Community takes discussion of racial disparity report to the Oakland hills

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Two contrasting images were projected onto a screen in front of a crowd at the Oakland Public Library Dimond branch Tuesday night. On the left, a photo of Montclair Recreation Center: an immaculately-landscaped facility described by meeting organizers as a “little Italian building” in the hills of Oakland. On the right, San Antonio Park, an image that would require further explanation. The meeting’s speakers later revealed that the center’s tennis courts are missing nets. Its drinking fountains are out of service. And its bathrooms are unusable, lacking basics like soap and flushing toilets.

These parks represented a simple picture of racial inequity in Oakland, according to members of the Dimond Neighbors for Racial Justice, the group that helped organize Tuesday’s meeting. It was the fourth in a series of community discussions organized by the city’s Department of Race and Equity to talk through a report released in July that details racial disparities across the city.

Department staffers, along with data scientists at City University of New York (CUNY) compiled the study using existing data to show disparities between white people and people of color in Oakland. The 160-page report focused on a wide variety of issues ranging from school suspensions to the racial makeup of the city’s homeless population.

The report’s key finding was giving the city an equity score, which was based on ratios that compared Oakland’s least and most advantaged racial demographic groups using different data sets. These ratios were then converted into an overall score using an algorithm developed by the CUNY researchers.

Oakland’s overall equity score: 33.5 out of a possible 100.

“That is not good. One hundred would be good. It is not the score we hoped for but … I would have been surprised if we had 100 because the way structural and institutional racism works in this country,” Darlene Flynn, the department’s director, frankly told the group. “We are going to have these kinds of disparities until we change our systems.”

The Department of Race and Equity is new. Launched in October, 2016, the division was the first department of its kind in California. Since its inception, Flynn and the department’s one other employee—analyst Jacque Larrainzar—have focused on working with city employees to modify or eliminate practices that lead to disparities. The equity report is their first big project outside of their work with city staff.

Initially, the department staff scheduled three community meetings to review the report, all in neighborhoods in Oakland’s flats. Flynn said the impetus for Tuesday’s meeting, which was held in a wealthier neighborhood comprised primarily of white residents, was a suggestion from a person of color that a fourth meeting be held in the hills to “move this information beyond people who are the most impacted.”

“When we talk about race and racial identity, we want to make sure we’re talking to white folks too,” said Flynn, who identifies as a black woman, to a group of mainly white women at the briefing held in the Lower Dimond neighborhood.

Flynn emphasized that Tuesday’s meeting was not meant to be a “guilt and shame exercise” but rather to understand “how it got like this” and how the city is going to fix its problems.

After digesting a heavy dose of numbers, the group discussed the example of the two parks, serving two different communities with very different degrees of quality. Meeting facilitator Shikira Porter first displayed images of the Montclair Recreation Center, describing it as “very sweet,” and showing detailed photos of the center’s two elaborate play sets and well-kept main building.

The subsequent images of San Antonio Park triggered gasps and murmurs. The park’s slide is seemingly out of service; orange cones cover the slope’s surface. Another photo showed the remnants of a park bench. Tilted and surrounded by trash, only the metal framework and two slats remained. An image of the bathroom showed stalls with no doors. With a photo of the bare toilet bowls in the background, Porter recited a lengthy list of other maintenance issues.

“The dryer did not work. The toilets didn’t flush, but there was toilet paper,” Porter told the crowd. “If you didn’t want to use this bathroom, you could use these outhouses.”

Linda Crockett, who works for the Port of Oakland, raised her hand to ask the room how the city could explain this disparity.

The answer from Porter and a handful of others in the crowd was: “Great question.”

“For me, that is appalling,” Crockett said after the meeting. Crockett, who identifies herself as a black woman, said she has known inequity her whole life. Even so, as a resident of Oakland’s hills, she called what she saw Tuesday night “unbelievable.”

Porter said that was precisely her point in displaying the images, showing the crowd what Oakland’s 33.5 equity score looks like in real life. “The communities that suffer the most across the country, by and large, are black and brown communities,” said Porter, an Upper Dimond resident who identifies as black. “This is not because people of color are not taking care of their land. It’s because their space is not invested in.”

The discussion that followed the recreation center comparison focused on suggestions and possible solutions. One woman suggested wealthier communities may have to “sacrifice some of their cream” to benefit everyone. Another proposed “sister parks,” which would partner with recreation centers in different neighborhoods to facilitate improvements.

Crockett, who calls herself an activist, said she left the meeting feeling emboldened.

“This is a room full of people that really are here to understand the issues and really use their lives to make a difference. It’s powerful,” said Crockett. “You don’t get meetings like this all the time. I’ve been to hundreds.”

Flynn was quick to point out Tuesday’s briefing in the hills was very different than the previous three meetings in the flats on the same topic.

“I think here, people are able to look at this issue through an activist lens without needing to also process trauma,” said Flynn. “People were able to bring their activism and their heart to it, and not so much sit with the trauma that they have not experienced.”

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