A middle-aged Black woman in a white collared shirt wearing a professional badge in a lanyard around her neck poses outdoors, slightly smiling, with trees and greenery in the background.
Kesse Taylor-Jenkins is a program specialist at Youth Alive, an Oakland nonprofit focused on violence interruption. Credit: Florence Middleton

My name is Kesse Taylor-Jenkins, and I’m a mother of five and a grandmother of 11. I resided in Oakland from 1971 until 2010 and relocated, after my father passed, to the Contra Costa County area. I like to tell people that I’m “Oakland Oakland” because I was born at Oakland Hospital, which used to be in the tall building on 27th Avenue and International Boulevard where there’s now a flea market, across the street from the Cesar Chavez school.

This story is part of Amplify Oakland, our series of first-person stories shared by Oaklanders in their own words. Read more.

I had a lot of good times growing up in Oakland. My dad had his house on Birch Street since 1967 and he raised his kids there. A lot of my friends used to ride our bikes and be over here, over there. We didn’t have a care in the world. 

Then things started changing, with more deaths and homicides. 

Unfortunately, I lost two brothers, right down the street. Then six or seven years later, after my father passed, my son was murdered at the hands of a friend on 89th Avenue and Plymouth, directly around the corner from the very block I grew up. I also lost two of my kids’ fathers to gun violence, before my son was murdered.

My son’s name was Anthony Terrell Custard. He was my oldest child and my Black baby—that’s what I called him. In 2015, he was murdered at 27 years old. He left behind two children who were 3 and 6 years old when he died. He was a good person and a consummate student. He went to Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary for kindergarten through second grade, E. Morris Cox Elementary School, Elmhurst Middle School, Castelmont High School, and Dewey High.

I’m not gonna say he was the perfect child because, you know, kids get into things. But he was a great kid. He was a protector. He loved his friends and his family and would go hard for them. He didn’t want to see us upset or hurt. If his friends were in a mess, people respected him enough to have a conversation where he could squash the situation before anything happened. 

“I’ve experienced a lot of loss—losing people to violence in Oakland.”

He was loyal to a fault. I used to always tell him he was loyal to the wrong people—not that you shouldn’t be loyal, but are they also going to be loyal to you? It was both a gift and a curse because his loyalty to a friend is what got him murdered; I feel like he had his guard down. He probably never in his wildest dreams thought that would ever happen. 

My son got killed in broad daylight in front of everybody—kids, family, friends. Nobody felt safe to come forward and just say, “Hey, this is what happened, and I’m willing to get on the stand” and things like that. Every year, I call the police and ask, “Don’t you have any other information?” And they don’t, because they’re not investigating. To this day, the crime is unsolved; he’s one of the unsolved homicides in Oakland.

Before he died, he had started transitioning away from the lifestyle. He was trying to do something different; trying to find a job. He had just got accepted to truck-driver school to be a long-haul truck driver, and he was rapping. He wanted to be a provider for his kids, and it’s unfortunate that he didn’t get to do that. I got his acceptance letter for the truck-driver school, in a frame on a mirror. It was the last thing that he did.

My son was just living the life in Oakland that was being presented to him and other kids in the neighborhood his age, influenced by what they saw, which was basically a lot of drug dealing and things like that. So he wasn’t a perfect kid, but he was my oldest child, and he’s the one that taught me how to be a parent to the ones that came after. I had him at 16 years old, and you don’t know all the things you need to know when you’re a teenage mom. So we basically was raised together.

We just had the anniversary of his death on July 1—it’s been 8 years. Normally, I do something to mark the anniversary. But this year, I’ve learned to focus on me. I always focus on making sure everybody else is good and straight. But I found that I’ve been depressed and just living day by day. I never really felt like I had an opportunity to grieve because I still had to live, even through the pain of losing him. And so now, eight years later, it’s like I need to step back, take some time for myself, and try to figure out what it is in life that I want to accomplish, what my purpose is.

“Just having that space to be free to talk about our feelings without judgment—it gave me room to grow.”

I know that my son wouldn’t want me to be sad. But it hurt that he wasn’t here. I had so many aspirations and dreams for him; to watch him be able to raise his own children and things like that. Those are things that hurt more, now, because his son is graduating from middle school and will be in high school next year. He’s an avid football and basketball player, and I know his dad would have been really excited. His daughter is in dance. They’re just coming into their own, but they don’t have the support of a father being there.

Life itself has taught me that things happen, and you’ve got to adapt to situations like not having my oldest child here; losing my two brothers to violence in ’94 and ’97; losing two of my kids’ fathers to gun violence in 1989, and 2013. I’ve experienced a lot of loss—losing people to violence in Oakland. Maybe that’s why when my son died, even though that death was so close to me—I don’t want to say it felt normal, but it also didn’t affect me, in a way, because I’d already experienced so much trauma.

I’m so fearful of Oakland now, and this is my native city. I work here, and my mom still lives in Oakland. I’ve been so worried for her. I tell her she should just move out here where I’m at because I don’t want to have to worry her, you know? I’m watching videos of people being robbed at gunpoint, seeing things where our elderly are being mishandled by the youth in the community. They’re not taking care of them, having shootouts on freeways, where you’re not guaranteed to hit your target if it’s 1,000 cars going by. You’ve got kids, babies, that have lost their lives. There’s just a lot of chaos out here.

Finding hope started with Youth Alive, a violence prevention organization in Oakland. A former employee, Nina—she’s like family now—had started a women’s empowerment group. We met every Tuesday and just talked about life. It was maybe 10 of us in the group. Some had lost kids like I did. Some had lost more than one person to gun violence. Just having that space to be free to talk about our feelings without judgment—it gave me room to grow. 

Courtesy of Kesse Taylor-Jenkins

Later, she invited me to a women’s empowerment conference and they were talking about community. I spoke about how my son got killed in broad daylight, in front of my community. I broke down. I hadn’t had a cry like that, released that much, in so long. From there, I began going with her to sister circles, Town Nights, and midnight basketball, where people were trying to support the community in Oakland.

Being a violence interrupter with Youth Alive was probably one of the best decisions I made because it gave me a sense of pride and purpose. But it wasn’t easy. My first time being in the field was a double homicide, and the scene was just so chaotic that it was kind of like, “This ain’t for me. I’m not even ready for this.” It took me back to the chaotic scenes in my own life of losing people.

By the grace of God, another job opened up at Youth Alive, as a program specialist, which allowed me to transition so I didn’t have to just walk away. Although I’m not in the field much anymore—I’m mostly here in the office supporting with documentation and other things—I’m able to help those with boots on the ground who are trying to better their areas and bring the community together. And then you have a situation like we just had, with four homicides in one day, and it’s like, “What are we doing?” They’re doing the best that they can, but there’s only so much that they can do.

Ultimately, my life has not been easy. But I’m a person that adapts well to whatever comes my way and moves forward. The past is the past for me. My present is what I’m dealing with right now, and my goal is to be a whole lot better in my future so that I can be the best granny to my grandkids. I have a second generation coming that needs guidance and I want them to succeed.

All my other kids are in their 30s now, and we talk about things they experienced growing up. Tragic and traumatic things that we didn’t talk about when I was younger; things I had no inclination they were going through—depression, anxiety, stress, just a multitude of things. I worked for Oakland Unified School District for 24 years as a facility custodian and manager and was a single mom. I missed a lot because I worked nights. I feel like I missed the mark on some stuff, you know? But it’s good that we’re talking now about things that hindered us, that bothered us, issues that were going on in our lives. 

Now I’m focused on working on myself because I want to be the best version of me and help as many families as I can through their traumatic experiences. I don’t want my story to be their story. I want them to have a chance to tell their own, just like others gave me an opportunity to speak from my experience.