To understand the significance of a second chance, sometimes one must squander the first. Many people make mistakes and are never given the opportunity to fix them. Instead, they must live with the consequences of their actions. Some who are blessed with the chance to make things right spend as much time as possible trying to keep others from following in their footsteps.
There is no better example of this than Berkeley’s own Garland Albert Sr. who, after living a life filled with crime, violence and drugs, has devoted much of the past 20 years to working to keep the youth of Berkeley from following the same path to self destruction he took. As a board member of Young Lives Matter, a recently formed group that hopes to provide constructive outlets for youth, Albert and the organization want to be a positive force in Berkeley for many years to come. The group is holding a Black History Month celebration this Sunday; scroll down for details.
Albert, who is 50, was born and raised in Berkeley. He grew up on Ashby Avenue near San Pablo Avenue though he moved to Richmond, with his grandmother and step-granddad, for junior high and part of high school. By 15, he was back in West Berkeley in the waterfront neighborhood and on Bonar. He describes his childhood homes — with his parents, Alisha and Gary, and later his grandparents — as ones filled with love and respect. So how did he end up on a troubled path?
“It’s something I ask myself all the time,” said Albert. “My parents did a great job of instilling morals and values into me. Along the way, I just got lost.”
Albert said it wasn’t until he reached his teens that he began to become a person he now admits wasn’t healthy for him, or anyone around him. Drug dealing was the catalyst for the many problems that awaited him.
“I was always a good kid but, like those before and the many who came after me, I was easily influenced,” said Albert. “I was influenced by the money and respect that came with drug dealing, which is why, once I got started, it took me awhile to stop.”
“Awhile” for Albert was more than a decade during which he was a self-employed drug dealer. He found himself involved in many conflicts he now feels were completely avoidable. “Possession, intent to sell — you name it, I’ve been arrested for it,” said Albert. “I was in and out of jail and it was hard for me to learn my lesson.”
It was his final jail stint that gave Albert the change of perspective he needed. It was 1993, and he was serving a three-year sentence for a drug-related case. He was in his late 20s and now a father of four boys. He had to decide whether he wanted to be a man his kids could look up to, or a man they had to visit behind bars. At that point, the choice was easy.
“I had two sons, Gary and Garland Jr., who were headed into their teenage years,” said Albert. “I can remember how that was such a crucial time in my life.”
He said it was clear he was going down the wrong road. He wanted the cycle to stop: “I didn’t want to see my kids do the same thing.”
After serving his time, he came home in 1995 with a new motivation and a new purpose for living. His mind was made up to be a different person. He began to use his connections in the city of Berkeley to have a positive influence. Whether it was organizing birthday parties for friends or putting together neighborhood barbecues, he used the power he possessed through his deep roots in the community to add value to the lives of those around him. He became heavily involved with the Berkeley Cougars — the city’s most prominent Pop Warner youth football team — and was known as a “team dad” who often helped out coaching and at the snack bar, regularly traveled with the players, and never missed a game.
Albert even went on to start his own clothing line, “Boss University,” which would grow to be one of Berkeley’s biggest independent clothing lines. (It reached its height in the 1990s and early 2000s, then tapered off and has been largely dormant, but may release new shirts this year.) He now works in the food service industry, for a company that offers ingredient delivery around the Bay Area for healthy, home-cooked meals.
He said making the change required discipline — both internal and external — and determination.
“When I first got home, I had a court-ordered stay-away from West Berkeley,” said Albert, who is known to friends as “Shaka.” “I look back on it now and see how that stay-away worked out in my favor. I couldn’t be around the same people. I was forced to find a new crowd and put myself around more positive people.”
One of those people was actually a childhood friend, Lorenzo “Lo” Grayson, co-founder of Young Lives Matter. Grayson was 12 when they met.
“He was only a few years older than me but the guys my age really admired him,” Grayson said.
Grayson can remember Albert being a natural leader and always having a voice that those around him respected. He knew that, once Albert channeled that energy into something positive, there would be no limitations to what he could do. That is why, when Grayson came up with the concept of Young Lives Matter last July, Albert was one of the first people he thought of to join its leadership.
“When trying to make an impact, you need someone who has had first-hand experience,” said Grayson. “You need someone who won’t judge these kids and can relate to what they’re going through. Who better than Shaka?”
Both Grayson and Albert have faced significant personal losses in recent years. Grayson’s 14-year-old nephew, Malik, was killed when the boy’s best friend accidentally shot him in 2010. Elijah Albert, one of Garland’s seven sons, died in a tragic car crash in Emeryville in 2013, just months after graduating from college. He was 22. Their deaths helped provide motivation for the creation of an organization focused on offering positive outlets for black youth, beyond many of the existing opportunities, which are focused on athletics.
Young Lives Matter is trying to offer a shift in perspective, to show black youth that they have something to offer this world, its co-founders said. The group is, at this time, somewhat loosely organized: anyone who wants to help contribute to the improvement of the young black community can participate.
“It’s not a moment, it’s a movement,” Grayson told a gathered crowd at the group’s kick-off event in October.
That event took place at McGee Avenue Baptist Church, and included free food, a coat drive and guest speakers. There was also dancing, face-painting and information about work and college opportunities. In opening remarks, Grayson said the community needs to pull together to help ensure better prospects for youth.
“We gotta make a change, and change is changing the cycle,” said Mark Brown, in an interview during the event. “It’s our turn to come and say [to the youth]: ‘Hey, it’s time to listen, it’s time to learn. Get something out of life.'”
This year, the organizers hope to expand their impact. Their first step will be a black history celebration Sunday, Feb. 21. The free event — YLM’s second — aims to pay respect to the many black leaders that have had a positive influence on African American life. There will be kids reciting poetry, praise dancing and an Afro Haitian dance piece.
The event, “Honoring our Past and Embracing our Future,” runs from 3-5 p.m. at the McGee Avenue Baptist Church, 1640 Stuart St. (at McGee).
In addition to the performances, Young Lives Matter will present the first Village awards, designed to recognize distinguished community leaders. The two inaugural honorees are Troy Floyd, founder of the Berkeley Cougars, and Sister Anisa Rashid, who served as the African-American dance teacher at Berkeley High School in the 80s and 90s.
“We want to start this year off right,” said Grayson. “With this event we hope to pay homage to the leaders that came before us and also educate the younger generation on what it is to be black and the responsibilities and hardships that come with it.”
Albert said his goal with Young Lives Matter, going forward, is to keep kids off the streets and point them in the right direction.
“I’m hoping people can learn from my mistakes,” he said. “Young Lives Matter is the beginning of something special for the youth of Berkeley. We’re excited about the future.”
Delency Parham, a former reporting intern for Berkeleyside, is a graduate of Berkeley High School and the University of Idaho, where he majored in journalism and played football. He dedicates this story “to one of my first ever teammates and close friends, Elijah Albert. May his soul rest in peace.”
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