Personal Stories

Daisy Ramirez

Before her days at Youth UpRising, Daisy spent most of her childhood in Union City. It wasn't until about three years ago that her family made the move to Oakland. "It's different," she says. "Oakland has small streets and is pretty noisy...but what makes me happy is the diversity of the people." She started coming to Youth UpRising soon after her teachers at Castlemont High School suggested it to her. "When I first came here the staff was really nice and supportive...That's what made me want to keep coming back." She soon became heavily involved with the Arts and Expression program, painting whatever she wanted.  "I started doing art seriously here."

Daisy describes Youth UpRising as a place where she can go to be distracted from home, family, and problems at school, a place where she can express what she wants to. The art room in particular allows her to explore the bounds of her creativity. "I add a lot of attention to detail in my art. I don't know where my patience comes from but I get drawn into it." Even when she's not feeling too creative she likes going to the art room to make art just for fun, or for no reason at all. One of her paintings was displayed in Corner's Cafe; it depicts a person of color holding the earth in her hands. "It shows that mother earth is very giving and that the universe gives back. I'm a very spiritual person...and I feel more connected to people of color and their cultures. That's what inspired me to make it."

Today, Daisy uses her art to contribute to healing. She's working as an art intern for the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland to help create a mural of their logo. "There are a lot of different pieces that everyone can join in on, but I try to focus on the themes of growth and dreaming." Daisy hopes that the mural will bring more color to the hospital and that "It can make people happy to see it." Daisy's experience at YU has helped improve her artistic ability (she hopes to one day become a storyboard artist and animator), but it has also helped her grow as an individual. "Here I can make friends that like the same things I do. I used to be more shy, but being here has taught me how to be more patient, organized, and sociable...If someone is interested in art, dance, or anything, I would tell them to come here to explore their interests and talk to people about it."

Tajanee Simmons

Tajee Coffee Table Book Picture.jpg

A single question, delivered in-person with love and respect, can move someone in a whole new direction. It happened for Tajanee, who in 2007 after one of her dance battles turned violent, self-identified as an “angry individual and a fighter.” She shared, “A couple of friends and I—we called ourselves the Savage Girls—we were beating the snot out of this group of girls. Olis came up to us and she just asked, ‘Why?’”

It didn’t happen right away, but after Tajanee and her friends each found a mentor at YU, agreed to enter into behavioral contracts and received assistance with school supplies, they moved out of the streets and into YU. She recalls, “I spent most of my time in either the computer lab or in the dance room. We were in there just dancing our hearts out.” 

Tajanee’s face lights up remembering the next part of the story, “We got employed! We were able to buy our own summer clothes--I was growing up. I really started to reflect on what I was doing.”  Dyese Hunt, Tajanee’s mentor at YU, helped Tajanee keep "what she was doing" at the forefront of her mind. Dyese guided her through the college application process and showed her what it meant to never give up. When Tajanee missed her college placement test, she was ready to throw it all away. YU had other plans,  “Dyese drove me all the way to L.A. just to take the test. I’m like, if she is going to go this hard for me, I have to go this hard [for myself].  And now I look back, three colleges later, and I have a degree. I kept my word.” 

Last month, Tajanee completed her Masters in Criminal Justice from Grambling State University in Louisiana. Now that she has graduated, she would like to come back to Oakland and be a positive influence for children and youth who are going through similar struggles. At the thought of her accomplishments Tajanee shares, “I am overwhelmed with joy and I feel very powerful. The feeling of being a walking example of the possibilities for those with similar backgrounds as me is like a dream.”

Akeila Tolson

Akeila came to Youth UpRising at age 13 as one of YU’s youngest members. She’s now 22 and has come full circle: the former student in YU’s Media Arts program is now a teacher and a professional media producer.

In her younger years at YU, Akeila was known by her rapper name, “Yung 16.”  Although she always had an interest in the arts, her initial motivation for coming to YU was, “so I didn’t have to go home.” For most of her childhood she and her family were homeless, living precariously with extended family and friends, in hotels and at one point, out of a van. During those years, YU offered, “a place to hang out and feel safe. Anything can be going on outside, right down the street, but as long as you’re in here, it’s like a whole other world. When you step through these doors, you’re fine.”

As the years went by, Akeila’s relationship with YU grew deeper and she became a fixture in classes, performances and eventually, as a member of the youth multimedia production staff. Her artistic work became a form of therapy.  “Without YU, I as well as many of my friends would have fallen victim to not only the stereotypes, but also the streets of Oakland.”

In 2012, Akeila entered Ex’pression College for Digital Arts and was on the Dean’s List for the duration of her career. In the midst of this major accomplishment, she faced heartbreaking tragedy: the death of her mother to cancer in 2012, and her own battle with the disease. YU Executive Director Olis Simmons, “reached out to me and offered me work to keep my mind off things, keep me moving, and just to put some money in my pocket.” Her cancer is now in remission and she graduated with honors this past summer. In Akeila’s own words, “Youth Uprising is the truth and it brings a beam of light to one of the darkest areas of Oakland. This place has inspired me so much.”

Danny Mora

Danny “Big Dan” Mora was born and raised in West Oakland’s notorious Acorn Housing Projects and later in the barrio of Fruitvale. His parents immigrated from Mexico in the 1970s and toiled in sweatshop-style factory jobs to put food on their family’s table. As a teenager he became involved with gangs and found himself in juvenile hall six times. He had attended more than a few friends’ funerals and “couldn’t see past twenty years old.”

Today, Danny holds a bachelor’s degree in Ethnic Studies from UC Berkeley and was accepted into graduate school at Harvard University. He’s received national acclaim as an emcee in the critically lauded conscious-rap group BRWN BFLO.

Danny’s involvement with youth leadership activities began with mandated community service that resulted in his becoming a founding Member of Project Yes!, the youth-led organizing effort that resulted in Youth UpRising. “It was a bunch of youngsters from all over the Town, east, west, and north. We had the opportunity to create the design, what colors, who’s going to get hired, the type of programming. The adults were there to support us and to encourage us to find our own answers.”

Ironically, amidst of all this progress in Danny’s life, he was arrested in a gang sweep. YU President and C.E.O. Olis Simmons recognized Danny’s leadership abilities and personally testified on his behalf resulting in his release from jail and furthering his commitment to helping youth like him turn their lives around.

In subsequent years, Danny served on YU’s Rise Up! leadership team and later co-led YU’s Man Up program, assisting young men on probation. Remembering the mentors who helped him Danny remarks, Now I’m that adult who gives young people an opportunity when they might not necessarily know what they’re capable of.” He currently works as a probation officer in juvenile hall helping youth find a different path, and as a motivational speaker “sharing the gospel message of hope, of peace, of justice, of love, of transformation, of uprising.”

Chris Taylor

Eight years ago Chris Taylor was a dishwasher at Youth UpRising’s Corner’s Café, a youth-run eatery and catering company. Today he is the Manager as well as a program designer, vision holder, mentor, role model, and instructor within this in-house social enterprise that serves as a pipeline into the restaurant industry for young employees seeking stable and fulfilling futures as culinary artists.

Chris views his work at Corner’s Cafe as “providing youth with something that can make them dream bigger, outside of their norm, outside of what they’ve been going through all their life. Many people in this area are torn down so much that they find it hard to be able to transform. These youth are missing family. They don’t have people at home to say, ‘You have something about you that’s awesome. You have great potential.’ I’m in a position where I’m able to see the light – something that sparks inside of someone when it finally clicks that, ‘I’m good at something. I can do this.’ It’s a wonderful feeling.”

In Chris’ own case, it was one of his teachers at the Laney College Culinary Arts program who saw the light in him and pushed him toward a job at YU. At first it was just income for school expenses, but it grew into much more as he started moving up the ranks. “At this point, that’s all I live, think, and breathe: how do we create a space that can build the capacity of the youth so that once they leave here, their employer can say they’re comparable to someone who’s graduated from a culinary academy or gone to a four-year college? What can we give them that they can hold onto for a lifetime?”

Chris offers testament to YU’s theory that young people transformed by relevant programs and growth opportunities give back to those coming up after them. “So how do I keep going? By taking the inspiration that YU has given me, and pouring it back out to our young people.”