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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.

Activism

Young Adults Speak Out at Climate Adaptation Seminar

The Alliance of Regional Collaboratives for Climate Adaptation (ARCCA), is conducting a series of seminars entitled “Building an Inclusive and Equitable Adaptation Movement.”  Their recent seminar, held on July 20, focused on the youth and how they could be more recognized and  represented in the climate adaptation space.

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From top left: Tianna Shaw-Wakeman, Skyler Kriese, Moiz Mir, Catherine Foster (Photo by Godfrey Lee)

The Alliance of Regional Collaboratives for Climate Adaptation (ARCCA), is conducting a series of seminars entitled “Building an Inclusive and Equitable Adaptation Movement.”  Their recent seminar, held on July 20, focused on the youth and how they could be more recognized and  represented in the climate adaptation space.
ARCCA is a coalition of the Local Government Commission and represents leading collaborative networks from across California that strive to build regional resilience to climate impacts.  ARCCA members work to enhance public health, protect natural systems, build economies, and create resilient, livable communities throughout California. 

ARCCA members effectively bolster their individual and collective efforts by sharing best practices and resources, identifying strategies to overcome key barriers and challenges, and conducting joint campaigns and projects.

ARCCA believes that the youth have been under-represented in the climate initiative. “It has become more apparent over the years that the youth, with their activism and experience, can have a pivotal role to play in our adaption to climate change. It is the goal of ARRCA, in their work in climate change, to expand the youth’s participation in their projects and actively include them in our leadership phases and decision-making processes,” said Catherine Foster, the moderator of the seminar, and ARCCA’s Climate & Energy Project manager, LGC.

Three college graduates who were involved in the environmental movement on their campuses spoke during the seminar.

Tianna Shaw-Wakeman holds a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and a Master’s degree in Social Entrepreneurship from the University of Southern California, and graduated as the first Black Valedictorian for the Class of 2021. She served and led many of the prominent campus environmental activism groups. “We all work with people who are different places, so recognize the gaps in your knowledge, and also what the other person does and does not know,” Wakeman said.

Skyler Kriese graduated from Santa Clara University in 2020 with a B.S. in Environmental Studies. She is a 2020-2021 CivicSpark AmeriCorps Fellow supporting Butte County Department of Development Services on three grant-funded, long-range planning projects. Following her service year, she will continue her studies at the University of Michigan, pursuing an M.S. in Environmental Justice and Environmental Policy and Planning.

Kriese says that local governments need to identify environment justice communities and address environmental justice in their general plans. This is important so that processes and policies can begin to work and ultimately create healthier communities. 

Moiz Mir was the president of the Environmental Student Organization at California State University Sacramento from 2017–2019. As an intern at the Sacramento Mayor’s Office, he organized youth summits to include students’ voices in the Mayors’ Commission on Climate Change and served on the commission’s Community Health, Resiliency and Equity Technical Advisory Committees. 

Mir advocates building toward inclusivity, to reach out to a more diverse people in the work toward climate adaptation. 

For more information on ARCCA and their upcoming seminars, go to https://arccacalifornia.org/embedding-equity-in-adaptation/ 

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Free School Meals for All Here to Stay in California

With 1 in every 6 children facing hunger in the U.S., California is the first state to promise that every public school student — all 6 million of them – will get free school meals.

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Nancy Skinner

With 1 in every 6 children facing hunger in the U.S., California is the first state to promise that every public school student — all 6 million of them – will get free school meals.

The universal school meals program, which will launch in the 2022-2023 school year, is part of the landmark state budget agreement reached between Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature last month. Days later, Maine became the second state to commit to offering a universal school meals program with the signing of its budget.

The program ensures that all students will be offered breakfast and lunch at their school, which state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, said is “essential to learning.” Skinner has led the effort to establish a universal school meal program.

“We know that many California children are food insecure, and if you’re hungry you cannot learn well,” Skinner said. “The whole point of school is learning, and everything we can do to create an environment that allows children to thrive and learn is what we need to do.”

Skinner introduced a bill in March that would have established a universal school meal program. After the program garnered bipartisan support and the California Department of Finance forecast unexpectedly large projected revenues, lawmakers opted to include it in the state budget rather than as a separate bill.

The final agreement between Newsom and the Legislature calls for $650 million through the Proposition 98 fund each year to reimburse school districts starting in 2022, as well as $54 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year to supplement state meal reimbursements. Proposition 98 is the formula that determines what portion of the general fund goes to community colleges and K-12 schools.

The state program is set to begin in the 2022-23 school year because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has already committed to paying for school meals for all students through the 2021-22 school year.

The USDA has reimbursed districts for providing free meals to all students since the start of the pandemic. Before the pandemic, districts were only reimbursed for feeding students who were enrolled in the National School Lunch Program. Advocates said being able to feed students without having to check whether they qualified for free lunches allowed districts to serve more families at a time when many faced hunger and hardship.

Waiving the eligibility requirements allowed the Oakland Unified School District, for example, to distribute as many as 18,000 grab-and-go meals a day during the pandemic, said spokesman John Sasaki.

“That just goes to show the need that was there,” Sasaki said.

Previously, as part of the National School Lunch Program application process, families had to disclose their household income, how many people lived in the household, their children’s immigration status or if their children were homeless or runaways. Some families feared giving out that information, and students may have felt embarrassed to receive a free meal while others paid for it.

Schools in New York City began serving free meals to all students in 2017 after finding that some students would rather go hungry than admit they didn’t have enough money to pay for lunch. The decision followed a national outcry over “lunch shaming” — publicly shaming students for unpaid school meal bills, or even school staff throwing away their lunches rather than allowing them to eat.

Advocates believed that though 3.9 million students – 63% of California’s student body — participated in the program, the need was actually much higher.

“It’s such good news that everybody gets food with no strings attached, but to be able to do it in a way that nobody is called out is the best thing about this,” Sasaki said. “We want to make sure kids are never given a hard time for being who they are or being in the situation they are in.”

Districts will still be asking families to fill out household income eligibility forms, however. That’s because the number of families in the district that make so little that they qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program remains a key factor in the state’s Local Control Funding Formula. The formula gives additional state funds to districts based on the number of low-income students, English learners, foster children and homeless youth they serve.

Tony Wold, the West Contra Costa Unified associate superintendent of business services, said the district was concerned that fewer families would fill out the household income eligibility forms because they didn’t have to in order to receive free meals. That could have potentially led to a reduction in supplemental funds for the cash-strapped district. To help solve the problem, the district had outreach workers call families directly, explaining why it was important for families to submit the information.

The outreach workers’ “big lift” resulted in more families filling out the forms than the previous year, Wold said, which kept the district’s unduplicated pupils percentage constant. That statistic measures the share of a district’s students who are low-income, homeless, foster youth or English learners — all of which drive the Local Control Funding Formula.

Outreach workers at Oakland Unified emphasize to families who are skeptical about the forms that they determine how much money goes to the classroom, Sasaki said.

California School Boards Association spokesman Troy Flint said the organization anticipates it will be harder for districts to collect income eligibility forms with the new universal meals program. The association hopes the state will provide some support to schools’ “diligent and creative efforts” to collect the forms, though the group isn’t calling for any specific change.

“This administration has prioritized steering additional money toward high-need students, particularly into concentration grants, so there’s reason to believe they might be willing to work toward a modification here,” Flint said.

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State Employees, Health Care Workers Required To Be Vaccinated Or Tested Regularly For COVID-19

State officials announced July 26 that health care workers and state employees will now be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or get tested regularly if they cannot verify their vaccination status.

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Cars line up to receive a Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at the drive-through vaccination site at Six Flags Hurricane Harbor (Waterworld) in Concord on March 31, 2021. The vaccine is available to everyone 12 years or older. Photo by Ray Saint Germain/Bay City News.

State officials announced July 26 that health care workers and state employees will now be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or get tested regularly if they cannot verify their vaccination status.

The requirement, which officials underscored is not a pure vaccination mandate, will take effect August 2 for state employees and August 9 for a broad range of health care settings and facilities, including outpatient and long-term care facilities.
Those who choose to remain unvaccinated or cannot verify their vaccination status will be encouraged to wear a medical-grade face covering and required to test negative for the virus twice a week if they work in a hospital, or once a week if they work in an outpatient care facility like a dentist’s office.
“Too many people have chosen to live with this virus,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said during a briefing in Oakland to announce the new requirements. “We’re at a point in this pandemic where individuals’ choice not to get vaccinated is now impacting the rest of us in a profound and devastating and deadly way.”
The new requirements are part of the state’s push to get more and more people vaccinated as a wave of new cases, spurred by the ultra-contagious delta variant and cases among unvaccinated people, threatens to halt the state’s progress in mitigating the virus’ spread.
The vast majority of the state’s current cases, hospitalizations and deaths are also among unvaccinated residents, with the number of new cases per day per 100,000 residents around 14 for unvaccinated residents and just two per 100,000 for fully vaccinated people.
The delta variant also accounts for roughly 80% of the current cases that have been analyzed across the state, according to data from the California Health and Human Services Agency.
The California Medical Association endorsed the requirements for health care workers shortly after Newsom’s announcement.
“We’ve come too far to ease up now in our fight against COVID-19,” CMA President Dr. Peter Bretan Jr. Said in a statement. “It makes sense for the health care community to lead the way in requiring vaccines for our employees. We will continue to do all we can to help convince all Californians that vaccines are safe, effective and critical as we come together to bring this pandemic to an end.”
While state and local officials have shied away from outright mandating vaccinations, cracks in that wall have begun to show even as more than 70% of eligible state residents have gotten vaccinated.
Last week, health officials in San Francisco, Contra Costa and Santa Cara counties urged employers of all sizes to consider mandating that their employees get vaccinated, both to protect their co-workers as well as their customers.
On July 26,  the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to require that its health care workers get vaccinated in the coming weeks, lest they face penalties like increased testing and potential removal.
University of California, San Francisco, Department of Medicine chair Dr. Bob Wachter noted in a Twitter post that the country appears at a tipping point for vaccination requirements.
“As each organization and industry finds the courage to mandate or strongly incentivize vaccination, it makes it that much easier for the next one to do so,” Wachter said. “Until the pressure is on leaders who have not done it.”
Newsom and California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly noted that first-dose vaccinations increased 16% last week over the previous week, but argued that that pace must be maintained to keep the virus at bay.
Public health officials have also cautioned that while current data has found that fully vaccinated people are well protected against serious illness and death if they contract the delta variant, a future variant may find it much easier to circumvent the available vaccines.
“The fewer people that are vaccinated, the more likely we could have more variants like this delta variant,” State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Oakland, said at the July 26 briefing. “Right now we’re seeing that it is not very harmful to a vaccinated person, but how do we know what the next variant is going to be like?”
In recent weeks, Newsom has hinted at the relationship between online misinformation and the remaining vaccination holdouts, but offered his strongest rebuke Monday, equating not getting vaccinated to drunken driving.
“You’re putting other peoples’, innocent peoples’ lives at risk, you’re putting businesses at risk, you’re putting at risk the ability to educate our kids by getting them back in person full-time,” he said, adding that public officials need to be clearer about the societal costs of the pandemic continuing to flourish among the unvaccinated.
State officials said they expect health care settings to be fully in compliance with the new requirements by August 23, giving unvaccinated employees time to get fully vaccinated with either the one- or two-dose vaccine regimen.
Newsom, when asked whether the state will issue additional mask and vaccination mandates, said he hopes the private sector will take those steps before the virus forces the state’s hand.
Even so, the governor reiterated his frequent argument that such mandates will likely be unnecessary – as long as those who are eligible get vaccinated.

“We can extinguish this disease,” Newsom said. “You won’t be asking about mask mandates, that’s the wrong question. The question is, why haven’t we followed the science and why aren’t we finishing the job?”

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