Articles by Sabirah Mustafa

Sabirah Mustafa

About Sabirah Mustafa
Sabirah Mustafa is a community liaison and cultural enthusiast. “My aim in life is to facilitate, inform, and educate others,” Sabirah says, “about what is happening in our community and society at large in order to share our stories, bridge our differences, and create a more welcoming world.”

My Magic Pill

This piece was done in collaboration with the What’s Your Story? Project of KQED’s California Report.

By Sabirah Mustafa

I used to wish for a magic pill what would enable me to swallow away my problems so I could successfully navigate my unfulfilled life. But when I found it, it wasn’t in any pharmacy.

For many years I suffered from trauma and abuse, but I saw them as symptoms of a soul struggling to find answers in a question-complicated life. I wasn’t necessarily searching for easy solutions, just a way to cope with it all.

When my doctor became aware of the overwhelming helplessness and sadness I felt, he prescribed medication he thought would help. But the debilitating side-effects were terrible.

My environment appeared apart and distant from me. My mind and body felt out of synch with how I moved and spoke, which made me feel awkward and self-conscious.

Joy, anger, sympathy and other emotions non-medicated people experience routinely were lost on me. I began to doubt not just the meds’ function but also their purpose.

When I complained about the debilitating side-effects, my medication were adjusted, but the adjustments would just transform one problem into another.

Roller coaster treatment finally reached a conclusion one day, when I saw my primary physician for chest pain and difficulty breathing. “Lets talk,” he said.

He performed his routine check of my blood pressure and temperature, but he also listened as I described my personal and workplace challenges. My physical symptoms, he determined, were due to not managing my stress well.

I was feeling overwhelmed at work and wasn’t communicating well with my boss. My doctor suggested some ideas around communicating better, streamlining my workload, even considering a new job. Most of his suggestions I had already tried unsuccessfully. But he didn’t give up. We dug deeper. We spent about an hour going over each obstacle, including my complicated personal life.

His prescription and referral tablet never left his pocket.

Instead he spoke to me as a person who understood human challenges, without judging me.

It was difficult working through my issues without medication as a crutch. I wanted to just let myself off the hook and let my doctor solve all my problems for me, but it didn’t work that way this time, I had to come up with my own plan, tackling each problem until I could choose a solution I felt comfortable committing to.

I had to become the boss of my own life, a responsibility I had given to medication.

Confronting problems is not without uncomfortable side-effects, too, I learned, like fear and worry, and like my medication,  I had to adjust to the uncomfortable side-effects of confronting my problems, but the benefit of being my own boss had surely outweighed the negative.

I now have a personal prescription for my magic pill that I wrote for myself: “Life is a drama. You write the script.”

Special thanks to Shuka Kalantari at KQED-San Francisco for her help with this story.

Why I Go to Oakland’s Public City Meetings, & You Should, Too

Public section of the Alameda County Mental Health Board (February 2013)

Public section of the Alameda County Mental Health Board (February 2013) Photo by Sabirah Mustafa, Oakland Voices 2012

By Sabirah Mustafa

If you attend town hall meetings, protests, and demonstrations, you may have heard the public demanding to be heard when public policies affect them.

But when I recently attended two meetings – Alameda County Mental Health Board (ACMHB) and BART’s Citizen Review Board (CRB) – I discovered very few members of the public in the room.

This was puzzling and disheartening.

Have the boards and commissions become our independent voice on public policy? When the public does attend, are their efforts being acknowledged?

With  such a strong government response regarding public safety and its linkage with mental health, the lack of input from mental health consumers and the homeless at these meetings is particularly jarring.

I try to stay informed of mental health matters in my community. I’m sure I’m not alone. But are the public announcements reaching the people they’re intended for, and when they do, will the public come?

Like voting, to be counted, the public must be seen and heard at these public meetings.

I’m aware that the sheer number of  public hearings and meetings can be overwhelming. Not to mention attempting to locate and attend those scattered throughout the city or county, with many having overlapping times or dates.

Public notifications can be challenging without Internet access, and postings can be damaged by the weather or vandals. News periodicals are a great source of information, when they’re stocked. Public broadcasts on commercial-free local public stations are great, too, but you have to have a television or radio.

When I attend the ACMHB meetings, which are posted on the Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services website, I rarely find individuals who identify as mental health consumers or family members in the audience. And even more rarely, do I hear any speak during public comments.

Public notices board in Frank H. Ogawa Plaza at City Hall

Public notices board in Frank H. Ogawa Plaza at City Hall
by Sabirah Mustafa, Oakland Voices 2012.

These meetings are often attended primarily by health care providers, stakeholder organizations, or medical students.

The BART’s CRB public announcement, which I discovered in The Oakland Post, invited the public to attend a presentation and report on the “AB 716 law that authorizes BART police to issue prohibition orders” to BART riders.

The announcement specifically reached out to individuals “advocating for those with mental health issues and the homeless,“ without actually inviting individuals identified as having mental illness or that are homeless.

I mentioned the AB 716 law to Edward C. Ford, 48, a homeless father of three small children, who had an encampment as large as a small studio, outside the entrance of the county administrative office.

I glanced at his makeshift bike repair shop on the sidewalk of 13th Street. “This is my transportation,” he said with outstretched arms.

“I wouldn’t go to any of those meetings,” he finally said as he pulled out a tire gas pump and continued to repair the frame of one of his three bikes on display. “They’ll listen but not give a shit. They push you to the side.”

To find the homeless, he said, you have to go where they’re at – post signs on lampposts and light

Edward C. Ford, 52, response to public policy "Show me your footwork. Do what you say."

Edward C. Ford, 52, response to public policy “Show me your footwork. Do what you say.”

poles.

Frustrated, Ford believes there’s a lot of talk at the meetings, but little action behind the words. The issues have to speak to him and he has to be heard, he explains, speaking of past obstacles of obtaining employment and securing limited available housing. “Show me your footwork. Do what you say.”

Most of all, he simply asked that the “homeless just be given a chance.”

A chance can mean different things for different people, so diversity at public meetings is crucial.

But the public may be relying too heavily on the boards and commissions to be their independent voices.

Boards and commissions are the public’s information channel and their members – appointed by organizations, or elected public officials of the communities they serve – monitor, evaluate, and recommend policies and practices on behalf their constituents.

Public notices at City Hall

Public notices at City Hall
by Sabirah Mustafa, Oakland Voices 2012

Because of many issues that are personal to me surrounding mental health and the law, I’ve had to do my own monitoring and evaluation of public policies and practices.

I’ve attended the meetings of the ACMHB and have heard presentations with topics specific to recovery.

Their presentations were informative, but weren’t a reflection of what I’ve witnessed in the eighteen years my loved one has cycled from one crisis to another.

But, as an exasperated family member, I’ve often wondered, is this supposed to be recovery-driven health care?

During public comments, I’ve addressed specific issues related to access to services, quality of care, billing issues, amongst other concerns that may in fact be system-wide.

My loved one still hasn’t received resolution so recovery remains elusive.

BART’s CRB public meeting, my first, provided an opportunity to discuss AB 716 with BART law enforcement and community relations staff.

It was difficult to get a public pulse on this issue as well since less than a handful of the public was there to express similar or dissimilar concerns.  The audience was composed mostly of BART Community Relations and Law Enforcement staff.

After hearing the presentation on the proposed implementation of AB 716, a female audience member expressed concern that individuals in the public could be targeted by BART staff and law enforcement through profiling, specifically mentioning the Oscar Grant tragedy.

The implications of law enforcement racially profiling, or criminalizing individuals experiencing a mental health crisis, or perceived to be homeless, are scary thoughts.

That’s why it’s vital from the start that the homeless, and individuals with mental health challenges, share their personal testimonies for creating effective, realistic outcomes.

I asked BART law enforcement whether they could reveal their process for distinguishing between individuals  intentionally breaking the law and someone experiencing a mental health crisis.

The officer gave assurances that they would use prudence in enforcing the law, but only time will tell how how the implementation of AB 716 will unfold.

The board discussed varying degrees of oversight and follow-up on key issues involving the public’s civil rights, yet they are limited in enforcement.

As much as I appreciate the presentations from the Alameda County Mental Health Board and the discussion at BART’s Citizen Review Board, the public must be the impetus, through their attendance and participation at boards and commissions, for the realization of changes in their lives by standing up and being heard.

We can make a difference.

The Vegas Effect

Sin City. Just your run-of-the-mill American town.
Photo: Sabirah Mustafa, Oakland Voices

By Sabirah Mustafa

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. It’s an ad slogan with some truth to it. People take the phrase seriously, shunning those who come back from Sin City with perpetually loose lips.

I just came back from Vegas, with stories. I’m a storyteller. I like to talk. But the slogan gave me pause when deciding whether to share the details of my recent trip.

Talking about Vegas without giving away too much is a delicate art. That’s true for the guilty (let’s hope all the cameras were put away and that your cousin wasn’t live Tweeting from the champagne room. Again.), and for the innocent. Because even if your hands are more or less clean, anything that is said, or unsaid, might still be construed as a cover for indulging in one or more of the seven deadly sins.

My innocence hasn’t helped my predicament since I’ve come back from my trip. And it hasn’t helped me shake the idea or the idea: what happens in Vegas…

I count at least three deadly sins.
Photo: Sabirah Mustafa, Oakland Voices

I think one of the reasons the slogan has done so well for Vegas over the last 8 years or so is that it points to something true about that town – or at least what it aspires to be. It’s a place where we imagine absolutely anything and everything can go down, where all the moral laws and social obligations that bind us in our regular lives are suspended and then  we are allowed to go home, instantly absolved, no foot print. It’s also a mandate against snitchers, a reminder of a binding code. You can and should bend a lot of rules if you want to play in Vegas, but only if you agree to this one first. What happens here, stays here.

And now I am back in Oakland, and I’m thinking about our own codes. I’m wondering if Oakland could create a slogan, one that would not only to grab the attention of visitors and tourists, but encompass the entire city’s culture.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Ooops!
Photo:                                                                                                                                             Sabirah Mustafa, Oakland Voices

In Oakland, where diversity is believed to be its greatest asset, law and order is volatile, and economic disparities are widening, it would take a lot of tolerance, patience, and creativity in order to develop a slogan that would embrace all of the communities here.

Keeping it real? That’s what we like to say here in Oakland.

“So that’s where you been all night?”
Photo: Sabirah Mustafa, Oakland Voices

Unlike a Vegas trip, where people assume you committed a misdeed there and add their own assumptions, keeping it real doesn’t assume a thing. It is what it is, we shrug our shoulders and say.

Maybe, Oakland can keep it real by being open and truthful about sharing what is really happening in our community.

Hopefully, that will create a real positive effect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PHOTOS: Health of the Hood – Cleveland Heights

By Sabirah Mustafa

If healthy is as healthy does, then the residents of Cleveland Heights just might live forever. Aside from the abundance of joggers, and the dogs walking their owners, there are free and accessible recreational activities to enjoy until your healthy heart is content.

You can lease a canoe and row Lake Merritt, get on the public tennis courts, or walk or run The Stairs – the unofficial name of Cleveland Cascade’s seemingly endless stairway – to keep those BPMs high.

No neighborhood in Oakland would be complete unless it had it’s very own farmers market. Cleveland Heights boasts a premier farmer’s market with fresh produce, tasty hot meals on wheels and live music.

Yet, to keep Lake Merritt glistening like a jewel, someone must do the dirty work.

Fortunately, you’ll find volunteers, some who are affiliated with organizations, that happily give their time and energy to pick up trash and debris that tend to accumulate around the edges of the lake.

The neighborhood also boasts plenty of diversity, particularly around the recreational areas, where many individuals from other communities congregate.

There, like-minded healthy individuals from across the entire age, ethnic and social spectrum of Oakland’s communities can break bread or just take a break.

As diverse as this community is, one thing so many people seem to share is a passion for living healthy.

 

 

PHOTOS: Health of the Hood – Cleveland Heights

By Sabirah Mustafa

Cleveland Heights has a lot of natural beauty, but requires diligent maintenance. Otherwise, leaves back up storm drains, and tree branches block out street lights and sidewalks.

Blight and vandalism, while not extensive throughout the neighborhood, appear in pockets around the commercial areas.  The residential areas are generally well-maintained.

 

Name it, Oakland!

By Sabirah Mustafa

Growing up in Oakland I used to imagine I was the mayor. Playgrounds and basketball courts would stay open 24 hours if I had my way.  Big wheels and dirt bikes would be the official mode of transportation. Ice cream trucks would be posted on ev

ery street corner so my friends and I wouldn’t have to chase them down the block.

In this fantasy dream world I’d create in my mind, I’d change the name from Oakland to Kidland.

I may have outgrown my desire to be mayor, but not the inclination to create names.

Every trip through Oakland’s cosmopolitan neighborhoods conjures up a desire to name it with the same earnest fervor I had as a child. It’s my way of proudly claiming Oakland as my hometown, while embracing this melting pot.

Thinking others might feel the same, I traveled through East Oakland with my fellow Oakland Voices correspondent Katrina Davis, to inquire if residents knew the names of their neighborhoods.  We asked  residents if they would call it something else, and why?

“Quiet Park” is what Robeson Berry, 37, would name Maxwell Park because “it’s pretty much quiet all the time.”

“I can’t give it a name,” says Chris Jones, 41, when first asked to name 62nd Avenue Havenscourt/Picardy area. When pressed, he said, “we’ll we call it the planet because it’s a melting pot over there. It’s a lot of  mixed interracial relations over there, black and Hispanics over there.”

In the Dimond District, Kife Sorenson, 42, a resident of twelve years says the neighborhood was questionable when he first moved there, but “it’s nice now,” he says, “I’d keep it the Dimond.”

In the 23rd Avenue district, Emma Apodaca, 38, carried groceries and closely held the  hand of her 4 year-old son Cruz.  She said the neighborhood is called “Murder Dubs” because of the area’s homicide rate.

But, she said, “we still survive.” Despite the area’s reputation, “we look out for each other.”

“Bossland” is the “common old name” neighbors use for 96th and Birch, said Julian Damone, 20, of his neighborhood in Elmhurst,

He’d prefer to call it “Ujamaa Village” – the Tanzanian concept of people working in a collective community. The name, Damone says, is a great way to get blacks “into sustaining villages or neighborhoods in a green environment.”

Chailinda Starnes, 20, who lives in the 60′s, believed that her neighborhood is officially called Avenal. But in her neighborhood they like to call it “Purple City,” she said, because they “float purple on the street.”  I’m guessing she was referring to either marijuana or a mix of cough syrup or codeine – a popular narcotic on the streets.

She would rename her neighborhood “God’s Gift,” because she said “There’s a lot of talented people (here).” 

Oakland is known for it’s diversity and culture –  many cultures intermixed in the commercial shopping districts and residential areas. “We got just about everything here,” said Simone Brown, 45, of the Fairfax District. “Diverse Beyond” is how she’d described it. “A whole lot of different races all in the same neighborhood.  Some get along and you see some that just don’t.”

Leo Elias, 36, and his friend Gabby shared a common theme for their neighborhood.  “The Plaza” is what Elias would rename the Fruitvale District, because he says it ”unites families together.” Gabby, likes the “Spanish District” as its new name because “it is family,” he says emphatically.

For Paula Johnson, 42, of Cleveland Heights, it is a no-brainer that she describes the area that borders Lake Merritt as “The Lake Neighborhood.” Smiling, she said, “it’s all about the lake, and that’s why so many people live, exercise and walk around it.”

In the end, I realized that Oakland isn’t so easy to label or define.  Natural beauty surrounded by concrete and steel. Foreclosures alongside model homes. World class arts and entertainment within blocks of escalating crime.

What name would explain the crime, unemployment, and local politics which govern some of our neighborhoods, but barely impact others?

I believe a child can imagine anything if they just believe. Maybe we can all take a cue, and if the reality of your neighborhood isn’t what you want it to be, take a deep breath, and just name it.

Recovery

Recovery

by Sabirah Mustafa

 

Tell me

What is recovery?

Is it what you recover from?

Like the opposite of subtraction that uncovers a sum?

Or,

Is it what you recover to?

Like a transparent explanation previously misconstrued?

Is it a chance that’s always given?

With motives never hidden?

The Discovery?

Ultimately

What is recovery?

Does it forge clear paths through trash?

Yet lead paths through blinders, glitter, and flash?

Does it mean all bets are off?

Old and new meds can be scoffed?

Does it increase options?

Expand cautions for better outcomes?

Will it save one from happenstance?

Or even,

Find love at first glance?

Will it allow the blind to see?

Give a broken man back his chi?

Turn a soup kitchen into a feast?

Or, bring home soldiers, at least?

For the weary…

Basically

What is recovery?

Could it face a new day with endless possibilites?

Or just stare at a wall and just BE?

Could it fly a magic kite and bring down the rain?

Or hold back tears, if it chose to refrain?

Would it deem the importance of dreams?

By any means?

I want to be free…so tell me,

Will recovery

RE cover me?

 

Former Drug-Dealing ‘Street Star’ Becomes Youth Mentor

 

“I have a passion for juvenile justice,” says Michael Gibson, Program Director of EMS Corps.
Photo by Sabirah Mustafa Oakland Voices 2012

By Sabirah Mustafa

“Street stars” is how Michael Gibson, 37, and his friends used to describe the drug dealers in his childhood neighborhood of 89th Avenue and MacArthur. His friends had similar experiences of “not having enough,” Gibson explains, and they glamorized the street stars lifestyle. “We thought that was the way to be.”

Gibson, a baby-faced six footer with large tattoos across his arms, settles his sturdy frame in his office chair at Alameda County Public Health, where he has served for the past three and a half years as the Program Director of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Corps – a youth development, mentorship and training program in medical healthcare.

He has also worked as a case manager at Youth Uprising – an East Oakland organization serving at-risk youth – where he created and lead a group for young men to discuss spirituality, violence-prevention, and mentorship.

Gibson’s dedication to guiding young people away from the street and towards more productive lives comes from hard lessons he learned as a young man, trying  to be one of those street stars.

The second oldest of four siblings, Gibson grew up in Deep East Oakland during the 80’s crack epidemic. His parents struggled with their own addictions. That’s where he first got exposed to drugs and dealers – they were both a constant presence in the house.

Gibson was raised by his grandmother who worked long hours as an in-home care nurse. With only her limited income to support him and his brothers, Gibson says he felt an obligation at a young age to contribute to the household financially.

 So he did what he knew. There was the glossy facade of disposable income, expensive clothes, cars, and sneakers – the life of a drug dealer. There was practically an open invitation to that non-exclusive club. To join, all you needed was a gun.

As a youth, he recalls a popular neighborhood drug dealer casually asking him what came to be a life-defining question: “What do you want?” Gibson earnestly replied, “I want what you have – money, power, and respect.”

Gibson contemplates his former life as a “street star.”
Photo by Sabirah Mustafa Oakland Voices 2012.

Gibson and his brothers were often left unsupervised, which allowed him to keep his drug selling a dark secret from his grandmother. Meanwhile, his younger brothers watched and admired his hustler’s lifestyle. “They emulated me growing up,” he recalls, solemnly staring at his folded hands. “They followed the same path.”

That path included multiple arrests – mostly for drug offenses – and a revolving door of incarcerations in Juvenile Hall. In 1991, At 16, Gibson was arrested for strong arm robbery, possession of illegal firearms and attempted murder of an officer. He was charged as a juvenile and sentenced to spend eight and a half years at the California Youth Authority (CYA), formally called the Department of Justice.  (A plea deal later established that Gibson wasn’t the shooter and his sentence was reduced by 5 years.)

The CYA was a “prison for youth,” he says. Looking back, though, he feels he “was lucky. Now they’re trying to charge juveniles as adults and send them to prison adult offenders.”

Any luck Gibson had ran out during his incarceration at CYA, when he participated in a riot in which an officer was assaulted. He was punished with nearly a year in solitary confinement. “Life wasn’t easy in solitary,” Gibson admits.

He got some reprieve when CYA offered him the African American Male Transition Program, which provides personal transformation and life skills for young offenders. AAMTP was created by Wade Nobles – an academic noted for his work in African psychology –  and it emphasizes manhood development and spirituality.

The program’s principles were designed to develop inner strengths through self-purpose, education, and conflict resolution. There were also African-American male community leaders and role models who provided living examples of excellence.

 But as much as he wanted out of solitary, Gibson was skeptical of the program. “I wasn’t ready,” he said of the personal commitment and responsibility that AAMTP required of him. “I only signed up to get my time cut.”

Sun Tzu’s, “The Art of War”, tattooed on Gibson’s arm, reveals Tzu’s profound influence.
Photo by Sabirah Mustafa Oakland Voices 2012

He got that, and much more. As a result of Gibson’s participation in the program, his time in solitary confinement was reduced. A man he calls Coach – an elder at the Omega Boys Club and an AAMTP mentor – introduced Gibson to Sun Tzu’s iconic book of military strategies, The Art of War. Gibson says that book shifted his outlook, made him more open to AAMTP’s principles, and helped him endure his remaining time at CYA.

He earned his GED while he was locked up, and at age 19, the eighth-grade dropout was finally released.

Back in his old neighborhood and on parole, he had to make wiser choices than he had when he was a street star delinquent. Soon after his return home, his female cousin was brutally assaulted. Instead of following his male relatives on a revenge mission, Gibson held back and called one of his mentors for guidance. “I didn’t want to be in the life anymore,” he says.

That intervention shaped Gibson’s decision to attend Laney College and stay out of trouble. He eventually received a scholarship from the Omega Boy’s Club to attend Morehouse College where he graduated  in 2006 with a degree in English and Drama.

Reflecting on his life, Gibson speaks with the solemn conviction of a man who has been to the edge and turned his life around. “Being in jail was a blessing and a curse. I didn’t have the frame of mind to function in the community without destroying  it.”

However, Gibson adds, “Youth Authority didn’t change me. Community-based organizations did.” He credits them for “facilitating and coordinating my personal transformation and knowledge of self. I was fortunate, because I was ready for change. I had these experiences in order to do things better.”

Gibson browses “Blood in My Eye,” by prison revolutionary, George Jackson. A powerful book he read while incarcerated.
Photo by Sabirah Mustafa Oakland Voices 2012

Having spent 17 years working in the criminal justice system and working as a youth counselor, Gibson heaves a deep sigh as he describes the uphill battle juveniles face today in courts, behind bars, and on parole. “They’re different laws now. They’re stricter, and the punishment is harsher.”

Glancing over at a thick, yellow and black LSAT study guide near his chair, he talks about his plans to go to law school to study “criminal or civil law in order to be a better advocate for the community.”

AAMTP molded Gibson’s ceaseless commitment to community service. The program taught him to appreciate his black community and culture, and to respect himself as an African American man – values he says teachers and colleagues in the past had encouraged him to discard.

Like Sankofa – the mythical bird in West African culture that symbolizes going back to retrieve things lost in order to move forward – Gibson also had to go back and reconnect, while he was incarcerated, with his own history. He regularly draws on his past struggles to help him improve his life, and those of others.

Through the African American Male Transition Program, Gibson had a chance to explore spirituality. After his release, he continued to study the religious traditions of Nigeria’s Yoruba culture. In 2007, he was initiated into the Yoruba priesthood.

Closer to home, Gibson’s growth as a mentor and spiritual healer has taken him full circle.

Married for six years, he has a five year old son, Michael III. “He came out during the Ifa initiation,” Gibson explains, referring to one of several ceremonies he did on his path to the priesthood. “We call him Adeneken, meaning ‘next to wear the crown.’”

Native American Mental Health More Than A Dream

Janet King relaxes in her office, her dream catcher in the background.

By Sabirah Mustafa

Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes asked the question,”what happens to a dream deferred?”

“Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?,” goes his famous poem Harlem, “or does it explode?”

The dream of quality mental health care for many under served groups, including Native Americans, has been deferred too long.

Janet King is one woman working to resolve some of those disparities in care, and make the dream of improved mental health and the well-being for Native Americans a reality at the Native American Health Center in Oakland.

King, 55, works in the Community Wellness Department as the Project Director of the Children’s Trauma Grant, and her duties keep her very busy as she constantly responds to  staff inquiries or her ringing cell phone tucked tightly in her pocket.

“Interruptions help me clear my thoughts,” she says, the corners of her small azure eyes crinkling as she smiles and relaxes her shoulders.

King has plenty to smile about. She’s just finished a large report for the NAHC bringing to light health care disparities among Native Americans in  California.

The California Reducing Disparity Report (CRDP) is a major first step because it suggests ways to close some of those treatment gaps. It was created in response to the Department of Mental Health’s statewide initiative to improve access, quality of care, and increase positive outcomes for Native Americans.  Since 1972, the NHRC has worked hard to achieve these goals as a community-based organization.

The health center provides a full range of clinical medical services including pediatrics, women’s health care, teen health care, adult medicine, and perinatal.

The clinic also promotes self-care beyond clinical visits, which include offering a traditional Native American medicine person and healing circles, in addition to parenting classes, a relapse correction class and a woman’s support group.

NAHC is dedicated primarily to offering Native Americans care that is aligned with their cultural traditions. But many community members that visit the clinic are non-Native.  Many Latinas visit The Woman’s Support Group. The Women Infant and Child (WIC) class – which provides food vouchers and nutrition counseling – has mostly Vietnamese women, and there are many Tongans in the pre-natal program.

Still, King sees the clinic as particularly vital to the East Bay’s Native communities. “Native Americans will not go to other places if they don’t go here,” King believes. She says that Native Americans commonly choose traditional mental health rooted in their communities’ traditions which embraces the whole self, like Two Spirit Pow Wows and Healing Circles and Gatherings, which aren’t typically offered in traditional medicine. Or the youth, who participate in the Gathering of Native Americans, popularly known as GONAs, which empower them through decision-making.

King, an Oakland resident since 1976, facilitates a grief and loss group. She is empathetic and understands the unique decisions community members have to make in deciding between clinical or non-clinical services.

Many Native Americans in East Oakland choose not to use the clinic, and King thinks that is partly because  the clinic doesn’t have a large staff and gets a lot of help from interns, so it’s not able to see patients as quickly as other facilities. King says there is a great need to find qualified Native American practitioners who can provide these services.

Also, NAHC’s staff rotates frequently, and some individuals don’t like telling their stories over and over again to different people. Consumers rely on the groups for mutual support and guidance. “They become family to each other. They’re dealing with a lot of grief and loss.  Every time they change counselors, it’s a loss,” King adds.

Understanding the needs of the community in order to improve access, quality of care, and increase positive outcomes is a central role for community leaders like King in seeking to close health care disparity gaps.

She says that the US Census under reports the size of the  Native American population nationally, so those communities effectively become invisible to policy makers who base funding decisions on population size.

Also, some people believe Native Americans don’t need funding or any money at all because they all have wealth from operating casinos.

King explained that, until now, Native Americans were not often mentioned in mental health discussions and so the data on Natives was incomplete, obsolete, or non-existent.

The CRDP report is a unique opportunity to present these discussions in a public forum. It calls for emphasizing Native American cultural practices in all mental health services throughout California. King emphasizes that Native American communities need to heal from historical trauma, she says, and “culture heals.”

In its focus on providing traditionally-based health care services, the NAHC is already doing a lot of what the report calls for.

Of course, funding for these practices, as mentioned in the report, is crucial in order to continue and expand these practices to other non-Native American ethnic groups that utilize their services as well.

As the Native American Health Center and similar organizations continue to evaluate, customize, and listen to what communities want, the report will hopefully become more than just an opportunity to improve lives, but more personally, for King, a fulfillment of a dream.

‘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.