Oakland

Could your church help your community find hope in the wake of the election?

Last weekend, people started reaching out to me because they were afraid, and they didn’t want to stay that way. They didn’t want to rage or burn things down; they wanted to find a way to contribute to their community, to help others overcome fear.

So with the help of a PHENOMENALLY gifted intern, the Oakland Peace Center created a resource fair. The goal was simple: to help people feeling a sense of urgency discover that they have a power to make a POSITIVE contribution in their community, that they need not dwell in anxiety and fear but can overcome it by coming together.

The reason I’m writing this is that within four days, we had thirty organizations agree to table and four hundred people attend (in the rain!!!). Check it out!

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What this tells me is that people are hungry for positivity, and that people are hungry right now for a sense that they are not alone.

Now, the Oakland Peace Center is made up of forty organizations who are working to create equity as the means of creating peace, so we had a good baseline. But our partners are mostly small, scrappy organizations working to help people at a local level. We wanted folks to connect with them, but we also wanted to provide resources for people looking to get engaged in work we didn’t have covered: advocacy with Muslims, health care access, learning how to intervene when someone is being assaulted (verbally or otherwise), women’s rights, environmental justice. So we needed to reach new organizations as well as new people.

Here’s how we did it:

We listened and we checked in: On the Friday and Saturday after the election I got several messages from people saying “what do I do to engage in protecting people’s healthcare?” or “a lot of people are asking me what they can do to protect immigrants’ (or refugees’ or LGBTQ people’s or Muslims’) rights. Where do I point them?” Then a facebook friend shared an event happening in LA that weekend and asked if anything like that was happening in Oakland. I said no, but it might help me field the questions I was getting. I was at an OPC partners’ retreat so asked them what they thought, then spent another day or so asking organizations what they thought. We began to sense that people were hungry for the opportunity to do something pro-active. Youth were walking out of school; people who had never marched were marching; whole congregations were wearing safety pins so they could express their solidarity with people for whom they feared. We had a sense that this could be meaningful and helpful to the community. In our community, we felt a need to capture the energy of the present moment, so we moved quickly (four days!!!! whew!), but we might do another one in January or February. Another listening we did was during the event: we thought our next event would be more about training people, but what we heard was people wanted another of these resource fairs so that their friends could come and so other organizations could be in the room. So we’re shifting focus from what we thought was best to what the community has told us would be best.

Our message was positive: In both our email blast, our flyers and our facebook messaging, we didn’t focus on hostility or negativity or anxiety. Truthfully, many of us feel those things, and they are valid feelings. But we believe at the Oakland Peace Center that what we are building is even more important than what we are tearing down, even though there are things that need to be torn down in order to build. Our facebook message read “If you feel a drive to do something about the environment, immigrants’ rights, healthcare, Black Lives Matter, indigenous rights, reducing bullying, increasing a culture of peace and inclusion, or any other issues to make this community better, please come to this gathering and learn about the ways you can participate! Whether you are a long time activist or have never attended a rally in your life, your contributions matter!” My sense is that right now, people are feeling negative, powerless and isolated. So our message was positive, reminded people of their power, and reminded them that they were not alone. And the event reinforced those themes.

We Honored Multiple Ways of Creating Positive Change: The other beautiful thing that emerged out of who the Oakland Peace Center is (and which I believe churches and faith communities can create for the same reasons) was that we had multiple dimensions to how people could be engaged. “Get In Where You Fit In” was a slogan our intern Virginia used, and it was true: we had organizations working on policy issues national and local, we had organizations engaged in community service work (who were not afraid of the organizations doing policy work), and we had organizations connecting people to inner peace so that they can take care of themselves in order to take care of others. The OPC is committed to creating peace-filled communities, and we need different policies, and we need people engaged in service and solidarity with each other, and we need people who are able to heal from trauma and find peace within themselves. All of those resources were available, and some of them even got taught right there during the event, like intervention during assault and the basic skills of HeartMath and anti-bullying techniques.

We made sure that as many of the communities potentially impacted by upcoming policy changes were in the room as possible: we reached out to Muslim organizations, disability rights organizations, environmental groups, women’s groups, LGBTQ+ organizations, organizations supporting the Movement for Black Lives, immigration organizations, and so on. There are usually organizations doing both advocacy and social service around these communities in every state in the nation as well as in most major cities.

We created an air of celebration: People who came wanted to experience hope. And part of how hope gets crushed is by replacing joy with fear. So we created a festival atmosphere: popcorn and fun, high energy music, and a kids’ table with children’s books representing both themes of inclusion and justice (which we promoted in advance so people knew it was a family-friendly event). Joy is an underutilized tool of creating justice! We even had a woman who creates justice-oriented children’s coloring resources volunteered at the kids’ table! (Here are some of the pages we provided the children.)img_6597childrens-books

We didn’t create anything new: With any issue we are concerned about, there are folks doing really good work who are underresourced. This is a moment to connect, not necessarily re-invent the wheel.

We created spaces for people to cast vision, share their commitments and offer words of hope. We had poster board where people wrote what they were committing themselves to and what their hopes were. We didn’t create a physical space for grief, although one restorative justice partner gathered people who wanted to really let their feelings out and feel heard, and that was beautiful. One of the organizations, Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy, invited people to cast a vision for a moral economy when people visited their table: fame

We learned some really inspiring things:

  • People were so excited about this that even without asking for them, we ended up with phenomenal volunteers!
  • There were a lot of young people who came because they want to become activists. But there were also senior citizens who felt that they could no longer stay uninformed or unengaged. I believe that is true of church folks as well: as OPC intern Virginia White reflected to me after the event, “people have care about these issues but haven’t known how to engage, or didn’t think they should. This is not about convincing people to do something new.” That’s who our event was for, and they came in the rain by the hundreds.
  • Some people were puzzled by why we would do something like this until we explained that part of the mission of the OPC is to connect people to each other’s work. And they were also puzzled by the fact that the church (in our case, First Christian Church of Oakland) played a role in this gathering as the folks who created the OPC. What a beautiful moment of puzzlement to help the community realize that the church can and should be engaged in this work of standing with indigenous and Black and LGBTQ+ and environmental and civil liberties organizations. What a teachable moment.
  • This event created hope. Let me say it again: at a time people are experiencing fear, we created a space of hope. Participants thanked us, and so did the organizations, some of whom have been in this work for decades and feeling a little out of hope themselves. At our best, isn’t that what the church is supposed to be about? Hope conquering despair, not just in the abstract, but in concrete ways.
  • Over and over, people said they felt a sense that there really is a community dedicated to supporting each other. During my introductory announcement, I reminded people that “we need us. We need to have each other’s backs. In the coming days we will need to be able to trust each other, and that happens when we really show up for each other.” So I told them to talk to all of the tablers but also to talk to each other, because we have each other’s backs best when we know each other, and that can start here. And people did. And it was transcendent.

I was asked to share our methodology so others can borrow from it. I decided to write it in a way that I hope churches in particular can borrow from it. It took a lot of time and effort, but it was not difficult logistically to manage. Once our facebook numbers started looking good, some of the organizations that had never heard of us before suddenly thought this would be a great opportunity.

 

Black lives, windows, and good governance

There is a debate over the first amendment and preservation of property in Oakland right now, and the camps are fairly clear:

“I’m tired of seeing my city trashed.”

“Broken windows do not matter more than broken Black bodies.”

The mayor of Oakland recently enforced a sundown restriction on protests (possibly although not necessarily influenced by two SF Chronicle columnists who suggested similar measures after windows were broken, cars were damaged and buildings were tagged in the Auto Row neighborhood). This policy shift (which the mayor indicates is a policy already on the books which she simply chose to enforce) was executed during a peaceful protest to honor the lives of Black women, including Black trans women, who have died due to police brutality. Police also kettled and arrested numerous people (including a planning commissioner) at a protest of the curfew two days later and stood at the ready during the interfaith protest the next night.

 

Here’s what’s interesting about this issue to me:

Both sides agree with each other. (more…)

Can we talk about “the talk?” – teaching children how to protect themselves from “Protect and Serve”

I remember an incredibly uncomfortable Thanksgiving during Occupy Oakland. Not the cliche uncomfortable of Republicans and Democrats getting into immigration policy over the mashed potatoes and gravy.

A friend of mine who had been arrested during Occupy for carrying an umbrella (the citation indicated it was a temporary dwelling, which had been banned from the plaza in front of city hall) was regaling us with stories about what it had been like to be in jail, and how they sang together and made jokes to the arresting officers.

Across the table, another friend was clearly not amused, while his daughter’s eyes got wider and wider.

See, my friend had been working really hard not to normalize jail or prison as a regular part of life for Black people in his daughter’s eyes. He wanted his daughter to believe that to be Black in America did not mean an expectation that jail or prison would be a regular and normal part of life; even though they have people in their family who have been to jail and prsion. He did not want her to see it as “no big deal” or a laughing matter. Now, he was also raising her to know about civil rights and justice and fighting for fairness, and when she reached the double digits, they would likely start talking about the prison-industrial complex, because he knows how real the New Jim Crow is. But the light, comical treatment of jail life at the dinner table was the opposite of what he was going for at this moment in his daughter’s formation.

Parenting is hard. Parenting a Black child in America is harder.

(more…)

Upon receiving the Christian Church of Northern CA-NV’s annual MLK Award

This award was given to me on January 11, 2015 at Lafayette Christian Church during the CCNC-N’s annual MLK service. Following are my remarks upon receiving the award.

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I find myself thinking a lot about the previous recipients of this award, because they have all deeply shaped me.

I’m in the land of Pacific School of Religion, and many of you know that PSR’s slogan is, help me with this, “a tradition of boldness.” And that is true. I am in a sea of boldness in this region. But as far as I know, there have only been five graduates of the Disciples Divinity House at the University of Chicago in this region, and … I am the fifth to receive this award, following:

  • Carl and Esther Robinson, who lost his parish in the 1960s for refusing to kick a gay youth out of his church’s youth group;
  • Robert Lemon, who lost his parish for standing in solidarity with Cesar Chavez and the migrant farm workers’ movement;
  • Vy Nguyen, who hasn’t been fired from anything yet, but is leading Week of Compassion and helping us respond to disasters across the globe and here at home;
  • and while David Kagiwada is no longer with us, his widow JoAnne received this award, acknowledging her work to make sure that Japanese American internment camp survivors received recompense from our government.

So in the land of the tradition of boldness, I’m grateful to have had the chance to import a little boldness from Chicago.

I am also shaped by other award recipients:

  • There is no one who stands with poor people more powerfully and inspiringly than Sandy Perry;
  • I have learned much of what it means to participate in civil rights from Clarence Johnson, who was at the March on Washington, but who was also an ardent worker alongside Stokely Carmichael, which is a reminder to us all that radicalism can be held deep within the most humble servants of God;
  • Ben Fraticelli was about the work of building multicultural community in Oakland decades before the Oakland Peace Center started its work three years ago; and
  • Jim Mitulski, who led us in the chant “Stand Up! Fight Back! Fight AIDS!” buried more bodies than most of us can count, because so few churches in the 1980s were willing to acknowledge the human dignity and divinity of the mostly gay men dying of AIDS.

I am an Asian American who was shaped strongly by Black civil rights: 4th grade was the first time I heard about India in school, when we learned that Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolence was shaped by Mahatma Gandhi’s anti-colonial movement in India. I was hooked; I read every book on Dr. King in the library, and for a long time it was the closest reference point I could find to make sense of my experience as an Asian American in northeast Ohio. (more…)

Thoughts on Serial, my killer ex, and Whose Lives Matter

I’m finally listening to the series Serial that everyone’s talking about (or at least all of my intellectual liberal White friends). It’s about a guy who’s been in prison for 15 years for killing his high school ex-girlfriend except he maybe didn’t do it.

(As an aside, I’m on episode 8, and finally an attorney from the Innocence Project at UVA just said something I found myself thinking in episode 1: It’s interesting that the guy in prison was pretty much their only candidate even though the case was pretty shaky, and that they described his “dark side” and how he was “controlling” in their relationship even though the ex hadn’t experienced him that way. He’s Pakistani, which is why I found the descriptions of his personality interesting. Hello, profiling.)

Listening to the show and all of the evidence gathering and so forth reminded me of my own brief interactions with the Baltimore PD back in 1996. I googled my ex-boyfriend who is still behind bars and came across a quirky after-the-crime story. He brought a case in 2000 demanding that Johns Hopkins University grant him the degree he had earned; he finished his degree work in December 1995 and killed his best friend on campus in April 1996. Hopkins didn’t offer early degrees, so he would have received his degree in May 1996, but the university decided that killing a fellow student on campus was grounds for withholding his diploma. The court supported the university’s decision. The homicide unit called me in the immediate aftermath of the 1996 shooting to ask a few questions but weren’t all that interested in my answers because it was such an open-and-shut case. (The ex’s defense attorney was much more interested in me because he had read all of my ex’s and my emails and said he felt like he knew me. If you wonder why I care about internet privacy, it’s because I know how embarrassing the violation of internet privacy feels.)

We’ve fallen out of touch over the years, but I remember the ex telling me in a phone conversation maybe 6 months into his sentence that the inmates were watching a cops-and-robbers movie and everyone else was cheering for the robbers, and he was still rooting for the cops. He definitely didn’t think he belonged there.[1] (more…)

The Ballad of Harry Moore

Preached at First Congregational Church of Oakland, December 14, 2014.I’ve had the story of one of our forebears on my heart recently on this Black Lives Matter Sunday. So while I was supposed to preach “People Get Ready,” my sermon this morning is actually “The Ballad of Harry Moore,” as written by Langston Hughes and set to music by Sweet Honey in the Rock.

It seems I hear Harry Moore; from the earth his voice still cries:
No bomb can kill the dreams I hold, for freedom never dies.
Freedom never dies, I say. Freedom never dies.
No bomb can kill the dreams I hold for freedom never dies.

Some people call Harry Moore the first martyr of the civil rights movement – he was killed by the Ku Klux Klan on Christmas night, 1951.

A teacher himself, Harry Moore fought for fair pay for Black teachers in Florida, and for the right to vote for Black people throughout the 1940s. He investigated lynchings and worked in the most rural parts of the state, where the risk was highest and the gains particularly hard-fought. During his time as a field organizer, Florida had the highest voter registration level of African Americans of any state in the south: 33%, despite it being some of the toughest terrain in which to organize. In fact, Harry Moore’s determination to work at the most hopeless edges of the movement had just earned him a demotion within the movement, and his opposition to an increase in membership dues actually got him fired from his position with the NAACP. But that Christmas was the Moores’ 25th wedding anniversary, and they celebrated that whatever their status in the organization, they continued to be part of the movement. (more…)

Things said and left unsaid at #MillionsMarchOAK

Thousands gathered in Oakland yesterday, joining with marchers in San Francisco, New York and Washington, DC. I marched with them, as part of the API solidarity contingent. And I found myself reflecting on what my solidarity looks like with this movement.

from the podium

What I did say:

  • Black Lives Matter. Sometimes I want to clarify, “Black lives should matter more than they do,” because a lot of people are irritated by the slogan and seem to miss the point. But without hesitation I said it.
  • Tell the truth, stop the lies, Mike Brown didn’t have to die. I’ve been surprised and disappointed by how much explaining away of Mike Brown’s death (and even Eric Garner’s death) has happened among people who understand themselves to be against racism. Additionally, good and decent citizens I know have explained away the undercover CHP officer pulling a weapon on an agitated protest crowd this past Thursday. Yes, when under attack in this country people do have the right to defend themselves. But perhaps this situation wouldn’t have arisen if they hadn’t infiltrated the crowd disguised as anarchists looking to break some windows at a moment that tensions between police and civilians are particularly high, particularly in relation to fears of a resurgence in COINTELPRO.
  • I…I believe…I believe that…I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN! This was the chant that closed out the rally. It felt both desperate and hopeful, because the goal of this campaign is so big, and yet it is what many of us have been working towards for years without believing we will actually win on a large scale – the rooting out of systemic racism from our structures of government, including those systems that protect and defend.
  • APIs in solidarity with Black Lives. One of my favorite things about the community I have found here in Oakland is that other communities of color recognize that our own struggles for dignity and value matter, and that those struggles are deeply connected to the culture of anti-Blackness in America. In recent weeks, I’ve been in conversations with API activists who recognize that our immigration rights are connected to the civil rights struggle, and that we are often used as a lever or fulcrum in the racial hierarchization that keeps White privilege in place and keeps Black people on the bottom. (I am also grateful for the Model Minority Mutiny, which additionally brings attention to the ways the model minority myth functions to benefit Asian Americans like me at the expense of many of my API brothers and sisters who are refugees, poor, darker skinned, Muslim, and so on, buying the silence of those who benefit from the model minority myth.) And I am grateful that simultaneously some of us are taking seriously what it means to be in solidarity with the Latino community around both immigration and indigenous rights and dignity in this country. It all needs to happen.allives

What I didn’t say: (more…)