Nothing's ever promised tomorrow, today
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Settling into his chair on the press row for the first round of the 2006 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, Chris Nguon knew the moment wouldn't last, but it sure was worth remembering. Sitting in the vast Dallas' American Airlines Center - home to three professional franchises with a 21,000-person capacity - Chris was living the dream of a Daily Californian sports writer and, more importantly, the dream of a West Oakland youth.
Chris knew his UC Berkeley experience was something bigger than himself. A Chinese and Cambodian product from a predominantly black neighborhood and a graduate of McClymonds "Mack" High School, Chris used his college opportunity to pursue sportswriting. It would be his way to represent and, in turn, give back to his home- a home where dreams are seldom ever realized, much less lived.
"From day one, it is pounded in your head that if you get out, you have to find a way to give back to your community, because the community needs it so much," says Nguon, now 25 years old. "What it meant when I got into a prestigious school such as Berkeley is that I was representing the whole community, and that seems too far-fetched for a lot of people to understand."
After graduating in 2008 with a B.A. from UC Berkeley in ethnic studies, he discovered the challenges of writing - or even helping - for a living. His struggles are a stark reminder that graduation is an accomplishment that doesn't guarantee a paid future.
In his time at Cal, Chris watched from the press box as DeSean Jackson returned six different punts for touchdowns, Leon Powe scored 41 points at the Staples Center and as Kevin Riley fell to the turf nine yards short of Cal's first ever no. 1 ranking. Like the college experience as a whole, graduation means the benefits of such unique exposure are only temporary.
Now three years removed from his Berkeley graduation, Chris has reached out to several Bay Area media outlets - The San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Tribune and Patch.com - and also worked extensively in subscription-based online sports journalism at Yahoo.com's BearTerritory.net, where I worked with him for more than a year.
Writing is Chris's vision because he can be a voice for West Oakland. Through his word, he believes he can strengthen the community at large. The former high school of barrier-breaking athletes Bill Russell and Frank Robinson, Mack is a rough place. Chris graduated in 2003, and upon entering Berkeley, he knew that helping his old high school would be a significant part of his life mission. And the school needs the help. In 2004, Oakland's Measure Y bill funded a leadership excellence program designed to reduce dropout rates and curtail violence in West Oakland.
The dearth of available writing jobs drove Chris to alter his career plans. If it wasn't yet his time to project his voice, he could directly help others through a positive influence - or at least try. The economic crisis was no easier on Oakland than it was any other suffering urban city, so how could any nonprofit organizations turn down a Berkeley-educated Oakland native to help its deteriorating neighborhoods?
Chris applied to several local nonprofit organizations intending to help at-risk youth. More phone calls went out than came in, and no job materialized. Chris was named a finalist for a position to assist a social worker at the nonprofit Casey Family Programs in Oakland, but he wasn't hired. The boss loved his resume, but there were just too many qualified candidates.
"When you talk to the people that are hiring, they sift through 200 or 300 resumes for one or two positions," Nguon says. "Though not everybody may have grown up in West Oakland, there is still North Oakland, East Oakland and Richmond. All of that adds up."
The remains of the economic crisis are too bleak to confuse anybody. If the college-educated Oakland native struggles to find a job aiding his community, then how can the repressed youth find jobs to keep them away from violence? In turn, how can the city slow the decay of urban Oakland?
Today, Chris has found opportunities, but they are light-paying. To try and forge journalism contacts, Chris agreed to help do layout for the San Francisco Chronicle. In his community efforts, he works as the Assistant Recreational Director for the notoriously violent Acorn Housing Projects. Acorn was where Black Panther leader Huey Newton was killed and the location of one of the most famous police raids in Oakland history in 2008.
Working at housing projects like Acorn requires patience. Kids scuffle until they get bloody and would rather play "Call of Duty" indoors instead of go outside to exercise on a May afternoon. The problem is that outside, cops might be chasing down teenagers or attending to the scene of a shooting. Chris wants to help, but quoting his supervisor, a woman whose son was killed at McClymonds in 2000: "I can't help anybody that ain't willing to help themselves."
He knows he is doing the right work, but it is often a slow process. The plush writers' lounge in Dallas is only a memory now and Oakland is, again, almost all of what he sees. Through his work, he hopes that someday he will return to that press box so he can once again represent and, in turn, give back to West Oakland on the grand stage. His grand stage.
Keep the dream alive with Gabriel at [email protected]
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