In some neighborhoods, when Sam Cobbs, the CEO of Tipping Point Community, schedules a meeting, he's careful not to show up early. The longer he has to wait, the more frequent the side-eyes. The longer he has to wait, the more likely it is that someone will decide he doesn't belong.
When he traveled through West Oakland, Cobbs carried a change of clothes in his car. On some streets he was likely to attract the attention of police and he knew, because it had happened before, that his credentials wouldn't prevent them from detaining him and hauling him downtown.
Sam Cobbs knows these things because he has to. Because the color of his skin has made him a moving target in a region and a state and a country governed by generations of racial inequity. He knows these things because where he grew up in the Mississippi Delta, racism was blatant and in-your-face. "As my grandmother used to say, [in Mississippi] it's like they're standing on their toes telling you they don't like you," he recalls.
In the Bay Area, racial inequities may be more carefully concealed, but they are just as dangerous. A report released this summer found that, despite making up only 7 percent of the region's population, 27 percent of the individuals killed by police here since 2015 were Black. Forty percent of those people killed were unarmed. A Harvard study that came out around the same time found that the only metro where African-Americans are more likely to be killed by police than the Bay Area is Oklahoma City.
Violence, that's in your face. It stands on its toes and tells the Black community and other people of color their lives are worth less. But a deeper and less obvious problem forms the foundation for a steady drumbeat of violence and discrimination: poverty.
Despite the Bay Area's self-proclaimed liberal values, inequities tied to race and heritage are "hidden and systematic and embedded in certain policies and regulations," explains Cobbs. Decades of exiling Black and brown people to the least resourced and most environmentally unhealthy neighborhoods and schools has trapped whole communities in a cycle of poverty without the tools to escape.
"The systems that are perpetuating poverty are not broken, they were built this way. On purpose," Cobbs recently wrote. At Tipping Point, he and his team are not just trying to fix those systems, but to illustrate how they've failed and find new solutions to replace them.
Cobbs speaks at a 2019 Tipping Point Amplified VIP event, onstage with the nonprofit's founder and chair, Daniel Lurie. (Courtesy of Devlin Shand for Drew Altizer)
To accomplish it, Tipping Point partners with nonprofits that are embedded in local communities in a variety of sectors, including housing, education, and employment. Every dollar they raise goes to the groups they work with, and they put no restrictions on how the funds can be used, an extremely unusual policy in the nonprofit realm.
Work with vulnerable youth is one of the areas where Cobbs has long focused his energy. As a kid, he saw for himself how much of a difference his father, one of the few African-American business owners in his hometown of Indianola, made in the lives of struggling young people by serving as a Boy Scout Troop leader, voluntarily caring for the community's recreational spaces, and giving jobs to formerly incarcerated individuals.
Cobbs, too, has watched out for the young people in his adopted Bay Area community. Before taking the helm at Tipping Point, he served in leadership positions at the Boys & Girls Club of Oakland, Larkin Street Youth Services, and First Place for Youth, which provides services for former foster youth. "Making sure that our young people are not only surviving but thriving...has a huge ripple effect in communities and in society," he explains.
Cobbs (2nd from left) at First Place for Youth, where he was CEO for 12 years.(Courtesy of First Place for Youth)
Many of the programs Tipping Point funds, both youth-oriented services and those for the broader community, are practical responses that, if scaled up, could significantly restructure society. This is all the more true during a pandemic that has shut down businesses and left many individuals, especially those who were low-income to start with, unemployed. "We're trying to get not just services to people in need but we're also trying to get resources to them, to get money into the hands of people who need the money most," says Cobbs.
Indeed, if there's anything good that has come out of the COVID-19 crisis, it's the clarity and strength of Tipping Point's role at the nexus of poverty, donors, and nonprofits.
"We want to create a Bay Area where everyone can prosper. We do it by changing the way people think about poverty, by decreasing the number of people that are in poverty, and by making sure that people have the opportunity to have a prosperous life here."
And for those who want to help create those opportunities, Cobbs has what his staff lovingly refers to as a "Samism" for that. "Giving up your treasure is a great way to help," he says. "Giving up your talent is another. [Make] sure that your voice is being heard."