In an elementary school classroom, several dozen residents who had gathered Saturday morning for the East Oakland Congress of Neighborhoods fell silent as one of the youngest people present spoke.
“I have some things to say about sex trafficking. I live out here. I see all this stuff going on. At nighttime when we drive by, we walk around, we see people getting pimped out, getting beat up by their pimps,” said Che-Kwis Hernandez, 12, who lives in the San Antonio District.
A chorus of affirmations from the room punctuated each of her sentences. Her school counselor and principal stood nearby. Her mother wiped back tears as she placed her other hand on her child’s back.
“I see people pimp out their own family. I’ve seen pregnant women get pimped out. I see people doing it in the car all the time walking in the morning to school and I only live three blocks away,” Che-Kwis continued. “When I walked to school one day I saw someone pull down their pants and start pleasing themselves.”
This intimate discussion was one of nine breakout groups that met to discuss issues facing East Oakland, part of the launch of the first annual East Oakland Congress of Neighborhoods assembly. The meeting brought hundreds of people out on a Saturday to the International Community School on International Boulevard. The breakout groups discussed topics like education, affordable housing, illegal dumping, improving employment opportunities, gun violence, and getting justice for the immigrant and refugee communities.
Che-Kwis continued speaking; at the front of the classroom Salomeh Ghorban, acting as the group’s scribe, took notes in black marker.
“I’ve seen, I’m not going to name who, but my old friend going into a trap house,” Che-Kwis said, referring to a house where drugs are sold or other illegal activities take place. “I tried to stop her because I didn’t want that to happen to her. She didn’t have such a great life and she’s still trying to find herself and everything. She can’t say anything because she’s afraid of everything. All she wants is some type of love that she has never had.”
Moderator Reverend Damita Davis-Howard, of First Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church and the leadership group Oakland Community Organizations, asked community members to help her put Che-Kwis’ experience into words and brainstorm goals for the future.
“I want to lift up her voice, because she’s got a lot to say, and she’s got a lot to feel—and correct me if I misspeak—in East Oakland there is a lot of tragedy in peoples’ personal lives that causes them to do things to other people and to let people do things to them,” said Davis-Howard.
“Uh huh,” the people in the room agreed.
“And the positive of what I heard is that we need to learn how to love one another,” continued Davis-Howard.
Ghorban covered the board with little black hearts. She wrote the words “Learn to love one another” in the center.
Another woman, a grandmother, said that her granddaughter has gone missing and that she fears she is being trafficked. Others spoke about wanting police accountability for keeping the streets safe, and not exploiting people. They spoke about young people’s self-esteem, bringing good jobs to the community, improving education, and ending the criminalization of victims of the sex trade. They spoke about wanting better resourced programs, and about making those programs more attractive to young people.
“Youth aren’t attending the programming. No one comes. You can go into schools and ask students what type of programs they want. They chime in on it, and you develop it, but they don’t come. How do you make the programs more attractive to the youth?” asked Tyrone Stevenson Jr., founder of the Scraper Bikes Team in Oakland, whose mission is to empower urban youth through fixing bicycles and bicycle art.
“They go out into the streets with low self esteem and all these other issues and they are trying to fill that hole, that gap, where something is missing,” continued Stevenson. “We need to make our programs turnt.”
“Turnt?” The moderator and several people around the room looked confused and posed the word to Stevenson as a question.
“Yeah, you know, they should be fun. They should be what’s up,” Stevenson said.
After most of the people in the room had spoken, Davis-Howard began wrapping up the session, making sure all the ideas had been captured by Ghorban.
“We’re talking about healing a community, folks. One of the things we want to do is show the city that we are serious about East Oakland getting the resources it needs, to make youth programs better and to make it safer for young women with low self esteem, and young men with low self esteem, to make it safer for the mothers taking care of children, to make it safer for the grandmothers taking care of the community,” said Davis-Howard. “After we make our platform, we want to announce it to the world.”
The congress brought together members from six of the largest community organizations in East Oakland: Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, Causa Justa::Just Cause, Communities for a Better Environment, East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC), East Oakland Building Healthy Communities, and Oakland Community Organizations (OCO). In order to make sure the event was accessible to all, organizers provided childcare and meals, as well as interpretation services in Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, Bhutanese, and Nepalese.
“This is the launch of a movement,” said one the founding organizers of the congress, Nehanda Imara, of East Oakland Building Healthy Communities. “This is not just a one-day event.”
Imara said that in 2015, the groups had started discussing the idea of a neighborhood congress. “We needed respect and power that we were not getting otherwise from the city,” she said.
Although the future of East Oakland Congress of Neighborhoods is still forming, the founders believe it will include at least one yearly organizing event such as this one.
“What this is really about is building a relationship of power. Power respects power. The politicians are powerful people and we are powerful people. But our power is in united people,” said Andy Nelsen, a staff member at EBAYC and one of the founding organizers of the congress.
Members of the congress will gather on November 7 in front of Oakland City Hall to share their vision with the public. Their goal is to get political leaders to listen and enact changes.
“You only create equitable policy framework through sustained political will, and you only create sustained political will if you have leverage over elected officials and decision makers,” said Nelsen.
“I feel hopeful, I feel encouraged, that this kind of coming together is happening, and that people are willing to take time out of their Saturday to spend some time being part of the solution instead of griping about the problems that we all face,” said Oakland resident and OCO member Pamela Sims as she was leaving the event. “This is what patriotism looks like. This is democracy in action. This is what makes America great. This is empowerment in motion, and it is very exciting to see.”
This article was updated on October 2, 2017 to correct the spelling of Nehanda Imara’s name.