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Community Celebrates Life of Sylvester Hodges, Education Leader, Parent Activist

A community celebration was held Saturday, July 8, commemorating the life of former Oakland Board of Education member, civil rights leader, and parent activist Sylvester Hodges. Many lifelong friends and loved ones came out to join the celebration of his life at the Cypress Mandela Training Center in East Oakland. Hodges, 78, died on May 21, 2020, but the event was postponed until this month due to the pandemic.

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Attendees at the celebration of Sylvester Hodges’ life at the Mandela Training Center. Photo by Ken Epstein.
Attendees at the celebration of Sylvester Hodges’ life at the Mandela Training Center. Photo by Ken Epstein.

By Ken Epstein

A community celebration was held Saturday, July 8, commemorating the life of former Oakland Board of Education member, civil rights leader, and parent activist Sylvester Hodges.

Many lifelong friends and loved ones came out to join the celebration of his life at the Cypress Mandela Training Center in East Oakland. Hodges, 78, died on May 21, 2020, but the event was postponed until this month due to the pandemic.

Hodges’ son, LaRone Hodges, organized the event.

Alvin Moore Sr., who hosted the celebration, remembered Hodges as a man of courage who was unafraid to stand alone when he was fighting for what he knew was right.

One of Hodges’ lifelong friends, Ashlee Sherman, told stories of their experiences as young athletes at McClymonds High School and how, with encouragement from Hodges, he went on to San Francisco State, earned a bachelor’s degree and later a master’s degree.

Kitty Kelly Epstein, an education leader and community activist, said, “Sylvester did probably what was the most important action ever taken by an elected official in Oakland — he saved the school district from being taken over by the racist, elitist State of California for 15 years,” adding that Oakland was the only school district in the country that was able to halt an attempted state takeover.

Underscoring the strength and clarity of Hodges’ leadership, Epstein said, “People should live their lives like Sylvester did, with the amount of courage and principle that I have not seen often before in my life, and I learned so much from him.”

Despite repeated attempts, the state was never able to seize control of the Oakland Unified School District until Hodges retired from the board.

During those years of African American leadership on the school board, the district made some major changes to benefit Black and Brown students, including ending some of the worst forms of tracking, which prevented them from taking algebra and assigned them perpetually to remedial math classes.

The board also rejected a racist textbook that was pushed on schools by the state, and the first programs were created to bring more Black and Brown teachers into the schools.

At the time, many people did not understand the importance of maintaining local control and had hopes that state intervention would lead to improvements in the district’s financial condition and reduce unresponsive bureaucracy.

When eventually the state did take over, the results turned out to be the opposite of what people had hoped for: continual budget cuts and school closures, lack of transparency, more consultants and highly paid bureaucrats, and unending budget deficits.

Hodges was born on April 30, 1942, in Montrose, Arkansas, moving with his parents, Chester and Maggie Hodges, to Oakland in 1946. He attended Prescott Elementary, Lowell Middle School, and graduated from McClymonds High in 1960. He entered the U.S. Air Force, where he was on the wrestling team. In 1964, he met Lola Ingram, who he married in 1965.

Besides serving on school board for 12 years, Hodges served as chair of the Paul Robeson Centennial Committee, working successfully to rename the school district administration building in Robeson’s memory.

After he retired from the recreation department in San Mateo County, he went to work as an administrator for the Cypress Mandela Training Center, training countless Black and Latino young people to overcome barriers to enter positions in the construction trades.

He also served on the board of the Oakland Emiliano Zapata Street Academy, a school he loved because of its unique approach to young people’s education. He also remained a dedicated supporter of McClymonds High School.

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Activism

Grocery Inflation Causes Food Banks to be the Default for Families in Oakland

Steve Morris, Director of Natural Resources and Environment at GAO, explained that while the pandemic certainly had an effect on food increases, there is not one single factor for a rise in food prices. He said events like the Ukraine-Russian war, the avian influenza epidemic that raised the price of eggs, and climate change are also key factors.

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Photo: iStock image.
Photo: iStock image.

By Magaly Muñoz

During the past three years, the US has seen the largest increase in food prices since the 1980s. In response to this crisis, community food banks have emerged to provide much-needed assistance to families in need.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that national food prices have increased 11% from 2021 to 2022, when the average yearly increase was previously 2%. The San Francisco Bay Area saw a 12% increase from 2021 to 2022.

Steve Morris, Director of Natural Resources and Environment at GAO, explained that while the pandemic certainly had an effect on food increases, there is not one single factor for a rise in food prices. He said events like the Ukraine-Russian war, the avian influenza epidemic that raised the price of eggs, and climate change are also key factors.

While still maintaining that elevated prices will persist for the foreseeable future, Morris anticipates a decrease of 8% in food price increases.

He also stated that while the average person may spend 10% of their income on groceries, a low-income family may spend 30%, making the inflation in food prices that much harsher.

“Higher food prices can put people in a position where they have to make some tough choices between ‘can they go to the grocery store and buy food’ or ‘do they have to spend it on other necessities like home or health care or other things,’” Morris said.

Michael Altfest is the Director of Community Engagement and Marketing for Alameda County (AC) Food Bank, the primary food distributor in the county with over 400 community partners that receive frequent donations.

Altfest shared that from 2019 to 2023, the number of pounds of food distributed to their community partners has doubled. In 2019, the food bank distributed 32.5 million pounds of food, while in 2021 during the height of the pandemic, they distributed 58.1 million pounds. This year they are on pace to distribute almost 60 million pounds of food.

“If we’re on pace this year to provide more than we did in the pandemic, I think that says a lot about what the state of hunger is right now,” Altfest said.

During the height of the pandemic, state and federal government relief programs helped families offset significant expenses like groceries. These programs included the child tax credit increase that put anywhere from $2,000 up to $3,600 back into qualifying families pockets when filing their yearly taxes.

Another program that directly targeted food insecurity, was the increase in funds for SNAP or CalFresh. These government programs provide food-purchasing assistance for low- and no-income people to help them maintain adequate nutrition and health. But earlier this spring, funding was cut from the state program CalFresh and families saw at least a $95 decrease in their assistance.

“Every single person talks about the cost of living in Alameda County, every single person. The cost of rent, the cost of food, those are things that come up every single time without fail,” Altfest shared.

One of AC Food Bank’s community partners is Homies Empowerment, a non-profit in Oakland that was established as a means to support youth and the community through a positive lens.

Selena Duarte, the FREEdom Store Coordinator, said the organization’s initiative to help families with food provision began in May of 2020 when their original store was filled only with books and students told them that while it was nice to have things to read, “they can’t eat books,” showing the team at Homies Empowerment that there were bigger needs in the community that they had to address.

Since then, the organization has expanded its services. They now provide groceries every Tuesday, have established the FREEdom Farm where they grow produce that gets distributed in their make-shift store, offer hot breakfast to 40 students and their families five days a week, and much more.

Duarte said that they serve almost 400 families a week and they are continuing to expand their food services due to the increasing number of people coming to them seeking help to reduce their spending on groceries. She recognized that although people say that the “pandemic is over”, she knows that the stress that families are experiencing is still very real.

“The next phase is really becoming a sustainable community food hub, where literally we can grow, share, cook, and store our food here in the community and for the community,” Duarte said.

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Bay Area

PG&E Increases Rates While Bay Area Households Are Struggling to Stay Afloat

Prior to the pandemic, less than 2% of callers were asking for utility assistance, but in the last year that percentage has grown to 8.2%, according to Eden I&R data. Oakland made up 40% of the calls to 211, with Black and Latino individuals and single parents making up the majority of the callers. Female callers made up over double that of male callers and most ranged from 25 to 64 years old.

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PG&E is increasing utility rates for Californians causing the cost of living to rise as millions of residents struggle to pay their bills. Photo: iStock image.
PG&E is increasing utility rates for Californians causing the cost of living to rise as millions of residents struggle to pay their bills. Photo: iStock image.

By Magaly Muñoz

The cost of living is growing as millions of California customers will soon start to see the effects of PG&E raising their rates after a case ruling that will hike up monthly utility bills and ultimately raise the cost of living for struggling residents.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) agreed in November to a request by the electric company for $13.5 billion for wildfire system enhancement and undergrounding, vegetation management, and capacity upgrades.

Starting Jan. 1, residents will see a nearly $33 increase in their upcoming electric and natural gas bill.

Mark Toney, Executive Director of The Utility Reform Network (TURN), an advocacy group, said that low-income families would be most affected by the change.

“I like to say we want the most green for the least green, and the cost of ‘greening the grid’ should not be cutting off low-income families of color from the grid because the monthly bills are too doggone high,” Toney said.

Toney said he was worried that if the cost of utilities continues to increase, some families would be unable to make their payments and would therefore, lose power.

If families choose cost-saving alternatives like using candles, the potential for a fire rises if families with small children accidentally knock something over and don’t put it out in time. People also rely on medical devices for health-related reasons to be hooked up for long periods of time, which could contribute to high costs in electricity bills.

Some Bay Area residents are already struggling to pay their utility bills.

Longtime Oakland resident, Rev. Dr. Barbara Jim-George has found herself using odd, potentially dangerous, alternatives to using her central heat, such as leaving open a hot oven to warm her living room because her apartment is “like a walk-in freezer.”

The CDC has warned against using this method to heat up your home as it can disperse dangerous pollutants and gasses, like carbon monoxide, and worsen already existing lung diseases.

“I can leave something sitting out on my table at night and it’s just fine as it would be in the refrigerator,” Jim-George said.

She had retired from her job in 2014 and was living on a tight budget for a few years until she found herself back at work in 2018 because her social security checks weren’t enough to pay bills.

As the cold and rainy weeks persist, the reverend anticipates a higher utility bill in the mail soon.

Jim-George shared that she had a cousin who lost their home in the Camp Fire of 2018, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, and blamed PG&E for not learning from these tragedies to do what was best for customers.

“They [PG&E] should have buried lines long ago because we’re eating the cost for [their mistakes]. I think it’s negligent on their side to not have had the foresight to understand the issues beforehand,” Jim-George said.

While the reverend is one of many who will have to resort to budgets and taking on second jobs in order to keep up with high housing bills, organizations across the area have seen a large intake of housing and emergency needs for decades, increasing with the effects of the pandemic in the last four years.

The need for utility assistance has grown exponentially, with four times the amount of calls coming in about families who have been without energy or are months behind in bills and are at risk of losing power in their homes.

“Housing [and related needs] remains our top concern for callers calling 211,” Allison DeJung said.

DeJung is the Executive Director of Eden I&R, which operates the calls and messages from 211 Bay Area- a multilingual 24/7 information hotline that connects callers with resources in Alameda County.

She said that in the last fiscal year, her team received over 69,000 calls and they made about 113,000 referrals to programs and organizations in the county for issues related to housing, utilities, food assistance and more.

Prior to the pandemic, less than 2% of callers were asking for utility assistance, but in the last year that percentage has grown to 8.2%, according to Eden I&R data. Oakland made up 40% of the calls to 211, with Black and Latino individuals and single parents making up the majority of the callers. Female callers made up over double that of male callers and most ranged from 25 to 64 years old.

DeJung said most callers looking for help paying their utility services were connected to Spectrum Community Services.

Spectrum is a nonprofit organization that has financially assisted low-income families and individuals through utility, water, and food aid since 1971.

Last year they received nearly 10,000 applications for their Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which helps households pay overdue energy bills. The organization was only able to help 5,000 of those applicants.

Black households, similar to data from Eden I&R, were the majority of applicants for utility assistance at Spectrum, along with the majority of assistance coming from Oakland residents.

Lara Calvert, Executive Director of Spectrum Community Services, said the lack of funding is the primary reason they have to turn away applicants.

Assistance can be granted once every 12 months, with a cap of $3000 in overdue bills. Calvert said the large cap is what also contributes to helping less people every year because if multiple people apply for large quantities of assistance, funding runs out quicker.

Spectrum prioritizes households that have people who are over 60, anybody who’s disabled in the home, people who have children five years or younger, as well as people with a higher overall energy burden for their home.

A high energy burden is when a family’s energy or utility bills take up the majority of a household’s monthly income, making it difficult to maintain a sustainable quality of life.

Calvert shared that although the beginning of the pandemic brought more attention to the organization, 2023 was the largest year for residents asking for assistance from the program and it doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down soon.

“We are anticipating continuing to have a large number of people seeking assistance this year that will far outstrip our amount of money that we have to give out,” Calvert said.

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Activism

Oakland Post: Week of July 10 – 16, 2024

The printed Weekly Edition of the Oakland Post: Week of July 10 – 16, 2024

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