Racially Profiling: The Blacks of East Oakland, Part 2

This ongoing series explores the unusually diverse racial terrain of the eastside of Oakland, California. It asks members of East Oakland’s varied racial groups why they chose to live there, where they came from, where they’re going, how they see their own race, and about their experiences with members of other races.

The Secret to Your Success Is Inside a Hair Styling Salon at the High Street Strip Mall Shopping Center

Janice Ward (R. Owens)

By Ronald Owens

When I walked into Janice Ward’s The Secret Inside Salon, I figured we would talk about the business of beautification and the ups and downs of doing hair in a dingy High Street strip mall.  But I discovered that Ward doesn’t just do peoples’ hair. She does their heads too, reaching inside and restyling their brains to turn negatives into positives.

The Secret Inside Salon is sandwiched between a coin-operated wash house and the On the Runway fashion boutique in the High Street Center. The whole building is a rough-around-the edges, one-story structure that also features a donut shop, a burrito joint, and a check-cashing place.

You can’t miss the center if you exit 580 East at High Street and make a right. It’s right there. There’s a Walgreens across the street, as well as a fire station.

The 30 or so parking spots in the lot in front of the center were mostly taken at 11:15 on a Wednesday morning, but the numbers didn’t seem to add up. There were just three people in La Mejor Taqueria, maybe four in Dick’s Donuts, and just one at that time in Ward’s salon.

Ward, who’s been a stylist at The Secret Inside Salon for nine years and its owner for two, said she often notices that the lot will be full of cars but nobody’s in the stores. Sometimes cars are parked there and businesses aren’t even open.But she said her business is doing OK. “Stabilized. That’s about all it can be these days, no matter what industry you’re in.”

Even though it was still early, five or six customers gradually straggled into the salon: stylish African American women who looked like they knew what they wanted, and where and how to get it. Most of Ward’s customers are black, but she has Latino and Samoan clients, too.

The Secret Inside Salon (R. Owens)

When Ward took over the business, she retained three original stylists from The Secret’s previous incarnation. Ward, who’s 49, said she does mostly short cuts and weaves.  She said there’s also a male stylist who works exclusively on dread hairdos for men, women, and kids, too. “There’s also an Asian lady who does feet and nails.”

Ward and I conversed on one of two long, vinyl sofas that faced each other by the front window of the salon. From the outside, you see the dark, plate-glass windows of a garden variety 1960s-era strip mall storefront.But open the salon door and you see a heavily mirrored Afro-Tiki-bar kind of space that’s larger and longer than you might have expected, with six or seven styling stations. It’s a peaceful atmosphere, and kind of homey. “That’s the secret inside,” Ward said.

Ms. Ward was very personable and seemed to possess an ability to absorb a person’s vibe and secrets on contact, although she assured me that any confidences I shared would be safe with her. She said a big part of her job is talking with her customers on an intimate level. She’s part psychologist, building up her clients’ self-esteems.

Sitting Room (R. Owens)

A lot of black women have issues surrounding their appearances, she told me. “I want them to know that they have beauty within themselves, and what I do is reflect that beauty on the outside.”

A lack of self esteem did not seem to be one of Ward’s issues. From the top of her short, red-highlighted hairdo to the bottom of her decadently low-cut black top that revealed a brown bosom tattooed with the words “God” and “Soul,” it was Ward’s world, and her purpose was to make you a better part of it.

I had set up the meeting with Ward a week earlier, after two other proprietors in the strip mall had turned down my requests to interview them about their businesses. “I agreed to talk with you after nobody else would, but I knew it wasn’t about that,” she told me. Ward seemed to be saying that there was a purpose in our meeting, and it was part of God’s plan.

“I’m an evangelist and a motivational speaker. I can read people. I could see that you were a guarded person when you asked if you could talk with me.” I couldn’t disagree with her.

“You’re passive-aggressive. Writing down what people say. I used to be passive, too. I can show you how to use aggression. Give me three hours, I can have you rewired.”

Just three hours? I asked Ward if she could give me a weave, and joked that I’d come in for one and she could straighten me out then. She laughed. “Give me three hours. I’m gonna call you! I’m serious!”

A tempting offer. But I guess I’ll probably have to respectfully decline. Although her assessment of me was startlingly accurate, my general preference is to keep secrets. Inside.

Racially Profiling: The Blacks of East Oakland, Part 1

At 92, She’s in No Hurry to Leave Oakland – If You Are, You’d Better Get Going

Mary Chester has lived in her Maxwell Park home since 1972. She bought it for less than $30,000. (Ronald Owens, Oakland Voices 2012)

By Ronald Owens

On most afternoons, if you happen to pass by the corner of Walnut and Renwick streets in Oakland’s Maxwell Park neighborhood, you’ll see Mary Chester sitting on a neighbor’s short retaining wall, leaning on her aluminum walker, soaking up the sun, and smiling at all passersby. She sits on the corner until the sun goes down over her house, waiting and willing to talk with anybody who stops to talk with her.

She is a 92-year-old African American woman, and she says she’s lived in the same house on Walnut Street for 40 years. Chester came to the Bay Area from Arcadia, Louisiana, by way of Southern California, following her sister’s lead. She eventually headed north with the man she married, Willie Chester, her second husband. He was a cement finisher. He died 14 years ago.

Chester says the neighborhood hasn’t changed much. She lives on a street partially lined by magnolia trees, thanks to a free tree-planting program the city sponsored in the late 1990s. “The houses look better now,”  she says. The racial demographics have changed over the years, but it hasn’t made a difference to her. “People have always been nice.”

Although she never smoked or consumed alcoholic beverages, Chester says she is “addicted to Ensure,” a nutritional drink that’s supposed to promote muscle health. Her doctor told her she can have only one bottle a day, but she was drinking three.  She’s on dialysis, and if she drinks too much Ensure, her kidneys can’t keep up and she can’t breathe.

Her kidneys don’t function any more, but dialysis four days a week works well for her. “A lot of people have hard time with dialysis, but I don’t,” she says. “I feel good, and I don’t have any pain.”

Mary’s block (R.Owens)

A guy in a new-looking SUV waves at Mary as he drives down Walnut. A woman driving down Renwick does the same thing. Mary stopped driving a couple of years ago. Was it voluntary? “Well, not exactly.” She got mixed up on which pedals she should use and had a collision.  “My neighbor drove until 100,” she says, but stopped after refusing to get better car.

Chester used to walk around the block, but she doesn’t walk too far anymore. Getting around on the walker is slow going. But she gets herself out there and out of her house, where she lives by herself. She doesn’t have any children.

Mary misses her friend who recently died, a retired fireman who lived at end of block. She was kind of sweet on him, but it never went anywhere. The man never told his age, and she never understood the point of that because he looked like a senior citizen. “He wasn’t going to fool anyone,” she said.

She later found out that he was 82.

Chester used to have a dog, but says the woman who used to walk it allegedly absconded with it, thinking it wasn’t getting the proper care. Chester is still kind of ticked off about that. The dog walker happened to pull up in her car while we were conversing, and pulled over with a car full of dogs. Chester yelled, “What happened to my dog?” The dog caretaker put her hand over her face and wearily shook her head.

Chester says she still has land in Arcadia, which is near Shreveport, and it has oil on it that is sometimes drilled. Her niece is thinking about moving back to Louisiana, but Chester doesn’t want to sell her Oakland home. She says she bought it for $29,000, and she doesn’t think she’ll get what the house is worth if she sells now.

She told her niece, “If you’re in a hurry to go back, you’d  better hit the road, because I’m not going anytime soon.”

Artist and Teacher Todd Elkin Brings Hybrid Approach to East Bay High School

By Debora Gordon

“I learn from my students every day,” says Oakland artist and high school teacher Todd Elkin. ”What is going in my classroom is a dialogue between myself and my students.” Describing himself as a hybrid of artist and teacher, he says both skill sets are continually informing each other.

Artist and teacher Todd Elkin has made hundreds of accordion books for himself and with students
Oakland Voices/Debora Gordon August 2012

“A great teacher has purpose,” Todd explains. He asks students, “’Why do you want to be an artist?’” He believes that creating art is makes a political statement. He characterizes his own art as street art addressing the issues of the day. 

While he does not see himself as a traditional realist, if you were in an art class at Washington High School in Fremont, you would also learn the basic skills of art, including drawing, color theory, and painting.

 Todd began teaching in 1998, after previous art-related careers as printmaker and an illustrator for the Village Voice and other publications, in New York,  He transitioned into teaching in 1998, after he was invited to volunteer at a nearby pre-school he would pass each day when taking his  daughter out for a walk.   He has taught all ages from pre-school through adults, including teachers, having been an elementary school art teacher at a small alternative elementary school, where he taught all the students in the school, from grades K-6. 

 He described students in grades four through six as “the sweet spot;” before self-consciousness sets in, and at an age where students are much freer in their drawing.  He points out that there is a lot of “noise” in the lives of teens, defense mechanisms,” to which he responds by viewing it as a personal challenge. In addition to his work as a high school teacher.

Todd takes a constructivist approach to teaching art, “We want students to be driving their own inquiry.

“Hands” is an image by Washington High School student, Sheila Ramie
Photograph by Todd Elkin

The best artists are just very curious about the world,” and he inculcates this in his classroom through projects such as “The Shelter Project,” an interdisciplinary unit which grew out of his own reading, after he finished a book called “Planet of Slums” by Mike Davis, describing mega-slums in and near the cities of the world.  Eventually, students built site specific shelters which overtook an area of the high school campus, and corresponded via the Internet with students from all over the world, documenting some of their work and inquiry in the class blogs Todd always maintains for his classes. Todd got a Bachelor of Fine Arts from San Francisco Art Institute and some years later, was later invited to study and eventually teach at Project Zero at Harvard, where he also earned his Master’s in Education.   Over the years, Todd’s teaching practice has expanded to include a focus on contemporary artists, whom he describes as ideal role models for students. 

He sees his art classes as increasingly interdisciplinary, as students are making art , they are also investigating science, history, and technology. He believes that artists are by nature pro-active, andhe introduces students to contemporary artists, which has been greatly facilitated by the Art 21 series, which features artists talking about process, and talking about themselves as artists in the modern world.

Accordion books are an important part of the creative process, where students document their creatives processes
Photograph by Todd Elkin

Students learn about “grabbiness,” and are asked to define what grabs their attention. Toward that end, students document their process, by making, and drawing in accordion books and other journals and sharing their ideas with their own and other classes through blogs.  “The real project of art education,” he tells me, “is artistic thinking.”

Todd loves teaching and finds it is always rewarding.  “When students have terrible experiences in school, they often have success in my classroom.” He described a boy who was a graffiti artist, failing classes, disengaged.  Todd invited the student to help him co-teach a unit on graffiti as art. The student planned and taught classes for an entire day, teaching vocabulary, and telling his own story. Students came up to him afterwards with questions and treating him with a new respect.  The student subsequently underwent a profound transformation, eventually graduating, and now, in his 20’s, holding down a responsible job.

Todd describes the challenges of teaching as including the narrowing of the curriculum, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), standardized assessments, and ranking teachers on test scores.  One significant change he would be interested in implementing would be the breaking down of the walls among different disciplines, and facilitating collaboration among teachers of different subjects.

 Todd expects to work as an artist and a teacher for as long as he is able.  When asked what has been his greatest disappointment as a teacher, he replied, “The work is never disappointing.” 

‘Way Too Black’: Local Love Sustains Downtown Oakland Art Gallery

Baba Michael plays the mbira at the Omiiroo reception.
by Sabirah Mustafa. Oakland Voices 2012

By Sabirah Mustafa

Do you want to feel good? Let go, and step into another world?

If you live in Oakland, you don’t have to go far.

Just downtown, at the corner of 14th Street and Franklin, is a magical place – an art gallery called Omiiroo. The name means ”way too black” in Kenyan slang. It’s an all volunteer, community-based pop-up.

No one person owns Omiiroo. Instead, a group of artists run it as a cooperative, which makes the place feel a lot like home. Rahel, a guest who visits the space “every 2 or 3 days,” said Omiiroo “is like a family.”

At this art gallery and performance space, you won’t feel like you need a reason to be there.  You can just be.

When I visited the gallery one evening as they prepared for a First Friday Art Walk, I found Rahel, who is in her late 20s, nursing her infant son. No one at the gallery batted an eye at such a natural display of motherhood.

But then Omiiroo is not like the traditional white-walled gallery, where the art is so meticulously displayed that even the most avant-garde exhibits seem precious.

The scene at Omiiroo was similar to a live/work studio loft, with dirty brushes, messy paint cans, and other supplies tucked in the corners, readily available for any spontaneous burst of inspiration.

Painted right onto the walls, beside the hanging art, were outlines of large insects and flowers. And rough cut, jewel-colored fabrics, gracefully draped like valances above carefully arranged art.

While the simplified presentation of the art drew me in on an organic level, the real action was with the artists as they got ready for the Art Walk.

Aambr Newsom, a 26 year-old Oakland-based artist, hurriedly added finishing touches to the exhibit that included vinyl record sleeves of courageous, inspiring black women including Mahalia Jackson, Miriam Makeba, and Chaka Khan.

Newsom’s art that graced the walls had a feminine theme. Beautiful, colorful hair flowing freely like roots extending from a tree, or woven, textured Afros crowning bronzed heads. “It’s built to empower women that want to have a voice.”

She said her work ”represents the black community and politics.” Newsom uses “urban  pop surrealism” to turn those complex topics ”into something relatable.”

Newsom and about a dozen other artists worked as DJ BeatsMe – part of the local group D2S – spun old school hip hop and R&B.

Dancing near the dj table was Tattiana Aqeel, of the Bay Area group Samba Funk. The 24 year-old DC native,who moved to Oakland last December, later performed a stirring, original song on acoustic guitar with her partner, Lisa Harris – a spoken word “abstract” artist who described her work as a “psychedelic elephant.”

Omiiroo is that kind of place, where people are invited to come and play around – with words, with colors, and with the music.

But making a space even for the most free artistic expression took careful planning and collaboration. The reception marked the end of a month-long exhibition that featured Africa-centered work by six female artists from across the country. One of the curators was Aqueene Simran, 34, who gently rubbed her pregnant belly, and smiled when she talked about the exhibition. “A lot of work went into the show.”

The art exhibition was reflective of the historic significance of women of African ancestry owning their beauty and power with many images that contained modern references to common stereotypes. The pieces also had stark, unmistakable social and political overtones.

Aqueene Simran, Curator, says Omiiroo, “has the power to draw positive energy.” by Sabirah Mustafa. Oakland Voices 2012

In addition to curating shows, Simran was also organizing events and performances at Omiiroo, even in her third trimester. Her commitment was a testament to the casual, roll-your-sleeves-up work ethic that is integral to the gallery’s self-sufficiency.

Kenyan artist Githinji Mbire is another critical part of Omiiroo’s collective creativity. His nearly six-foot tall canvas bears a message spelled out in a multicolored collage of fonts: “I’m a queen not a bitch.” It’s spelled out inside a huge silhouette of Africa.

The image of the continent is central to Mbire’s work. His signature piece is a massive, mosaic rendering of Africa. Like much of his work, this piece focuses on self-sufficiency in black communities. Mbire said it also is symbolic of a concept central to  his art and Omiiroo’s Afrocentric ethos: “solving our own problems.”

Sasha Kelly, another core member of the cooperative team, agreed. She also explained that, unlike many traditional galleries, Omiiroo’s motivation “is not necessarily profit-based. (It’s) more of allowing passers-by to see art.”

It may also give people unfettered access to non-traditional, socially conscious art that isn’t profit-driven by mainstream corporate interests.

Omiiroo’s central location is ideal for creative types in the area who want to check out their peers, or just neighborhood folks stopping through.

For many of those who have shared space there the way I have, it just represents local love.

Poverty Puts Young Women on the Verge of Prostitution


Mary Moore’s father kicked her out when she was 18. Homeless and unable to find work, she was forced to trade sex for a place to live. Photo: Sheila Blandon, Oakland Voices 2012.

By Sheila Blandon

The names in this story have been changed to protect the young women’s identities.

Young people find themselves being rejected so often by jobs that are apparently hiring, that many of them eventually opt for quick and easy ways to make money. Living in under resourced communities, many young people here in Oakland feel hopeless for a positive solution to come their way. Oakland is known as a city with high rates of prostitution, drug abuse and murders. What doesn’t get told often enough are the stories of young people who make up those statistics – young people struggling just to stay alive.

Of course they can become unpaid interns or volunteers at an organization or workplace that interests them and wait until there is an open position. But until then, how will they feed themselves? How will they live?

For young women, the easiest and fastest way to get money is to sell their bodies or exchange sex for shelter, food or cash. Mary Moore, 21, from Oakland, became homeless in spring of 2009 when her father put her out right before her high school graduation.Four years later, she is still unemployed and homeless.

Moore and her father never had a good relationship and he eventually put her out. “He didn’t even stay for my elementary graduation. He left before I even walked the stage,” she said. “He was there, but not there, more like a fly on the wall.” Moore does have a relationship with her mother, which is the only reason she still sees her father at all.

Faculty at school were aware of Moore’s living situation, but did nothing to help. They knew, Moore recalled, “but they didn’t help me.” However, she was affiliated with a non-profit organization in Oakland which supported her.

Moore said it has become increasingly tempting to engage in prostitution because she is homeless. After her father threw her out, Moore was stuck – homeless, broke, borrowing money from friends just to feed herself. She said she applied “everywhere” for work – in person and online – but nobody was calling her back.

Some women are forced to walk the streets, selling their bodies for cash. Mary Moore has never done that. Her exchange was different – not for drugs, or money, but just to keep a roof over her head. “I never done it before but I contemplated it. No woman should ever have to think about selling herself,” Moore said.

Even though Moore had never stood on a corner and sold her body to strange men, she had a boyfriend who made her feel like sex was the only thing keeping a roof over her head. Moore explained that if intercourse did not happen occasionally when he wanted, he was not happy. She stayed with him because she really needed somewhere to live.

Before she realized it, sex had become like a form of payment for rent. She soon saw that she could not live like that anymore – exchanging sex for somewhere to stay – so she left. Unfortunately, soon after leaving Moore had no other option but to return to her boyfriend’s home, where she currently resides.

Moore is a strong advocate for sexually exploited minors here in Oakland. She counsels young women who have been trafficked and are coping with leaving that life style. She said that because of them, she stays strong and her work helps her not get too deeply into that lifestyle. “Thinking about it is one thing. Thinking about it and thinking of the possible income, I shouldn’t have to think like that,” Moore said.

She strongly feels that authorities need to stop criminalizing sexually exploited minors by sending them to jail. And media should stop using the word “prostitution” because of negative associations with the word. Instead, they should try to understand why young women choose this route and help them out.

“They need to get the Johns and pimps and incarcerate them,” Moore said, “instead of the young women!”

Oakland Pride: Did Family Focus Strip All the Gay Away?

Me and my fabulous friend Matthew, an Oakland native, upping the homo-factor at Gay Pride in New York City, 2002.

By Edward Cervantes

Oakland Pride was creeping up and I had no plans to attend.  Since coming out over a decade ago, I had been to 2 or 3 Gay Pride festivals every summer.  But this summer, for the first time in my adult life, I would not make it to a single Pride event.  The excitement I felt at my first, during the summer after my sopho

more year of college, was replaced with questions about Pride’s relevance.Wherever I was living and with whomever I was close to at the time, Pride plans were made far in advance.  Outfit, transportation, after party, and crash pad were all pre-arranged.  It was ritual – an opportunity to bond.

Pride never failed to make me feel connected to or proud to be part of the LGBT community.  I liked the outrageousness, the heightened sexuality, the humor, the drinking, the dancing, the debauchery, and most of all, the shameless expressions of self. For my first Pride, I fashioned a top out of a neon-yellow piece of fabric screen-printed with the word “HOMO” in bold caps.  People on the street laughed, took pictures, commented positively, or made rude remarks.  I overheard one gay man cattily say to a friend about me, “look at her, she thinks she’s so cute.”Then he came over to me and pointing at the four letters angled across my chest said, “that’s not OK, you should be ashamed.”

But I wasn’t ashamed.  That was the point.  I was a proud homo.  Gay.  Queer.  A fag.  Whatever it was called, I was proud.

I loved the attention and saw value in causing discomfort in others with flamboyant, over-the-top displays of homoness.  From then on, I did it as often as possible.  Lashes, tall mohawks, eye shadow, dangly 80’s earrings, manicured nails, shoulder-pads, leggings, heels, sashay: I sought to shock.  It was fun, but the goal of “queering spaces” with loud outfits and flaming behavior was to stretch the boundaries of acceptability.

Pride was when more of us felt comfortable taking our full gayness to the streets and has served a similar function: marching through the streets in our Sunday gayest made it easier to be our daily, ordinary gay selves at the office on Monday.

But every year, Pride gets less bold, less brazen.  And from attending the last two Oakland Prides, it seemed to me to be stripped of almost all overt gayness.  The Oakland Pride website boasts, “our family focused programming embraces a diverse community that has resulted in the most positive celebration.” Indeed, organizers succeeded in drawing a diverse group of celebrants to this year’s festival.

But it might as well have been Art and Soul Oakland.  Perhaps a merger should be considered.  To simplify, Pride could simply be a stage at Art and Soul – which would also serve to display our pride to a wider audience.  Our straight friends could see how proud we are to be gay.

Is increased mainstream support a sign of growing acceptance of LGBT community, or of LGBT community’s growing “acceptability?” E. Cervantes – Oakland Voices, 2012.

Reluctantly, I decided to attend Oakland’s pride festival for a third time. But this go round, I was on a information-gathering mission.  Were my worst fears true – were gays getting less openly, outrageously, fabulously gay?  Had the desire for mainstream acceptance and marriage rights made our community unrecognizably normal? Or was Oakland onto something new – was our city’s Pride festival a sign of an exciting “family focused” trend?

I asked Marsha Martin, director of Get Screened Oakland, an organization seeking to provide HIV testing to all residents, about the significance of Pride and she also pointed to the diversity and civic pride being displayed.  “Anytime you get people out in such large numbers, enjoying the sunlight and feeling good about themselves, you have a community that feels better about itself,” she explained.  “That’s what’s important.”

No visible skin or flamboyance in the crowd gathered last month at Oakland Pride’s Latino stage. E. Cervantes – Oakland Voices, 2012

Compared to the pride festival on the other side of the bay, what was different about Oakland Pride? “Less naked people,” said three 16-year-old friends almost in unison.

Already veterans of the pride circuit, Truman, Sue and Kerry were unchaperoned and looked forward “just to dancing and having a good time.”

Others also commented on the relative modesty of the event. Sabrina, 28, said she preferred Oakland Pride for that reason.

She explained that some of the behavior common at other pride festivals was partly to blame for discrimination against the LGBT community.  “Personally, I don’t want to see naked people, gay or not,” she said, “and just because we are gay doesn’t mean we are like that.”

Finally, somebody had put words to what I had been sensing at the festival and in the gay community more generally.

I can’t argue that Oakland Pride was a shining example of diversity. And I agree with Marsha Martin’s assessment that the time spent outdoors enjoying perfect weather and the overall positivity of the festival could only be good for Oakland.

But do we really want Pride to be about how “normal” and acceptable we could be?  Do we want what was first envisioned as a commemoration of the Stonewall riots – an uprising of “deviants” tired of police abuse and unwarranted arrest – to now be about showing the world that we can form families that look just like heterosexual families but with two mommies or two daddies instead?

Sordid kisses were just the tips of some twisted and depraved icebergs seen at the Provincetown, MA’s Pride Parade four years ago. E. Cervantes, 2008.

To me, Pride has always been a celebration of our status as sexual outsiders. By being outrageous, gender-fluid, kinky, and obscene, we hoped to change society and make it more accepting of gender and sexual variance – work that is far from over.  Now more than ever, we need to shock, disgust, inspire, and teach.  Including within our own community.

The LGBT rights movement is now equated with gay marriage, the ultimate goal being acceptance of our relationships as “normal.”  I fear that with each victory, the LGBT movement will loose a little more of its edge and increasingly turn against those that fall outside the new norm.

I wonder if those of us who aren’t normal, who don’t want relationships modeled on heterosexual ideals, and who have no interest in raising children will be left behind by the acceptable, almost-straight-except-for-their-private-bedroom-behavior gays.  If Gay Pride is for “acceptable,” family-focused gays, then perhaps it’s time for a new kind of pride parade.  A Freak Pride Parade?

I do agree with the LGBT movement’s message that nobody is defined by their sex lives. Being a freak is about much more than being gay. It’s about daring to be different, to live your own truth, to be bold and shameless, to be exactly who you are regardless of society’s ideas of appropriateness.

A freak prefers to be crass, to shock, to cause discomfort.

I know I’m not the only or the biggest freak in Oakland, so in the words of a freak from the 90’s, Adina Howard, let me put a call out to my fellow freaks:

Let me lay it on the line
I got a little freakiness inside
And you know that the man
Has got to deal with it
I don’t care what they say
I’m not about to pay nobody’s way
‘Cause it’s all about the dog in me


Sweet Memories: Sizing Up Obesity & My Love of Sugar

How could something so sweet be so bad? By Katherine Brown – Oakland Voices 2012.

By Katherine Brown

 Even though growing up in the 1980s on 85th and Olive had its challenges and difficulties, there are still memories that I look back on with fondness. Especially in the summer time – this always seemed like the best time of year on my block. It only seems like yesterday that my friends and I lived without a care in the world, and laughed and played like there was no tomorrow.

I can still hear the ‘whoosh!’ sound the tether ball would make as it swung around the make-shift pole – i.e., the stop sign.

Or the snapping of that old telephone cord as we played double-dutch in front of my house. I can remember how my feet would sting from each pounce I would make on the pavement. It seemed that the only disagreement that we had to settle was who would jump first – which we usually solved with the flip of a penny.

But no day would be complete unless we held one of the sweetest celebrations ever known to this Earth (well, in my opinion at least) – the coveted candy party.

Each of us would ask our folks for a dollar. We would then have a brief strategy session to decide what sugary treats we would get. With about $5 between us, it was off to the two corner stores on 86th and Bancroft to claim our goods. We would leave with brown paper bags just about to overflow with Now-and-Laters, Blow Pops, Mambas, Corn Nuts, and occasionally, cotton candy.

We would then head to the porch of one of our houses and divvy up our goods – equally of course – making sure that each and every one of us would get our fair share.

And if it was a super hot day, we would make sure that we at least saved 25 cents to buy an Icy – which was Kool-Aid frozen in a red plastic cup. Mountain Berry was my favorite.

Oh, sugar. It seems like, at that time, no one had much of a problem with you. As long as we kept you in moderation, and as long as we were active, we would be in good shape (no pun intended).

Today, we have a national obesity epidemic. A new report says that in less than two decades, half the population in 39 states could be obese. California’s adult obesity rate, the study shows, could reach above 46%. Not overweight. Obese.

And, sugar – it seems like nowadays you’re catching a lot of the blame for a massive problem that weighs heavily on cities such as Oakland.

I am a program manager at a local health department where I manage a nutrition and physical activity program. With dedicated staff who are determined to putting an end to this obesity epidemic, we design and implement activities to promote healthy behaviors. We specifically target low-income communities – those very similar to the one I grew up in.

Sometimes, I feel that my childhood has given me a little advantage in the work that I do – especially in understanding what other outside factors make it hard for people to be physically active or eat healthy. Violence and crime in streets are huge obstacles to health. Who wants to take their family for a walk if they don’t feel safe?

Mountains of candy are not the only cause of the obesity epidemic. By Katherine Brown, Oakland Voices 2012.

And then there’s the question of food. Liquor stores are everywhere, overflowing with sodium-filled and sugary foods, and in some instances, stocked with food that has been on the shelf way past their expiration dates. Not to mention the fast-food restaurants with $1 menus that are seen as undeniable deals for families that are on extremely tight budgets.

I know that there are on-going efforts to bring better food to everyone. I salute them. In the meantime, though, sugar is the low-hanging fruit. It’s there. It’s easy. Every corner store is filled with candy, cakes, sodas, syrupy drinks. Cheap, quick fixes that we’ll be paying for for decades to come.

Add to all of this an economy that has been rough for many people long before the large-scale meltdowns of the last half decade. The economic perils of the recent years have had a huge impact on people’s abilities to access, adopt, and maintain healthier lifestyles. Dollars for health, education, and social service resources and programs are dwindling. It appears that we have become unable to afford to be healthy.

Everyone needs a place to buy quality, affordable food. Kids and grown-ups need safe places to walk, run and play. Zoning, budget cuts, and mixed-up priorities keep these from becoming more of a reality for many East Oakland neighborhoods.

If good food, exercise, and low stress are keys to fitness and beating back obesity, then I know lots of communities that are in big trouble. In order for us to even move the needle on this obesity issue, we have to consider so much more than what people or eating and how physically active they are. Bear in mind why people are eating what they eat, and why they aren’t being as physically active as they would like to be.

Which brings me back to the good old days.

As a kid, sugar was a big part of my life and diet – but my mother and grandmother did a great job of making sure that my siblings and I only had candy and desserts in moderation. They always stressed the importance of meals filled with fruits and vegetables that we were fortunate to have grown ourselves, right here in East Oakland.

Plus, we had tons of opportunities to be physically active – at home, and definitely in school. I miss those huge kickball tournaments, and my after-school karate classes I took at the youth center on the corner of 82nd and East 14th.I wasn’t alone, either. My whole family was about being active. I cherish the memories of me and my grandmother skipping to my dance classes from 85th and Olive to 85th and East 14th, and all the way back. Even though these blocks were hit hard by drugs and violence, I still felt safe.

I was fortunate for the abundance of resources and practices that kept me from being overweight – regardless of the amount of sugar I consumed. But today, I realize that not many kids are as fortunate. My colleagues and I, as health professionals, face a hard fight in making the kinds of opportunities I had as a kid realities for people today.

I think it’s a blessing that I am a health educator who works to encourage healthy behaviors and lifestyles. One of the reasons I chose to go down this path is because I saw the effects chronic illnesses such as cancer and heart disease were having on my family and community, and I wanted to make a difference. But I do struggle with understanding how to provide sound education and resources without judging or victim-blaming the communities I serve.

My dear, sweet, sweet sugar. My heart aches for you, as I know that your intent is not to do harm. In my childhood, you meant such happiness. But in my adulthood, I see how you can cause such sadness and pain.

If only finding solutions to epidemics like this were as easy as flipping that penny to chose who would jump first.

Candidates Share Ideas in Run Up to Oakland City Council Election


Beverly Williams and Sheryl Walton took turns responding to questions submitted by community members during the D7 candidate forum late last month. Photo: Howard Dyckoff, Oakland Voices 2012.

By Howard Dyckoff

A mixed crowd of about 100 attended the District 7 Candidate Forum on August 22nd.  In a friendly exchange of views, the 2 challengers, Beverly Williams and Sheryl Walton, discussed the major problems of Deep East Oakland and their ideas for improving conditions in the City Council district.

Four-term incumbent Larry Reid, who had been slow in committing to the forum, did not attend due to a sudden medical emergency. At this time, the councilman’s health status has not been confirmed.  Reid also did not respond to a request for answers to questions based on those asked at the forum.

This is the only community event to date for D7 candidates. It was hosted by Allen Temple and co-sponsored by Oakland Community Organizatons (OCO), the NAACP, Bock by Block Organizing Network (BBBON) and the League of Women Voters. The Chamber of Commerce had planned another candidate forum for September 4th, which was cancelled.

Without Larry Reid attending, there was less opportunity for debate.  The challengers explained their approaches to key issues and were cordial and complimentary to each other, frequently sharing agreement while occasionally promoting themselves as candidates.

Both challengers have long histories in the communities of East Oakland and have worked together on projects in the past.  Last year, they collaborated on a successful District 7 Town Hall, sponsored by the Mayor’s office and several community groups. I was the principal photographer  for the event. Here is a slideshow from that 2011 Town Hall.

Pastor Billy G. Dixon of the At Thy Word Ministry opened the forum with a story reflecting the decline of East Oakland over the last 20 years. He spoke of a childhood friend who became involved in gang activity and died – shot 35 times – while Dixon was in the Merchant Marines.   Reflecting on the continued growth of crime in East Oakland, Dixon said, ok “We are at a time where nothing has changed,” Dixon lamented, “and we are looking to the same city leaders. I still live around 108th Ave and I still hear the ‘pop, pop, pop,’ and we are still looking for answers.”

Theresa Nelson of the League of Women Voters introduced the candidates, and several of the sponsors asked prepared questions.

Rev. Buford of Allen Temple, which hosted the candidate forum,.asked about community-police relations and the Goldman Sachs credit rate swap that is now costing Oakland over $1 million a year. The City of Oakland entered into an agreement 5 years ago to borrow funds from Goldman Sachs at a fixed rate of 5.6 percent when the city needed to retire some municipal bonds. It was a good deal at the time.

Since the prime rate has been near zero for many years, this agreement, which had been a boon to Oakland and other cities across the nation, has become an expensive burden. But Oakland would face a $17 million penalty if it tried to terminate the agreement early.

Sheryl Walton spoke at the D7 community candidate forum. Photo: Howard Dyckoff, Oakland Voices 2012.

Sheryl Walton gave a clear and detailed explanation of the Goldman Sachs Debt Swap and need to leave the City room for hammering out an agreement.  Regarding community relations with OPD, Walton said we still need more cops but this should be coupled to  efforts ” to change the culture of disrespect.”

Beverly Williams said the OPD needed a change in its structure and said the city administration should  “work ferverently to end” the rate swap agreement.

Audience members also asked about dumping and unoccupied foreclosed properties, building up small businesses in District 7, public safety, and creating jobs and opportunity for youth.

Both challengers want to see violent and property crimes reduced and an improved climate for small businesses in District 7. Both also want to reduce foreclosures in the district.

Candidate Sheryl Walton spoke about the missing Business Improvement Districts, which use resources from the city and the local business to solve community problems. Walton said they are especially needed on International and MacArthur Blvds. “We need to encourage businesses to form associations and also will make them to be aware of facade improvement and other programs from the City of Oakland,” Walton said.

Candidate Beverly Williams added that many local businesses “don’t know about city funding (opportunities),” and said that she “will try to visit every business to bring them up to date.”

Williams also told the audience about her work with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) in preventing foreclosures and in getting the banks to maintain vacant properties that they own.

With ACCE, she helped establish the Vacancy Resident Property Ordinance. This was passed on a first reading, but the City Council delayed the 2nd reading and diluted the ordinance.  Working with many community groups, ACCE got it back on City Council agenda in 2011 and worked to get it finally approved in its stronger original form.

To date, this has raised $1.6 million in fines to use for community improvements and enforcement of the ordinance.

Walton spoke about economic justice with regard to foreclosures.  She suggested creating a community land trust led by local non-profit organizations. The trust would buy up and hold foreclosed properties. Walton is  also interested in using the Boston model where the city works on deals with the owning banks to buy and then resell the property back to the prior owners.

One of the best questions was the last one: what plan do you have to ensure city’s commitment to restorative justice and reintegration of people from prison back into the community?

Walton said she was “definitely on board with that. That is how we used the time bank project in Sobrante Park to help offenders” with their transition back into the community.  The Time Bank in Sobante Park allows community members to perform work for others. They are then paid not with cash but by receiving services they need from others in their community.  This helps with re-integration and allows ex-offenders to get services like resume writing that they couldn’t otherwise afford.

Beverly Williams spoke at the D7 community candidate forum late last month. Photo: Howard Dyckoff, Oakland Voices 2012.

Williams said restorative justice is important and we need to have resources available to prepare offenders for re-entry. But the community, she explained, also needs to be prepared to be involved. She added that former drug users should not be allowed to fall back into a life of crime.

Both candidates have vested interests in seeing the district prosper. Sheryl Walton has lived in East Oakland for more than 40 years. Beverly Williams moved to the area in the 70s.  They have each raised children in District 7.

Walton has a history working as a community organizer to improve the health and well-being of neighborhoods for more than 30 years.  This includes being chair of the City of Oakland’s Central City East Project Area Committee, formed because residents wanted improvements to the MacArthur Boulevard Corridor.  She also worked for the Alameda County Social services Agency and also as staff on the City-County Neighbohood Initiative project for Sobrante Park.

Her work in Sobrante Park helped secure a $3 million grant for the Madison School OUSD-community health clinic.

Williams is co-chair of her local Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council, and Commissioner Vice-Chair on the Oakland Rent Board. She has worked with many community groups, including ACCE, OCO, and Urban Habitat.

Referring to both crime and appearance of housing, Williams told me, “I moved to East Oakland in the 1970s because it was so beautiful and now its so sad to see (it now).”

Hopefully, after the November election, one of the D7 City Council candidates can begin to reverse the the long slide experienced  by neighborhoods in Deep East.

Wouldn’t that be something?

Click here for a photo album from the D7 candidate forum.

‘Just Win, Baby!’ High Hopes for the Raider Nation & The Town

In Eastbay Jay’s book, the Oakland Raiders are number one. By Katherine Brown – Oakland Voices 2012.

By Katherine Brown

Commitment to excellence. Pride and poise.

As a Raider fan, these words go far beyond mere mottos for a football team with such an esteemed legacy.

To me, these words are extensions of each and every fan that fills the stadium, as well as the spectators at home and the local sports bars that become fixed to TV screens on game day. From the kick-off until the final ticks of the play clock, we stand in solidarity.

As I sat at home last night and watched my Oakland Raiders take on the San Diego Chargers, I couldn’t help but feel connected to my brothers and sisters that filled the Oakland Coliseum. The deafening noise the crowd made when our team was close to scoring fueled the soul and spirit of the 12th man to try and shut down the drive. The community and culture of the Raider Nation was as solid as an impenetrable defensive line.

In that game, there was a mix of the good and the bad – unfortunately, there seemed to be way more of the latter.

Solid defense. Yay!

Penalties that just gave away yardage. Boooo!

Looking like the same old Raiders?

Going through the emotional rollercoaster of that game, I couldn’t help but feel a familiarity. It’s as if this city and the Raiders share more than just turf. For both Oakland and its grid iron franchise, stellar legacies and deep talent are overshadowed by questionable leadership decisions, meaningless personal fouls, and unnecessary roughness on and off the field.

Sometimes, we just miss out on points, or forfeit yards. In the city, though, we lose lives. That’s no game.

Raider fans Perla Zamudio, Michael Garcia, Edward Hernandez, and Ana Armas are ready for the game. By Katherine Brown – Oakland Voices 2012.

But there is at least one key difference between town and team. I feel that within the Raider Nation, we stay committed. In the city, though, there is not so much of cohesion or togetherness.

On the field, regardless how many careless errors were made or how the team beat themselves, die hard Raider fans stay in their seats, eyes fixed on the game, hoping for a miracle. Oakland could use some of that faith right now, too.

Of course, a lot of people work hard every day – including myself – to improve life for everyone in the East Bay. Not hoping, but making things happen. I grew up here, so I’m not about to give up on this city. Also, I don’t want to reduce our city’s many challenges to a simple football analogy. I just wish sometimes that in the face of adversity, we could come together the way the silver and black did last night.

And I am convinced that the team felt our energy. Despite being down by 16 points, with barely 2 minutes left on the clock in the fourth quarter, the Raiders scored their one and only touchdown. The crowd went crazy!

Then, the team went for two – yes! Even though it was clear that we wouldn’t win this game, the crowd still stayed connected.

Perhaps this is why we Raider fans feels so strongly about our team despite their adversities, fumbling (literally), and amateur hour mistakes – and that connection is rooted in the concept of hope.

Maybe if this concept was more reflective in my city, then like my team, we could have the potential to go all the way.

Right Around The Corner From It

Although Picardy Avenue is in the “flat lands,” the street is always well paved and clean. The residents put on a spectacular Christmas light show every year. Photo: Michael Holland, Oakland Voices 2012.

By Michael Holland

Navigating through East Oakland, you will see two types of blocks. Some streets are well-paved. Those are usually lined with trees that bear fruit and nuts, and some that give color according to the season.

The tree-lined, well-paved streets didn’t just get that way. They have been that way for years and they seem to be the only streets that stay well-kept.

Streets like Picardy Ave. (off of 55th Avenue)and Yuba Ave. are always free of potholes, and those two streets are in East Oakland’s so-called flat lands – an area often thought of as one filled with busted sidewalks and sagging homes.

The streets up in the Oakland Hills are often pristine, as well. That area boasts some of the most spectacular views of the Bay Area. The hills also have numerous species of plant and tree life. Squirrels can often be seen gnawing on acorns giving the hills a quaint, TV Land type of feeling. The murder, prostitution, and drug dealing that have put Oakland in the national spotlight must seem a world away.

But they’re not.

Yuba Ave. epitomizes the kind of quiet, clean blocks found throughout East Oakland. Photo: Michael Holland, Oakland Voices 2012.

Some of those are right around the corner, on the other type of blocks. Those are inhabited by people who are mostly just like those living in the more crisp neighborhoods. Often, the only differences are location and income.

For example, here in the flat sections of The Town, there is an abundance of trees, just like in the more affluent parts of town. But if these trees could talk they would speak about bloody murder. Some murder that made the evening news, and some that didn’t. Murder that has not discriminated because of race. Of the 77 killings that occurred between New Year’s Day and late August, the majority of them were in the east – in the flat and foothill sections of the town, to be exact.

Schools have been declared Drug Free Zones. But when the sun goes down, those areas tend to take on a whole different attitude. Here are some so-called Drug Free Zones that double as dope spots: 23rd Ave. (from E. 19th to E. 27th Streets), 82nd Ave. (almost every block from MacArthur to International Blvds.), Walnut ave. (between 101st and 102nd Aves.), 48th Ave. , and the list goes on, and is expanding at an awful rate. All these spots are in walking distance of schools such as Fremont High, St. Louis Bertrand, and St. Anthony. These are only a few.

Sadly, my 5 year-old’s new school, Green Leaf Elementary,  seems to be around the corner from some questionable characters. After dropping her off at school one morning, I witnessed what I perceived to be a prostitute getting out of a John’s car on 64th and International.

Maybe she was coming from a video shoot. Maybe she wasn’t a hooker?  Nah. I’ve been in the world long enough to know what a “street worker” looks like!

The corner of 48th Ave. and Foothill Blvd. was the scene of an early morning homicide late last month. The crime scene was in a “Drug Free Zone” around the corner from Fremont High and a residential area. Photo: Michael Holland, Oakland Voices 2012.

Oakland Police have a difficult job. I am usually very critical of them, but with all the violence during the summer of 2012, I actually applaud their attempt to curb the killings. Sadly the makeshift memorials scattered around Oakland are a sign that more crime prevention is needed.

And they seem to be trying. OPD has stepped up patrols in some of the troubled areas – Jean Quan’s 100 Block Plan in action – but more are still needed.

Living on a block that is well-paved and lined with trees seems like the ideal setting for a peaceful life. But if you live in this city and you’ve got a home on one of those sorts of streets, you aren’t far from the potholes, dope houses, and blood shed that make life hard in some of your fellow Oaklanders.

In fact, you are right around the corner from it.