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.
Athenian, my old high school, published an article on me and my OG Told Me project!!
New Guard Meets Old Guard, Pendarvis Harshaw ’05
An elderly man leans on a rail at a track meet, left hand on his hip, gazing at the sky. His expression says he has experience and he knows what’s up. He is Tommie Smith who gave a black-leathered glove fisted salute from the winner’s circle at the 1968 Olympics. “If you keep living, you have to keep changing with times, ” he says.
Another Man, in graying dreadlocks, smiles as he looks down at a photograph from the 60s. He points to a young, lanky kid in the photo and says, that’s me.” He is Ronald Freeman and was once a member of the Black Panther Party. “Just look around,” he says. “Figure out how to impact the situation and make it better.”
Two men sit on a sidewalk and crack jokes over a game of chess. Their bare, muscled arms are poised over the game pieces as they concentrate on their next move. They are “David Ruffin” and “Philly Fred”, fixtures on the street in Washington, DC’s Uptown. David says, “Follow your heart. Stay close to your mother.”
all of these remarkable photos and words of wisdom are featured on a photo-journalistic website called OG Told Me ( ogtoldme.com ), created by Pendarvis Harshaw ’05. “It’s an ode to the elder men in the community who gave me tidbits of wisdom as I moved through society as a child,” he says. “They taught me what to do and what not to do. Sometimes It’d be a neighborhood big shot standing in front of his car. Sometimes it’d be a homeless person at a bus stop.”
The OG project is a replica of what Pendarvis did growing up, now told with a camera and a blog site instead of a pen and notebook. ( OG is a term for elders and means original gangster, but now has multiple meanings: old guy, old guard, original griot (storyteller). He travels around Oakland, asking elders the question: given your life experience, if you had the chance to talk to (young*) people, what would you say? “In a world where so many die young, you have to be doing something right in order to live that long,” he explains.
Pendarvis is currently a gradate student at UC Berkeley studying documentary filmmaking, and is also a free-lance journalist. “I’m drawn to journalism and the art of storytelling because poetry is the basis for all good writing,” he remarks. ” I
choose to focus on the overlap of education and violence/ justice because that’s where I think I can make an immediate impact.”
When asked what Athenian experience has influenced his life the most, he says,” Mannnnnn … that trip to Death Valley! I think about that so often! Greatest lesson ever learned has to be the lesson of the Hero’s Journey. Experience it through hiking across the hottest place in the Western Hemisphere, only to return home– a complete Hero’s journey.”
And his words of wisdom to others? “Pack light,” he says. “That’s all I tell myself.”
I realized that when I was on the freeway. Standing on Interstate 880. With about 200 other people.
I promise I didn’t plan on being there.
I just wanted to finish my article, eat the burrito I had purchased at noon and then go watch the Home Run Derby.
I knew Cespedes would show out on the baseball field that night. I just knew it. The plan was to make a beeline to a TV. It was 6pm. I had a couple of minutes before the Derby started.
I had just finished recording a story on Trayvon Martin for a local NPR affiliate, a radio station named KQED. On top of that, other news outlets filmed me recording. San Francisco’s CBS outlet and NBC Bay Area were there. They initially came to do a story on how Youth Radio’s facility on the corner of 17th and Broadway had been damaged during the protests the night before, but both outlets did stories with slightly different angles.
After I did the interviews with both crews, I made my move.
I walked on to Broadway, and saw a bunch of people marching toward the police station. My journalistic instincts took over. Within seconds I was marching along, camera in hand, choosing which angle would give me the best photo.
I followed the march down to the police station. They stopped and rallied at the station for all of five minutes– enough time to backup traffic coming off of the freeway. And when the protesters stopped the traffic, they took advantage: they walked on to the freeway. And I followed. ( I’m a journalist, what do you expect?)
It was a successful protest. It disrupted the flow of the post work traffic. It made people take notice. It made the helicopters reroute to get a good shot.
But I was there first.
On the freeway! Burrito in my backpack. Missing the home run derby. Taking photos.
The excitement of being on the freeway was crazy. All I tweeted was “this shit is crazy.”
In the midst of my color commentary on the situation, “this shit is crazy” summed it all up.
And then the cops came…
I was reporting. I had been reporting all day. But when the cops came, I knew there would be no way to separate myself from any of the other people on that freeway.
So, I looked to evacuate. Expeditiously .
Everyone moved. It was an exodus!
I ran towards the next exit, just as everyone else did. From Broadway toward Jackson St. And then we realized we were trapped. There were cop cars coming up the Jackson St. ramp, and cops on feet blocking the Broadway exit.
There was a small gap between the off ramp off and the freeway. The dirt hill with the steep grade was a risk to slide down, but I went for it. And people followed.
After jumping the gap, we slid down the hill.
And that’s all it’s about.
Finding a hole. And going through it.
So others can follow your lead.
After I took a couple more photos, got away from the crowd.
I found a place where I could sit down, enjoy my burrito while the Home Run Derby was on. At a local bar, you know– a hole in the wall.