Marilyn Washington Harris aids Oakland's forgotten and its shunned. Since losing her only son to the gun in 2000, and finding no help available, she has dedicated her life to stepping into the immediate aftermath of homicides to provide help, hope and healing to stunned, angry, mourning families. Daily, she guides Oaklanders through the craziness, the hopelessness, and the business -- coroners, funerals, city offices, police -- of being a survivor. In 13 years, at homes, at crime scenes, at churches, chapels and funeral homes, she has aided thousands of families, making appointments and arrangements, accompanying them, protecting them from exploitation and beginning the healing process with patience, love and trust. A government clerk when her son was killed, she has become a vocal advocate for peace, a model of selfless service, an inspiration to a generation of violence prevention workers, and a healer of the city and its victims.
Background (of the problem Miss Marilyn addresses in her work)
For more than three decades now, Oakland has had one of the highest homicide rates in the nation. Police and programs exist for the prevention of violence, but very little has ever been done for the survivors of the killed who, lost and scarred, frightened, often friendless and poor, must continue to live and function in the community. When her son was killed in 2000, Marilyn Harris found that there was no one to guide loved ones through the great uncertainty, through the grim business so suddenly at hand in the wake of the violent death of a son, husband, daughter, wife. Suddenly, in a mental and emotional daze, there are police to deal with, coroners, city clerks, funeral arrangements, often with very limited funds. The opportunities for neglect and exploitation are many. Through the lonely, often bitter process, the anger, sadness and alienation of the survivors are only increased and solidified. To ignore their needs is to let their wounds fester. It is to risk returning them to the community utterly bereft and hopeless. To aid them, is to demonstrate that love and healing are still possible.
What She Does
Sometimes she gets a text, or a colleague calls. Often, the police call Marilyn Harris when there has been a homicide in Oakland. Sometimes neighbors of the killed call; they know it's time for Harris to do her work, as only she can. She steps into the bleakest environments, at crime scenes, in homes under a cloud of shocked mourning. She connects with the sufferers, demonstrates rare understanding in the face of anger, confusion, even hostility, casting a balance between compassion and necessity. She finds the right moment for the business at hand, then provides knowledge, will, and a clear mind. Harris knows the system, from cops to florists to morticians. She makes appointments at funeral homes, at the coroner's office, at victims' services. She meets you there, or drives you, assures you are cared for and not exploited. She scrapes and scrounges for funds if you need them, checks if you have taken your medications, if you need food or childcare. She is with you at the funeral, there for you as you return to life. For many, she becomes for a time the one person they know they can trust and believe in. They never forget it.
More than 1,000 people have been killed in Oakland since 2000, when Harris' son was murdered in West Oakland. Nearly all of the 1000-plus victims' families have been helped through their most excruciating days by the sure hand of Miss Marilyn, as Harris is known throughout Oakland. With a minimal staff and small budget, Harris has almost single-handedly aided thousands of Oaklanders. When her son was killed, there was no one to help the survivors; they were the forgotten people, often shunned even within their own communities. And they would remain bitter, sometimes bent on revenge. Now, instead of returning survivors of the killed to the world alone and lost, she returns people who have begun the process of healing. The impact of her work spreads far beyond the individuals she guides, far beyond the days and weeks after a homicide. Even the police rely on Harris to calm the roiling souls of survivors so they can do their investigative work. To grieving families, she is a vivid reminder that the whole world is not against you. To anyone who knows her, she is a symbol of the possibility of carrying on against the greatest odds. Marilyn Harris saves lives.
When her son was shot dead in 2000, Marilyn Harris had billboards erected across West Oakland with his picture and the stark question: Do You Know Who Killed Me? We still don't, but ever since then she has been an unapologetic defender and proponent of the victims of Oakland's implacable problem with violence. She is the inspiration for countless survivors and for violence prevention specialists throughout the city. An accomplished public speaker of unimpeachable credibilty, Harris is an articulate and reasoned voice of reality in a city grasping for healing. She has the ear of everyone, from city leaders to wounded and disaffected victims. In her own life, with self-effacing modesty, she demonstrates acceptance without surrender, while cajoling the powerful and the seemingly powerless to move forward, to see reality, to choose peace and forgiveness, and to maintain faith in the city and its people. With her humor, her honesty, her belief in the necessity of love and healing on a personal and a civic level, she is an example of the strength and fortitude to be found deep inside all of us. Every day, she leads individuals towards healing and Oakland toward its better self.