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Jefferson Award Winner Paves Path For Oakland Gang Harmony

OAKLAND (CBS 5) - In a tough East Oakland neighborhood where gang violence has been a part of everyday life, there is hope.

Old rivals have cooked up new friendships under the guidance of Cesar Cruz, co-founder of the Homies Empowerment Program.

Every Wednesday night Cruz has opened the doors and invited sworn enemies to cook and eat side-by-side at the YMCA on 45th Avenue. These dinners have proven food for thought by providing a message of peace.

"It's really hard to kill someone when you know them," Cruz said. "You can be a peaceful gang member, someone who takes care of the community."

Before becoming an educator, Cruz grew up in a broken home and got in trouble with the law. He felt compelled to help start the Homies Empowerment Program two years ago at the East Bay YMCA, where he's on staff.

Homies Empowerment members Adrian Arias and Nestor Ramirez discovered they could find common ground despite living in rival neighborhoods. Both have shared in the experience of grief from gang violence.

"We could relate to the things we go through but in a different way," Arias said.

"They're gonna go through the same pain we go through," Ramirez said. "It's all the same thing. It's never going to stop until we stop ourselves."

Today, Cruz oversees more than two hundred people in the program who are in gangs or influenced by gangs.

"I average six to ten funerals a year," Cruz said. "Most are open casket. I'm tired of it."

President Robert Wilkins of the East Bay YMCA praised Cruz for his leadership.

"He has the passion and urgency of an activist, the knowledge and nurture of a teacher and the skills and psychological appropriateness and modality of a developmental psychologist," said Wilkins.

Cruz also teaches Latino history at the Homies Empowerment meetings. His teachings have spread to include a class at Arise High School in Oakland where students say learning about Latino history for the very first time helps them dream big.

"After you know that there are heroes in your race, it motivates you," Arise High School Senior Javier Martinez said.

Students have called Cruz one of their own heroes for making peace a reality.

"Peace is happening in Oakland, and its not just stories of murder and violence," Cruz said. "That's not the only thing happening in Oakland."

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved.)

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