“In the end, it ain’t never a happy ending. It’s always somebody dying or somebody going to jail. It’s a hope for a certain few, a select few. If you can put them together to start some kind of community, that’s the hope right there.” -- A young man interviewed in a documentary about Oakland
OAKLAND, Calif. – There weren’t a lot of happy endings for young men growing up in Oakland’s rough neighborhoods in the 1990s when the city was reeling from a crack epidemic and one of the country’s highest crime rates. But Christopher Higgenbotham, who is black, Jorge Velasco, who is Mexican American, and Thomas Mowrer, who is white, defied the odds – a fact each attributes in no small part to the bonds of friendship they forged across the city’s fault lines.
For Jorge and Thomas, the friendship began in kindergarten. When Chris joined them in eighth grade at a small Christian school called Patten Academy, their classmates jokingly christened the interracial trio “BMW” – “b” for black, “m” for Mexican and “w” for white.
Today the trio, now in their mid-twenties, are pursuing successful careers. But they have also founded a nonprofit organization called BMW to promote volunteer programs and give back to the city that they say inspired them to believe they can make a difference.
Higgenbotham, who sports a neat beard and a wide smile, graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta and is now the dean of students at the school he attended as a kid. He remembers that when he was young and growing up in Oakland, “there was lots of commotion all the time. There was never a quiet day. There was violence sometimes, and people argued about who ran the block, or bad dice games. That area can get real dark.” Of fifteen friends, he says, “only three made it out.”
Jorge Velasco, the tall, athletic son of Mexican immigrants, graduated from St. Mary’s College in Moraga as a philosophy major and is now a community relations manager for AC Transit. He coaches soccer teams and translates for immigrant families. “Growing up, I had friends who were not on the right path, who were in gangs, who got on deeper and darker paths,” he recalls. “Off the top of my head, I can think of seven real friends who were killed, and another four or five who are in prison.”
Thomas Mowrer with backpacks and people waiting for the giveaway to begin.P hoto: Jonathan Garcia,
Thomas Mowrer, with an open face and a quiet demeanor, joined the army upon graduating from high school, which included a deployment to Afghanistan. Today he works as a manager at Verizon. He remembers being the only white kid in his class and living in a neighborhood where drive-by shootings happened all the time. “Older guys hung out in the park, and always had money, and cars and parties,” he says. “There was a time when that life could have been mine.”
All three credit parental supervision and the individual attention of their small school for keeping them focused. Mowrer’s dad was a fire department captain who coached a neighborhood baseball team, buying uniforms and a van to transport kids to games. “He also stepped in and decided I was going to make the right decisions, or leave,” Mowrer recalls.
“My way was different because of my education,” says Velasco. “The privilege I have simply because of my schooling. I didn’t fit the typical demographic of an Oakland Latino male.”
But looking back, all three believe it was their friendship that encouraged them to believe they could make something of their lives. And that inspiration extended well beyond their teen years.
Jorge and Chris with friends and supporters wearing Brilliant Minds at Work t-shirts that they designed and sold to raise money. Photo: Jonathan Garcia,
“The name BMW started out as a joke,” says Higgenbotham, but when they grew older, it gave birth to the idea of founding an organization whose mission would be to bring people together by doing community events. Their trademark BMW now stands for “Brilliant Minds at Work,” recognizing that everyone has a brilliant mind, and that people’s differences are not grounds for antagonism but for expanding opportunities.
BMW’s first project was a food giveaway at Thanksgiving 2015. Starting from scratch, they tapped into “the blessing that we each knew different people” says Higgenbotham: Mowrer has connections with police and veterans, Velasco knows people at community colleges and service organizations, and Higgenbotham has worked with union members on a minimum wage campaign. “We didn’t just pass out truckloads of food. We ate with people, talked with them, made them feel somebody cares,” he says.
In 2016, BMW joined with other nonprofits in a back-to-school backpack giveaway that drew about 800 parents and students. The point went beyond the giveaway of backpacks, says Higgenbotham. “We want parents and kids who might not see each other to see each other. When we can bring that togetherness, that’s where you get growth.”
When rain poured down on a turkey giveaway in the Fruitvale neighborhood last Thanksgiving, BMW had to cancel outdoor activities and move indoors. Attendance was lower than anticipated but they weren’t upset. “We’re dipping our fingers into stuff as we go along,” says Mowrer. “We want to do things that we haven’t seen done, like free haircuts.”
Despite the city’s many social service agencies, the three men believe that what’s most important is that they come from the neighborhoods they serve.
The crowd that came to the giveaway. Photo: Jonathan Garcia,
“A well-intentioned group comes in without understanding the community, and when things don’t work out they blame us. What kind of help is that?” Higgenbotham says.
The three young men think their mission comes from a special quality Oakland has that no one can quite define but everyone knows is real.
Velasco calls it “a culture of acceptance in Oakland. People of all colors in one place. That’s what makes Oakland, Oakland.”
Higgenbotham says he had to leave for a while to appreciate his home town. “In Atlanta, people saw me either as a basketball player or a thug,” he says. “In Oakland, for all the tensions and stuff, you see how much we are together. You see Muslims, Asians, blacks, Christians, all races and cultures.”
Intimate knowledge of the city also reminds the three not to look for happy endings. Velasco’s niece, who is 15, just lost a close friend to violence.
“Bridging the gap between poverty and the middle class is so much harder than people think,” Velasco notes. “But the Oakland attitude says that we can succeed regardless of whether people say no, the odds are against you.”
“You can’t have a concentration of poverty and expect the place to be good,” adds Higgenbotham. “But when you mix it, and when you add another culture and everybody blends in, then that becomes a beautiful thing…”
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