Ayodele Nzinga – Community Artist and Devoted “WordSlanga”

Ayodele "WordSlanga" Nzinga has spearheaded growth in West Oakland community theater. “Art is a necessity, a conscious form of communication."

By Oakland Voices contributor Cameron Wilson

OAKLAND, CA —  On a crisp fall night, in the Sister Thea Bowman Memorial Theater, Ayodele Nzinga portrays mystic heroine Aunt Esther Tyler in August Wilson’s play Gem of the Ocean.  In a cozy storefront gallery with a single mic and an eager, motionless audience, Nzinga sears ears under her poet name WordSlanger.

Born in either the Midwest or the south – depending on which of her two birth certificates you want to believe – Nzinga insists that “Oakland is where I came of age.”

Oakland sets an ideal backdrop for Nzinga’s life in the arts.  She’s a poet and playwright.  Her talent extends beyond pen and paper to spoken word, theater direction and acting roles.

“My artistic practice is centered in West Oakland,” said Nzinga. She calls her area “emblematic” of many other urban communities across the country, because of the stories about struggle and triumph she hears from her neighbors. “It’s every hood to me.”

Nzinga gravitated to words at an early age.  At age 6, she participated in a church Christmas pageant. She quickly grasped the overall story and the way each character worked with the rest of the cast.

She remembers her friends struggling to learn their lines, while Nzinga memorized every part in the play. During the pageant she blurted out lines when others forgot them.  “The play became a monologue,” she recalled.

This childhood experience made a life-long impact on Nzinga. “It made me feel powerful.”

She wants others to have that power, too. Nzinga believes that everyone has the ability to shape, mold and tell their own story.

In 1999, Nzinga founded the community based theater troupe, the Lower Bottom Playaz.  Just a year later, the Prescott-Joseph Center for Community Enhancement invited Nzinga to be an artist in residence.

Nzinga’s commitment to bringing community theater to West Oakland impressed the center.  Based on her ideas, Prescott-Joseph built The Sister Thea Bowman Memorial Theater as a space for public performance.

The theater is “a phenomenal investment in my dream,” Nzinga said.

During the summer, she organizes the Sister Thea Summer Day Camp, where children and adults take theater and acting lessons.  The day camp wraps up with a community performance.

In addition to educational outreach, Nzinga is busy with her own work.  Her play Mama at Twilight: Death by Love is about how AIDS threatens to tear one black family apart.  The play concludes with an audience discussion.

Nzinga wrote the play to expose what she calls “open secrets” surrounding AIDS and homosexuality in communities of color. She hopes her work can move people to think and act differently. “There is a greater potential for change when the heart and head are connected.”

Mama at Twilight: Death by Love has run several times this year and is slated to return in 2011.

Nzinga proves daily that art is life, it is something everyone in every community needs.  Her work brings people together into one space to enjoy and discuss plays, and share lessons that span generations.  “Art is a necessity,” Nzinga insisted, “a conscious form of communication,” which is why she works so hard to share her skills with her community.

Catch Nzinga and the Lower Bottom Playaz in Bathroom Graffiti Queen and Flowers for the Trashman this fall at the Black Dot Cafe. There are shows on Saturday, November 20th at 2pm and 8pm.

For more news and updates from Nzinga and the Lower Bottom Playaz, visit their website www.lowerbottomplayaz.com.

Boxing with Willie

My grandson Willie Junior is named after my son who was murdered three years ago in West Oakland. Willie Junior remembers his father well: the way his father played with him. They’d box, throw the football, and shoot together at the basketball court.  Willie Sr. started teaching my grandson the plays and moves when the boy was real young.

One day, lil Willie was playing with his boxing gloves when he started talking about how he and his daddy would box with one another and he would always sock his daddy in the face. My grandson has those moments a lot – those times when he seems almost transported back in time, as if he’s standing right there with his daddy, beaming the way he would when his father complimented him on a good jab or a great catch.

When lil Willie has those moments, I am glad to be there for him. I listen as he tells me his memory. Then he leans on my shoulder, or puts his arms around me, and tears come. He cries, and I tell him to let it out – his memories, his stories, and that sadness that’s way down inside. That’s what happens every time he tells one of his “I remember when” stories.

Those are my fondest times in my life after the lost of my son. My loss causes me a lot of pain, and being there to support my grandson and to share his memories is joy that I live for.

The Last Day

Friday, November 5

My month-long battle against fast food is finally over. My fast has ended.

It took a lot of mental strength for me to resist temptation and ignore the commands of my appetite to eat whatever pleased my senses – the junk food that’s everywhere, looking and smelling delicious.

I look back on where I was at the beginning of this experiment and compare that to where I am now. My mood was altered because I could not eat fast food. I became angry at times when I could not give in to my cravings and buy McDonald’s french fries.

My anger was a signal that I had a problem: I was a fast food addict.

Throughout this experiment, my meals have been well portioned and nutritious. At least, I’ve did the best I could. And there was a lot to that – being more deliberate about my eating choices, reading labels, considering what I put into my body before putting down my hard earned cash for a meal. Starting my day with oatmeal and boiled eggs (instead of a Big Country breakfast burrito from Carl’s Jr.) provided me with nutrients that were sufficient for my mind and body.

I had turkey sandwiches for lunch, fish with broccoli and carrots for dinner. That all feels like a world away from the Burger King Whopper burger meal with fries I use to eat regularly.

Through my new diet, I’ve learned that, while it’s important to manage your weight, it’s even more important to care for your body internally by having a proper diet.

Here is one of my greatest triumphs: I’ve just about broken the habit of being a slave to my junk food cravings. I’ve strengthened my self-control. Some may think because this journey has ended that I will return to the Big Macs, fries, sodas, chocolate sundaes, and eat whatever other fast food I please. I’ve heard people say it takes about six weeks to make or break a habit. Well, my fast food fast was about 31 days, and I consider my addiction broken!

I feel I’ve restrained my taste buds somewhat. When I smell KFC’s chicken or when the aroma of McDonald’s food wraps itself around my nose, I actually feel a bit nauseous now. I just don’t crave it all anymore.

Although my “no fast food” diet is supposed to be over, I plan on maintaining my new-found habits. Not to say that I won’t ever eat out again, but I will keep it very limited for the sake of my life.

The next obstacle I’m tacking head on is my sweet tooth. I crave chocolate more than anything. I’m taking things one step at a time. I look forward to continuing my new diet and becoming more healthy as it becomes a new habit and leads me to a healthier lifestyle.

To me, this ultimately means a better, longer life.

MULTIMEDIA: I Am Oscar Grant

Video & photos by Oakland Voices contributor Sultanah Corbett

Oakland AIDS Missionaries Recount Time in Zimbabwe Jail, Vow to Keep Up Their Work

At the Allen Temple's press conference last week, from left right: nurses David Greensberg and Gregory Miller, Dr. Anthony Jones, ATAM chair Gloria Cox-Crowell, and Congresswoman Barbara Lee. By Sultanah Corbett

By Oakland Voices contributor Sultanah Corbett

OAKLAND, CA – In early September, four advocates from Oakland’s Allen Temple AIDS Ministries made their way to Harare, Zimbabwe to continue the work and vision of the late Dr. Robert Scott III, who founded the group a decade ago.

“We have over a thousand lives in the balance that we are responsible for providing medicine to,” pointed out Gloria Cox-Crowell, ATAM chair and facilitator of the mission.

ATAM visits Zimbabwe four times a year to conduct its clinic.

The group’s mission was interrupted when they and a Zimbabwean doctor were arrested and cited for operating a clinic without a license, and for not having a pharmacist present to administer antiretroviral drugs.

The group was arrested and held for four days in a city jail.

With just a ceiling window and no washing facilities, the 96-hour lock down took an emotional toll. Cox-Crowell recalled thinking to herself  “you know this to shall pass and you know that this is not going to be forever” to keep her spirits up.

The jail also did not provide them food. Cox-Crowell said her group survived thanks to her church community. “Excellent friends affiliated with a partner church brought us breakfast, lunch and dinner, and it was more than enough. I actually gained weight.”

Overall, The ATAM mission group said that despite the uncomfortable jail conditions, they were treated very well. In fact, Cox-Cornwell was asked by the jailer to conduct an educational forum for women on HIV and AIDS.

Upon their release, the group was summoned to a Zimbabwean court. They were all later pardoned before boarding a flight back to the US.

The experience isn’t likely to sway ATAM’s commitment to Zimbabwe.

“We are not deterred by any of the incidents that occurred during the course of our clinic visit in September,” Cox-Crowell proclaimed during a press conference the group held last week. “We plan to go back. We encourage other humanitarian groups to join us in our efforts to eradicate HIV and AIDS.”

The Ministry of Health there welcomed the group back to continue addressing the impact of AIDS on that southern African nation. An estimated 1.4 million Zimbabweans are living with HIV or AIDS.

“We really felt like we were caught up in some ‘political ping pong,’” Cox-Crowell explained, “and until they sorted it out, we were going to be held. But there was no fear about being held and we weren’t scared. We were feeling inconvenienced only.”

Cox-Crowell, Dr. Anthony Jones, and nurses Gregory Miller and David Greensberg are responsible for providing basic humanitarian support to more than a thousand Zimbabweans living with HIV and AIDS.

For several years, ATAM has been providing food, clothing and generic antiretroviral drugs purchased from a Zimbabwean pharmacy.

Dr. Jones has taken his first trips ever to Zimbabwe as part of ATAM.  “I feel privileged to be a part of this operation. As a clinician, to look through the charts and see how the people have gotten healthier over the years speaks to the success of the operation.”

Stressing the value of their mission, he added that HIV and AIDS patients are put at greater risk when they don’t receive regular treatment.

Gregory Miller, who works with HIV and AIDS patients in Oakland, said, “I, like the rest of the group, feel blessed that I am involved with a humanitarian effort like this. When I arrived in Zimbabwe and saw the devastation that the virus has caused to the people of Zimbabwe, it was unbelievable and overwhelming.”

He said the arrest and time spent in jail had not discouraged him from the bigger picture – saving lives.

David Greensberg has been with ATAM from the beginning, and worked closely with founder Dr. Robert Scott.  It was the supportive synergy of the Zimbabwean people that made the legal ordeal bearable.

“Whether it was the inspectors that arrested us or the officers where we were in jail,” Greensberg recalled of his international mission work,  “or people on the street that saw us in the news, they all thanked us and wanted us to continue our work.”

At the press conference, Congresswoman Barbara Lee expressed her gratitude for ATAM’s involvement in the fight against the AIDS pandemic.

“Anything that I can do through our congressional office, and as chair of the congressional Black Caucus,” Lee pledged, “to make sure that the people of Zimbabwe that your serving continue to receive the care and the treatment they need and deserve, we want to help them.”

Lee acknowledged the work performed in health care advocacy by ATAM members, and encouraged them to persevere.

“So many people are being helped and you’re saving so many lives, you’ve got to continue doing this,” Lee said to the group. “The work that you do to help people with HIV and AIDS is very critical.”

“The kind of work that we are doing in Zimbabwe,” said Cox-Crowell, “we are also doing right here at home in Oakland. We feel it necessary to not only be global but to be local.  It’s our calling and it’s what we do.”

PHOTOS: Oakland Reacts To Mehserle Sentencing

Photos by Oakland Voices contributor Sultanah Corbett

Mehserle Gets 2 Years: Follow Our Twitter Coverage of Oscar Grant Trial Sentencing

Former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle was sentenced to two years maximum today for killing Oscar Grant III.

Mehserle will receive 10 months off of that sentence for time served, and he may end up spending just 70 more days in state prison.

In July, Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for shooting Grant in Oakland on New Year’s Day last year.

Follow us on Twitter for coverage from the courthouse in LA and the streets of Oakland.

Oakland Voices Teaches, Empowers Participants to Report on Their Communities

By Christopher Johnson, Oakland Voices Project Coordinator

(From The Oakland Tribune – Posted 10.29.2010)

“Mama once told her youngest brother he was ‘found by grandpa at the poker game.’”

Mama is 90-year-old Ruth Dennis — West Oakland resident, Alzheimer’s patient, and the funny, frustrating muse for “The World According To Ruth.” The first line comes from an entry by Dennis’ daughter, Jo Ann Bell. Bell designed the blog to chronicle her life with the woman she and their neighbors call Ms. Ruth.

I have never met Ms. Ruth, but I feel like she could be my kin, or at least a friend next door. I’ve gotten to know her so well through Bell’s blog, which she created with Oakland Voices, the Oakland Tribune’s community journalism training program.

“I will not forget my experience with Oakland Voices,” Bell said in an interview about the program. “I look at my community differently. Through one of my articles I got a chance to really know my community just by asking them about themselves. I hope to continue adding to the blog about my mother and my struggle with her Alzheimer’s-related dementia. Mostly, I hope I will always be a part of the history of Oakland Voices.”

As OV’s project coordinator, I’ve been lucky enough to have spent the last seven months editing Bell’s work, along with stories by more than a dozen other talented community writers.

We’ve grown into an impressive media team since our launch in April. The OV crew was on the ground all night after the Johannes Mehserle verdict fallout. I’m still applauding the journalistic instinct, creativity and poise our correspondents showed that night.

Oakland Voices has covered a turf dance face-off, a neighborhood stir over eminent domain, a re-entry program for former convicts, and a West Oakland Museum devoted to black art from around the world.

We’ve taken on suicide, gun violence, environmental justice, plus health and diet.

Everyone has done this with their spare time. For most of our folks — people with jobs, sick parents, school, kids and grand kids to look after — spare time was at a premium.

Oakland Voices has been a lot of work, and they pushed those obligations to the side regularly, to come, to learn and to create.

We launched OV last spring at the West Oakland Public Library with a clear mission. The program would spend half a year providing a select group of people from in and around West Oakland the training, tools and platform to tell their communities’ stories in their voices.

After some storytelling and journalism boot camp-type training, the correspondents fanned out across the city. They talked to neighbors, friends, business owners and strangers on Oakland’s sidewalks. The aim was to find snapshots of Oakland — the beautiful and the difficult things that make life here complex and dynamic.

Then our correspondents would write their pieces, I would edit, and they would rewrite until the stories were strong enough to post on our website or in the Oakland Tribune.

Naturally, this process wasn’t always the smoothest. The things we learned from both the snags and the victories are manifold.

We learned to let communities speak. Oakland Voices was created to help solve problems of coverage. We believed, and still do, that professional journalists aren’t always the best at getting to the core of stories buried deep inside neighborhoods.

We had a theory that if we could find talented people from those neighborhoods — those who have the social literacy in, access to, and trust of their communities — they could get at those stories. They could be liaisons, we dreamed, advocating for their neighbors while they also acquire media skills to take with them once they finished our program.

As an editor, my challenge came in moving out of my journalistic rigidity and letting our correspondents speak with authority about the experiences in their worlds. After all, that’s why we accepted them into the program!

My stylistic manacles were routinely spotlighted as big, clunky handicaps. To break myself free and to let Oakland Voices truly shine and live up to its mission, we basically had to relax, revamp our expectations, and let the correspondents put much more of themselves into their creations.

I’m indebted to each one of our correspondents for pushing back.

“I am Oakland Voices!” one of our writers once deftly reminded me.

Oakland Voices is having a graduation ceremony in mid-November, when I will tell the participants how proud I am of what we have created together.

Here is some of what I want to turn to them and say: I started my journalism career almost a decade ago with National Public Radio, where I got to work with some of the best storytellers in the industry. Few of them ever challenged me the way you all have to understand the value in giving space and voice to real human experiences.

Since the project started in April, Oakland Voices has had one baby, a couple of graduations, a rough car accident, and seen the start of a college career. Two participants have been published right here in the Tribune. One of our correspondents is suffering through a family member’s decision to join a gang, and another is coping with her son’s murder.

These are our lives.

I say goodbye for now, because our aim is to keep the project going in the near future. Watch our website for updates.

In the meantime, spread the word about Oakland Voices. Consider applying for the next round. Read and comment on our stories, letting us know what you think. Send us things to cover; we’re always open to new story ideas.

You are Oakland Voices.

Giants Fever Comes… to Oakland?

By Brian Beveridge

OAKLAND, CA – It is generally held that Oakland has a professional baseball team.

It is called the Oakland A’s.

Players wear green and yellow uniforms and they play ball in a Coliseum.

But if fashion statements and sports bar enthusiasm are any evidence, home-team loyalty has dropped lower than a dirt ball in the home-base clay. In a highly scientific poll of at least a dozen Oaklanders, baseball parks and making friends seem to rank well above team loyalty in our local version of America’s favorite pastime.

Tim Thomas, long-time Oakland resident, likes the San Francisco Giant’s black and orange. He says that Giants loyalty for some folks goes all the way back to before the team moved west.

“Back when the Giants and Dodgers were still in New York, fans of both teams hated anything to do with the Yankees,” said Thomas. When the teams moved west – the Dodgers to LA and Giants to San Francisco – their old common enemy was a long way off and the rivalry shifted to NorCal – SoCal.

Thomas has fond memories of the great African-American players who changed the game with their phenomenal performance wearing the orange and black.

“Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays,” he said. “I have a sentimental thing about the Giants.”

Al Auleta is a planner for the City of Oakland who “just loves baseball.” He gets real-time updates on his cell phone during meetings and records the games to watch later. Auleta loves the ballpark experience, maybe even more than any specific team.

“The Coliseum was a wonderful place to see a game,” said Aluleta. “It was symmetrical, perfectly designed for baseball.” In his opinion, the addition of the upper deck made the Coliseum too big for baseball, blocking out the sky for fans sitting down near the field. “It’s like sitting in a hole,” he said. “The Raiders ruined the Coliseum.”

The Pacific Coast Brewery in Old Oakland was packed and noisy for the first game of the World Series. John and Jared, two buddies, who won’t give last names, are elbow to elbow with a half dozen guys at the next table.

It’s the usual guy’s hang-out action: laughing, jostling and quaffing beer and nachos while the Giants closed out the game with an uncontested lead over the Rangers.

John, who lives in Glen Echo Creek, is a disgruntled fan who never forgave the league for the walk-out more than a decade ago. “I quit following baseball after the strike in ’96.”  He’s unsure about the 1996 date and no one around seems to know either (the strike ended the 1994 season before it started).

Jared transplanted from San Diego two years ago, and he uses sports as a way to connect with people socially. He followed the Padres a little down south, but doesn’t consider himself a real fan.  “I’m more interested in the camaraderie of watching the game with people,” he said. “I’m not sure I’ve ever watched a game from beginning to end.”

Melisa Cohen lives in Alameda and followed the Oakland A’s for years growing up, but attending games at Oakland’s ballpark can’t compare to the Giants experience. “The new ballpark is so beautiful. We love going over there for games.”

According to these “fans,” it’s all about the baseball watching experience. Ballpark ambiance is more important than who’s playing, and personal social relationships more important than which sport is being played.

Maybe there’s a message here for Oakland’s mayoral candidates.