By Alex Emslie
Shaken by a string of recent shootings, people from a public housing development on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill found something to celebrate this week.
A youth violence prevention organization with roots in Potrero Terrace and Annex announced that more than 200 of the program’s alumni can also claim that title from colleges and universities around the country.
“For all the people who think that college isn’t for you, college isn’t for me either,” Cal Poly Pomona graduate Evangela Brewster said at a celebration of the milestone on Aug. 2. “But I can stand here today and tell you that I did it.”
It was a day of triumph and happy tears for generations of people who have joined Alive & Free (formerly Omega Boys Club). Twenty-eight years ago, frustration over the killing of young people pushed middle school teacher Joe Marshall and counselor Jack Jacqua to found a place where young people facing violence and trauma could feel safe — and learn to stay that way.
“Back then, something terrible seemed to be happening every day,” Marshall said. “The drugs, the gangs, the turf, the funerals — we had enough of it and we knew that something had to be done. Omega was that something.”
Though the name formally changed just a few years ago, Omega wasn’t a boys club for long. Shervon Hunter joined the 15 original boys from Potrero Terrace for the group’s second meeting, on March 3, 1987.
“I became the first girl because I used to just go all the time, and Dr. Marshall and Jack couldn’t deny me,” she said.
Hunter got a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2000, and she’s currently pursuing a master’s degree in social work. She grew up on Missouri Street in Potrero Terrace, a neighborhood that’s recently seen a spike in shootings and a month ago was the site of two homicides in a single week.
She now works at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, where she counsels 16- to 24-year-olds from Potrero Terrace.
“It’s absolutely necessary to give back,” she said. “Imagine that you are living in a war zone all your life, all day, every day. And people assume that it’s just easy. It’s really not. If you’re familiar with Potrero Hill, you know there’s a lot of rich people on Potrero Hill. There’s a lot of well-off people on Potrero Hill. People trying to get the property because it’s such a popular space. But there is a community of eight or 10 blocks that people are literally dying.”
But not, she says, the 200-plus college graduates recognized on Sunday.
Recent graduate Portia Kane-Abdullah, who just completed a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from UC Riverside, broke down when she began to thank her father, Jaleel Abdullah, also a college graduate and Alive & Free alum.
“He went through this program first, and he graduated in 1999, and that’s how I was able to go through the program,” she said, after her father joined her on stage. “He was really sick at one point, and I wasn’t sure if he was going to be with us, but he’s healthier than ever.”
Kane-Abdullah recited some of the rules to live by that she picked up at the club, including: “A true friend will never lead you to danger” and “What doesn’t work doesn’t work, and it doesn’t make sense to keep doing things that don’t work.”
Marshall said those rules are responses to poor advice that young people often receive in neighborhoods with a high level of violence.
“They’ll just tell you, don’t be a punk, handle your business, get your respect, gotta carry a gun for protection,” he said. “Don’t be no snitch.”
Those are the commandments he tries to combat as he ushers young people — who now come from all over the Bay Area — from the streets to college.
“It’s surreal,” Abudullah told KQED after his daughter’s speech. “It’s unbelievable. I’m very proud.”