In the South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco, at 1038 Howard Street, sits the United Playaz headquarters. United Playaz is an homegrown organization that’s trying to make the SoMa neighborhood a safer place. It was founded by Rudy Corpuz Jr., but he wasn’t always an anti-violence activist.
“I got tired of going in and out of jail. I got tired of waking up at people’s houses that were dope houses. I got tired of being on the streets where I didn’t know where I was going to be at, you know what I mean, the next day because I was living foul.”
The United Playaz office isn’t far from where he grew up, a place where he became involved with gangs and dealing drugs. Then he started doing drugs, but eventually had a change of heart.
“So a transformation started happening. Because there was a power, an entity that was so incredible that I was introduced to. You know what that gangster’s name was? God. G-O-D. That’s why his name starts with a G, ‘cause he’s gangster like that,” Corpuz says. “So I started loving myself again, I started having a relationship with myself and started to know that I was somebody, and that I was worth something."
Corpuz founded United Playaz in 1994, after he straightened out. He wanted to create a safe space for kids and teens to go after school, instead of joining gangs or getting into other kinds of trouble. United Playaz does a lot of violence prevention outreach, going to schools and even talking to kids on the streets. Most employees are ex-felons, who grew up in San Francisco.
In downtown San Francisco a recent march he organized called “Silence to Violence.” Corpuz is ready for work. He has his doo-rag neatly tucked under his white baseball hat, his long ponytail perfectly braided. His shirt reads “it takes the hood to save the hood” -- the United Playaz motto.
Over the years, Corpuz has made a difference in the lives of many people. At the Silence to Violence march, it’s easy to see why. He smiles and waves at everyone..little kids, police officers, mothers
But even while the group is marching through the streets, you can see a drug deal going on in an alley nearby.
Corpuz pushes through, giving ‘shout outs’ to people watching the march go by, urging them to join in. Everyone seems to know who he is. But for Corpuz, it’s not a popularity contest. He wants people to know his story because he hopes it will encourage others to make changes in their lives. People like Salvador Villalobos.
“First of all I live in the same apartment building as Rudy, my mother stays downstairs so when I was 15 I caught a dope case,” Villalobos remembers. “I was running from the police and we was running in our complex building in the park and I was being arrested and you could see Rudy come out of his balcony.”
Taking a stand for change at home
The SoMa neighborhood has some of the highest murder and assault rates in the city. As of 2010 --the most recent figures available-- twenty percent of SoMa residents lived in poverty. That’s compared to twelve percent of San Francisco as a whole.
Villalobos says he had heard about Corpuz and United Playaz, but wasn’t really interested. Until he was arrested, and Corpuz became his case manager, taking him to court dates and helping him through the process. Villalobos says with just a single mom, there’s no way he could have managed all that without Corpuz.
“So having Rudy around, a strong male role model that been there done that in the same neighborhood that was doing dirt and to see that he could transform and do something right, and do something right for his family, you know ok, that’s what’s up,” Villalobos says.
Now, Villalobos is a coordinator at United Playaz where he works with young kids in an after-school program. He says he remembers the moment when he realized he could be the influence for positive change.
“Rudy one time put me to the side and like you know a lot of these kids look up to you, they try to dress like you, they to act like you,” Villalobos says. “And then when I finally noticed that and was like, ‘dang you really right.’ You know it’s my responsibility now to try to reach them right.”
It takes a village
Every week day, Villalobos goes to the local elementary school to pick up kids and walks them back to United Playaz headquarters. He also coaches sports teams with kids in the neighborhood, to keep them off of the streets.
Villalobos says he wishes he could have had a structured program like United Playaz when he was younger. But he’s still grateful help came when it did.
“I think if it wasn’t for Rudy I think I’d be dead or in jail for sure. I just want to thank Rudy and if it wasn’t for this place I don’t know where I’d be at,” says Villalobos.
Damien Posey also works for United Playaz-- he’s a case manager, doing things like helping kids in trouble navigate the court system, get jobs, and get back on track.
Three years ago, Posey had just gotten out of prison after serving a ten year sentence for drug and gun charges. He had already turned his life around in prison, and was working with kids in San Francisco when he met Rudy Corpuz.
“He let me know that I could still be myself and still make a difference, if that makes any sense at all,” Posey explains. “Because people think you need to be choked up, suit and tie, and all this kind of stuff to make a difference and to show people that you’ve changed and all this and that but it’s really not about that, it’s really about the works that you’re doing in the community.”
Posey says when he realized he could be himself --his better self-- he could help more kids because they could relate to him.
“I was born and raised in the hood, my mother was on drugs, I never knew my father, I got out the house at an early age, I was in and out of juvenile hall all my adolescent life and most of my young adult life before my long prison sentence,” he says.
Posey says that when kids try to make excuses to him, like their mom is addicted to drugs or their dad ran out on them, that doesn’t play well with him.
Just like Salvador Villalobos, Posey says he wishes he had something like United Playaz when he was younger, positive role models who might have kept him on the right track.
“What I had was people telling me to sell drugs, be a pimp, rob, steal, you know what I mean, steal cars, stuff like that,” he says.
Instead, Posey is working his hardest to reach out to today’s youth to make sure they don’t fall into his mistakes. He recalls one troubled kid who really stood out to him. Posey helped him get new clothes and a haircut for job interviews.
“He’s a personal trainer over there at Bally’s, he’s found some type purpose, you know he feels like he’s somebody, so that really made me feel good,” Posey says.
Corpuz says that feeling Damien Posey is talking about, that feeling of knowing you changed someone’s life for the better, is the best feeling there is.
“When I smoked dope like I told you I got high, and I hit that pipe and I blew the smoke out, and people know who smoke crack how it feel. It gives you a feeling like whoo-ee, like you on top of the world, right. This feeling that I have now when I see kids or people in general make transition in life is a thousand times better.”