United Playaz transform the lives of students and staff while serving the community

by Amani Sawari

Mayor London Breed with UP founder Rudy Corpuz – Photo: Amani Sawari

“It takes the hood to save the hood” is the bold quote written on the shirts of the strong male and female organizers involved in United Playaz (UP), a San Francisco based 20-plus-year-old organization founded by Rudy Corpuz with a focus on youth development and violence prevention.

The Tuesday prior to Thanksgiving Day, UP, in partnership with Whole Foods, hosted a turkey giveaway at their center. Local residents lined up outside while UP participants alongside prominent community members, including San Francisco native Mayor London Breed, worked together to hand them out. The event began by recognizing those who are incarcerated, restricted by their circumstances from participating in the holiday, reminding us of why we gather and the importance of coming together to address significant issues.

There is a special atmosphere that staff have created in the center that Will, a formerly incarcerated staffer at UP describes as being “blessed beyond measure” to be a part of. His experience of 22 years in prison continues to fuel his work at the center.

Will’s double life sentence at the young age of 15 in the ‘90s came during an era when juvenile lifers were considered the worst of the worst and punished severely. UP staff like Will focus on youth development because of the lack of opportunities that they were given as youth. They know personally the effect that the right amount of resources can have on young people suffering from trauma.

Like Will and Rudy, 80 percent of United Playaz staff is made up of formerly incarcerated individuals. The ratio of formerly incarcerated staff is sustainably different from that of average employers, even in the nonprofit sector.

This is due to the fact that founder Corpuz’s history with the criminal justice system contributes to his inclusive focus on employing formerly incarcerated individuals on UP’s staff team. Through his own experiences, he’s realized that many of these men and women have more potential to invest into the students toiling down violent paths than those individuals who’ve never had those experiences.

UP makes it a point to introduce their students to these types of transformative role models, knowing that when we allow people to share their experience with youth, we enable young people to make more informed decisions about their lives.

Corpuz’s history with the criminal justice system contributes to his inclusive focus on employing formerly incarcerated individuals on UP’s staff team.

A staff focus is recovering from prisons by examining individual personal value. I personally admire the strength and courage of UP’s formerly incarcerated staff members. Their ability to channel their personal and societal frustrations into serving their community is extraordinary.

Meeting a person like Will, who’s had 22 years of his life taken in his adolescence, yet is so eager about investing in the young people in his community, is admirable to the point of inspiration. More often than not we find ourselves excluding others from the opportunity to serve.

We’ll align certain activities with specific genders or credentials while excluding others. United Playaz plucks individuals, like those who’ve been incarcerated, out of societal exclusion in order for them to not only commune but to contribute the wealth of their experiences to society.

Another significant aspect of UP’s positive engagement with the community is their commitment to free programming. Summer and after school programs are free for participants and allow families to bring their children to a safe place where they can spend time with other students and complete their classwork. The programs often involve mandatory homework time with incentives for students who complete 80 percent or more of their work over the semester.

Inside of the center, UP participants prepare to hand out turkeys. – Photo: Amani Sawari

There is a severe lack of positive male influence in students’ lives, especially with Black and Brown boys. Knowing that in the majority of our schools we don’t see many male teachers and many impoverished children come from single mother households, programs like UP fill that void with what young men and women need in their lives. Families come as far as Nevada to participate in UP’s free programming.

Along with encouraging students to keep up with their class work, UP hosts workshops with topics that range from relationships and sexual education to financial literacy. Many of these issues aren’t covered in schools, so organizers’ main focuses are on social-emotional and skill building techniques. These topics aim at addressing techniques ranging from cooking to fundraising and public speaking.

Conversations and discussions can get heavy, but there are many therapeutic aspects of the center ready to alleviate any tension – from the games available to play like Xbox, Wii and Guitar Hero to the art murals on the walls. While you’re walking around the center, you’ll most likely find yourself entangled in a playful moment with of one of UP’s family of cats. The building is outfitted with catwalks and cat doors and their easygoing and sensitive nature adds another therapeutic element to the space.

UP’s engagement with the community is motivated by the needs of the people. Along with persistent hunger, gun violence is another issue that UP participants have committed themselves to being a part of resolving. In this vein, UP will be hosting a gun buyback event on Saturday, Dec. 15, from 8 a.m. to noon.

Later in the month UP will be hosting their annual Community Christmas Celebration, at which staff donate dozens of items in a toy drive in order to supply children in need with a feeling of significance and inclusion during the holiday.

UP’s engagement with the community is motivated by the needs of the people.

It hasn’t taken long for athletes like San Francisco native Steph Curry and Colin Kaepernick to donate more than $10,000 to UP. If you haven’t yet, please join in showing your support for UP and their mission in being proactive about preventing violence by providing a safe space for marginalized groups to commune, collaborate and get involved in a wide range of workshops and activities as an alternative to being on the streets.

This is especially valuable for children of color from families in poverty who are most vulnerable to being trapped in gang violence. UP’s commitment to free programming gives these vulnerable students access to the resources that the organizations provide and individual donations from mainstream athletes and companies like Whole Foods make students’ access to UP possible.

Students choose to be engaged in community service rather than violence. Youth development naturally happens through their being a part of the workshops and events that UP hosts throughout the year.

Outside of UP’s center local residents are lined up to receive turkeys. – Photo: Amani Sawari

Through connecting students with local residents, we realize that both ends of the spectrum are in need of the service that UP provides. United Playaz is a diamond in our community, shining light through every aspect of its mission at every level.

Beginning with the staff, many of whom are formerly incarcerated, they shine a light into the students that they serve by sharing wisdom from their own personal experiences. That light continues to reflect through the students’ involvement.

We transform students from expecting dead-end lives (in the grave or in jail) into the significant change makers of our tomorrow. Knowing that every individual young person has potential, UP staff make it their responsibility to invest into every young person who is seeking the best out of themselves.

Beginning with the staff, many of whom are formerly incarcerated, they shine a light into the students that they serve by sharing wisdom from their own personal experiences. That light continues to reflect through the students’ involvement.

Lastly as we continue to observe each angle of UP’s glow, we recognize the light that the partnership between students and staff shines on the surrounding community. We saw it best during the turkey giveaway as students handed turkeys to residents, “It takes the hood to save the hood”.

For more information, contact United Playaz at info@unitedplayaz.org.

SF Bay View editor Amani Sawari can be reached at amani@sfbayview.com.