"Street stars" is how Michael Gibson and his friends used to describe the drug dealers in his childhood neighborhood of 89th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard. He and his friends were far too accustomed to "not having enough," Gibson explains, and they glamorized the street stars lifestyle. "We thought that was the way to be."
Gibson, a 37-year-old baby-faced six-footer with large tattoos across his arms, settles his sturdy frame in his office chair at Alameda County Public Health, where he has served for the past 3½ years as the program director of Emergency Medical Services Corps, a youth development, mentoring and training program.
He has also worked as a case manager at Youth Uprising, an East Oakland organization serving at-risk youth, where he created and led a group of young men who discussed spirituality, violence-prevention and mentoring.
Gibson's dedication to guiding young people away from the street and toward more productive lives comes from hard lessons he learned as a young man, trying to be one of those street stars.
The second of four children, Gibson grew up in Deep East Oakland during the 1980s crack epidemic. His parents struggled with their own addictions. That's where he first got exposed to drugs and dealers -- both were a constant presence in the house.
Gibson was raised by his grandmother, who worked long hours as an in-home care nurse. With only her limited income to support him and his brothers, Gibson says he felt an obligation at a young age to contribute to the household financially.
So he did what he knew.
There was the glossy facade of disposable income, expensive clothes, cars and sneakers -- the life of a drug dealer. There was an open invitation to that nonexclusive club. To join, all you needed was a gun.
That path included multiple arrests -- mostly for drug offenses -- and a revolving door of incarcerations in Juvenile Hall. In 1991, at age 16, Gibson was arrested for strong arm robbery, possession of illegal firearms and attempted murder of a police officer. He was charged as a juvenile and sentenced to spend 8½ years at the California Youth Authority. (A plea deal later established that Gibson wasn't the shooter, and his sentence was reduced by five years.)
It was his participation in the youth authority's African-American Male Transition Program that allowed him to develop inner strength through self-purpose, education and conflict resolution with an emphasis on manhood development and spirituality. In the program, he was exposed to African-American men who were leaders in the community. These men were the role models he needed and provided living examples of excellence.
Released at 19, his life reached a crossroads. Soon after his return home, his female cousin was assaulted. Still on parole, he understood he had to make better choices.
Instead of following his relatives on a revenge mission, Gibson held back and called one of his mentors for guidance. "I don't want to be in the life anymore," he said. His mentor strongly encouraged him to return to school.
Through that intervention, he decided to attend Laney College and later graduated from Morehouse College with a degree in English and drama. A transformation had begun, and Gibson never looked back at his "street star" past.
The youth authority's transition program instilled in him the responsibility of mentoring, which he practiced in his 17 years working in the criminal justice system and as a youth counselor.
He also plans to go to law school to study "criminal or civil law in order to be a better advocate for the community."
Reflecting on his life, Gibson speaks with the solemn conviction of a man who has been to the edge and turned his life around. "Being in jail was a blessing and a curse. I didn't have the frame of mind to function in the community without destroying it," he said.
To read the more about Gibson's life, visit www.oaklandvoices.us.
Oakland Voices correspondent Sabirah Mustafa is a community liaison and cultural enthusiast whose aim in life "is to facilitate, inform and educate."