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State’s Top Educator to Families: “Translate Fear into Action” as Schools Reopen

Millions of students are returning to in-person classes at California’s public schools, amid parents and teachers’ fears about the inability to vaccinate children under 12 and the spread of the COVID Delta variant.



Back to School/Shutterstock

Millions of students are returning to in-person classes at California’s public schools, amid parents and teachers’ fears about the inability to vaccinate children under 12 and the spread of the COVID Delta variant.

During a briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services and California Black Media, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond asserted that the districts have implemented all “safety and COVID mitigation measures” to resume in-person instruction.

“The state allows independent study for those who have a medical need or need an alternative to in-person instruction. But we have learned that our students have suffered from a lack of educators and peers, while mental health needs have increased and our learning gaps have been exacerbated,” said Thurmond, speaking from the campus of the Girls’ Academic Leadership Academy (GALA).

Students of color and low-income students have been the most affected by the pandemic, not only in terms of loss of human life within their families and the trauma that this entails, but also because of their difficulties in accessing online education. 

One million students statewide still lack access to high-speed internet. Thurmond said California is creating “infrastructure for more broadband” in rural and border communities.

“We recognize that many students have experienced the trauma of the pandemic,” Thurmond said. “There is more than $4 billion available for mental health services for youth up to age 25, more than $3 billion for community schools to have comprehensive mental health support, and support for families with universal meals.”

Other initiatives include hiring more staff to work with students in literacy programs, one-on-one tutoring, professional development, special education, and multilingual learning.

The superintendent acknowledged that “our families are skeptical and scared,” but he invited them to “translate that fear into action” by vaccinating their children and relatives older than 12. 

He said that last week the district contacted 500,000 California households to spread a message in several languages: vaccines are available and free for everyone regardless of immigration status or health insurance. They have even awarded $100 gift cards to some of those vaccinated.

 “While (vaccines) are new to most of us, they are not new to scientists,” Thurmond reiterated.

Messengers such as California General Surgeon and pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris, labor rights leader Dolores Huerta, activist Karen Korematsu, daughter of Fred T. Korematsu, who was detained at a Japanese internment camp, and former professional basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, have been talking about the importance of people across all racial groups and backgrounds getting vaccinated. 

“We’ve given money to our schools to support outdoor classrooms, air purification and air filtration systems, improving ventilation, and access to PPE (personal protective equipment), ” Thurmond said. His office is also providing support to families with students in schools affected by fires and natural disasters.

Due to fears that some students and parents have of going back to school because of the hate crimes that have occurred since the beginning of the pandemic, especially in the Asian American community, Thurmond launched an initiative called “education to end hate” that provides implicit bias training to educators.

Thurmond acknowledged that the system hasn’t done enough for all students. 

This is our moment to build it better, to ensure equity at the center… We have the way to begin the work that we need to close those learning gaps that we were dealing with historically, and the ones that have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” he said.


Poet James Cagney on Closure, Reckoning’s Limits, and What’s Next

Oakland poet James Cagney was 19 when he asked his mother “Are you really my mother?” Her answer changed his life forever. He learned he was adopted, that his birth parents, who already had seven children, couldn’t afford to raise him. 



James Cagney/Photo Courtesy of Zack Haber

Oakland poet James Cagney was 19 when he asked his mother “Are you really my mother?” Her answer changed his life forever. He learned he was adopted, that his birth parents, who already had seven children, couldn’t afford to raise him. 

As a baby, Cagney had been given to an older couple who raised him. His adoptive mother had been his birth mother’s teacher in cosmetology school. The women knew each other well, but Cagney never knew his birth family as a child.

Cagney grew up as an only child in North Oakland and forged a close, loving relationship with his mother. But things were different with the man who raised him. While Cagney has emphasized that his father wasn’t abusive, his parenting was passive and detached. In his poem “Someone Else’s Child,” Cagney asks “Did you ever hold me as a baby?” to which his father answers “Naw. ‘fraid I’d drop you. ‘sides. You were someone/else’s child.”

After learning about his adoption, Cagney’s life would become even more turbulent in about the next dozen years. During that time, the parents who raised him died. Then there was the literal earth shaking, the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, contributed to him losing the home he grew up in, and he became homeless.

He bounced around as a guest in friend’s homes, lived in an SRO, and most notably, lived with his birth mother in Sacramento for about two years. He forged complex, difficult, but ultimately rewarding and loving relationships with much of his birth family, but he never got to meet his birth father, who died before Cagney even knew he existed.

He began penning deeply autobiographical poetry about his familial experiences. It would take him about 20 years to write and collect this poetry into his first book, “Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory.” He was 50 when the Oakland-based Nomadic Press published it in 2018.

Since then, he’s become a celebrated and widely read poet. “Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory” sold out of its first print run and Nomadic Press just reissued it in a second printing with a new foreward and introduction. His next book, “Martian: The Saint of Loneliness,” just won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. Nomadic Press will publish it fall of 2022.

I talked with Cagney, now 53 and living in East Oakland, about his experience writing and publishing “Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory.” We also talked a little bit about “Martian: The Saint of Loneliness,” which, in taking a turn away from autobiography, expands his poetics. I edited our conversation for readability and brevity.

Zack: It’s been over three years since “Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory” was published. How has the book’s publication and its reception affected your process of dealing with the difficult experiences the book addresses?

Cagney: More than anything it allowed me closure. Up until the time I decided to publish all that material, I was feeling that my story was so personal it didn’t feel like it was necessary or a goal to share it. I didn’t think a lot of other people would have empathy for my sort of weird, broken family thing. I didn’t feel like my story had enough drama to attract a lot of attention. My family was not nasty. I mention alcoholism in the book but it’s not like my father was a maniac. I was very fortunate and blessed. So, the book was mostly just me trying to sort out my own identity in the wake of all that confusing craziness.

I decided to publish the book just to provide what I would have liked to have seen in the world when I was younger. I wanted to communicate to people who have had similar weird family experiences. I also wanted to acknowledge the love and respect a lot of people in the poetry community have paid me over the years. Many people have been very respectful and responsive to the poems that I’ve done. And especially with the proximity and the newness of Nomadic Press, I decided to go forward, publish all that stuff, and just get it out of my head.

The most important part was claiming space for myself in poetry by validating my own life through these pieces that represented who I was and where I came from. I gambled on the love other people had shared with me by sending it out into the world to see what would happen.

But to be honest, Zack, nothing has shifted (laughter) because especially with the pandemic and being under house arrest for a year, the alienation has never gone away. When I think of the disconnection that made the poems exist, I guess I could confess to you that feeling persists. I’ve just gotten used to the weight and tension of it. It’s sort of like walking a dog that wants to pull you as opposed to walk with you is what my issues feel like sometimes. I still feel like I’m wrestling and settling with that.

I wish I could tell you something has changed, or a new sun has risen over a different land. But the way I felt writing those poems, I unfortunately still feel that way. I just feel a little bit better about it. I feel I’ve matured with it. I feel I’ve accepted more of it instead of fighting and whining against the way things just happen to be. I also feel really grateful for the response the book has gotten. I feel good closing a particular chapter of my life. I guess that book represents the first third of my life: my childhood and early adulthood. What that book does is validate I was here, and I survived. And maybe that’s enough.

Zack: To me, Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory reads like poetic autobiography in the present tense by continually addressing the past as it relates to the now. But since the book took about 20 years to write, you and that now shift dramatically in different poems. What does 20 years do? How did that duration affect how the book took shape?

Cagney: It’s interesting for me to take a look at the book as a whole and see the poems that were started in the mid-’90s and poems that I wrote in the year before it got published, to see that conversation and growth. I guess those are like two different Jameses. The earlier James was still trying to figure things out and was maybe overwriting and working too hard to create poetic images and stuff like that. When I was in high school, I studied journalism and almost took that up as a career. What that platform gave me, in those early years, was a sense of trying to interrogate the truth as I had been taught to find it through journalism to then create a structure and framework for that truth that I was gradually learning from open mics and reading books. The more current James has been introduced to experimentation and gotten the point of compression. I push the story into a smaller space and am able to be more experimental by making strange, unusual decisions; and I don’t feel I have to be so strict with the truth.

The book represents a serious, huge growth period for me as much as it does negotiating of family. I can see the old and new James in conversation and trying to balance themselves. It’s finding a balance between my older mindse,t which is more much raw in trying to figure myself out and what poetry is and can do, and now me, many years later, having gone through this process of family and identity and poetry and applying much stricter edits and purpose in the kind of poems I’m trying to create.

Often “Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory” feels palpably unresolved to me, like the pain of holding one’s breath. I like that because it helps me relate to what’s happening in the book, which often seems to be about not being able to find peace or finding incomplete peace. It makes me curious about your forthcoming book, “Martian: The Saint of Loneliness.” Is that book a continuation of the themes of its predecessor? How is it different from its predecessor? What would you like to share with readers about it?

I told my editor, Michaela Mullin, who worked on both books, that “Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory” is who I am, and “Martian: The Saint of Loneliness” represents what I do as a poet. There are themes in “Martian” that absolutely converse with what happens in the first book, but this collection is very different. I guess I just wanted to get all my biographical stuff out of the way in “Black Steel Magnolias”In “Martian,” I address a lot of race issues, the history of America, Black Lives Matter, as well as love poems and meditations on my feelings of isolation nonetheless.

Part of the image I’m looking at for “Martian” is that there’s a lot of families who have lost people to gun violence and racial violence. We often call the names and talk about those who are lost. One thing the book does, in an indirect way, is it pays attention to the people who are still here and have to hold that loss. What questions would you have for Trayvon Martin’s best friend? What is the story of the feelings people have about the disappearance that their friend or brother or sister leaves after being murdered by police or dying through COVID?

I’m familiar with grief from the last book. Maybe this next book tries to look into the hole that grief has left and ask: what do we do now with this space, this darkness, with what’s left by this person’s invisibility? What happens now?


The Oakland Post’s coverage of local news in Alameda County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support community newspapers across California.

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U.S. Business Leaders Step Up to Fight Inequities in the South

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 



Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr./ NNPA Newswire

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

This toxic atmosphere has left them incapable of addressing pressing, yet ingrained issues like the racial wealth gap, the digital divide, and vast inequalities in everything from health care to home ownership.

With COVID-19 still an omnipresent concern and the country’s recovery still very much in jeopardy, individuals, families, and communities – particularly communities of color throughout the South – are struggling to deal with issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

From impediments to wealth creation opportunities and a dearth of education and workforce development to a lack of access to reliable broadband, substandard housing, and inadequate political representation, communities of color have suffered an outsized toll during the ongoing public health crisis.

Yet political leaders can’t even agree on basic facts that would allow the nation to implement a coherent national strategy for combatting a pandemic that appears to be entering a new wave amid the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant that is currently ravaging parts of the South.

Against that disillusioning backdrop, there is at least some reason for hope. Moving to fill the vacuum created by the inaction of our political class, a group of business leaders in the technology and investment sectors have embarked on a far-reaching – and perhaps unprecedented – campaign to address the social inequities and systemic racism that has historically plagued our country’s southern communities.

Known as the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI), the campaign was founded by financial technology company PayPal, the investment firm Vista Equity Partners (Vista), and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

SCI was formed to work with local elected officials and advocacy groups to tackle the ubiquitous problems of structural racism and inequalities facing communities of color in six communities throughout the South. SCI notes that these areas – Atlanta, Ga., Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., Houston, Texas, Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans, La., – were chosen in part because they are home to around 50% of the country’s Black population and are where some of the greatest disparities exist.

SCI is aiming to drive long-term change, as outlined by PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, Vista CEO Robert F. Smith and BCG CEO Rich Lesser. 

In Atlanta, for example, SCI is working to bridge the wealth gap that exists among the region’s African-American residents. While there is a strong Black business community in the city, and high levels of Black educational achievement thanks to the regional presence of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and the voice of the Black press, there is still an extremely low level of Black entrepreneurship and business ownership with only 6% of employer firms being Black-owned.

To remedy this disparity, SCI is working with the Southern Economic Advancement Project to create entrepreneurship hubs and accelerator programs to increase the number of minority-owned businesses. The corporations behind SCI are also using their networks to help other companies work with minority-owned supply companies.

In Alabama, SCI is seeking to bridge the massive digital divide in an urban area where 450,000 households are without connection to the internet. In order to tackle the crisis, SCI is leveraging relationships with local schools and libraries to distribute laptops and service vouchers. Another tact SCI is taking is to partner with the owners of multi-unit buildings in low-income neighborhoods to install free public Wi-Fi for residents.

The lack of access to capital is another reason Black communities throughout the South have been traditionally underbanked. In Memphis, where 47% of Black households are underbanked, SCI is partnering with Grameen America to cover the $2 million per year per branch start-up cost to build brick-and-mortar banks in minority communities.

This alone will provide 20,000 women access to more than $250 million per year in financing.

Beyond these initiatives, SCI is partnering with groups like the Greater Houston Partnership and the Urban League of Louisiana to provide in-kind support to improve job outcomes for minority college students, expand access to home financing through partnerships with community development financial institutions, and harness the power of technology to expand health care access in underserved urban and rural neighborhoods.

The issues facing these communities throughout the South are not new nor will they be fixed overnight.

Fortunately, SCI is taking a long-term approach that is focused on getting to the root of structural racism in the United States and creating a more just and equitable country for every American.

A once-in-a-century pandemic and a social justice movement not seen since the 1960s were not enough to break the malaise and rancorous partisanship in Washington. Fortunately, corporate leaders are stepping up and partnering with local advocates and non-profit groups to fix the problem of systemic injustice in the U.S.

We, therefore, salute and welcome the transformative commitments of the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI). There is no time to delay, because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so accurately said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

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Grassroots Group Unites to Help Community Breathe During Wildfire Season

The attendance at each build event has, accordingly, increased each week (there were over 60 volunteers at the previous event) with over 800 high-quality purifiers assembled so far. 



CHC Air Purifier Build

Wildfire season is hitting California hard this year. Fires fueled by climate change are burning across the state in record sizes and numbers, devastating communities and turning the skies red with smoke.

During these times, it is easy to feel helpless, especially when the underlying causes of these crises are so monumental. What can ordinary people possibly do to address each other’s health and survival?

The Common Humanity Collective (CHC) might have the beginnings of an answer. CHC came together at the beginning of the pandemic as a small group of friends, neighbors, and UC Berkeley graduate students to create alternative ways to produce and distribute hand sanitizer and high-filtration face masks in the Bay Area when these basic resources had disappeared from store shelves.

CHC’s momentum grew as more people joined the effort—expanding to over 300 volunteers, who coalesced into decentralized groupings across the Bay—to build PPE and slow the spread of COVID-19. So far, the collective has distributed over 60,000 DIY face masks and over 7,000 gallons of sanitizer, all for free.

Now, recognizing the harmful effects of smoke and air pollutants during the wildfire crisis, the collective is building high-quality DIY air purifiers so individuals and families can filter the poisonous air that billows into their homes.

Every other Saturday since the first signs of smoke, community members, students, teachers, organizers, tenants, and workers of the East Bay have come together to build these air purifiers and get them out to the most affected parts of their communities.

Over 130 people from over 10 different Bay Area organizations have participated in these builds. The efforts have grown to include members of the tenant group, Tenant and Neighborhood Councils; East Bay and SF chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America; the Sunrise Movement; Mask Oakland; other mutual aid groups, as well as friends, families, and loved ones.

These DIY purifiers are comparable to significantly more expensive ($100+) commercial purifiers and can filter a room full of smoke and particulates down to healthy levels within a similar period of time as commercial products.

CHC distributes purifiers to the most polluted and least-resourced communities in Oakland and Berkeley, occasionally in partnership with organizations such as East Oakland Collective and Tenant and Neighborhood Councils. The group also makes a determined effort to recruit the recipients of the purifiers to participate in future builds and personally distribute purifiers they assemble to their neighbors and friends.

Traditional nonprofits that act as a stopgap measure against government austerity often have a deactivating and demobilizing effect on the beneficiaries of their goodwill. This can perpetuate a vicious cycle of alienation and reliance among working people.

In contrast, by urging such people to assume ownership of the processes of production and distribution of these essential tools, the work of mutual aid aims to increase their autonomy, their solidarity, and their participation in decisions that affect their survival.

The attendance at each build event has, accordingly, increased each week (there were over 60 volunteers at the previous event) with over 800 high-quality purifiers assembled so far.

So, what can we do? We may not be able to flip a switch to eradicate the pandemic or the wildfires, but we can build tools to help each other breathe through these crises. We don’t have to feel helpless alone: we can grow stronger together.

     Air purifier builds occur every other Saturday through the wildfire season. Come build air purifiers with us and take one home with you, sign up here at 5515 We are located at 5515 Doyle St, Emeryville, CA 94608 in the parking lot across from the Doyle Street Café. Follow CHC on Instagram/Twitter at @chumanityc and contact us with any questions or ideas you have. 


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