Black History in Pierce County
This Black History Month, Safe Streets is honored to speak with some of the Black leaders who are making history and working to make our community a better place. Rob McAfee has worked in support of youth for many years, and has been a Youth Program Specialist with Safe Street’s Youth Leading Change program since 2016.
What are some of your favorite places in our area?
“These are places that I love to go to when I want to treat myself. And because they’re local I can support these restaurants and support the community. Eastside is my world – it’s where I live, it’s where I grew up – it’s where I am investing everything into.
- Gigos Jamaican Grill is a food truck that is parked by the Eastside Assembly of Believers.
- Tacos de Antojo is a great value.
- Gardens Gourmet, I like to eat a lot of salads – and they are a black-owned restaurant.
- The walking trails around Swan Creek Park – I grew up playing in those woods before there were hiking trails. There’s a gulch behind First Creek that goes down and travels the Pipeline Trail. We used to go play down there, and there is an old urban tale, of this dude named Bald Head Murphy who lived in those woods. As kids, we knew the Bald Head Murphy lived in those woods, but no one had ever seen him. So as kids in the summertime we would go looking for him. We explored and played there but now there are actual walking and biking trails.
- Freighthouse Square
- Olive Branch Café & Tea House
- LeMay America’s Car Museum
- McKinley Park– This is right across the freeway overpass on the other side of LeMay’s America’s Car Museum and the Tacoma Dome. It’s so peaceful because you can oversee the city, you can look from that side and see the hilltop, the buildings, and all of the cars on I-5. This is just a peaceful place to come and just look at the city and think.”
What made you go into youth development?
“Balance. Throughout my life, I’ve always worked with youth in the community in some form or fashion. Whether I was coaching a team, involved with my church’s youth group, or supporting youth in the community or my kids’ and their friends. My house has always been the hang-out house because if I didn’t know or meet my kid’s friends’ parents, I wouldn’t allow them to go to their house; That’s something my parents taught me and as a parent I understand. What led to my complete transformation to youth development is when my kids were real young we lived in Seattle and I use to be a Satellite installer, so I’d get off of a long day of hard labor and go coaching, or volunteering at church in the youth department, it was something I enjoyed doing. So once moving back to Tacoma I said – how can I combine these two? What can I do? I decided to go back to school and to align my career with what I had a passion for, and that was working with youth. Part of that change was something my daughter had mentioned to me – she said “When I go to bed you’re not home from work or coaching, and when I get up to go to school you’re already gone to work.” I was having these long days and was out supporting other people’s kids. This made me think – how can I combine these?
I had to sacrifice something, so I sacrifice my coaching. Because working in this field still takes a lot, but it’s so much better than me doing installations and working ten plus hours.
Another reason is I moved from Tacoma to get away from the gang life and make a real change in my life so that could be a positive example for my kids. Once we moving back to Tacoma and into Salishan that was my chance to go back to school, then I was offered an opportunity to work with youth and from there I never looked back.”
What is something you’d like to see changed or address in our community?
“I would like to see the circumstances of those experiencing homelessness change. Knowing people who are experiencing homelessness and drug addiction is painful, people will not accept support until they’re ready but that don’t mean we don’t continue to offer it. And that’s been on my mind ever since. Why? Why are we allowing this? Why don’t we support more?
I believe in doing what’s best for the people. Take me out of it, I want what’s best for everybody – not just what I think and what benefits me as an individual. I strive to be selfless not selfish. That’s the first thing that comes to mind – what can we do to help support and bring an end to those experiencing homelessness and drug addiction?
I work with youth and I hate to say this but I often think – how many of these youth I work with will end up in these circumstances? What can I do now – working with the youth I do is to help support and build them holistically to hopefully avoid situations that would lead them down the wrong path. I understand a lot is out of people’s control, rent prices, for example I totally understand that. But what I can and will do is support them to stay in school to get the best education and make good decisions so they won’t have those barriers also.
I just wish we could find a way to truly work together. It seems like we’re in so many different places on what’s important. I always say people first – people – human life – regardless of who you are. Let’s treat people as people. Then address the other issues that come with that.
I want to see change in what opportunities are accessible to people. We have to open more opportunities for the youth. I remember growing up, I went to Lincoln High School. There were always summer jobs and summer school opportunities. I took a summer job, I worked at Jennie Reed Elementary with the janitorial staff. I was cleaning gum off desks and wiping windows and all of that. It gave me work experience and income.
When we moved here from Kentucky there were eleven of us kids and two parents, and when there was the most kids in the house is when my parents made the least. So that summer job came in handy. Now I know why my mom was so supportive of me getting a summer job and learning a skill.
I remember Fish Food bank on the Eastside on 85th St, I recall walking there with my mom. I remember us getting clothes and the free food, it helped us. This is why I say Eastside love. Now days every Friday in Salishan a semi-truck drops off free food. I see how important that is now. Back then I didn’t see it – but now I get it.
Something I’m proud of this year is my willingness to support others even in this pandemic. I’ve always taught my kids to volunteer. We used to volunteer when we when we lived in Skyway. Nickelsville was in Skyway, it’s an encampment for those experiencing homelessness. I remember volunteering with a nonprofit named Favor and they made spaghetti to serve at Nickelsville.
There were two things that struck me that day. One of the adults was like “Wow, there is meat in this, normally the spaghetti we get is just sauce.” It just made me think, something that simple meant something to somebody (we served them what we would’ve wanted to be served).
The other thing that got me was there was a kid that was living there. I was like, what can we do to support this kid and his family. I remember how I felt as if it was yesterday so when I see people in need I think, what can I do to help?
What advice would you give to youth in Pierce County?
“Take time to reflect and invest in yourself. I say that and I think back to when I was a youth, I seen Safe Streets, Safe Streets was out there, but I didn’t participate in it. They had a youth group but I didn’t participate in it. I knew what they were about and what they were doing, I could have participated, and by getting involved that would have been me investing in myself. But because I didn’t, I went down a whole different path. And if I had [participated in Safe Streets] I possibly wouldn’t have made some of the mistakes I did.
I would tell them to reflect on where you are now and where you want to be. And invest the things that’s going to get you there.
I’ll tell them don’t be afraid to ask for help, we all need help in some form or fashion. Nobody makes it by themselves. I can apply this on so many levels but I’m going to use sports. The most successful players have had help from coaches and other players or family. We’ve all had to help in some form or fashion – so don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
Do you have any advice for parents?
“The advice I have for parents and this is advice I had to take for myself also. Have some grace! Since being in youth development and taking different workshops and training I’ve learned how to.
Also don’t be so hard on the kids with everything. I say that because I see some youth and I reflect back on my youth years, it’s weird how I remember so clearly now. I’m like wow, I was just a kid trying to figure it out. And that’s what they’re doing- kids trying to figure it out. If they don’t know better, we need to teach them better. I will say to parents, and I say this from experience, I’ve taken two parenting classes voluntarily on my own, and in each one I learned something different. At one point I was a solo parent and I knew I needed to learn how to be a better one. Just because we’re parenting don’t mean we’re parenting the right way. That’s why I took those parenting classes.
There’s no book to parenting, invest in finding out the best strategies to parenting. Have some grace with your kids. Continue learning to parent. We get prideful and don’t want to ask for help, but we have to.
I know someone who was getting a mental evaluation for their job and they looked down on getting it. I had to explain to them, we go to the doctor to get a physical, we go to the dentist to make sure our teeth are good. Why not go to get your mental health checked? There’s nothing wrong with it. If you’re scared it’s ok, that’s human, that’s normal, we all get scared. It’s a learning process.”
Do you have any recommendations for Facebook or Instagram accounts people should follow?
“I follow Tacoma’s Eastside Memory Lane. I follow because of the Eastside memory. A lot of people live on or used to live on the Eastside and they talk about memories such as the Piggly Wiggly, Hogan’s Market, Charley’s pizza place, Royal Forks (all-you-can-eat buffet). U-Mark-It grocery store, BBQ Pete’s, Dairy Dell– and K mart of course. There is so much. You’ll probably see Bald Head Murphy up on Eastside memory lane.
Black Fathers Facebook Group– It’s about supporting one another, there may be a father dealing with visitation or custody of his kids, there is so much support on there. Ya know, last week I was in WinCo and this dude was like “Hey Rob,” he recognized me with my mask on [laughs], he said “I see you on Facebook,” and at that time I was about to take a pause from Facebook. He said I appreciate what you be posting, in my head I’m like “Why you have to say that”, cause I was about to take a pause and now I have to continue. God knows what we need! Sometimes I’ll read something and think – this will probably help somebody somewhere. So I guess I’m stuck on Facebook [laughs].”
Anything else you’d like to share?
“I’d like to share about my community, and when I say community I mean the Eastside. The Eastside kind of has this stench from its past like it’s a bad area. This is what I want to say – we the Eastside are a strong factor in Tacoma’s future. And we’re creating a new story. The story that was previously told about the gangs and all that stuff – well this is a new day. And we the Eastside community are here to change the narrative on that story.
Growing up I never wanted to live in Salishan, I told myself I would never live there. But as an adult I ended up living in Salishan and I think that was one of the best things for me. It grounded and humbled me to new levels. When we moved to our current house my kids didn’t want to leave Salishan – that was where their friends were, that was their community. There’s nothing like knowing your kids are well and have good friends. It makes you feel like you did something right. Sometimes we as parents don’t think about those little things in life, we focus on how we’re trying to progress in life, we’re trying to live the so called “American dream,” a house with a white picket fence quote/unquote. That’s why when purchasing a house it was so important for me to buy on the eastside so my kids or myself didn’t lose those friendships or strong community bonds.
I teach community to the kids I work with, I understand how important their friendships are. I also understand how those friendships create community. Right now they’re building those friendships, those strong bonds, and there’s nothing like having that support when life does hits – and it could be anything – you lose a loved one to finding a job – that is life hitting – just make sure that your friendships/ community is strong. Strong enough to endure.
Safe Streets just started a program called 18/30 – It’s a peer support group for 18 to 30 year-olds. Supporting them holistically in any way possible during these times. I know a lot of people feel left out, especially Young adults who are just trying to figure it out. They need that support and we just want to bring them together and be the support they need.
I can’t wait until COVID is under control so we can all get together. I look forward to doing something with the youth, something big like a street fair with different activities. I know a lot of youth are missing what they’d normally do. I’m sure other community leaders are thinking the same thing.”