On July 5th, 2014 a group of 14 African American men departed the East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC) , en route to a 14 day stay in China. These young men went from Deep East Oakland to the Far East with one goal:
To change the world… and the world’s perspective of them.
The young men, five undergraduate students and nine high school students, were accompanied by three chaperones (I was one of them). This method of mentorship was designed by Ms. Regina Jackson, CEO of EOYDC (and a chaperone on the trip as well), as a part of her organization’s Brotherhood Across America- youth led college mentoring model.
The college students, all STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors, were selected in order to provide linked learning opportunities, which would give exposure to career possibilities to the younger men. In addition, the brotherhood mentoring circles were aimed at building strong individual character, as well as the collective group identity– which is EOYDC’s tagline: “building character to build communities”.
Fittingly, the community’s character was a driving force in getting the young men to China.
Sponsored by local businesses, churches and organizations, the group– known as the Think China 2014 delegation, arrived in China with a world of support under their wings.
The voyage was a part of the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, which was signed by President Barack Obama earlier this year, as a part of the White House’s focus on education. At its heart, the trip was a great opportunity for a cross-cultural exchange, as well as a chance for the young men to develop core values for the White House Education Initiative.
Because of the weight of their responsibilities, the gentlemen were lead through a rigorous schedule of classes and site visits; interspersed with character/ team building activities and fine dinning in China.
The young men saw Buddhist Temples in Hangzhou and department stores in Shanghai. They visited the Great Wall of China and the Xixi Wetland nature reserve. They went to automotive plants, made dumplings, learned Mandarin, studied the Chin Dynasty, talked modern politics, and even found time to eat KFC AND Peeking Duck (not at the same time) … And of course, they drank lots of tea and ate plenty of rice.
All of the young men journaled throughout the course of the trip, as was a requirement. Everyday, a different young man who be held responsible for submitting a journal for publication through EOYDC’s website.
While the young men enjoyed the trip and blogged about it, I stood back and took it all in– through my camera lens… Here are just a few of the many moments I captured while we were in China.
The 23rd Yard in East Oakland graciously opened its doors to Cynthia Gorney and her husband Bill Sokol on Sunday June 1st, 2014.
Bill is a big time labor lawyer in the Bay Area, and his wife is a top reporter for National Geographic, both of them also work as professors. She’s professionally inquisitive and he’s naturally adventurous. When they called me to ride out, they were on a random bike ride to Cam Huong; the Chinatown restaurant with the top notch $3.00 Vietnamese sandwiches– one of MANY personal favorite destinations in Oakland.
I was with my boys, not too far from there… So, we mounted up & mobbed out.
We met them on 9th and Webster, biked to 14th Ave. in a dash and ended up near the Burger King in the San Antonio District. That’s where the tour started.
Solano Way Alleyway.
That’s where I pointed out the first “TDK” tag. Spray painted on a wall was a yellow race car, and written in black paint were those three letters. Cynthia, or CG as I call her, was familiar with the story of “TDK”; she was in the audience during the screening of my thesis film, The Dream Kontinues. She urged me to tell Bill what “TDK” means…
“Those Damn Kids”.
The eyes behind Bill’s thin glasses frames lit up as he let out a wholesome laugh. He was evidently enjoying this.
And then we took photos.
We biked under the shoes on power-lines, hit 19th ave, busted that left, and headed down East 12th st.
CG, Bill, and a couple of my homies: Feelthy Rich, G and Offie. A bunch of random folks rolling on spokes.
Someone out of the crew said it looked like they (CG & Bill) had four security guards with ’em as they toured the hood. Maybe.
I had to admit, it was something out of the ordinary to be biking with older white people through the “Murda Dubbs” in East Oakland.
I met CG during my first year of grad school, she was my journalism professor. She taught me stuff about the English language that my K-8th grade experience in Oakland Public Schools didn’t teach me, nor my high school years at a college prep school in Danville.
Way before I met CG, I was introduced to her husband. Back when I was just learning how to turn a camera on, I met thee Bill Sokol. I was a student at Youth Radio, and he was the company’s lawyer. One day, I got an assignment to film him yap away about free legal advice. I showed off my mighty camera-turning-on-ability on that day!
I’d bet my degree that neither of them imagined: one day I’d be taking them on a mini-tour through East Oakland– I know I didn’t see it coming.
When we got to the Safe Storage facility on 29th Ave. CG kindly asked an employee if we could access the legendary “Oakland Wall Of Fame”, which was behind the storage facility’s security gates. The nice young lady behind the desk granted permission to our band of biking Baby Boomers & Brothas– and we walked into my thesis film.
The Dream Kontinues, is a 20-minute documentary film about a graffiti artist (a writer) named Mike “Dream” Francisco, his contribution to the art world and how his crew still paints to this day. Dream and his crew ,”TDK”, used to paint on the walls of East Oakland’s 23rd Yard. I mean, they’d hit everywhere: all around Oakland, SF, Berkeley, and even moving busses all around the Bay Area. They were Those Damn Kids. And they lived up to the name.
But, the place where they earned their name, that was the 23rd Yards of East Oakland.
It has always been an industrial side of town, with a whole bunch of train tracks and loading docks for the surrounding factories.
After a couple of decades of artistic vandals staking their claim, it’s grown into a museum. An outdoor art gallery. A half-mile stretch of self expression, brought to you by generations of Krylon-paint-can-toting juvenile delinquents… Some of whom grew to be artists. Really, really good artists.
The “Oakland Wall of Fame” is dedicated to one of those really-really good artists. His name was Mike Francisco; they called him “Dream”. He used to paint in the 23rd Yard back in the day. In the late 80’s he did a couple of pieces that put the Yard on the map– including this one piece called The Best of Both Worlds.
As we walked and talked, Bill pulled me aside and told me that his son used to write graffiti– and he used to depend on pops to hide the spray paint from the fuzz… aka CG.
I told the married couple, and my homies what I heard in interviews from Dream’s family and friends. About his run-ins with the law, his growth from hustla’ to artist and how he played an essential role in founding the TDK crew– a collective of artists who still write to this day.
The letters TDK are now on walls in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cuba and of course- East Oakland. What once started as “Those Damn Kids”, morphed into “Tax Dollars Kill”, “The Dark Knights”, “The Damn Kings”, and slew of alternative acronyms.
Mike “Dream” Francisco was murdered in 2000, in what has been reported a robbery. He was 30 years of age. Aside from a long lasting art legacy and crew of writers, he also left behind a son, Akil.
The art on the walls near the tracks still stands. Persevered for people like CG, Bill and my crew to see. And even though some of the tags, pieces and murals get painted over, they never get erased. The paint is still on the wall, it’s just buried. Waiting for someone to discover the story behind it… And tell a friend or two.
On an unseasonably warm January day in East Oakland, my sister and I chose the Fruitvale neighborhood of East Oakland to play host to our impromptu scavenger hunt: we were hungry, and looking for a cheap meal.
The neighborhood is home to a number of new restaurants, small shops, and street side food vendors. The population is majority Hispanic; the Hispanic influence in the area shows not only through the people themselves,but also through the art ….
As my sister and I appreciated the aesthetic of the art, the foot mission was waring on our stomachs; in turn we began to investigate the food options in the area… that is: the food options that were within our budget…
We passed up the burrito truck with the steak and cheese fries, although an Oakland staple- the six-dollar meal was out of our price range.
We also passed this place on East 14th… something about the weaponry made me a little uncomfortable…
And then we saw the sign…
La Placita 3451 International Blvd Oakland, Ca just opened last week, and their dollar tacos are awesome…
After that meal, we needed a good desert to wash that down… options?
We passed it up to go to take the healthy route… we walked to the fruit stand….
…Of course the watermelon and pineapple was covered in salt, pepper, and lemon juice…. as my sister calls it: “the works!”
As we finished our mission, and fruit all at once, we noticed yet another mural….
Five years ago a close friend of mines, Willie Morris Clay, was shot to death in Oakland, Ca.
He passed on January 26th, 2006; while at least three others were shot, and one other passed; after an assailant opened fire in the intersection of 22nd ave. and East 28th st.
It was at that same intersection that friends and family gathered five years later to pay homage to the members of our community that had fallen on that fatal evening.
This is the park bench we used to sit around….
Beeda Weeda, an Oakland based rap artist, provides the soundtrack for the community as always…
The Housing police soon closed on the festivities….
As Beeda Weeda talked to the original officer, back-up came on the scene, and the crowd dispersed.
The five-year anniversary of a tragedy in Oakland streets will go down as yet another community celebration ended by uniformed law enforcement. No one was injured and no one was arrested.
Although interrupted by intervening forces, the gathering was a time I’m sure all parties present can agree was time well spent in honor of a fallen friend. Personally, this was the first time I had been in Oakland since Will’s passing five years ago and this served as an opportunity for me to see a number of friends all at once, crack jokes, tell stories, and catch-up… as Will would have wanted.
(A full article about the deaths of Willie Clay and Marcell Campbell, as well as the deaths of a number of other teens appeared in SF GATE; And I personally wrote an article immidietly after Willie Clay’s death called “Babies and Bullets“.)
At 6pm on January 4th, 2011, inside the Eastlake YMCA in Oakland, Ca I spotted Pocho-One’s green A’s cap bobbing and weaving through the rows of teenagers in attendance for the evening’s event. Pocho-One was juggling his responsibility of distributing snacks on paper plates, while simultaneously snapping photos of the event he helped to create: Homie’s Empowerment Dinner.
This week’s Homie’s Empowerment Dinner featured special invited guest JR Valrey, an international journalist with roots here in Oakland, Ca. Valrey screened his documentary “Operation Small Axe”, which addressed issues of police brutality and documented much of the Oscar Grant saga here in Oakland.
The young men and women enjoyed food, a special screening of a documentary, and an engaging discussion- all for free. Cesar Cruz, founder of the Homie’s Empowerment program made it clear that, “we don’t do this for free… we do this for freedom”.
The intended goal of the weekly event is to get youth, especially Latino youth, from different neighborhoods to meet face to face, and break bread. A large portion of the dialogue from the Homie’s Empowerment Dinner was guided toward understanding and making strides to get past the concept of “divide and conquer”.
Jack Bryson, family friend of Oscar Grant, was in attendance for the event as well. He opened his speech by informing the audience that this was his first public appearance at an Oscar Grant related event since the sentencing of Johannes Mehserle on November 5th, 2010. Bryson spoke of the verdict, and how it had gotten him down; but this event resurrected his spirit. He concluded his speech with three questions and a statement,
“Why is there Black vs. Black violence? and Brown vs. Brown violence?… or even Black vs. Brown violence?…here in Oakland, where the cops shoot us down, its evident that the violence is Blue vs. Black and Brown.”
The meeting concluded with a ceremonial circle of attendees exchanging handshakes and hugs. This ceremony was adopted from the United Farm Workers, and serves as a physical manifestation the concept of unity within the community.
On July 2nd, 2010 I sat down with Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums and discussed the possibility of renaming “Fruitvale Station” to “Grant Station”, out of respect for Oscar Grant, the young man who was shot and killed by Bart officer Johannes Mehserle on the Fruitvale Bart Station platform on January 1st, 2009 as many people documented the incident with their camera phones.
As my “bruh” Malcolm and I both grow older, both of us grow more appreciative for his mom’s art. A beautiful spirit I simply call “Auntie Gaila”; she is an artistic Detroit girl, now living in East Oakland where she makes it her personal movement to paint a picture of what’s going on with the Black men in her community…and to think: me, her son, and two other “knuckle-head- Nigrahs” (as she would call us), stole her car when were 16, just so we could paint the town…
Long-story- short : we never found the sideshow that night. we got pulled over by OPD. We car got towed. we walked home in the rain. and we somehow lived to tell about it.
Maybe she saw the potential in us as young men, and the error in our juvenile judgment of a tempting situation… maybe she just didn’t want to add to Oakland’s Black male murder rate…or maybe she wanted to keep us around and use us as her muse for her art…The answer is D: All of thee above.
Her art is inspired by everything from the shape of Malcolm’s head, to the way society shapes Black men’s faces when they walk down the street. However consumed she gets in analyzing the world of Black men, she doesn’t pigeon hold on to the title of “Black Artist”; she makes it known that she has abstract pieces as well.
But it is the art that is attempt to depict the Black male that dwells in urban America that speaks to me. She paints these depictions with such vibrant colors and uncanny emotion. I feel as tho I know some of the character, and sometimes I actually do…
“you see yo bighead brother in that one?” , she asks me while pointing to the tallest silhouette in the crowd.
Malcolm and I have been road dawgs since 6th grade. We had the same class after lunch, and we’d both used to drool over our gorgeous Reading Class teacher… thats how we became friends: mutual appreciation for the art of a woman. Ha, the things we did to try to get her attention… yeah, that was the start of the rambunctious- boy-hood-drama that me, Malcolm and all our bruhs experienced… And auntie was there for all of it: the prank calls, the fist fights, the homicides, the girlfriends, the run-ins with the police, and she was even there the day both Malcolm and I got our own cars…yea, auntie has a ride when ever she needs one.
I know this doesn’t replace the car we got towed, or the cost of the towing expense; but this is a token of my appreciation, for not killing us after stealing your car… and for letting stay on under your roof later that same year when times got hard… and for the artistic expressions of Black men like Malcolm and myself…this is just a train of thought to show you that I think Malcolm and I are starting to get the picture…