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It Takes a Community: Oakland Group Puts People First in Domestic Violence Fight

Located in Oakland, the Family Violence Law Center (FVLC) served 2,673 survivors and provided legal support to 1,186 survivors across Alameda County during its last fiscal year, July 2019-June 2020.

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Female activist with a hand print on her mouth, demonstrating violence on women./ iStock

Firmly believing that those closest to the problem are also closest to the solution, Carolyn Russell, executive director of A Safe Place homeless shelter in Oakland, says she was guided to an idea that she is confident will contribute to addressing domestic violence in her city: a community-led coalition.

Inspired by faith-based leaders, community members, business owners, violence survivors and, significantly third- and fourth- generation Oaklanders, Russell set out to re-establish the charge of a subgroup within the Oakland Violence Prevention Coalition.

“All of the statistics – the calls we get on our hotline, the number of requests for restraining orders – are proof beyond measure that the City of Oakland should be creating a coalition,” Russell said.

Domestic violence statistics in Oakland are startling and alarming, she says.

Located in Oakland, the Family Violence Law Center (FVLC) served 2,673 survivors and provided legal support to 1,186 survivors across Alameda County during its last fiscal year, July 2019-June 2020. This year has shown further increases in incidents as well as a significant upswing in the severity of violence reported by survivors.

“During the month of June alone, we received 76 new requests for emergency civil legal assistance from survivors and in all of May, we received only 35 new requests. So, we are definitely seeing a surge in level of need as things reopen,” said Marissa Seko, an intervention unit manager for FVLC.

At the behest of the community, the City of Oakland formed a Department of Violence Prevention (DVP) in 2017.

While are a number of non-profit advocates and organizations that address domestic violence, Russell felt a particular voice was missing – those who are directly impacted by the violence.

She was inspired by other Bay Area cities like San Francisco and Berkeley where community coalitions are working to address domestic violence.

So, she is utilizing her resources to start the new Domestic Violence Coalition for Oakland (DVCO) dedicated to serving as an advocacy group.  Their work is centered on the voices of members of the community.

They are meeting monthly via Zoom since early 2021, discussing the intersection of gun violence, community violence and domestic violence.

“We talk about it all, because as one member said, ‘pain is pain,’” Russell said.

When she first started working at A Safe Place as director in the 1970s, Russell observed that what could be characterized as the ‘sledgehammer’ approach wasn’t working for Black people.  She was referring to the custom of criminalizing perpetrators and primarily relying on law enforcement, the criminal justice system and social service agencies to resolve domestic violence and disputes.

Shel was surprised to learn that most of the victims she encountered did not want to press criminal charges against their abusers and certainly didn’t want them incarcerated.

And, critically, the women didn’t want to leave their children behind.

As she made her journey from director to executive director of A Safe Place, Russell began to incorporate the desires of the survivors into the culture of the shelter. (At that time, boys over 12 years old weren’t allowed to stay at the shelter, a policy she eventually reversed.)

The coalition is also different from other organizations serving survivors it has no obligations to a funder, which means they can do whatever they want.

“No one is telling us what our goals and objectives should be,” Russell said.

Antoine Towers, who co-chairs the coalition with Russell, is a veteran of this community approach.  The two of them were part of the advocacy that led to the City of Oakland creating and funding DVP.

Raised by women who were abused by men, as a teenager Towers assaulted one of those abusers. But he found that satisfaction was fleeting.

Once he was an adult himself and had experienced his own problems in relationships, Towers explained, he gained insight into some of the contributing factors to intimate violence in families and how the harm ripples out into the community and is passed from generation to generation.

“There are so many components that lead to abuse in all aspects,” he said. There is a tendency, he says, to look at harm narrowly, but “All triggers are important.”

Towers, who is a barber, coaxes customers and bystanders into conversations that help them illuminate their own circumstances and experiences with domestic violence. One theme he noticed was how misunderstanding escalates to disagreement and sometimes to what he calls “the point of no return,” referring to domestic violence.

Intimate one-on-one conversations like the ones Towers has with his clients is an approach the coalition also uses.

“We need to learn proper ways of hearing each other,” Towers said, observing that the Black community has “a bunch of people who lost a lot of people over the years.”

“How do we get ourselves heard? How do we learn what we really want and then get the resources to support it?” He asked.

DVCO is deliberately widening its focus to include men and boys. Historically, domestic violence service providers like A Safe Place have focused on intimate partner abuse mainly involving women. DVCO recognizes that there are all kinds of family violence that don’t get voiced.

“My issue with my (service provider) partners is that they only serve women and girls,” Russell said. “They don’t focus on men.”

The prospect of bringing men and boys to the center of the conversation is one of the things that DVCO member Rev. Harold Mayberry finds exciting.

Now presiding elder of the Oakland/San Joaquin region of the African Methodist Episcopal Church Fifth District, Mayberry spent 48 years as pastor of First A.M.E Church in Oakland where, from the pulpit, he encouraged people who had survived abuse to seek help. He also counseled them in private.

Although he knew some who had suffered domestic violence, no men ever came forward, he said. He wants the new coalition to change that.

“We’ve got to reach people who would not normally come forward,” Mayberry said. “Carolyn wants to include men who are the concealed victims of domestic violence because we are taught to be macho and not show pain.”

DVCO member Patanisha Ali heard a lot of painful accounts when she was helping to document the impact of violence on Oakland citizens in the prelude to the formation of Oakland’s DVP. That experience taught her that people in the community are often unaware of  civic and non-profit organizations that are supposed to provide relief – and how their voices may influence policy.

“What is missing is an authentic relationship with the people impacted,” she said. “Those impacted don’t get involved in politics, but they need to. How do we make that happen?”

While several organizations – including A Safe Place – hold workshops for young people on preventing domestic violence, DVCO intends to get more young people involved.

To that end, and at this point in its development, DVCO will use social media as a primary tool to educate the community.

But DVCO members will not be the only ones providing that education. There is wisdom in the experience of the community that is essential and useful. “We know there are people who were assaulted when they were children,” Russell said. “In their survival, they learned valuable lessons to heal themselves that can be shared.”

Ali observes that although there is a lot of current brokenness and historic pain in the Black community, there is still hope.  “Another aspect is that people coming to (DVCO’s) table are healers and creatives and survivors,” she said.

Towers is looking forward to creating spaces to document the wisdom in community dialogue. He recounts getting his neighbor to a place of liberation from the cycle of misunderstanding and a sense of woundedness he felt when interacting with his spouse.

“It’s not wrong what she said,” Towers advised the man. “You are not hearing what she needs you to understand.”

With mediation, he said, we may begin to respect each other more. “I think moments like that are needed in our community,” Towers said. “We all grow up in it, but we don’t want to keep those same outcomes.”

“We don’t want to do the ‘same ol’ same ol,’” Russell said.

“We are excited to bring the voices of the ‘hood to the table,” said Ali, who is hoping that with those voices the community can experience a shift.

“Peace can happen here,” she added.

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Activism

Sheriff’s Deputies Skate with Marin City Youth

Sgt. Scotto and Deputy Gasparini, two officers from the Marin County Probation Department, came to interact with the youths and help them learn to skate and play basketball. Sharika Gregory, who hosted the event, really appreciates how Scotto and Gasparini interacted with the kids and said that it made a great difference.

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Top: Scotto lifting Aria, 7, so she can make her basketball shot. Middle: Sgt. Scotto and Dep. Gasparini of the Marin County Probation Department. Bottom: Scotto playing limbo. (Photos by Godfrey Lee)
Top: Scotto lifting Aria, 7, so she can make her basketball shot. Middle: Sgt. Scotto and Dep. Gasparini of the Marin County Probation Department. Bottom: Scotto playing limbo. (Photos by Godfrey Lee)

By Godfrey Lee

The Father’s Day Skating event on Sunday, June 12, at the Golden Gate Village’s Basketball Court in Marin City was a successful event that contributed positively to the relationship between the Marin County Sheriff’s Department and the Marin City community and helped some of the children get to know the officers.

Sgt. Scotto and Deputy Gasparini, two officers from the Marin County Probation Department, came to interact with the youths and help them learn to skate and play basketball. Sharika Gregory, who hosted the event, really appreciates how Scotto and Gasparini interacted with the kids and said that it made a great difference.

During the event, Scotto helped lift Aria, a 7-year-old girl, so she could make a basketball shot into the basket. Later Scotto played limbo with the children and tried his best to go under the rope.

The community generously contributed to the skating event. The Corte Madera Safeway and Costco donated the food. The Costco in Novato gave the skates. The Target in Marin City and the Marin County Probation Department also gave skates and gift cards.

Rev. Stephanie Ryder and the Redwood Presbyterian Church in Larkspur, also donated money to help to buy more skates for the events.

Gregory said that this was a very wholesome event for the community and will continue to host similar events in the future.

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Activism

Advocates Pressure Gov. Newsom to Fund Health Equity, Racial Justice in Final Budget

“Our state boasts a staggering $97 billion budget surplus,” said Ron Coleman, managing director of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network. “If not now, when? Given the devastating impact of racism on the health and well-being of Californians of color it’s a travesty of the highest order that racial justice isn’t even mentioned in the Governor’s budget proposal,”

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Attendees were encouraged to contact the governor’s office and the Legislature to keep the pressure on them to include the fund.
Attendees were encouraged to contact the governor’s office and the Legislature to keep the pressure on them to include the fund.

By Edward Henderson, California Black Media

On June 8, community leaders, public health advocates and racial justice groups convened for a virtual press event to urge Gov. Gavin Newsom to support the Health Equity and Racial Justice Fund (HERJ Fund).

The initiative supports community-based organizations addressing the underlying social, environmental and economic factors that limit people’s opportunities to be healthy — such as poverty, violence and trauma, environmental hazards, and access to affordable housing and healthy food. Health advocates would also address longstanding California problems related to health equity and racial justice problems.

The fund cleared a significant hurdle last week when the state Legislature included $75 million in their joint budget proposal. This means both the Assembly and Senate support the HERJ Fund and they will go into negotiations with the governor to seek his support to approve it.

“Our state boasts a staggering $97 billion budget surplus,” said Ron Coleman, managing director of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network. “If not now, when? Given the devastating impact of racism on the health and well-being of Californians of color it’s a travesty of the highest order that racial justice isn’t even mentioned in the Governor’s budget proposal,”

Last Wednesday’s virtual community meeting and press event capped off a series of rallies held by supporters in cities across the state calling on Newsom to make room in his budget for the HERJ Fund.

Coleman facilitated the online event featuring representatives from service organizations speaking about their support for the fund and presenting plans for how the money would be used to support their shared mission of providing services to minority and underserved communities in California.

Jenedra Sykes, a partner at Arboreta Group, spoke about inequalities that exist in funding for smaller grassroots nonprofits and how traditionally larger, white-led nonprofits use state funds to subcontract with grassroots nonprofits to provide services to communities of color at lower costs.

“The faith-based non-profits on the ground have the relationships, the access to those who are most vulnerable and marginalized among us who disproportionately have poorer health outcomes,” said Sykes. “This bill also evens the playing field a bit. Instead of going through the middleman of the established larger non-profits, funding will go directly to the people who are doing the work. The passion, the heart, the skills, the talents are there. It’s about the resources to fund these talents”

Coleman gave attendees an update on the status of the HERJ Fund’s path to inclusion in the state budget.

Now that the state Legislature has included the fund in their spending proposal for Fiscal Year 2022-23 (it was not included in Newsom’s “May Revise”), it must survive negotiations with the governor’s office before the June 15 deadline to finalize the budget.

A final budget needs to be in place by June 30, the last day for the governor to approve.

HERJ Fund supporters remain hopeful that funding for their program will be included in the final budget.

Updated mechanisms about the budget were added to the HERJ Fund’s proposal to alleviate those concerns and supporters of the fund believe that Newsom is out of excuses.

“Our best shot at getting the HERJ Fund in the budget is now. We are hoping that all of you will keep the pressure on the governor to ensure that this becomes a reality,” Coleman said. “If he does care about the intersections of health equity and racial justice then we will see funding.”

Attendees were encouraged to contact the governor’s office and the Legislature to keep the pressure on them to include the fund. You can visit herjfund.org to learn more about the proposal and the effort to include it in the state budget.

Nadia Kean-Ayub, executive director of Rainbow Spaces, shared details about the valuable events and services community-based non-profits provide. She said there is no shortage of families in need who want to participate in their organizations’ programs but, due to limited funding for transportation, many people never access services meant to help them.

“This tells me that when things are created in our communities, they are not making the impact we need in our Black, Brown and API communities,” Kean-Ayub said. “I will continue to fight. To really make this grow, we need the state to understand that the true impact comes from the community and the people who are living these issues and who know how to help them.”

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‘Birding While Black’ Incident in N.Y.’s Central Park Brings Black Bird Wildlife Enthusiasts Out of Shadows

“For far too long, Black people in the United States have been shown that outdoor exploration activities are not for us,” Corina Newsome, who studies Seaside Sparrows, said in a video posted on Twitter. “Whether it be the way the media chooses to present who is the ‘outdoorsy’ type, or the racism Black people experience when we do explore the outdoors, as we saw recently in Central Park. Well, we’ve decided to change that narrative.”

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The organizers of Black Birders Week 2021. Photos from top, column 1: Georgia Silvera Seamans; Kellie Quiñones; Chris Cooper. 2: Ronnie Almonte; Deja Perkins; Ela-Sita Carpenter; Chelsea Connor. 3: Danielle Belleny; Tyler Jones; Yesenia Arroyo. 4: Earyn McGee; Akilah Lewis; Dara Wilson; Brianna Amingwa. 5: Sheridan Alford; Joseph Saunders. 6: Ayanna Browne; Rhamier Shaka Balagoon; Nicole Jackson
The organizers of Black Birders Week 2021. Photos from top, column 1: Georgia Silvera Seamans; Kellie Quiñones; Chris Cooper. 2: Ronnie Almonte; Deja Perkins; Ela-Sita Carpenter; Chelsea Connor. 3: Danielle Belleny; Tyler Jones; Yesenia Arroyo. 4: Earyn McGee; Akilah Lewis; Dara Wilson; Brianna Amingwa. 5: Sheridan Alford; Joseph Saunders. 6: Ayanna Browne; Rhamier Shaka Balagoon; Nicole Jackson

By Tamara Shiloh

Birdwatching is the observation of live birds in their natural habitat.

It’s a popular pastime and scientific sport developed almost entirely in the 20th century and made possible largely by the development of optical aids, particularly binoculars, which enabled people to see and study wild birds, without harming them, according to Britannica.

Many typically think of birding as a homogenous hobby, thus hearing the word “birdwatcher” rarely evokes images of Blacks enjoying the outdoors.

“For far too long, Black people in the United States have been shown that outdoor exploration activities are not for us,” Corina Newsome, who studies Seaside Sparrows, said in a video posted on Twitter. “Whether it be the way the media chooses to present who is the ‘outdoorsy’ type, or the racism Black people experience when we do explore the outdoors, as we saw recently in Central Park. Well, we’ve decided to change that narrative.”

In 2020, Newsome, along with a group of Black birders comprised of scientists, nature lovers, and friends came together to organize the first annual Black Birders Week, a social media celebration hosted by the Black AF In STEM Collective.

The birders group served as a springboard to shape a more diverse future for birding, conservation, and the natural sciences.

The third annual Black Birders Week ran from May 29-June 4 this year, according to https://www.blackafinstem.com, with the theme ‘Soaring to Greater Heights.”

Goals set for the Black Birders Week and the Twitter group are to:

  • Counter the narrative that outdoors is not the place for Black people;
  • Educate the birding and broader outdoor-loving community about the challenges Black birders specifically face; and
  • Encourage increased diversity in birding and conservation.

According to Newsome, Black birders encounter “overt hatred and racism in the field and are too often the only Black person, or person of color, in a group of bird or nature enthusiasts.”

Its formation came on the heels of the May 25, 2020, incident in New York City’s Central Park when Amy Cooper, later dubbed “Central Park Karen,” claimed she exhausted “all options” before she called 911 on Christian Cooper (no relation), a Black birdwatcher.

Christian Cooper has been an avid birdwatcher since age 10 and will soon host his own show, “Extraordinary Birder,” on National Geographic, according to NPR. He will take viewers into the “wild, wonderful and unpredictable world of birds.”

Cooper told the New York Times that he loves “spreading the gospel of birding. [I’m looking forward to encouraging people] to stop and watch and listen and really start appreciating the absolutely spectacular creatures that we have among us.”

Black Birders Week co-organizer Earyn McGee conducts research near the US-Mexico border. Her concern is encountering U.S. Border Patrol officers while searching for lizards.

“We all have this shared experience where we have to worry about going into the field,” McGee said. “Prejudice might drive police or private property owners to be suspicious of or antagonistic toward Black scientists doing field work in normal clothes, putting them in danger.”

To learn more about the study of birding, read John C. Robinson’s “Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers.”

Image: https://www.birds.cornell.edu/landtrust/black-birders-week/

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