Giovanna’s Smile

Tamika Warren’s sister Giovanna was shot and killed 2 years ago in Oakland.

Here, Tamika talks about her sister’s murder, the son she left behind, and the smile Tamika will never forget.

CLICK TO PLAY > Giovanna’s Smile

The Unmentionables

Momma enjoys her quiet moments, and I relish the peace. By Jo Ann Bell

“No, I am not taking these off.” Momma was doing more pleading than pushing during one of our nightly battles as I changed her disposable underwear.

“You cannot take these from me! They are not dirty. Look, all you need to do is wash them.” She pelted me with all this resistance, while taking wadded up toilet paper in an effort to wipe the diaper clean. She had a point to prove.

Finally, in desperation, I took the sides of the underwear, quietly tore them apart, and removed the whole thing from her body. I put a fresh set on her, trying to focus through my exhaustion.

On some days and nights, I find the effort outweighs the benefit.  “Keep them on,” I think. When she puts up her fights, I use that simple mantra to fix things in the short run. “You will forget that we had this episode in a little while anyway, Momma, and off they will come.”

We both win those.

Endearments

Ruth takes in the tulips behind our house in West Oakland. Dementia makes it hard for her to remember her children, but Momma's love for this beautiful tree endures. By Jo Ann Bell

My 3 siblings and I often become fictional or rearranged members of Momma’s imagination. Momma once told my youngest brother that he was “found by grandpa at the poker game.”

I loved it when she said to me, with wide-eyed earnestness, “I want you to remember you are just like a member of the family. Don’t you ever forget that.”

To my further delight, when I was reminding her about who was who at a recent family gathering, she told me that my middle and older brothers weren’t her children. “No, those can’t be my sons. Not those old men. Not with all that gray hair. What are you talking about?”

I have often become her mom and her twin-sister, but never her daughter. When I would pick her up at the Alzheimer’s Day Center, the other clients would yell out “Ruth! Your mother’s here!”

What’s a caregiver to do? I imagine these pictures in her mind are safe places for her to retreat. Maybe she remembers and wishes to my brothers and I tucked away safely in her head as little snot-nosed kids begging for attention. Sometimes I tell myself that’s why she can’t picture herself with children who are now graying adults.

Maybe Momma is on to something. Those were indeed carefree days for all of us. And when things get hard here with Mz. Ruth, looking back is for me like a little daydream vacation.

The Decision

Mz. Ruth feeds her birds. By Jo Ann Bell

Last week, Momma and I visited Cousin Bernadette, who is in a nursing home suffering from ailments associated with dementia.  It was a pleasure to see her, even though Momma really didn’t quite comprehend the reason for the visit or Cousin Bernadette’s disability.

To put a loved one in a facility, either temporarily or permanently, is a decision that plagues many families.  It is a decision that should not be subject to the judgments of outsiders.  Many times, families choose nursing homes based on what’s most convenient for everyone except the person being sent to live there.

I try to make decisions that will appease everyone. That’s not always the best mode of thinking. I worry a lot about how my friends and family would react if I placed my mother in a nursing facility. Between my brothers and I, I am the primary caregiver. Momma lives with me, and although my family helps, I am the relative who tends to her needs the most. Still, when I weigh this incredibly heavy and difficult decision – to keep her here or to take her there – I am filled with anticipated guilt.

Mz. Ruth herself has come within minutes of being moved to a place I call “Shady Pines.” Now, that’s not a real place, at least not to me. It’s a threat I conjure on those days when Momma has thoroughly plucked my nerves. I think about Shady Pines a lot on those days when she gets combative, confrontational, or hard to physically manage.  The days may be long and the nights may have been longer.

Watching Momma enjoy her simplest pleasures reminds me why I keep her by my side. By Jo Ann Bell

But then I look at the way she enjoys the simple pleasure of an ice cream cone, or her love of nature and animals. Or the way she might for a single moment express love.  I realize that, for now, Momma’s love of life is big and special, and that she deserves to be free. Placing her in a nursing home would deny her that freedom.

And so we continue our life journey together – Mz. Ruth and I, here at home.

5 Years After Katrina, Recalling Stories of Fear & Relief Over Loved Ones in New Orleans

Mary Lou Stelly and her husband Eugene. In the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, Mary Lou, an Oakland resident, called all over the country searching for her brother Antoine Schexnider after the storm forced his New Orleans nursing home to evacuate its residents. By Jo Ann Bell

By Jo Ann Bell

Hurricane Katrina left Louisiana and Mississippi with memories of utter destruction. It’s been a month since those and other Gulf states marked the fifth year anniversary of the storm, and the floods that followed.

The region was still reeling one month after Katrina. For two families in the Bay Area, the weeks following the storm felt like an eternity.

OAKLAND, CA – Barbara Lafitte-Oluwole felt helpless. She sat by the phone, wringing her hands, and watching TV news reports of the havoc Hurricane Katrina and the broken levees were wreaking on New Orleans. “I was suffering devastation, fear, and worry.”

Lafitte-Oluwole, a Louisiana native who now lives in West Oakland, said her anxiety came from “not knowing the whereabouts or condition of my family and friends residing in New Orleans and neighboring cities.”

She relied on emails between her family in Louisiana and elsewhere for news on the whereabouts of her sister, aunt, cousins, and her mother, who was living in a nursing home. Notes like “I haven’t talked to Gwen, but I heard she and family are safe in Baton Rouge,” and “Aunt Mardis is safe” were among the countless email updates that helped keep Lafitte-Oluwole hopeful.

For Mary Lou Stelly, a native of New Orleans and resident of Oakland, the news of Katrina brought horror. Although she moved with her husband to the Bay Area in 1959, Stelly said, “New Orleans is as much my home as is Oakland.”

She had a large extended family there. Two of her brothers were still living in the city – one with a family of his own, and the other in a nursing home. Her two other brothers were deceased, but their families remained in New Orleans.

“The inability to make direct contact with my family was a nightmare,” Stelly recalled. Relying on relatives outside of the area for updated information, she found out her sisters-in-law had been evacuated to Texas and Baton Rouge. Her youngest brother was able to evacuate in time with his wife and children.

In the midst of the horror, came a story filled with faith, humanity, and love.

The night Katrina landed, Stelly’s oldest brother Antoine Schexnider’s nursing home started busing out residents who could walk. That left Antoine and his roommate stuck on air mattresses in their second floor suite.

A nun moved the roommate to a corridor with his air mattress so he could use it as a flotation device. Antoine was pushed to a corridor and left on another mattress and a wet sheet near the second floor stairs.

From that Sunday until the following Saturday, Antoine lay there. He survived for a week on a cup of grapes. There was no other food, and no water.

Another bus came, but would take only those who could walk. Rescuers tagged Antoine for evacuation and he was eventually lifted by helicopter to a freeway incline. He was left there with a group of bodies that carried assorted tags indicating who was alive, and who was not.

The plan was to transfer everyone to the New Orleans Airport. He found out he was going to be taken to Atlanta. “I don’t know anyone in Atlanta,” Antoine said to himself, before sending up a silent prayer.

His destination was later changed to Memphis. “I didn’t know anyone in Atlanta,” Antoine said to his sister as he recounted his experience, “but I really don’t know anyone in Memphis!”

Mary Lou Stelly spent her waking hours on missing persons phone lines trying to locate her New Orleans relatives. A week later she received a phone call from someone she did not know asking if she was Mary Lou Stelly and did she have a brother named Antoine. She was told that that her brother was en route to Memphis.

Stelly turned immediately to her family network. She called nieces who lived in North Carolina, they in turn dialed a friend in Tennessee, who reached out to someone they knew in Memphis. Her family fanned out through the phone lines, forming a search party to track down “Uncle Antoine.”

After a Presbyterian minister in Memphis met the New Orleans evacuees, he asked his community for help. Church members responded by adopting Antoine, taking care of him in the small town of Franklin.

Antoine lived out the remaining three years of his life in a nursing home there.

Mary Lou said “during those three years, my brother didn’t want for anything. Even his legal needs were met through someone we never knew.”

A few days after what would have been Antoine’s 76th birthday, Mary Lou spoke of the appreciation she felt towards those strangers who loved her brother so much to care for him with such kindness.

“Turf Unity” Rappers Rock Mics, Push For Peace In Their Neighborhoods

Turf Unity rapper Olondis "O-Zone" Walker was a teenager when he was shot in Oakland. Instead of seeking revenge, Walker said he has "been retaliating through music."

By Tyrese Johnson

OAKLAND, CA – Many would argue that music is essential to a full life. It makes us laugh, cry and think. It is this idea that musicians at the Oakland Green Youth and Art Media Center explore. The young, Oakland-based hip-hop artists there create music to bring an end to territorial squabbles, known as turf wars, in the city’s streets.

They are part of a project called Turf Unity. Next month, the collective will release its annual compilation CD. Rather than perpetuating the violence they hear in popular rap music, these artists write songs meant to support their communities.

Turf Unity grew out of the Silence The Violence campaign, which was spearheaded by Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. 21-year-old Jhamel “J-Milli-On” Robinson has worked with Turf Unity since it began in 2007. “Turf Unity came out of the frustration we were feeling from the loss of youth, as young as 12 and 13,” Robinson said, as he sat in front of his computer piecing together a new beat for a song.

Turf Unity’s work is unique because hip-hop, to many, is known for its violence and misogyny. 30-year-old rapper Ladasha “Diamond” Berry believes she and other female emcees have a special duty in hip-hop.  Berry explained, “I have a lot to say and I want to reach other sisters. We support each other. We know we are rare.”

Berry has been rapping since age 10. She is inspired by artists like Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, E-40 and Da Brat. Early on, she rhymed with the same negative messages she heard in popular rap music.  “I learned to express my feelings in a more positive light,” Berry explained about how her style has changed. “Words can come to life. Now I rap to reflect what I want to actually have.”

Berry, whose mother was murdered when she was only 2 years old, believes that Oakland communities can curb street violence by reminding young people of their worth. “Kids want to be told, ‘No.’ They want to know someone cares. No one’s told them, ‘You’re beautiful, you’re brilliant, you mean the world to me.’” Berry credits her grandmother with providing that kind of encouragement to her throughout her life.

The topics she and Robinson rap about – activism, community education, and youth empowerment  - differ greatly from what’s played in the mainstream hip-hop outlets. These two, however, have no worries about losing fans. “I’m in the streets,” said Robinson. “I connect with people. All you need is a dope beat.”

“For every lost fan, there’s going to be a gained fan,” Berry agreed. “I have a new target market.” That market consists of young people who are affected by violence, gangs and drugs. “Our job is to change minds, as well as the lifestyle and culture of violence in Oakland and the world,” Berry said of her musical mission. “It’s up to us. We didn’t make the crack epidemic. We’re products of it. I make a change where I can make changes. That’s my responsibility.”

Tennis player-turned-rapper, Olondis “O-Zone” Walker, 20, can attest to Turf Unity’s mission. He was shot when he was only 16 years old. “I wasn’t even really that in to rapping until I got shot,” Walker explained. “I’ve been retaliating through music, rather than on the person that did it.” he has since release his own album, “Tears of Memory.”

Turf Unity works to bring people from different parts of Oakland together. Walker admits that he was not immediately able to forgive those that wronged him. He and the rest of Turf Unity’s artists now create and release music that aims to fulfill the project’s mission of bringing together a generation divided by geographical lines.