselves ... I feel it even in churches," he said.

Out on the street, a tall, wood-plank fence surrounding the home's backyard is brightly painted with one word that expresses the community feeling: "Peace."

And no one has tagged this colorful mural with graffiti.

Behind the fence, young people mingled and laughed on a recent afternoon, sharing a large casserole of meat and vegetables heaped onto warm tortillas. Then, 30 people lumbered down to the basement for Family Night. Sitting side by side on sofas and folding chairs, they enumerated the highlights of their week. Some youth were referred by Kristina Thompson, an Alive & Free instructor at Hillcrest Juvenile Detention Center; many are part of Eugene Jackson's mixed martial-arts classes, which teach youth to fight in competitions instead of on the streets with guns.

"To be honest, there's way too many blessings. People are confirming what I'm doing -- that I'm on the right path. People are coming up to me," one youth said.

"I'm teaching girls at Hillcrest self-defense," said another.

"I'm getting registered back at Foothill," a young woman said to applause.

"I've got a lot of reality checks in my life right now. I've gotta take hold of my life as soon as I can," a young man admitted.

Family Night participant Nico Jackson and three other young men are launching a website to spotlight youth ambition. The site will allow participants to post their achievements, and they'll receive badges or points for reaching stated goals. The highest achievers will be linked to businesses, teachers and mentors.

"One of the biggest issues is that youth in high-poverty areas have no access to role models or get access to resources. It's a way to connect people in the same demographics," he added.

The website is an outgrowth of the students' StreetCode Academy projects. It exemplifies the kind of genius Phipps and Occhiuto said is waiting to be expressed in East Palo Alto.

Live in Peace plans to expand its tech program to more than 100 young people, offering high-tech classes and character and professional development. It is seeking partnerships with Silicon Valley companies for technical training in a hacker space, to position East Palo Alto youth for jobs, Starnes said.

But rather than seeing the classes as programs, Starnes said, the youth just regard the house as "their space." Within that home is a family that embraces and reinforces its family members, she said. And when a family member dies, is incarcerated or must move away, the community mourns. And that has happened more times than Starnes or anyone else wants to count.

"There has been a lot of personal loss in this community. There have been huge hits on us. ... But as much as there is loss, the beauty is far greater. We have peaks and valleys, but we have more peaks than valleys," she said.

A video of Live in Peace is available on Palo Alto Online's YouTube channel.


4 people like this
Posted by Well done!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2014 at 10:36 am

Great young people...taking positive action to work toward a better future. I'm so glad to see this highlighted in the press. They are setting a great example...and I have no doubt they can do a lot to make positive change in their own lives and for others.

Well done!

5 people like this
Posted by Myrtle Walker
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Sep 19, 2014 at 10:39 am

Thank you for printing something positive about our community!

3 people like this
Posted by EPAMom
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Sep 19, 2014 at 11:59 am

This sounds wonderful and just what EPA needs.

3 people like this
Posted by Patricia V.
a resident of another community
on Sep 19, 2014 at 2:29 pm

What I've read and see here is amazing. Good for your Freddy Lopez for your contribution and to all the kids that come forth and want to show a different side of themselves. BRAVO to all the talened young adults and their want to make a better future for themselves and others coming up behind them. This is the way a community should be. Family like, enjoying what everyone has to offer and knowing that its ok to be yourselves,you tend to become like the company that you keep- so keep this type company around you,just be the perfect amazing you!. You are like no one else, you are unique and are a symbol of hope and you have a beautiful god given talent.. spread the word... just like you are. Wonderful and God Bless

1 person likes this
Posted by Rev. Teirrah McNair
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Sep 20, 2014 at 1:32 pm

This program is a genuine community asset and well deserving of accolades and support. They are not just producing phenomenal artists but they are producing artists with character who will contribute to community and the society at large for years to come.

1 person likes this
Posted by tzwriting
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 22, 2014 at 1:27 am

tzwriting is a registered user.

Web Link This resource begins with a general description of essay writing

1 person likes this
Posted by revdreileen
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Sep 22, 2014 at 3:12 pm

revdreileen is a registered user.

We are blessed in this community with many amazing young people. Thank you for giving the PA Online community a glimpse into their lives.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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