Rudy Corpuz Jr. looks back at 25 years of rebuilding—and redemption.
United Playaz headquarters at 1038 Howard St. is adorned with images of peace activists and victims of gun violence.
Yellow banners with images of Filipino Americans hang on lamp posts throughout the South of Market, remnants of a campaign launch a year ago to mark Filipino American History Month. “Look,” says Rudy Corpuz Jr., pointing to one of the flags along Mission Street, “that’s me.” Clearly it’s a point of pride for the SoMa native—not because his face is prominently displayed, but that he was chosen to be on the banner at all.
The flags highlight families, youth, seniors and community leaders who represent a district that, despite the city’s demographic changes, still contains one of the largest concentrations of Filipino residents in the city—so much so, that the district was designated by the city as SOMA Pilipinas, the Filipino Cultural Heritage District. In the end, those chosen to be photographed for the campaign were people who were making positive impacts in the neighborhood—those who were working to make the community a better place.
Two decades ago, Corpuz was hardly a viable candidate.
“I was a destroyer of my community,” says Corpuz, the founder and executive director of United Playaz, a San Francisco-based violence prevention and youth development organization that was founded 25 years ago this month. “And now I’m a stakeholder and builder of my community.”
Corpuz’s story of redemption is one that he hardly believes himself. He is the youngest of nine children born to immigrant parents from the Philippines. His family moved from Boston to Seattle before eventually settling in SoMa in the 1960s, where their first home was on Third Street. His father, who Corpuz describes as a “good man,” was a master sergeant in the Army and a strict disciplinarian. His mother was a housewife who cooked Filipino and American dishes and “loved her family dearly,” he says. As he describes it, his family was neither rich nor poor. “We always had food and clothing and a roof over our heads,” he says. “We survived on what we survived on."
Still, Corpuz was seeking to fill a void. “I was never taught about life skills,” says Corpuz, now in his 40s and a father of four. “My parents would just discipline us when we got in trouble. So I grew up learning from being on the streets. A lot of my friends and I would see the respect people would get in the neighborhood if they were in a gang—women, cars. They would come down the block and everyone acknowledged them. It was power. I liked that respect.”
“I was a destroyer,” Corpuz says. “Now I’m a stakeholder and builder of my community.”
He joined a neighborhood gang at age 12, began selling drugs at 16 and, after dealing with his father’s sudden death in 1987, spent nearly a decade in and out of trouble with the law. His actions, he admits, contributed to the growing challenges in the community.
Corpuz was quickly becoming yet another statistic in rising recidivism rates. But, in 1993, after running into the law again, he encountered an old friend, Dennis Ubungen, a counselor at City College of San Francisco, who enrolled him in the Extended Opportunity Program Services, designed to give people who have gone through the correctional system a second chance. Ubungen also introduced Corpuz to Bill Chin, director of EOPS, and Tony Guiuan, both of whom played an instrumental role in Corpuz’s transformation. But it wasn’t until he saw a job posting on a board near the science building on campus that Corpuz would begin to change the course of his life and, in doing so, change the lives of countless others.
Rudy Corpuz Jr.
“I saw a job opportunity that said, ‘Gang prevention counselor, Filipino,’” he says. “I was looking at it, and I said, ‘S---, I gangbang, and I’m Filipino. That’s me!” As if being quizzed for a test, Corpuz goes on to rapidly recite the phone number on the job posting, followed by its three-digit extension. He recounts the names of the two contact people: Mauricio Vela and Joy Ferguson.
Asked how he remembers the details 25 years later, he responds: “It saved my life.”
That call would lay the foundation for what would become United Playaz, headquartered in SoMa, the very neighborhood that served as the backdrop of his troubled past. As a gang prevention counselor for the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center, Corpuz was tasked with identifying Filipino gang members and discovered a high concentration at Balboa High School.
“Balboa was notorious for violence and drugs,” says Corpuz. “The principal there, Ms. [Julia] Montevirgen allowed me to go to the school and provide resources. I was there when a fight broke out with blacks and Filipinos Oct. 8, 1994. People were just getting jumped and nobody was learning. So I got this coach, Andre Alexander, who’s African American, and my Samoan friend and asked them if we could get all the kids together. Even the SFPD went to get the kids who were suspended to attend the mediation. There were no police and no staff, just us and the kids.”
From that mediation, Corpuz not only identified the source of the conflict (a girl), he convinced the students that it wasn’t worth jail time and got them to come up with solutions to avoid future conflict. He learned that the students wanted more on-campus activities: sports during lunch, basketball, football, talent shows to showcase their skills.
“I said I could make that happen, but I needed their help,” he says. The group, which the youth and Corpuz named “United Playaz,” succeeded on campus for more than 10 years until Corpuz decided it was time to go beyond his employment with the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center and expand the program on his own. “I was helping all these youth in other neighborhoods, and then I’d go back to SoMa and the youth there would say, ‘What about us?’” he says. A particular need in the neighborhood was at the Gene Friend Recreation Center at Sixth and Folsom streets, where a large number of youth were hanging out without any adult supervision. “So, in 2005, I asked Mauricio for his blessing. He said I could take the program, but I couldn’t take the funding. I left with the name and the connections I made from 1994 to 2005.”
It was during this time that Stanley Tookie Williams, an original founder and leader of the Los Angeles-based Crips gang, was serving time on death row and had sparked a heated debate on the death penalty in California with his case. Williams was writing children’s books and reached out to Corpuz. “He said he wasn’t going to be around much longer, and he really wanted me to focus on youth,” Corpuz says. “He told me to start with the little kids, so we expanded to elementary. Now it’s the most effective program we have.” Williams was eventually executed Dec. 13, 2005.
Corpuz gathering students for a trip to Blackberry Farm in Cupertino, the last field trip of the summer hosted by United Playaz.
Now faced with a broader demographic to serve, Corpuz needed a home base. United Playaz was able to secure two city grants totaling $150,000 and an agreement from San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department to run the program out of the recreation center rent-free. That agreement abruptly ended in 2009, when the program grew in popularity. The rising number of participants meant more noise and traffic in the area, and with it, complaints from the neighbors.
“They kicked us out, and I was so hurt that, in my own community, these kids could not go to a program that was free,” Corpuz says. “We needed a home, and we didn’t have anywhere to bring the kids, until this building became available.” Among the organization’s most strategic moves was its much-publicized purchase of 1038 Howard St., the two-story building that houses its offices, meeting space and gathering place for participating youth, for $1.4 million in 2015.
It was a major coup for Corpuz, who says he fasted for days while praying for divine intervention—which seemingly worked. The Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development had established the SoMa Stabilization Fund with the stated mission “to stabilize the community and promote equity through strategies that mitigate the impact of development.” Through the program, $400,000 from impact fees collected from Rincon Hill developers was being offered as a grant, with the caveat that the beneficiary raise matching funds. Corpuz surpassed the match, raising $800,000 from various private groups, along with grassroots fundraising in a campaign Corpuz coined I Got 5 on It.
“I went around the city and asked people, ‘Are you going to stop the violence? Then put 5 on it!,’” he recalls. “Guess what? We got the building. Twenty-five years later, here we are.”
In addition to hosting gun buybacks every year, the organization provides free afterschool programs for elementary to high school youth and restorative justice classes for returning citizens from the correctional system. They also provide community and crisis response services, case management, workforce development services, and in-school violence prevention programs at seven high schools in San Francisco. Since leaving the recreation center, United Playaz and the Recreation & Parks Department have rebuilt their relationship and collaborate on numerous after-school and summer programs.
His experiences have given him the ability to identify the most at-risk among the city’s youth, as well as the skills to communicate with them. Equipped with street savvy, a strong sense of spirituality, and a talent for rapid responses and catchy phrases, Corpuz is equal parts motivational speaker, stand-up comedian, hustler, pastor and self-described “all-around playa.”
“When I first met him, I thought, ‘Is this guy for real?’” laughs Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents District 6, where SoMa is located. “He drops rhymes and lines left and right that just make you laugh. But what you find is that the only thing that matches his swagger is his commitment to young people and his community. If you’re someone getting in trouble in SoMa, you can expect a call from Rudy, not to scold you, but to include you and lift you up. There are very few people who can make that call in a way that Rudy can.”
With chapters in New York and the Philippines, the organization now employs 20 staff members, 60% of whom were formerly incarcerated. In 2018, when homicide rates decreased from 56 to 43, SFPD Chief Bill Scott credited United Playaz for its role in preventing shooting deaths. Those employed by the organization say it has saved their lives as well.
“It cushioned the blow to transition to society,” says William Ramirez, high school coordinator with United Playaz, who was sentenced to two life sentences at the age of 15 for aiding and abetting. Ramirez served 22 years in prison and was paroled at age 38. “I wanted to volunteer with youth because I spent all my life in institutions from the age of 15,” he says. “If I can help just one kid from murdering or getting murdered, then my life and my victim’s life is not in vain. I can give back as part of my amends, my living amends.”
Ramirez now works full time with United Playaz and rents a studio apartment near the organization’s headquarters. “It’s empowering to give back and work with youth,” he says. “A lot of guys in prison talk about giving back, but they fall short; they don’t do anything. But I’m doing it. This gives me a sense of identity. It built my confidence, gave me purpose. My life is meaningful.”
Owing to its success is the organization’s broad and inclusive approach to addressing the community’s challenges, summed up in its slogan: “It takes the hood to save the hood.”
Corpuz with UP staff and volunteers, all of whom are ex-lifers who are now giving life to youth (Photo courtesy Corpuz Jr.)
“I think that they’ve been strategic about that,” says Haney. “You go to their anniversary events, and there will be every politician from every neighborhood, along with developers; tech leaders; and also the families, children and seniors that are still present in the heart of SoMa. Some of the biggest changes in the Bay Area have been concentrated in SoMa. They’ve been able to navigate change in a way that provided a bridge of inclusion not just for Filipinos, but for what SoMa has historically been. They deserve credit for refusing to be erased.”
Despite his determination and seemingly boundless energy, Corpuz admits the fight can be both painful and discouraging. In July, he attended four funerals of people involved with their programs, including 15-year-old Day’von “Day Day” Hann.
“When I have to walk up and see the kid I served [lying] in a casket, and I’m looking down, man he’s just a baby,” he says, shaking his head. “I can never get used to that. That’s the thing that makes me want to quit, but that’s exactly what drives me to say I can’t stop. I have to go harder so that I don’t have to see anyone I know in that box.”
Corpuz is certainly not alone. Listed on the organization’s website is an impressive lineup of individual supporters, private foundations, government agencies and corporate supporters—all reflective of relationships built over the span of two decades.
With a focus now on the next 25 years, Corpuz goes down his wish list: “That we be self-sufficient. That we will be all over the world, like YMCA or the Boys and Girls Club. We franchise all over as a legacy of Playaz Clubs. And we continue to serve the people.”
Photography by: CHRIS HARDY AND BRADEN SUMMERS