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Cob Structures House Kitchen, Clinic, Shower, in West Oakland Homeless Community

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A community kitchen, clinic, toilet and shower made out of cob and wood sit under the 880 Freeway within a homeless community west of Wood Street in West Oakland on April 18.

Members of three organizations – Artists Building Communities, Essential Food and Medicine, and Living Earth Structures – have built a kitchen, clinic, free store, stage, toilet, oven, and shower with and for a homeless community near Wood Street in West Oakland.

Made out of wood covered in brown cob, the structures that house these facilities seem almost as natural extensions of the earth upon which they sit. Empty wine bottles serve as windows, and old discarded clothes serve as insulation. Sculpted images of trees decorate the structures’ surfaces and succulent plants sprout along the perimeters of their roofs. 

Winding stone pathways connect the structures and are bordered by little gardens of herbs, greens, and flowers. The kitchen has a stove, sink with running water, shelving full of bread, and a refrigerator full of food. Herbs and emergency medical supplies fill the clinic. The shower’s water runs hot. 

The project is called Cob on Wood. It sits on land owned by, west of Wood Street, and under the 880 freeway. 

A community of homeless residents lives near Cob on Wood, surrounding the site. Advocates and some residents estimate the population of that community to be about 100 people. The area west of Wood Street in West Oakland that the community lives in does not receive regular sanitation service from the City of Oakland, and much of it is densely packed with abandoned vehicles and garbage. 

With regular maintenance by those living inside and outside of the homeless community, the Cob on Wood site looks different from its surroundings, like a rose that grows out of a crack in the concrete.

“This was built through relationships with the community and came out of requests from the community,” said Xochitl Bernadette Moreno, co-founder of Essential Food and Medicine (EFAM).

EFAM started building relationships with Wood Street residents early in the COVID-19 pandemic by giving them juice, soups, and natural medicines made from local produce. Artists Building Community (ABC) also started early in the pandemic, when Annemarie Bustamante and some of her neighbors living in The Vulcan Loft apartments in East Oakland started building small wooden homes for homeless Oakland residents. 

ABC has expanded now to include volunteers throughout the area, and they have built several of their homes in the Wood Street community. But the structures at Cob on Wood-look different from ABC’s homes. 

ABC and EFAM came together to contract with Miguel Elliot of Living Earth Structures to guide the building of Cob on Wood structures using cob. The group benefited from Elliot’s experience of building cob structures for over 25 years in a variety of settings and locations, including parts of Central and South America, Africa, and Asia.

While the groups have followed Elliot’s construction guidance, they also followed nearby homeless residents’ service requests, whose first request was a kitchen. Elliot’s cob construction made the kitchen safe from catching fire, as the cob is fireproof. 

Such precautions were necessary. Oakland’s fire department responded to almost 1,000 fires in homeless communities during fiscal years 2018-19 and 2019-20.

LeaJay Harper, who has lived in the Wood Street community for over seven years, now restocks the kitchen every few days and also cooks for herself and other residents.

“It’s been a challenge trying to keep food in the kitchen because people are definitely using it,” said Harper. “It’s made it so that folks who didn’t have the facilities at their own space to cook can have hot food every single day. A lot of people are gaining weight, which is a good thing.”

Harper works and meets closely with ABC and EFAM to plan food pickups. Other homeless residents have taken on roles in the community as well. A resident named Lydia, who lives in an RV near the community and is knowledgeable about medicinal uses of herbs, is the community clinic liaison. She helps spread information about ways residents can use the clinic’s herbs. 

Raquel, a teenager who lives with her family in the Wood Street community, helps with outreach to inform other residents about Cob on Wood services and events. Another teenager, Sequoia, who used to live on Wood Street, is also part of Cob on Wood’s outreach team.

“I think being part of [Cob on Wood] is really amazing,” Sequoia said. “Most of my life I was homeless and being able to give back to the community now that I’m not on the streets means a lot to me.”

The idea for the community started in September of last year, and construction started in December. The project has been growing. These days, Moreno says about 50 people meet online on Wednesdays to formally plan and maintain the project. 

On Sundays, the group meets more informally on site for construction, site maintenance, a pizza party, and an open mic. The vast majority of people involved with the project still live outside of the Wood Street community, but the word is spreading. 

Cob on Wood volunteers go into the Wood Street community and hand out flyers about the project. On Sunday, April 18, they hosted an Earth Day celebration called “What’s Your Medicine?” with food, DJs, dance, and musical performances. 

At least 100 people showed up to the event. One Wood Street resident who lives in a self-made home said he had never heard of Cob on Wood before but followed the sound of the music and found it.

 Ashel Seasunz Eldridge, who co-founded EFAM, and performed at the Earth Day celebration with his band, Dogon Lights, said that Cob on Wood seeks to build on work that Wood St residents already are doing. During the Earth Day celebration, when Cob on Wood had a Town Hall to discuss how the project could sustain itself and better serve the community, five Wood Street residents took the lead, speaking to each other and the crowd through a PA system. 

Those residents have been meeting weekly in another part of the Wood Street community.

“We were inspired by the meetings people were already having,” said Eldridge. “We thought, why not bring that to the town hall.”

One topic Wood Street residents spoke about was defending themselves and other people experiencing homelessness from displacement. It was something Cob on Wood organizers found pertinent, as they worry that the site, which sits on CalTrans owned land, could face displacement from that state agency.

A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle cites CalTrans spokesperson RocQuel Johnson as claiming the agency plans to clear “abandoned vehicles and liter” from CalTrans land near Wood Street in May and June, claiming similar actions were executed on April 12 and  April13. 

ABC founder Annmarie Bustamante was at the Wood Street homeless community on those days and claims CalTrans forced people to move themselves and their homes from the location they lived to an area more out of sight of a nearby street. 

Abandoned vehicles, Bustamante claims, were not removed from the Wood Street homeless community but were moved to a separate area still within that community. She said the operation did not remove trash but displaced people.

Although this reporter asked CalTrans about the April 12 and 13 operations, the agency did not respond. But Johnson told the SF Chronicle that “[Cob on Wood] structures were placed on state right of way without a permit or without safety inspections,” and added that “CalTrans is currently evaluating the best course of action and has no immediate plans to remove the structures.”

Cob on Wood organizers is unclear about whether CalTrans will remove their structures. The state agency cleared homeless people off their land in Oakland on Sept. 21 last year and late January this year. During the January operation, a group of advocates, 10 of whom carried colorful shields, defended the self-made home of two Oakland residents living on the land bordering Mosswood Park and the 580 Freeway. 

While nearly 20 of their neighbors cleared themselves from the CalTrans-owned land they were living on, the two residents never left the area, and their home was not dismantled. 

Bustamante, who was at the January CalTrans operation supporting eviction defense, is also prepared to defend Cob on Wood if necessary. Defending space through direct action is a topic of steady conversation among those involved with Cob on Wood.

“If CalTrans does try to displace us at Wood Street without allowing for other adequate resources, there’s gonna be a fight,” said Bustamante.

Cob on Wood wants to expand to include a sauna and small huts for homeless residents. They are seeking funds to help their project, to help pay for construction costs, materials and stipends for homeless residents who help with the project.

Readers can donate to their gofundme campaign.

Community

Students, Community Organizations Ask Judge to Order Mental Health Services, Internet Access

Arguing that appropriating billions of dollars alone will not ensure action, community organizations and parents from Los Angeles and Oakland are asking an Alameda County Superior Court judge to order the state to immediately provide computers and internet access and address the mental health needs of children who have borne the brunt of the pandemic.

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Arguing that appropriating billions of dollars alone will not ensure action, community organizations and parents from Los Angeles and Oakland are asking an Alameda County Superior Court judge to order the state to immediately provide computers and internet access and address the mental health needs of children who have borne the brunt of the pandemic.

The May 3 request for immediate relief comes six months after the plaintiffs sued the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. Now, they are seeking a preliminary injunction to force the state to respond. Superior Court Judge Winifred Smith has set June 4 for a hearing.

“The state cannot just write big checks and then say, ‘We’re not paying attention to what happens here,’” said Mark Rosenbaum, a directing attorney with the pro bono law firm Public Counsel. Public Counsel and the law firm Morrison and Foerster filed the lawsuit on behalf of 15 children and two organizations: The Oakland Reach and the Community Coalition, which is based in Los Angeles. 

In their initial, 84-page filing, they claimed the state had shirked its responsibility to ensure that low-income Black and Latino children were receiving adequate distance learning, with computers and internet access the Legislature said all children were entitled to. Instead, they argued, children “lost precious months” of learning, falling further behind because of poor internet connections, malfunctioning computers and a lack of counseling and extra academic help.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic was unavoidable, these harms were not. Yet for most of this period, state officials constitutionally charged with ensuring that all of California’s children receive at least basic educational equality have remained on the sidelines,” the plaintiffs argued.

Angela J., of Oakland, whose three children are plaintiffs in the case, elaborated on the difficulties they encountered during a year under distance learning in a declaration filed with the latest plaintiffs’ motion. 

Although she is president of the PTA, her school has been uncommunicative and unresponsive to requests for technical help and lesson plans, she wrote. Her children are falling behind and “suffering emotionally,” she said. Her third-grade twins are supposed to be doing multiplication and division but are struggling with subtraction. “They are supposed to be able to write essays, but they can barely write two sentences.”

The Oakland Reach and the Community Coalition have stepped in with technical help and support for hundreds of families that district schools should have provided, the plaintiffs’ motion said. The Community Coalition hired tutors and partnered with YMCA-Crenshaw to provide in-person learning pods with 100 laptops on site. The Oakland Reach hired 19 family liaisons, started a preschool literacy program and offered online enrichment programs for students.

Months passed, infection rates declined, schools made plans to reopen, and then in March, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature appropriated $6.6 billion in COVID-19 relief that school districts can put toward summer school, tutoring, mental health, teacher training and other academic supports. By June 1 — less than a month from now — districts and charter schools are required to complete a report, after consulting with parents and teachers, on how they plan to spend the money.

But the plaintiffs argue in their latest filing, “this funding comes with no oversight, assistance, or enforcement to ensure that the funds will be used properly to address the issues relating to digital devices, learning loss, and mental health support.” And there’s no requirement that districts begin this summer to address the harm that the most impacted students have felt, the statement said.“Schools are indeed ‘reopening’ to one degree or another, but absent a mandate that all students receive what they need to learn and to catch up, or any guidance from the State that would help them do so,” the filing said.

In a statement, California Department of Education spokesman Scott Roark acknowledged that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted those who “are vulnerable by historic and systemic inequities,” and cited the department’s work obtaining hundreds of thousands of computers, expanding internet access and providing guidance to educators on distance learning for highest-needs students.

“As we work to return children back to the classroom, we will maintain a laser focus on protecting the health and safety of our school communities while providing the supports needed to ensure learning continues and, where gaps persist, is improved,” the statement said.

In passing legislation accompanying the state budget last June, the Legislature laid out requirements for distance learning that school districts must meet to receive school funding. They included providing all students with access to a computer and the internet. 

Missing, however, was an enforcement requirement, like the monitoring that’s used to verify that students in low-income schools have textbooks, safe and clean facilities and qualified classroom teachers. That system was set up in 2004 through a settlement of Williams v. State of California, in which low-income families sued the state over its failure to assure safe and equitable conditions in schools.  

At the time, Rosenbaum was a lead attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, which brought the lawsuit with Public Advocates and other civil rights organizations.

Despite efforts by Thurmond and districts over the past year to get technology in place, Thurmond estimated in October that as many as 1 million students lacked devices or sufficient bandwidth to adequately participate in distance learning from home. Between federal and state funding, districts have plenty of money to buy computers, and the Legislature is considering several bills to fund internet access statewide (see here and here). 

They won’t solve the immediate challenge, but they could become relevant if there were to be a settlement in this case, as in the Williams lawsuit.

Among their requests, the plaintiffs are asking the court to order the state to:

  • Determine which students lack devices and connectivity and ensure that districts immediately provide them;
  • Ensure that all students and teachers have access to adequate mental health supports;
  • Provide weekly outreach to families of all low-income Black or Latino students to aid in transitioning back to in-person learning through August 2022;
  • Provide a statewide plan to ensure that districts put in place programs to remedy the learning loss caused by remote learning.

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Activism

San Francisco Proposes Art Installation to Honor Black Lives, History of African Americans

The sculptural figures created in all-black steel with vinyl tubing, each standing four feet high, would surround the empty pedestal where a statue of Francis Scott Key once stood. Key, who wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was a slave owner and abolition opponent.

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Dana King/ Wikimedia Commons

San Francisco, CA. – Mayor London N. Breed today announced the City of San Francisco is planning a new public art installation to honor Black lives and the history of African Americans. The installation is planned to be located in Golden Gate Park’s Music Concourse next month, in time for Juneteenth.

The installation, ‘Monumental Reckoning,’ by Bay Area sculptor Dana King, honors the first Africans stolen from their homeland and sold into chattel slavery in the New World. The installation consists of 350 sculptures representing the number of Africans initially forced onto the slave ship San Juan Bautista for a journey of death and suffering across the Atlantic in 1619. A handful of these original 350 ancestors became America’s first enslaved people.

The sculptural figures created in all-black steel with vinyl tubing, each standing four feet high, would surround the empty pedestal where a statue of Francis Scott Key once stood. Key, who wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was a slave owner and abolition opponent. Protestors toppled the statue on Juneteenth 2020.

“The art and monuments that we choose to display in our city and the civic art that fills our public spaces must reflect the diversity of our community, and honor our history,” said Breed. “This powerful public art installation in Golden Gate Park will help us not only commemorate Juneteenth, but also serve as an example of how we can honor our past, no matter how painful, and reflect on the challenges that are still with us today.”

Monumental Reckoning would allow visitors to commune with the figures. The phrase “Lift Every Voice” would shine from atop the nearby Spreckels Temple of Music through a second, connected piece by Illuminate the Arts. These are the first three words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, a song written by civil rights champion James Weldon Johnson which was first performed in 1900—the same year the Spreckels Temple of Music opened. 

For more than a century, Johnson’s song of unity has been sung as the Black national anthem. U.S. Representative James Clyburn is currently leading an effort to have the song named America’s national hymn.

“I’m excited to see the new monument go up in Golden Gate Park to honor Black lives and the rich history of African Americans,” said Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton. “I think this is a perfect example of trying to right a wrong. Rather than uplifting individuals with oppressive histories, this is an opportunity to honor diversity and our community through public art.”

The installation was approved by both the San Francisco Arts Commission and the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission’s Operations Committee this week. It is currently under review by the Planning Commission. “Lift Every Voice” will also need to be approved by the City’s Historical Preservation Committee before it can be installed. If approved, Monumental Reckoning would open to the public on June 19, or Juneteenth 2021, which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S. The art piece would remain in place through June 20, 2023.

“The memory of African descendants deserves to be told truthfully and publicly,” said King, Monumental Reckoning’s creator. “Monumental Reckoning fulfills both objectives with the installation of 350 ‘ancestors’ who will encircle the Francis Scott Key plinth in Golden Gate Park. The ancestors stand in judgement, holding history accountable to the terror inflicted on the first group of enslaved people brought here in 1619 to the last person sold to another, all victims of chattel slavery. Even though the business of enslavement ended long ago, it still resonates generationally for African Americans and forms the bedrock from which systems of oppression proliferate today.”

Fundraising, community outreach, and ongoing support for the installation is being provided by the Museum of the African Diaspora. Creative and programming support would be provided by The Black Woman is God, which is an annual group exhibition of Black women artists curated by Karen Seneferu and Melorra Green. The project celebrates Black women as essential to building a more just society and sustainable future and reclaims space historically denied to Black women artists.

“What Dana King’s powerful installation communicates and commemorates is a sober cultural gut-punch long overdue, and I hope it’s the beginning of many such visual testaments in the public realm that venerate the origin stories of our most marginalized and disenfranchised populations,” said Ralph Remington, San Francisco’s Director of Cultural Affairs. “We almost never see images of Black people represented in our public monuments, or in the American telling of history. So, it’s no surprise that in a society rooted in white supremacy, people of color remain invisible and undervalued in our mythology, symbols, architecture and national narrative. While the City examines the historic works in our Civic Art Collection and the future of monuments in San Francisco, this installation will help build and advance a discourse about who and what we venerate in our open spaces.”

 “We are incredibly proud to host this powerful piece,” said San Francisco Recreation and Park Department General Manager Phil Ginsburg. “Monumental Reckoning prompts frank discussion about the legacy of slavery, while charting a course between past, present and future. We are grateful to have these crucial conversations in Golden Gate Park—a beloved public space that belongs to everyone.”

This story was produced by the San Francisco Mayor’s office.

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Bay Area

Coming Out of the Darkness Into the Light

Through collaborations with volunteers, non-profit organizations, churches, the City of Oakland, and businesses we are determined to reach out and just serve the needs of those who desperately need help.

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 It has been quite a while since I have written columns for the Post News Group.  I am especially glad to be back and to write from a different location.
    This is my first column since I was released from San Quentin because of the COVID-19 epidemic that ravished and destroyed so many lives since March of 2020.
    Since my release from prison, I’ve come to understand more clearly how life has changed so drastically for so many, even before the detrimental impact of COVID.  I see first-hand how so many lives have literally been turned upside down, living on the streets and battling a new reality that sucks the life out of so many struggling to survive.
      By observing from afar the impact of homelessness, despair, hopelessness, and utter desperation, I see how the less fortunate are forced to deal with collective and prolonged adversity on an unheard-of scale.
    And, now coming out of prison, and seeking a new life in the midst of these trying times, I have chosen a personal mission to give back to those in need in the community.  I am doing this as my pledge to help correct the wrong that I participated in.  I want to make things right.
    I also hope to be of service to those I have ignored, disgraced, or harmed directly and indirectly.
    To begin to accomplish my mission I will be participating in an event that we have titled “Reparations for those Deserving.”  This project will initially focus on massive food distribution.  We hope to provide free food for as many as possible to those who show up at our distribution sites.
    With the help of the Oakland Post print and online editions (www.postnewsgroup.com), I will be announcing the dates, times, and locations of this massive food giveaway. project.  

    Through collaborations with volunteers, non-profit organizations, churches, the City of Oakland, and businesses we are determined to reach out and just serve the needs of those who desperately need help.  

    I am encouraged by the churches and many of the pastors in Oakland that have already stepped up to be a part of our “Just Serve those that are deserving” effort.
    What makes me proud as I now walk in freedom from prison is to see how many others who are part of the “formerly incarcerated” population who were previously written off as being worthless scourges, are now stepping up to the plate to redeem themselves from their past indiscretions by giving back to those in need.  

     Having served many years behind bars, and many more in solitary confinement, I know that these volunteers are sincere in stepping forward to do the right thing to rectify the wrongs they had previously done.
    I believe that a change from being negative to being positive can happen all at once or in spurts.  I am hopeful that by working together we can and will make a change, at once or in spurts.

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