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TAKING JOURNALISM TO JAIL: an interview with David Gaither, by Elton Bradman

David Gaither is an associate editor at Pacific News Service (PNS), where he works on The Beat Within, a weekly newsletter by and for incarcerated youth in the Bay Area, as well as on New California Media: In Search of Common Ground, a television talk show aimed at members and readers of the ethnic press; Youth Outlook, a journal of youth life in the Bay Area; and the PNS wire service. He is a graduate of the 1997 Bay Area Mentorship for Reporters of Color (BAMROC) program, a month-long intensive internship that combined advanced journalism skills training with briefing sessions on issues important to local communities of color. The 22-year-old journalist and community activist lives in San Leandro with his wife, Karrima, and their eight-month-old daughter, Kalimah.

MA: How did you get involved with incarcerated youth?

DG: I grew up in Oakland. When I was a teenager, I was picked up three times--once for possession and sale of narcotics, once for possession of a firearm, and once for attempted murder. I spent only a couple of weeks in Juvenile Hall. The first two cases were eventually dropped, and I got probation on the attempted murder charge. So I didn't spend any lengthy time in custody, but my life of doing that stuff that could have gotten me put away--I was doing that for years.

The desire to help came because I was formerly incarcerated, and I know that if at that point in my life someone would've come in trying to get me to look toward the future . . . . My main problem then was, I couldn't see past next week. In one of our workshops, we did a topic called "What is your game plan when you get out, and how are you going to make sure you stay out?" If somebody would've given me that when I was 15 or 16, I would've turned around before I did.

MA: The work must get to you sometimes--do you take the pain and emotion home with you?

DG: It's definitely difficult. I think about these guys a lot. Knowing that many of them are being shipped off to adult prisons, to the California Youth Authority for three, four, five years . . . I take it home, I think about it--you have to take it home. That's part of the job. This is definitely more than just getting a paycheck. Your heart has to be in it to be in this type of work.

MA: You invest a lot of time and energy in your work. What is your goal?

DG: To retrain juveniles' thinking to being more productive, toward getting an education. It's really a gradual process. We want to take it slow with them. First, we want to turn the light on. For so many of them, it's all darkness. All they can see is, "When I get out, I'm going to get back in the game." So we want to say to them, "Well, there is actually another way you can do it. People don't prosper from what you're doing. People don't retire from this line of work. You need to understand that if you don't change your ways, you're either going to end up in a cemetery or in another prison."

MA: In a story you wrote for the East Bay Express ("Oakland Ponders the Effect of Black Flight," Sept. 5, 1997), you maintained that African Americans are fleeing--and being forced out of--Oakland by crime and rising living costs. How did you come to that conclusion?

DG: I hadn't thought about it much except for the fact that I and all the closest friends that I grew up with had moved out of Oakland. When I delved more deeply into it, I saw that yes, this was in fact true. I also realized that some other publications had looked into it--the Los Angeles Times had done a big story about black flight. So when I talked to people, I realized that everybody did have it on their minds. I hadn't seen it in print anywhere in the Bay Area, but a lot of people were thinking about it, as you can see from the article. If you talk to people who've left, some of them are happy that they've left, but overall it's probably going to have a negative impact on the city, politically and economically.

MA: A letter to the editor that appeared the following week in the Express called your article "grossly exaggerated" and took you to task for only minimally speaking to the "future and active Latina/Chicana community in Oakland." The writer felt that the article "minimized the growing presence of Latinos, Asians, and Middle Eastern peoples" ("New Kids on the Block," Susana Renaud, Sept. 12, 1997). How do you respond?

DG: Rereading that letter to the editor, I think her main issue was an issue that Pacific News Service got very much into--that race was not just about black and white . . . obviously. That's what New California Media is all about: There's more than black and white--you have Asians, you have the Latinos. But as far as Blacks, it's just simple mathematics: If Black businesses get most of their business from Black people, and Black people's numbers are dwindling, that's obviously going to affect the bottom line of Black businesses. So it's pure mathematics--regardless of who's replacing the Blacks. It just happens to be in this case that Latinos are the fastest growing population in Oakland, but if it were Asians or if it were whites--whoever--the fact is that Black numbers are dwindling. The issue is dwindling Black numbers, not increasing Latino numbers.

MA: You're portrayed in the media as the young criminal who got turned around. Are you comfortable with that?

DG: I get teased a lot about being a poster boy. [Laughs] I try to maintain my humility as much as possible and see my limelight not for myself, but as furthering the cause. If I continue to see it like that--that it's not propping me up, it's propping the cause up--then that's how I maintain a level head.

MA: And how would you summarize the cause?

DG: In a couple of ways. The Beat Within is trying to get juvenile offenders out of the system and into positivity. It's trying to get the condition of my community uplifted. And so the cause really is improving people's lives.

MA: What is your strongest wish for your daughter's future?

DG: I want her to live where she doesn't have to worry about inordinate crime, where she doesn't have to worry about a system of racism, where she doesn't have to worry about needing affirmative action, or being called a nigger, or being discriminated against. . . . I'm trying to bring her up in a world that's hostile toward her people--and trying to change that and make her understand that before she becomes a victim. That's definitely my motivating drive--to look at her every morning when I leave and say, "I have to make the world a better place for her."

Source: Media File, Volume 17 #1, Jan-Feb 1998