I am spending a lot of my time in West Oakland and help Alex running for City Council. He is a mexican immigrant, gay and married to a canadian psychologist called Christopher, who also immigrated to the USA. Alex was a former figure skater and Christopher a dancer. I think they met on the beach 15 years ago and stayed together since that time. They left San Francisco a long time ago as they had the dream of having their own house. The cheapest realties in the Bay area are in West Oakland. That part of Oakland is, according to the crime statistics still one of the most (if not the most) dangerous spot all over the state. Blight, vandalism, murder, unemployment, hopelessness, despair and rape are the order of the day. Since some months an appalling new fad has developed. The gangs started to take revenge on babies! When I got evidence that this is not just a headline rumor I was speechless of the shock that inhabited my body.
Despite these depressing facts about West Oakland Alex and Christopher bought a house. They renewed it from the top to the bottom with their own hands, planted flowers and decorated their big tree in front of the house with christmas baubles. Alex created an interior design company and after the economy crashed they both started to buy buildings in the neighborhood and created jobs to recondition the houses. Over the years they even adopted Mead Avenue, which is just around the corner from their home, talked openly with the neighbors and sometimes the residents share their donuts with Alex and Christopher. Since they adopted the street there hasn’t been a murder.
The population in West Oakland is mostly african americans, mixed with a big handful hispanics,a small handful of asians, some artists and people who dare to live in between all these issues and still believe West Oakland can become a better place.
Well I am finally one of the “in betweens” as I live in Adams Point which is in the same district as West Oakland, which is also called ghost town. Our apartment is just a few blocks away situated on a little hill, close to Whole Foods and Lake Merrit. That short distance away makes a breathtaking difference. The majority of the population is white, no abandoned graffiti soaked walls and great shopping possibilities. In Ghost town there is no REAL supermarket …
Alex is taking kids of his neighborhood once or twice a months to places they have never been before. He doesn’t have to go far, driving by the lake is enough. Some of these children thought the lake is the ocean!
Because I help Alex and spend a lot of time in the office, I also come across many black ladies. This office is a place where all neighbors can come by, have a serious talk or a cup of coffee. It is a multicultural safe room where everybody can practice tolerance and develop common understanding about what is necessary for their community to get out of the rabbit hole of darkness. A community that is stigmatized, deprived, abandoned and isolated. A community that seems for many people not more than a shit hole and lost all its credibility and hope. A community that got brainwashed and internalized cruelty, poverty, brutality, being the victims of the society and not responsible for their own life. I am aware that these are BIG generalizations and they don’t help much if people get stuck on them. I begin to understand my neighborhood and furthermore a part of myself I don’t know yet.
Last week 3 black ladies came to the office to help calling people to invite them for the next Houseparty. They were very distant towards me and I got the feeling of being ignored. For lunch we ordered Pizza and enjoyed it in the sun. As I am a good host and really like to make people eat I served them food and drinks. After that the whole atmosphere changed. I felt accepted and somehow relieved. That day I learnt that prejudice is a far bigger, broader and wider issue than I have ever imagined. Deliberately I am not using terms like racism as I am not happy with -isms at all. They try to simplify a very complex and multidimensional behaviour of people and fail.
These recent experiences point to one important question: How can a sense of responsibility and response-ability develop and awake in all of us?
I think I heard one answer on the last fundraiser party of Alex’s Campaign. After two guys kept on accusing Alex and steamrolled every proposal he made, a black old lady took over the steering wheel. What she said was simple, passionate and undoubtful. She showed these to guys their place. I observed their body posture shrink. In the end of her speech she said:
“WE can only do it together.”
And then the whole room applauded.
That made me happy.