Healthy Relationships, Violence Prevention and Lessons from a Whitney Houston Soundtrack

Commentary, April Suwalsky

Lucia came into the dorm hall lounge and crashed on the couch across from me. “The counselor said I am addicted to him,” she whispered, and immediately burst into tears. Tears became deep and guttural sobs. It was our first year of college, and Lucia was stuck in a relationship with a longtime partner who was manipulative and emotionally abusive. The story, although Lucia couldn’t see it at the time, would have a happy ending.  She eventually found the courage to end the relationship, double major in political science and women’s and gender studies, march to Take Back The Night and volunteer as a peer health educator to other students.

As social beings, relationships are the heart of our existence, and yet we often neglect to be attentive to building healthy and meaningful ones. Moreover, we often look the other way when we encounter those that are unhealthy. We must be doing a lot of blind and ignorant living, because unhealthy relationships are pervasive; violence is everywhere.

Reflecting on these themes, I cannot help but consider the recent death of Whitney Houston. Not only was her premature departure a sad commentary on the often unhealthy relationships she negotiated—with family members, business partners, substances, the media, her fans and detractors—but it is also a poignant, ironic twist on her music and lyrics that championed love, and brought her worldwide fame. Like so many others, my formative years were marked by teen dances, emotional highs and lows, and “I Will Always Love You.” Whitney’s songs were like a cryptic soundtrack playing in an already dark room, a waterfall of experiences captured in rhythm and blues.

 “I’m Every Woman”

I personally have been seriously harassed on multiple occasions and have friends and family members who have been raped, abused, stalked, and assaulted. As a community advocate and mentor, I frequently encounter individuals here in Richmond caught in unhealthy relationships. I am also inspired by people in the community who are making meaningful efforts to incite positive change, like those who choose to participate in the city’s annual Sisters in Solidarity gathering for International Women’s Day.  Those efforts are comforting, but there is much work to be done.

Our social indicators reflect some hard truths — domestic violence and child and family service cases are increasing in number and becoming more severe. At the same time, budgets for preventive care and intervention services have been cut.  Statistics on relationship violence, meanwhile, are truly staggering:

  • 29 percent of teenagers who had been in relationships reported experiencing sexual or physical abuse or receiving threats of physical violence from their partners, according to one study. (“Possession Obsession” Teaching Tolerance, No. 41, Spring 2012).
  • More than 1 in 3 women have experienced sexual assault, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime, and the same is true for 1 in 4 men. (CDCP survey, National intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, as reported by CNN)
  • Domestic violence is more than three times as likely to occur when couples are experiencing high levels of financial strain. (STAND! For Families Free of Violence).
  • A report of child abuse is made every ten seconds, and almost five children die every day as a result of child abuse. (www.childhelp.org)

These are not just “people” with “problems.”  These are defining human rights issues.

 “Something in Common”

Some have pointed to a “machismo culture” that is prevalent in Richmond, and throughout society. It is evident and perpetuated in our media, schools and daily lives. “We are socialized as men to take that on from a very young age,” said Robert Bunce, Program Director at the West Contra Costa Public Education Fund (The Ed. Fund) in Richmond, and former Program Director of WEAVE (Women Escaping a Violent Environment) — the largest domestic violence and sexual assault resource center in Sacramento County. “Until someone [points it out] to us, it’s something so ingrained that we aren’t really aware of it.  It contributes to an imbalance in relationships, to violence, to sexualized violence,” he stated.  It is a difficult cycle to change.

One promising initiative is the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s (CALCASA) “My Strength is Not For Hurting”/Men of Strength campaign and training. Men of Strength encourages men to help stop rape and sexual violence by leading lives based on caring, equality and respect. It challenges men to reconsider what it is to “be a man.” Trainings like these can be transformative, pivotal experiences in participants’ lives. Men of Strength has been implemented in Richmond in partnership with Community Violence Solutions.

 “Count on Me”

Before we are “grown,” children and youth need opportunities to learn about and model healthy relationships in school. Currently, many teachers and schools are not equipped to address or mediate these issues in partnership with students in the classroom. There needs to be more dialogue and a willingness to talk.

We need to educate and nurture the whole child—taking into consideration social and emotional development as core elements of student success. “I believe healthy relationships are based on self knowledge and self regulation,” said Mark Collin, who is Founder and Executive Director of Dovetail Learning, and a practicing Marriage and Family Therapist. “Without a healthy relationship to one’s self, there cannot be a healthy relationship with others,” he said.

The Toolbox Project by Dovetail Learning is a prevention/intervention training and kindergarten-sixth grade curriculum that offers students a set of twelve life skills “tools.” The Toolbox Project empowers students, teachers, and families with a “common language” that strengthens resilience and promotes social awareness and knowledge. Collin explained, “[It] fosters and re-humanizes children and their families’ abilities to achieve personal empowerment, social intelligence and empathy for self and others.”

The Toolbox Project is currently active at Coronado Elementary and Richmond College Prep Schools. (www.dovetaillearning.org)

 “Exhale (Shoop, Shoop)”

We also must support and facilitate healthy relationships during out-of-school time. There are far fewer spaces for low-income students in out-of-school time programs than the number of students in need. We must extend these critical developmental opportunities—for example sports and art–to all young people.

Kenneth Dunn, 20, a student and Richmond resident, regularly practices Tae Kwon Do. The martial art trains him and his peers in discipline, body awareness, and mental and physical agility—as well as affords them time to de-stress from the challenges of daily living. He recounted this personal experience:

“My friend used to be very aggressive; then, he took Tae Kwon Do for a while, and when he got out he would be more relaxed. When he stopped practicing, he went back to being aggressive because he didn’t have anywhere to take out his aggression.” This is a powerful example of the need to “exhale.” Physical activity and creative outlets generate important safe spaces to grapple with difficult issues, or model and plan responses to challenges.

Moreover, “If you train alongside someone you’re not going to be fully angry with that person, and it also helps people deal with conflicts in their lives because they get time to think,” Dunn continued.

 “I Look to You”

In the end, young people (all of us, really,) emulate the examples we see in our lives. We all can and must be role models and mentors—facilitating honest dialogue, fostering trust, and treating one another with respect. I defer again to Robert Bunce:

“It’s not just the responsibility of the parents—it’s [that of] teachers—and every community member. And if everybody in our community takes on that role of being that positive role model–and they know they have that responsibility–our youth will have a much better chance of having healthy relationships in life.”

As a community, we can together break the iterative cycles of violence and unhealthy relationships. Many lives are at stake. Let’s take back the soundtrack, and rework it into anthems of strength, respect, peace, and joy.

Additional Community Resources:

 Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) of California: www.avpcalifornia.org

 California Coalition Against Sexual Assault – Rape Crisis Center Directory, National Hotlines, Lists of Coalitions and Organizations: www.calcasa.org

 Community Violence Solutions: www.cvsolutions.org

 Gender Spectrum: www.genderspectrum.org

 Familias Unidas: http://www.familias-unidas.org/

 RYSE Center: www.rysecenter.org

 STAND! For Families Free of Violence / The DELTA Project (Contra Costa County): http://www.standagainstdv.org/stayinformed/statistics.html

 Take Back The Night: www.takebackthenight.org

 Teaching Tolerance/Southern Poverty Law Center – Resources/Portfolio Activity for “Possession Obsession”: www.tolerance.org/possession-obsession

 West Contra Costa County Family Justice Center: http://www.familyjusticecenter.com/Details/West-Contra-Costa-County-Family-Justice-Center.html

 Youth Service Bureau: http://www.wccysb.org/

Zero Tolerance for Domestic Violence: http://contracostazt.org/index.php

 

Rockets Season a Success, Despite Off-Court Challenges

News Report, Kia Croom | Photo, Robert Rogers

Despite losing their first-ever American Basketball Association (ABA) playoff game to the Bay Area Matrix by a score of 126-86, the Richmond Rockets can take pride in their inaugural season, which ended with a winning record of 18-8.

Although their stint in the playoffs was short lived, the Rockets have reason to celebrate. The team found a way to win consistently, despite a number of off-court challenges, not the least of which were financial. Rockets players soldiered on, even when the team was not able to pay them what had been promised in their contracts.

“We are one of the few (ABA) teams that gets paid in the Bay Area. Each of our players is paid an amount between $150 and $400 per game,” said Rockets point guard Patrick Mitchell.

Despite monies owed, the Rockets players remained focused. “The guys showed up and continued to play,” Mitchell said. “We all love the game and believed the financial situation would be resolved, so all we could do is keep playing to win. The fact that my guys continued to play despite monies owed to them speaks a lot about their integrity,” he said.

Keith Hazell, Rockets President of Basketball Operations, attributes the team’s financial woes to the company’s business model that is dependant on ticket sales.

“We bring in 400 to 500 fans a game, but we need 1,100 to 1,200 fans to come out. Throughout the season, we have been selling about one-quarter of the capacity, which has made it difficult for us to pay our bills and players,” Hazell said.
Struggling to stay afloat, the Rockets turned to the community for support.

“We took our financial concerns up with the city council and asked them for support,” Mitchell said. “Their main concern was tax dollars and the fact that there are a lot of people in the community that care more about other issues,” he said.

While the Rockets organization addresses their financial issues behind the scenes, Rockets fans are for the most part oblivious.
“I haven’t heard anything about financial problems,” said John-neka Taylor, a Rockets fan and longtime Richmond resident.

“All four games I attended were pretty full,” she said.

Taylor said the Rockets’ decision to come to Richmond has been the best that thing that could have happened to the city.

“[The Rockets] have really brought the community together, especially since the younger people in the community really don’t have anything to do. The Rockets have given them something to do,” she said.

Taylor said she hopes to see the Rockets make a comeback next season, although she hopes the team will add more local talent to the roster.

“People are really excited about the two players that are from Richmond, Patrick Mitchell and Tita Davis. Having more people on the team from the city will get more people in the city invested,” Taylor said.
So what’s in store for the Rockets next year?

“The team will return next season,” said Hazell. “We have a solid fan base and sponsors like the Richmond-Berkeley Marriott, Chevron Richmond Refinery, D.P. Security, Armor Locksmith and Hilltop Mall. We are confident that our community and public partnerships will be more prevalent in supporting us next season,” he said.

The team will continue to thrive under the leadership of Head Coach Phranklin McKinney, assistant coaches James Rhodes and Rick Sampson and under the care of team doctor George Keres.

Last summer, the Richmond Rockets exploded on the scene as the newest ABA expansion team to join the league. The Rockets are one of four ABA teams in the East Bay and are ranked #17 out of 94 ABA teams.

Rockets Season a Success, Despite Off-Court Challenges

News Report, Kia Croom | Photo, Robert Rogers

Despite losing their first-ever American Basketball Association (ABA) playoff game to the Bay Area Matrix by a score of 126-86, the Richmond Rockets can take pride in their inaugural season, which ended with a winning record of 18-8.

Although their stint in the playoffs was short lived, the Rockets have reason to celebrate. The team found a way to win consistently, despite a number of off-court challenges, not the least of which were financial. Rockets players soldiered on, even when the team was not able to pay them what had been promised in their contracts.

“We are one of the few (ABA) teams that gets paid in the Bay Area. Each of our players is paid an amount between $150 and $400 per game,” said Rockets point guard Patrick Mitchell.

Despite monies owed, the Rockets players remained focused. “The guys showed up and continued to play,” Mitchell said. “We all love the game and believed the financial situation would be resolved, so all we could do is keep playing to win. The fact that my guys continued to play despite monies owed to them speaks a lot about their integrity,” he said.

Keith Hazell, Rockets President of Basketball Operations, attributes the team’s financial woes to the company’s business model that is dependant on ticket sales.

“We bring in 400 to 500 fans a game, but we need 1,100 to 1,200 fans to come out. Throughout the season, we have been selling about one-quarter of the capacity, which has made it difficult for us to pay our bills and players,” Hazell said.
Struggling to stay afloat, the Rockets turned to the community for support.

“We took our financial concerns up with the city council and asked them for support,” Mitchell said. “Their main concern was tax dollars and the fact that there are a lot of people in the community that care more about other issues,” he said.

While the Rockets organization addresses their financial issues behind the scenes, Rockets fans are for the most part oblivious.
“I haven’t heard anything about financial problems,” said John-neka Taylor, a Rockets fan and longtime Richmond resident.

“All four games I attended were pretty full,” she said.

Taylor said the Rockets’ decision to come to Richmond has been the best that thing that could have happened to the city.

“[The Rockets] have really brought the community together, especially since the younger people in the community really don’t have anything to do. The Rockets have given them something to do,” she said.

Taylor said she hopes to see the Rockets make a comeback next season, although she hopes the team will add more local talent to the roster.

“People are really excited about the two players that are from Richmond, Patrick Mitchell and Tita Davis. Having more people on the team from the city will get more people in the city invested,” Taylor said.
So what’s in store for the Rockets next year?

“The team will return next season,” said Hazell. “We have a solid fan base and sponsors like the Richmond-Berkeley Marriott, Chevron Richmond Refinery, D.P. Security, Armor Locksmith and Hilltop Mall. We are confident that our community and public partnerships will be more prevalent in supporting us next season,” he said.

The team will continue to thrive under the leadership of Head Coach Phranklin McKinney, assistant coaches James Rhodes and Rick Sampson and under the care of team doctor George Keres.

Last summer, the Richmond Rockets exploded on the scene as the newest ABA expansion team to join the league. The Rockets are one of four ABA teams in the East Bay and are ranked #17 out of 94 ABA teams.

Youth Organize to End Violence, “Reclaim Richmond”

News Feature,  Taisa Grant

Late last month, the City of Richmond caught a glimpse of its own future when teachers, activists, youth mentors, police officers, the mayor and others came together for a town hall style meeting called “Reclaiming Richmond.”

Young people from the group RAW Talent hosted the dialogue, which focused on the issue of violence in Richmond.  The town hall took place at the Nevin Community Center, and in addition to an open discussion the forum included performances of spoken word poetry by youth whose lives have been directly impacted by community violence. Judging by the performances and the words spoken, it was clear that these youth have had enough of saying goodbye too soon to their fathers, friends, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunties and so on.

It was the first of many town hall meetings planned by RAW Talent, which seeks to intervene and address violence that youth experience on a daily basis.

Jamaya Walker shared her pain, courage and wisdom in a poem called “She Told You So,” which recalls the death of her father and the circumstances of his life, circumstances that eventually lead him to the grave and left her alone.  In the piece, she challenges her father’s justification for spending his life in the streets.

Her poem was followed by a discussion about “family agreements” led by Gonzalo Rucobo of Bay Area Peacekeepers (BAP), a strategy that allowed the gathering to be a safe, neutral space, transforming a room of strangers – even possible enemies – into a community.

“They are agreements, not rules, because rules are meant to be broken,” explained Rucobo. “Agreements however, are commitments which we all have a personal investment in maintaining.”  The list included:  1) respect 2) no judgment 3) the right to express yourself 4) agree to disagree 5) communication 6) confidentiality 7) participation and 8) no violence (verbal, physical or emotional).

Next came Dante Clark, one of the meeting organizers, who said the purpose was to address the violence going on in the city.  “Too many women and men [are] getting killed.  It’s an opportunity for young people to openly express themselves freely, an opportunity for young people to be part of a positive change in the city,” said Clark.  He then posed the questions, “What can we do to address this problem? And why is there violence? What is fueling it and who benefits from the violence?”  Heavy questions, but they didn’t deter the young people one bit. Hands flew up in the air and the microphone was passed around.

The responses of the young people reflected their frustration and confusion with the violence.  One young man stated, “You killing people you know, black on black crime, killing people you grew up with.”  Another shouted out in response, “Who benefits from the violence? The police take us to jail and [we] gotta pay the fine for them taking us to jail.”  Another youth responded with, “You shouldn’t have broken the law.  You know right and wrong.”  That discussion led to another about how violence is often stimulated by the business of drugs. One young man spoke on the lack of role models in Richmond, saying that many youth need to see that it’s possible to choose a life path that offers a chance of long term success rather than “being on the block slanging and banging.”

Everyone then broke into small groups where youth made a list of what was not working in their community. Those things included the police, prisons, and the education system.  As well as a decrease in violence, said the youth, Richmond needs more jobs, positive media, teachers that care, and more things to do in their free time.  The adult small group spoke about reducing trauma through healing and love.

The meeting ended with two very talented and powerful poets. The first, 15 year-old Dayliss Boone, remembered her brother who passed away not even a full year ago.  She shared that he encouraged her to go to school, work hard and told her she would make it out of the hood.  Deandre Evans, 18, ended the day with a statement that looked to the future and summed up the power behind this first Reclaiming Richmond gathering:  “Richmond wants to have peace, and we will continue to grow.”

 

San Pablo Community Welcomes a Very “Green” Wanlass Park

News Report, Edgardo Cervano-Soto

With a huge platinum scissor, Marilyn Wanlass and San Pablo Mayor Cecilia Valdez, snipped the red ribbon in celebration of opening Wanlass Park to the public this past Saturday, March 3rd. Following the cut, a wave of children rushed to the playground. Close to 200 parents, children and adults participated in the ceremony and enjoyed the park’s amenities. Located at 2999 21ST Street across Eagles Hall and besides Rheem Creek, Wanlass Park, at more than 3.5 acres, is the first new large-scale park developed by San Pablo in 44 years; the last being Davis Park.

The excitement was apparent throughout. “Everyone is very happy to have a park in this part of town where we needed it,” says Marta Julia Brown, 64, grandmother and San Pablo resident for 27 years. “It’s the best thing the mayor and city council has done.”

Wanlass Park boasts the standard park amenities such as grassy open space, play structures, picnic tables and barbcue pits. Yet, its focus on sustainability, community service, urban agriculture and environmental education establishes Wanlass Park as a modern and interactive center. Open to the public are community garden plots, garden boxes, as well as a wrap around walking trail and the old Wanlass barn now retrofitted as an Environmental Education Center, complete with solar panels, classrooms, restrooms and a kitchen. According to Mayor Valdez, in the next coming months, the San Pablo Recreation division will organize many workshops and programming, including a garden stewardship program for youth in Wanlass Park.

The property for Wanlass Park once belonged to Marilyn’s husband, Art Wanlass, Originally from Utah, Art migrated to San Pablo at the age of 18 and survived off the farm property during the Great Depression. Art died at the age of 97 in 1999, but had described to Marilyn his plans to have the farm become a “gathering place” for San Pablo’s residents. During her speech, Marilyn Wanlass spoke highly of the achievement, and of Art’s passion for the farm, describing it as “an oasis in the middle of the city.” Before ending her speech, Mariyln passed on the responsibility of caring for the park to the community by repeating her late husband’s favorite saying. “The land is yours now,” Marilyn said. “You care for the land and the land will take care of you, that was Art’s motto.”

Development of Wanlass Park began as early as 2008, and ultimately cost San Pablo a total of 7 million dollars. 1.8 million dollars was provided by the state, while 5.2 million dollars were paid in part by San Pablo’s 2000 and 2002 park bonds, and Prop 42, a state park development legislation. Similar to Richmond, San Pablo is a participant of Kaiser Permanente’s “Healthy Eating, Active Living” initiative, which seeks to promote community health in low-income and park poor areas. In actuality, Wanlass Park belongs to a trio of projects focused on directly improving community health and fitness. “ San Pablo is park poor for the population we have, and so we are working to expand our parks facilities”, says Valdez.

These plans include creating six multi use sports fields at Rumrill Boulevard and Chelsey Avenue, and the creation of the Helms Community Center. The sports field proposal on Rumrill Boulevard is also part of a larger plan to develop the Rumrill Corridor. However, while applications for grants for this project has been submitted, California shut down 400 redevelopment agencies in early February, including San Pablo’s, in order to review each city’s plan to pay off debt. Until then, the funds for redevelopment are on hold- and so are redevelopment projects like the Rumrill Fields, Helms Community Center and the mixed use Circle S project. Valdez says the San Pablo Redevelopment Agency is waiting for the state’s response. In the event of such possible closings, San Pablo has created the San Pablo Economic Development Corporation, Inc., a non-profit corporation that would continue redevelopment supported by San Pablo’s own stabilization funds. Redevelopment agencies expect to hear from the State in late April.

But for today, San Pablo celebrates a milestone. ‘”San Pablo now has a community resource that will serve the city for generations,” says Valdez. Pinole Middle School student Marcellus Thomas, 12, is excited to get involved. “It seems nice to have a planting garden we can use,” says Marcellus. Marcellus’ mother, Brenda Hannah, 38, likes the fact that Wanlass Park is in walking distance, and in their neighborhood. “We have an address in Richmond, my children go to school in San Pablo and Pinole, and my son will go on to Pinole Valley. It’s weird, like a no man’s land”, says Hannah. “It’s great to have a park here, where there was nothing else before, instead of going to other places.

Although the majority of Wanlass Park is now complete, phase 2, the development of the hill behind the Environmental Education barn will be developed into low impact open space. That development is expected to being shortly.

Richmond Mayor Honors Local Youth Poets

News Report, Monica Quesada

Poetry, applause and laughter reigned at last week’s “Meet with the Mayor” event, a monthly gathering held at the Richmond Public Library and hosted by mayor Gayle McLaughlin.

This month, the mayor’s special guests included a number of local, award-winning youth poets. Danica Garcia, a senior at Salesian High School, recited a poem during the meeting. Garcia will represent Contra Costa County in the “Poetry Out Loud” contest, a national spoken word competition supported by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), California Arts Council and the Arts & Culture Commission of Contra Costa County. Garcia will move on from her victory to attend the California state poetry finals in Sacramento on March 25 and 26.

Six winners of “Richmond Writes!” — the contest is organized by the Richmond Arts and Culture Commission and targets students in Richmond — also recited poems for the Mayor. The theme of the second annual competition was “Legacy.” Winners of that competition were presented with awards by the Richmond City Council last October.

Terri Hinte, chair of the arts commission, announced that Richmond Writes! will be open for entries again in October 2012, to coincide with Arts and Humanities Month, but winners will not be announced until April 2013, which also happens to be Poetry Month.

The arts commission wants to have an extended process this year to increase student participation, said Hinte. “It’s hectic after school starts, to try and coordinate with the teachers and the classes to participate in the contest,” she said.

Maureen Cary, head of the English department at Salesian High School, expects the change to result in greater participation, since students will have more time to prepare for the contest. “We always participate in these types of contests and we wish more schools would get involved,” she said.

Over 50 people listened as the poets recited verses, with each performance followed by laud clapping and cheering.

Garcia open the stage. Her long curly hair framed an expressive face that quietly but powerfully recited “Abandoned Farmhouse” by Ted Kooser, a rapt audience engaged in her every word.

Adrienne Chainey, a junior at Salesian High School, won second place in the high school division of Richmond Writes! with her original poem “What I Give to You.”

“I wanted to give a more deep and more personal present to the latter generations,” said Chainey about her poem. “I know a lot of people tend to not have hope in themselves … I wanted to give them hope [to strive for] what they want to achieve.”

Frida Ceja, also a junior at Salesian High School, won third place with her poem “She Will Be Remembered.”

“It’s nice having a mayor that interacts not only with the adults but also with the youth,” said Ceja to the mayor, after the meeting.

Lauren Mallett introduced herself to the audience as “the proud 5th grade teacher of Richy and Cedes,” two students from Washington Elementary who presented their poems. “[This contest] is an incredible opportunity for the students to be celebrated,” Mallett said. “Over time, the more that we can celebrate these students through this kind of contest, they are going to rise to the occasion and really be able show what they got.”

Mayor McLaughlin announced that in April she expects to bring a resolution to the city council that would create a Poet Laureate program for the city. Details of her program are yet to be defined.

In other matters, Mayor McLaughlin invited representatives from our own Richmond Pulse to talk about our news organization and announce the launch of the Pulse’s second print edition, a 24-page, full-color and bilingual newspaper that hit city streets last month. Donny Lumpkins and William Haynes, regular contributors to the newspaper and website, invited Richmond’s young writers to produce content for the community based and youth-led publication.

Future “Meet with the Mayor” meetings, beginning next month, will happen at rotating locations throughout the city. Mayor McLaughlin said she decided to switch things up in order to create more opportunities for residents in different neighborhoods to have more access to her office. The time and place of future meetings will be announced on local station KCRT. Meetings will be open to everyone, but agendas will reflect issues of particular interest to the hosting neighborhoods.

UPCOMING EVENTS:

Two events were announced during the meeting. “Sisters in Solidarity: Walking for our Beloved Community” on March 10 and “Richmond Tales: A Family Literacy Festival,” on April 29.

“Sisters in Solidarity” is organized by Mayor McLaughlin and 25 local organizations to celebrate International Women’s Day. Activities will be held at Lovonya DeJean Middle School from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free and lunch will be provided. New to the event this year will be a “Solidarity Walk” from the middle school to the Civic Center and back.

The Richmond Tales festival will be held at the Civic Center from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
The event is still in the planning stages, but will have craft and face painting, free food and ice cream, free books and different entertainment activities.

Grassroots Anti-Violence Efforts Starting to Bear Fruit in Richmond

News Report, Monica Quesada

Richmond, long burdened by the reputation of being one of the Bay Area’s most dangerous cities, experienced an overall decrease in violent crime last year, according to data recently made public by the city’s police department.

Overall, violent crime decreased 14 percent citywide between 2010 and 2011, according to Richmond Police Department statistics from last January obtained by Richmond Pulse. Those crimes include armed carjacking (down 30 percent), attempted homicide (down 14 percent) and attempted robbery (down 65 percent). Also down were the number of drug-related 911 calls (down 46 percent), “man with gun” calls (down 18 percent) and reports of “neighborhood gunfire” (down 13 percent).

Nicole Valentino, a community-advocate at the Richmond mayor’s office, says it is a mix of resident groups and non-profit organizations that are making the difference.

“The story of Richmond is more and more (about) people coming together to make things better,” says Valentino.

Those deeply involved in the anti-violence work, she adds, come from an array of backgrounds. Some are from places outside of Richmond who have nevertheless fully committed themselves to the community, while others are Richmond locals who have always had the talent and desire to be neighborhood leaders, but perhaps not the training to be effective. Then there are those who left Richmond to get a college degree and decided to come back to improve their city. Together, says Valentino, their efforts are beginning to have a noticeable impact.

Not all violent crimes in Richmond, however, have gone down. Most troubling, the number of criminal homicides rose from 21 deaths in 2010 to 26 in 2011. The rise in homicides in Richmond and other Bay Area cities was even the subject of a report in The Wall Street Journal last September.Certain property crimes also increased — residential burglary and car break-ins were both up by about 15 percent from the previous year.

Police and neighborhood activists in Richmond, however, now have a reason to be optimistic that those numbers too can be reduced through a coordinated combination of law enforcement and community support for the city’s most troubled youth.

In an email to community stakeholders that accompanied the most recent crime report, police chief Chris Magnus wrote, “We recognize… that many factors influence crime and violence in our city, but we believe that active neighborhood and community groups partnering extensively with the Police Department are a big part of the reason we are making progress towards a safer Richmond.”

One of those community groups is Ceasefire, a collaborative project that seeks to unite clergy, congregations, law enforcement and community members against gun violence in Richmond by approaching troubled youth with a message of love.

“We want to see (the youth) alive and free, but we are no longer going to tolerate being terrorized by gun violence,” said Rev. Eugene Jackson of Grace Bible Fellowship in Antioch. Jackson is also an organizer for CCISCO (Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization), one of the organizations participating in Ceasefire.

Part of the Ceasefire strategy involves organizing weekly “night walks” in different Richmond neighborhoods, during which participants hand out information about the program and talk to residents about their needs. “We have people as old as 90 (and) as young as 8 years old,” said Jackson about the participants. “We own the streets in a way that has never been seen.”

In addition to the gun-related crimes, captain Mark Gagan says a major problem facing Richmond right now is the increase in residential burglary and auto theft. Those crimes, he says, are keeping Richmond entrenched at the bottom of city crime rankings.

Police Chief Magnus agrees. “Property crime, while very slightly down (overall), continues to be a challenge, particularly in regards to residential burglaries,” he wrote.

Gretchen Borg is a teacher at Gompers, a continuation high school in Richmond. She moved into a new house in south Richmond in September 2010, and a week later her house was broken into. “They took my computer and my punk rock CDs,” Borg says. “So you know they were kids.”

Borg believes many youth in Richmond resort to theft and burglary because of unstable family situations and the lack of jobs for the young people in the city. They’ll do whatever it takes to make money, she says, even if it means stealing.

Matthew Stonebraker, 34, was born and raised in central Richmond and after completing his service in the army, decided to come back to serve his community as a police officer. Stonebraker has been on the force now for more than five years, and says he can see the positive impact that greater community involvement is having on the city.

“When I was growing up, there would be 20 dudes on a corner selling drugs and maybe three would have guns,” Stonebraker said. “(But) today, a lot of good people are moving in and making a positive change in the city.”

Mike Rubio, youth organizing director at RYSE, a youth center that offers programs and support services to Richmond youth, says change in Richmond will come as a result of “young folks pushing [and making demands to] adults.”

The youth organizers he is training at RYSE, says Rubio, are looking at the big picture, not trying to modify individual behaviors but looking at the root causes of violence and crime and identifying the policies and programs that will impact as many people as possible.

“They see themselves as agents of change,” says Rubio.

Mayor Gayle McLaughlin also believes the solution to Richmond’s violence lies in addressing the root causes, as opposed to suppressing the symptoms. “Ultimately, we have to resolve poverty in general, issues of equality and justice for all,” she said. “That is going to be the real solution for really bringing about a full, healthy and safe Richmond.”

Taisa Grant, 26, came to Richmond when she was 5, and left to attend college. Although she no longer lives in the city, Grant stays involved in the community, including as a regular contributor to Richmond Pulse.

“I was kind of scared to come back after college, because people I graduated with had been killed,” she says. In spite of that, Grant has maintained a positive perception of her hometown.

“Richmond has beautiful, raw, talented, unnoticed, community oriented, empowered people,” says Grant. “The violence hurts you, but you have to get over it, and it’s not going to stop me from making a change.”

Local Dietician Helps Richmond Fight Obesity Epidemic

News Report, Karina Guadalupe

Jan Schilling has been working as a registered dietitian for over 40 years, during which time she has seen the percentage of Americans who are overweight and suffer from high cholesterol skyrocket from 10 percent to 67 percent. The number is even more startling – 70 percent – for African Americans and Latinos living in limited-income communities.

The obesity and food-related health epidemic gripping communities like Richmond is why Schilling now preaches the benefits of “food, fitness and friends,” the official mantra of her non-profit organization Weigh of Life. The main goal of the organization is to help anyone looking to change their lifestyle and eating habits, and work with families to improve and maintain good health by providing exercise classes, nutrition classes and social support groups.

Guadalupe Matta, Manuela Molina and Teresa Rodriguez are all mothers and friends in Richmond, who say they joined the program because they are getting older and want to be healthier. Teresa is there because she wasn’t very active and needed the exercise. She heard about Weigh of Life from a friend and told Manuela, who told Guadalupe. Now, all three women go to the program together.

“We’ve been learning about nutrition because honestly I didn’t know, and the classes they have teach us,” says Matta. “I never looked at the nutrition labels (on food products) or thought about them [but] now I do. Everything we learn here we take back and use it with our families because we want them to be healthy, too. We don’t eat as much fat or deep fried stuff anymore.”

Their kids and grandkids go too, and take advantage of the free daycare offered by Weigh of Life. Although the women aren’t able to attend every single nutrition class, they manage to keep each other up to date.

“I haven’t been able to come [to nutrition classes] but Manuela tells me about it” says Rodriguez. “Before, my daughters and I didn’t really eat fruits and vegetables. Now we do.”

Weigh of Life has been offering their classes at Veterans Hall on 23rd Street in downtown Richmond. Today, thanks to a grant from Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL), they also offer some classes at the Nevin Community Center, located at 598 Nevin Avenue.

Consuelo Nunez is a group leader at the Nevin Center, and took notice of the exercise classes that Schilling was organizing there. About to turn 48 and feeling out of shape, Nunez decided to join the program. Nunez, who is planning a trip to Las Vegas for her birthday, says she wants to be able to enjoy herself and dance without being “winded after two songs.”

“When I started seeing all the ladies of different ages working out and exercising, I said to myself, you know what, I wanna get in shape too and I wanna get healthy this year. I’m tired of saying next year, next year, next year. The [people in the class] were all sweating but they were still smiling, so I started coming and working out.”

Gabriela Cortez is overweight and decided to join the program to improve her health.

“You get to be with other people and you get ideas of how to lose weight,” says Cortez. “I also like that it’s family friendly. You get to meet other people from the neighborhood that you otherwise wouldn’t have met. You get to know your neighbors. You also become a good role model for your kids because if they see that you’re being lazy they’re not going to do anything. The community has really come together inside and you know who you’re working out with.”

Since the program started, 60 percent of their members have lost weight and the 25 percent who didn’t need to lose weight to begin with have maintained a healthy lifestyle.

Gloria Garcia, a mother and grandmother, was introduced to the program 7 months ago through a neighborhood friend. At first, Gloria was skeptical of the program and didn’t think too much of it, since according to her, she’s very “lazy to exercise.” Now, Gloria attends classes 3 days per week for 2 hours per day and has lost 28 pounds. According to her, exercise helps, but it is learning how to eat healthy that is the most important part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Gloria encourages everyone to join Weigh of Life and has one thing to say: “Try it!”

Although Weigh of Life is located in Richmond, you don’t have to be a Richmond resident to participate. The group currently has members from Pinole, Hercules and Concord.