UC Berkeley alumnus and Oakland community activist George Galvis was honored with $25,000 and the California Wellness Foundation’s California Peace Prize earlier this month for his approach to helping at-risk youth steer clear of violence.
Galvis co-founded Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice — or CURYJ, pronounced “courage” — a program that provides support for young people in Oakland through storytelling, music, theater and ceremonial rites of passage rooted in indigenous tradition.
Galvis promotes restorative justice, a holistic approach to healing that emphasizes shared experiences, personal reflection and community discussion of everything from crime to poor school attendance. Restorative justice is an alternative to the traditional model of punishment and incarceration that Galvis says so often fails to effect positive change in Bay Area communities.
But Galvis would never call CURYJ’s work gang prevention. To Galvis, gangs are a natural product of an environment where young people often feel isolated and detached.
“I’m not trying to destroy what they’ve created for themselves; I’m trying to change their behavior,” he said. “If they’re doing something that’s destructive to the community, I want to modify that.”
His work caught the eye of the California Wellness Foundation, which presented the peace prize to Galvis and two other honorees Oct. 10 in San Diego. Previous winners of the prize include civil rights attorney Connie Rice and Los Angeles-based activist Father Greg Boyle.
“The goal is to recognize the unsung heroes … those (people) who are rolling up their sleeves in the wee hours of the morning when you and I are asleep,” said Julio Marcial, the foundation’s program director. “(Galvis) works with the community, not to them.”
Galvis honed his approach to community activism after disheartening experiences in the California public school system.
“I was the token poor brown kid in the class,” Galvis said. “A lot of my classmates made sure that I felt different that way. I recall being ‘otherized’ that way.”
Rebelling against a social system he saw as inherently opposed to him, Galvis said he was a “self-fulfilling prophecy” and became involved with neighborhood gangs. At age 17, he was convicted on a felony charge related to a drive-by shooting and served a few months in a juvenile facility.
Time in the facility allowed Galvis to reflect on his life and reconsider where he was headed. Inspired by his mother’s graduation from San Francisco State University with a degree in engineering, he began to see education as a means for change in his life.
Galvis enrolled at the College of San Mateo after his release from prison and later transferred to UC Berkeley as an ethnic studies major.
Since graduating from UC Berkeley in 1998 and completing coursework for a master’s degree in city and regional planning in 2003, Galvis has plunged into community work in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood.
When Oakland Police Department began pursuing gang injunctions in the North Oakland and Fruitvale neighborhoods in 2010, Galvis quickly responded. He said the injunctions — similar to restraining orders against individuals suspected of gang-related activity — were ineffective and unreasonable restrictions on the behavior of young men he had seen make real improvements in their lives.
Ruben Leal is one of those young men. Leal grew up in Oakland and almost naturally became involved in the violence and crime within his community. When authorities placed his name on the injunction list, Leal was taking steps to change course and had already enrolled at Laney College.
Rather than condemning Leal as others had, Galvis offered him opportunities to contribute to the community in positive ways. Galvis tasked him with working on murals in local neighborhoods, building community gardens and joining the staff of CURYJ, which Galvis cofounded in late December 2010.
From Galvis, Leal discovered the value of community service.
“We have a misconception as a warrior being someone that fights,” Leal said. “But a true warrior is someone that sacrifices himself for his community and his people.”
Even those who disagree with Galvis’ approach respect his work. Oakland City Councilmember Noel Gallo, who represents the Fruitvale neighborhood, said he doesn’t always see eye to eye with Galvis but appreciates the activist’s efforts.
“I tend to be more old school, like your dad and mom — I’m not going to take your excuse,” Gallo said. Galvis, however, has “reached students and youngsters in a way I might not have been able to.”
It is this rare ability that drew the attention of the California Wellness Foundation earlier this year.
“These are young people that don’t trust,” Marcial said. “The first rule is to have some credibility, to have some skin in the game. He brings a cultural competency to this work.”