From Playaz to Leaderz

From Playaz to Leaderz

Tomas Palermo Former gangsters help a Bay Area organization use people power to transform communities block by block.


This article was originally published at WireTap magazine.

Tomas Palermo

February 11, 2009

It’s 11:30 a.m. on a sunny Monday at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens. On this Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, United Playaz (UP) is gathering for their annual march for justice and members are out in full force. Vibrantly dressed tweens, skulking teens, young mothers pushing strollers and tough looking 30-something dudes walk toward a meeting spot at the downtown King Memorial Fountain. Young and old alike sport a distinctive black T-shirt or hoodie emblazoned with the letters “UP” and white script that reads: “It Takes the Hood to Save the Hood.” For the past 15 years, United Playaz has lived their motto, uplifting communities with people power while transforming thugs into community leaders.

UP is a multigenerational violence-prevention and mentorship organization founded in 1994 by Rudy Corpuz, Jr., a former felon and drug addict. Based at the South of Market Area Recreation Center (SoMa Rec), the group’s caseworkers and mentors–most of them former gangbangers or convicts–provide crisis intervention, youth outreach and community-building activities. UP hosts on-site high school and middle school gatherings and dispatches quick-response violence-prevention teams to prevent neighborhood conflicts. Student participants from various UP chapters are at the MLK gathering, socializing, flirting–the usual adolescent stuff.

When Corpuz arrives at the gathering dressed in black with his braided hair dangling, he is greeted and hugged by most of the 200 folks in attendance. If he glimpses a shy kid near him, “Big Ru” (as he’s known to friends) will reach out with his tattooed arms and reel the youngster in for a quick squeeze. Corpuz is a father of two young boys who share his fiery glare and affection for billowy black T-shirts. The elder Corpuz is comfortable in crowds, or rather, comfortable encouraging crowds to realize their leadership potential. Today, at the event that he primarily organized, he leads by delegating or gently urging participation.

After senior UP representatives ask the group to form a circle, Corpuz commandeers a bullhorn and passes it to 22-year-old J.D. Tupuola who has worked with UP since his release from California Youth Authority in 2006. “Okay y’all,” Tupuola bellows through the speaker, “lets keep it peaceful and respectful out there. You know the po-leece will be looking for us to slip up.”

A few elders offer prayers and invocations to the Filipino, Latino, African-American, Asian-Pacific Islander and Caucasian crowd assembled. Then, Corpuz grabs the bullhorn. “The committee canceled their march today,” he tells the crowd, referring to San Francisco’s formal Martin Luther King Day organizing committee which called off their yearly march to celebrate Barack Obama’s historic inauguration. “But we still need justice in our communities, right?” The crowd emphatically responds “yes” and the walk begins.

Curious downtown shoppers and a smattering of hastily assembled police watch the vibrant, chanting throng as they wind their way down San Francisco’s Market Street thoroughfare to Sixth Street, then four blocks south to UP’s SoMa Rec headquarters. The successful event exemplifies United Playaz’s “for the people, by the people” approach, which includes numerous community programs, services and outreach.

Hood Efforts

UP works with other Bay Area groups such as the Ella Baker Center’s Silence the Violence program in Oakland. Young members from the two groups recently produced a rap compilation addressing neighborhood issues. The CD features Bay Area talents Goapele, Mistah F.A.B., Mac Mall, B-Legit and Clyde Carson and proceeds are being donated to The Healing Circle, a homicide-survivors support group. Although many of UP’s activities focus on youth, they don’t stop there.

“We try and help everyone from elementary all the way to adults in the penitentiary,” Corpuz explains. At SoMa Rec and other sites, UP offers sports, recreation and life-skills tutoring, or what Corpuz describes as “everything they don’t teach you in the schools.” They also do “events for the ‘hood,” such as Christmas parties, informational meetings and issue-based organizing.

A core group within United Playaz, including Corpuz, also work as a Community Response Network (CRN) team. “If something is going to jump off, they try and shut it down,” says Corpuz. The group played a role in calming a rash of gang activity in the city’s Mission District that left several youth dead in 2008.

“I feel blessed to be called on to diffuse some of these problems. These are issues that I believe the mayor can’t stop, the police can’t stop, probably the president can’t stop–you know, where it’s life or death at that moment. For someone to call us to handle a situation–that’s a compliment.”

When a member of UP is called to help diffuse a conflict, they wear their distinctive black T-shirts, which, according to Corpuz, provoke different reactions. “If it’s a group of people that doesn’t know us, they kind of trip out, until we open our mouths.” UP’s role is to act as a mediator between the police and gangs or neighborhood folks but their efforts aren’t always successful. Corpuz admits that there are situations where the best tactic is just to step aside.

“But usually, when we come through and the people know us, I can see it in their eyes if they want something to be resolved. I’m just glad that we work as a team. It ain’t about me; it’s the team.”

True to their “It Takes the Hood” axiom, he thinks that UP members’ past experiences with violence give them street credibility. “The majority of us are ex-felons, but instead of bangin’ on people, we bangin’ for change.”

Campus Kickoff

As a young man, Corpuz was in and out of jail, mostly for drug-related crimes. After being released from a bid in 1993, he got involved with City College of San Francisco’s Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS). They found him a job at the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center (BHNC) doing outreach with at-risk Filipino youth. He instinctively gravitated to nearby Balboa High School in the city’s Excelsior District to make connections. He was at the school when a fight broke out between Filipino and black students.

The following week, Corpuz arranged a face-to-face meeting with the leaders of both factions to quell the fighting. “I had connections with different turfs–with blacks, Samoans, Latinos, Filipinos; I knew a lot of them when I was locked up.” After an initial truce was hammered out, the group decided to continue meeting and voted to call themselves United Playaz.

Around the same time, Latino and Samoan gang members were getting in fights with black youth at school. Again, Corpuz got the parties together and realized that he had representatives from every major racial group on campus networked through UP’s meetings. “On the one hand it was a bad thing that the Samoans and Latinos fought the blacks, but it was a good thing, too, because now we had every group at the table,” says Corpuz.

“We used the same strategy to solve that conflict. We asked ‘What can we do to help y’all brothers out?'” he says, pounding his fist to emphasize his point. Before the group formed at Balboa, interracial, gang and street violence were common, leading some youth to be cynical of UP’s intentions. “Not everyone wanted to get down with [UP],” Corpuz explains. “But collectively, each group was accountable to watch out for their own people. That’s how it worked.”

He stresses that school administrators, teachers, police, community organizations and student clubs all contributed to the reduction in violence. “Everybody was connecting the dots and putting in work for the United Playaz. But it all started with the people.”

He has witnessed a dramatic reduction in violence at some schools in the 15 years UP has been around. “Things still jump off but it’s not of the magnitude of the ’90s,” he says.

Despite the school improvements, youth violence is still an epidemic in Bay Area neighborhoods and streets. To address the problem, UP works on violence prevention via one-on-one peer mentoring and actively recruits reformed felons to do the work. “There’s plenty of young people who were in jail who are out now helping to give back,” says Corpuz.

UP’s philosophy also involves addressing the root causes of neighborhood violence. Often, their biggest challenges aren’t with the youth they serve but with larger economic issues as well as police attitudes towards their community.

“I think the city of San Francisco needs to see [youth violence] as a state of emergency.”

Class, Color and Murder

Corpuz believes that young people are hungry and frustrated by scarce employment opportunities while guns continue to flood the streets. UP counselors stress to their constituents that the criminal justice system doesn’t offer young people a chance for success. Why is there so much violence on the streets? Corpuz posits, “[Cause] people are starvin’, man!” adding that San Francisco’s racism and gentrification issues also play a role.

His South of Market neighborhood is home to low-income housing and single-occupancy hotels for recovering addicts, as well as high-end condos, often on the same block. A recent San Francisco Chronicle article describing the friction between long-time SoMa residents and newly-arrived condo developers was critical of UP’s gangster image while failing to address the more crucial class conflict at play.

Meanwhile, neighborhood violence continues to fester as the city’s homicide rate spikes with few crimes being solved. Corpuz believes that young people have become cynical as crime and murder continue to affect their friends and families.

“A lot of this violence is occurring because there is no justice going on in our city,” says Corpuz. “Everybody knows who did a lot of these crimes, but people do not want to stand up and tell the police. I don’t mean all police–there’s some that I work with to help out with the community,” he clarifies, adding that the distrust with police also stems from failures with the city’s witness protection program.

“I know people who got moved from one project house to another project house, you know what I mean? There’s got to be a better way if people are going to step up and say something.” Cultural misunderstandings may also cause suspicion between neighborhoods and the police. Corpuz says that officers have even targeted him recently.

“I’m someone who is trying to change the community,” he explains. “I’m a taxpayer, I pay [the police] to protect and serve me. So why the fuck you jackin’ me on the block? Because of the way I look? How can you build a relationship with somebody like that?”

Multigenerational Movement

UP members explain their roles in creating community change.

German, 46, Case Manager, Counselor

: “I got involved with UP when I was in San Quentin penitentiary. I’ve been out a year and a few months. I’m a case manager and do one-on-one counseling. A lot of us have been through a lot in this neighborhood, so we understand what the kids are feeling. Our whole goal is for them to be productive and know the importance of education in order to understand how the system treats people of color, and how they can beat it.”

Sal “City Shine,” 21, Member

: “I was going through some trouble as a juvenile, in and out of jail. Rudy saw that I had the potential to do something right. I was a boy then and boys make excuses but men make changes. The path that I was on, I was losing. Now I’m playing to win. I don’t want to be in jail stressing. I want to live a peaceful, normal life. UP helped me make that change.”

Jessica, 15, SoMa Rec Chapter President

: “To become involved with United Playaz, you have to put in work for the community, go to the Silence the Violence events and if you are involved enough, you can earn a shirt. We plan events like field trips and sock drives for the needy. It’s really important that we bring youth together instead of them hanging out all over the place randomly. That will help with the violence and drugs.”

Roots of Change

Many UP members are asking the same question. A lack of basic respect for young people, and profiling based on economic status or appearance, seem to be a cause of friction between police and ‘hoods. But Corpuz also thinks that local government officials have neglected to aggressively confront the youth violence issue or properly fund programs that have demonstrated success.

“I think the city of San Francisco needs to see [youth violence] as a state of emergency. The [Board of] Supervisors and elected leaders–all of them really got to want change,” he explains. “There are some who I know do care [about violence prevention], but they don’t know how to address our problems.”

He offers a scenario: “If you have a toothache, you’re not going to call a mechanic to fix your tooth, you’re gonna call the dentist. If you got problems with violence on the streets, you have to call people that have dealt with violence. But you need to treat them with respect. You need to treat them like you would the police–don’t give them a little budget.”

Like a lot of non-profit community organizations, Corpuz has to hustle for funding as hard as he does for change on the streets. On a typical day, he visits several school programs, stops at San Francisco Juvenile Hall and crisscrosses the Bay checking on different sites. He divides his time between meetings with potential funders and, as he describes it, “in the battle getting my hands dirty.”

Corpuz is continually collecting money toward the ultimate goal of establishing a dedicated UP youth center in SoMa. In addition to their own fundraising efforts–benefit parties, car washes, etc.–United Playaz receives private donations and a small grant from the San Francisco’s Department of Children, Youth and Their Families (DCYF). But the money barely covers UP’s spirited activism in the schoolyards, streets and various neighborhoods. Still, if their school-based events are any indication, their people-centered movement is working.

Lunchtime Songz

Recently, a 30-member strong United Playaz chapter at Balboa High School organized a lunch-period open mic event in the school’s outdoor courtyard. As Corpuz entered campus, he greeted students and doled out compliments. “I’m proud of you, girl,” he tells one student. “You ain’t trying, you doing!” Corpuz has formed strong working relationships with almost everyone at the school, from the principal to janitors and a good portion of the instructors, but he leaves most of the day-to-day work to the group’s members.

A UP student rep steps up to a small PA system that faces out toward students in the quad and introduces the event. He decries the city’s violence and appeals to students to work on solutions. Individuals are invited to recite a poem or sing a song for their peers. It’s a little bit like an American Idol casting call, with nervous teens being nudged toward the stage area. A few girls eventually sing along to prerecorded R&B tracks, doing their best Keyshia Cole and Alicia Keys impressions.

Corpuz takes it all in, directing traffic behind the scenes, and allowing UP leaders like his nephew, Dante, a 23-year-old site coordinator, to run the show. Meanwhile, he talks to more students, shaking dozens of hands.

A UP rep in the crowd named Samori says he hopes the event will draw more students to United Playaz. “We want to have a bigger force so we can help save the community from violence and get kids off the street.” He explains that it’s still tough for youth who do get involved with United Playaz because they may still have friends involved in gangbanging or violence, or have to navigate hostile blocks.

After the songs and poems are done, Corpuz grabs the mic and with his forceful, raspy voice, urges the youth not to wait until something happens to their families before they decide to make a change.

“If you guys want to do something about violence in your community, then you’ve got to help somebody out,” he imparts in his booming tone. “And if one of your friends or homies is having problems, we’ll come over there and help you guys out. The power is in the people.”

United We Stand

After the event at Balboa, Corpuz elaborates on Samori’s thread about how getting new youth involved is a challenge.

“Most kids don’t want to get involved in a lot of this anti-violence stuff, so we got to find other avenues for them,” he says. But the group’s street-wise name, fashionable hip-hop clothing and music-themed events are a good hook to get young people curious about what they do.

“We make it hip. Like the name, United Playaz–young people created it. [It says to them]: We started in the streets, so we’re gonna keep it ‘hood. Then, when they come to our programs, we educate them about the conditions of the ‘hood, why there’s more prisons and why the violence is happening.”

Central to the United Playaz identity and mission are its multicultural and multigenerational connections. Corpuz is proud that his group represents every nationality, age, gender and sexual orientation; to him, it doesn’t matter who you are as long as you’re involved. “We got kids who are squares and kids who are stone cold killers and we’re all together.”

Tomas Palermo is the managing editor of WireTap.

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