OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — A man who grew up in a broken home and spent time in the juvenile justice system before becoming a top scholar and community leader is dreaming up a new school in one of the Bay Area’s toughest neighborhoods – one that could include prison inmates on the faculty.

In between the liquor store and boarded up storefronts on MacArthur Boulevard sits the Homies Empowerment center. That’s where Cesar Cruz, PhD and his team are designing a school for kids growing up in the gritty streets of East Oakland. The plan is to make the Homies School a public high school in the Oakland Unified School District designed to educate the young people who often have nowhere else to go.

“It might be kids that are homeless. It might be kids that are involved in gangs coming out of juvenile hall. And the assumption with those kids is ‘Let’s set the bar really low. Maybe they’ll get a GED,'” said Cruz. “We don’t believe that. I’m a product of that. I’ve been undocumented most of my life. Most people didn’t believe in me.”

In 2011, KPIX 5 first profiled Cruz and his monthly Homies Dinner – young people packed in for a spaghetti dinner at the YMCA to learn about Latino history and civics. Sometimes rival gang members sat right next to each other just to learn more about their culture. Cruz won a Jefferson Award, which recognizes local heroes who lift up their communities.

In 2016, Cruz became the first Mexican-born immigrant to get his PhD in education at Harvard University. Now, he has returned to Oakland to build a school from scratch using his own community as a model.

“You have to have security guards. We’re going to sort of have security guards, but they’re going to be grandmothers,” Cruz said.

Some of the ideas are sure to shock sensibilities, such as helping drug dealers.

“What if there’s a kid out on the block selling drugs right now and we don’t want them hurting the community? But what if they have a business plan, they’re deeply entrepreneurial, they’re resourceful,” said Cruz. “What if that kid could get an MBA and start up businesses that help the community? No one has really thought about a drug dealer to MBA pipeline. Why not us?”

The concept that is sure to be the most controversial: a plan to have prisoners on the faculty. Cruz says he would like to employ inmates who have turned their lives around, educated themselves, and are now ready to share their awful life lessons with students through live video software such as Skype or Facetime.

Omar Escalante, school designer of Homies Empowerment, said Cruz helped him get out of trouble as a youth. Escalante said the concept of enlisting the aid of elders from the community who are behind bars is not as far-fetched as it may seem.

“They’re already talking to kids,” Escalante said. “If you listen to music, if you listen to all these rap songs where they’re saying they served so much time, and they sell so much drugs. Why not have people who are trying to educate them about something serious?”

Cruz said he would, of course, make sure the program is safe. He said he would like to partner up with a group such as the Squires program in San Quentin Prison, which is made up of inmates who meet with troubled teenagers in an effort to help them change their self-destructive behavior.

The Homies School is still in the planning stages. Cruz is asking the community to pitch in on every level. They need books, computers, desks and school supplies. They need someone to donate money and land. And they need a lot of volunteers.

“This is a grassroots effort,” said Harry Williams of Allen Temple Baptist Church, a board member of Homies Empowerment.

“When you look around the room, we’re poor people. We’re not people with a lot of means. But this is the community coming together to make a difference. We can save ourselves. And I think that’s what makes Homies Empowerment amazing.”

This may all seem like a farfetched dream. Especially to those who have never met Cesar Cruz. But he has already raised $700,000 out of a goal of $3 million. He has put together a small staff. And he is determined to finish the new Homies School and begin classes that are unlike any others by the fall of 2020.


Comments (12)
  1. Rosa Esperanza González says:

    It’s so inspiring to see the community unifying to reclaim education!

  2. All scholars will have the opportunity to blossom in this environment. It is such a blessing to see that there are innovative approaches to education. I am more than sure that many of us hope to see the instant impact that students will have from this powerful space.

  3. Emilio Aymat says:

    Youth are only at risk cuz our political society is ageist and classist. Being at risk doesn’t have anything with them being “misguided”, it has to do with the fact that there is no future, and as far Mr. Chavez, he’s a pathetic kneebender. Real strong young people are individuals, NOT “youth” and people that are elevated and strong and need NO leaders. Poor young people are at risk cuz our society oppressés them and criminalisés their existence and all the “alternatives” offered by civic government society are total brainwashing programs designed to make u fit in and live the desires of our yuppie masters.

  4. What is so uplifting about this, is that Homies Empowerment sees young people as resourceful with abundant gifts. And I really appreciate that every difficulty and challenge is perceived as an opportunity for growth. I am so excited for Homies Empowerment’s growth and glow up, it’s truly inspiring.

  5. This is important and great work! I love the resourceful and community centered approach.What else can we do to help support more projects like this? Homies Empowerment is really doing amazing work!

  6. Ellen Dahlke says:

    Absolutely brilliant.

  7. Erika Gonzalez says:

    I wish Homies Empowerment were in every barrio of the world. Every city should follow this model. I am from the borderlands of Texas and Mexico where many of my Tios and primos got locked up because they were given up on and ended up on the streets selling drugs. One of my Tios even got murdered because of this lifestyle. Homies Empowerment as a school model will lift up so many youth and undo the harm done by society that is generations deep. It is so necessary to have abuelitos and abuelitas present to bring balance to the wisdom that will also be shared from prisoners. This is a model that will change lives and the world and I’m so happy to see it continue to develop. Please support by donating books, supplies, and money to help make this school a reality by 2020.

  8. Brandon D. Anderson says:

    I am always impressed by the thoughtfulness, determination, and care Dr. Cruz brings to his work. I cannot wait for this school to start!

  9. Javier Martinez says:

    An school worth investing in

  10. Roger E Martinez says:

    I got the privilege to meet and listen to Dr. Cruz’s keynote speech at a Xochitl LA conference a few years ago. Throughout his powerful speech I learned about the Homies Empowerment. Having family living in East Oakland and my tough upbringing in a drug and gang infested environment made myself understand the importance of having a space like Homies Empowerment. The fact in this matter, is that these public and charter schools are a failing education system. Or it seems that these systems are working as designed and that’s to contribute to the School to Prison Pipeline/Prison Industrial Complex or a dead end job. I’ve been in the Homies Empowerment space and have felt the passion, love, commitment, hope, and aspiration that has/will uplift East Oakland. I’m excited about 2020 when Homies Empowerment will be fully establish. 20/20 is also the great vision that Dr.Cruz and our community has for the future generations. We believe it’s a brilliant idea having elders as “security guards” because our youth need wisdom/counseling not being directed to police to be handcuffed, expelled, and push into street crime (Zero Tolerance policy). Another great idea is having inmates contribute to the community by being teachers to the youth. As we know the United States of America has the largest prison population in the world so we must acknowledge that most in our community have been somehow impacted by this (in)justice system. Nevertheless, we must embrace our history to value where we come from, in order to love and empower one another.

  11. Thank you Dr. Cruz for your passion and dedication to a community in high need. Truly admire the positive work your are doing for the City of Oakland and know that this type of work with not only help these young individuals but our society as a whole. Puro pa’ delante! I got your back Dr. Cruz. Aqui estamos y no nos vamos!!!