Richmond: At the Forefront of the Childhood Obesity Discussion

By April Suwalsky

“Childhood obesity isn’t some simple, discrete issue. There’s no one cause we can pinpoint. There’s no one program we can fund to make it go away. Rather, it’s an issue that touches on every aspect of how we live and how we work.” — First Lady Michelle Obama, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Legislative Conference, 9/15/2010

In early November, Richmonders will have the opportunity to impact policy by voting on two historic measures dealing directly with obesity. As someone with a community planning background and experience working at the local-ground-level here, I care deeply about the future of the city.

But the issue itself is even more personal for me.

You see, I was a fat kid. I was also an obese teenager and early-20-something young adult. I did not grow up in Richmond, but like all of us, the physical and social environment in which I was raised influenced — for better and for worse — my health and development.

Measure N is the so-called “Soda Tax,” while Measure O is the accompanying ballot item that recommends proceeds from Measure N be used for anti-obesity programs and local athletic fields. The soda tax is a penny-per-ounce tax that will be added to the cost of beverages with caloric sweeteners, such as soda and sports drinks.

Richmond resident Mark Torres, who is very active with Richmond youth sports and serves on the City’s Sports Fields Committee, says he is generally in favor of the tax as a source of funds to help prevent child obesity and improve athletic fields. At the same time, he’s concerned that taxing one type of item may create a slippery slope where any consumable could become subject to similar taxes.

I’ve heard the same sentiments from many in the community.

As Richmond roils in a hotbed of political debate, the region, state and country are watching the city as a case example. While Richmonders are all over the spectrum in their opinions, the community’s diversity — ethnic and political — make it a good place to test such initiatives. History here runs deep, but it is also open to innovation and change.

And that may be what is needed, given the growing health crisis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years. Obese youth and adolescents are at higher risk of conditions linked to cardiovascular disease — such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol — as well as prediabetes, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea and social and emotional health issues.

In addition, health issues like childhood obesity disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color such as those in Richmond. Councilmember Jeff Ritterman, M.D., a cardiologist and champion of Measure N, stated in a PBS interview that in the city, “Fully a third of our Latino fifth- and seventh-graders and a third of our African-American fifth- and seventh-graders are obese.”

But my aim here is not to endorse specific ballot measures. Rather, I wish to engage the topic as a springboard from which to speak honestly — and from my own perspective and opinion — about the critical importance of addressing the obesity epidemic through prevention and intervention health strategies.

It was not until I became an independent adult that I was really able to take control of my own habits and change my environment.

Today I am a healthy weight, having lost about 30 percent of my total body weight when it was at its highest. I achieved this through rigorous regular exercise and changing my food consumption habits. I share this to offer that losing weight and getting healthy was hard, and it continues to be a struggle for me to stay on point. It remains as much a mental strength test as physical.

So where do we start? Prevention is ideal, but we can all do something, and the benefits of even small actions are cumulative and synergistic.

Stay active and be intentional about your health. Learn what your healthy weight is, and make yourself a promise to stay within five pounds of it. Find a form of exercise you enjoy and commit to it three to five days a week. Make informed choices about how you fuel your body. Have high expectations for yourself and others in your networks. Advocate for healthy environments in your community — for example, more pedestrian paths and edible schoolyards.

Learn more about national efforts to end childhood obesity, such as First Lady Michelle Obama’s ambitious “Let’s Move” campaign. In Richmond, support the work of great local organizations, such as Weigh of Life and Urban Tilth. Get involved with sports or fitness training, such as Richmond Swims or boxing at RPAL. Check out The Ed. Fund’s Out of School Time initiative.

To be sure, tackling obesity is a hard-fought battle: It was for me. Solid policies are one way to be proactive and move forward together. Richmond deserves to be a healthy city. So let’s stay ahead of the game, at the leading edge of the discussion.

Richmond Co-op Does More Than Just Fix Bikes

News Feature, Monica Quesada

James Johnson, 20, is a bike mechanic. Born and raised in Richmond, Johnson has for years fixed bikes out of his own garage, all the while dreaming of opening up a bike shop where he could work with the proper tools, “without having to use hammers and stuff.”

Johnson’s dream became reality less than a year ago when – along with a group of other young people from Richmond, and under the direction of Brian Drayton, executive director of a non-profit called Richmond Spokes – he launched Spokeshop Bike Lounge, the only bike shop in the city.

“Spokeshop isn’t the regular bike shop,” Johnson said. “There’s not many bike shops where you can come in and instead of buying stuff just hang out, chat with the staff, come use the free wifi, and read bike magazines and stuff in peace, without people bothering you.”

Besides their welcoming atmosphere, Spokeshop has another element that sets it apart from most other businesses in Richmond: It is a cooperative, where all the members are both owners and employees – although, so far, none of the co-ops eight members are receiving a salary for their work.

“We are still working out systems,” Johnson said. “I definitely wanna… get paid, but I’m pretty much satisfied that I actually have my shop, because that is where all my money would have been going anyways.”

As the shop’s first anniversary approaches, members of the cooperative keep on showing up to volunteer their time in order to help it become a successful business.
“It is more like a split of profits,” said David Meza, 20, a co-op member. “We all equally decide what should be reinvested into the shop, and what should be [for] our personal gain. But [we put] the shop first.”

Helping Community, in More Ways Than One
“I like working on bikes because I think it’s a job that really serves the community in many ways,” said Roxana Alejandre, 21, a bike mechanic at the shop.

Alejandre echoes other members, who view the shop and their work as a community service; a way to help Richmond become a better city. Biking, they say, is not only a good way to improve community health by making exercise fun, but also a cheaper way to get around town, find better job opportunities and access better food sources.

“Most [businesses] give opportunities for jobs, but one thing they don’t give you is a way to get to that job,” said Johnson. “But with bicycles, not only are you giving (a person) a job but you are also giving (them) transportation, so you don’t have the excuse of, ‘I don’t have a way to get to work’.”

Filling a Need
Spokeshop Bike Lounge is one of the projects of the non-profit Richmond Spokes, the mission of which is to promote social and economic development through cycling.

Drayton, executive director of the non-profit, said he was approached by young people who told him they’d heard that he was “the person to call” if you wanted to grow a bicycle culture in Richmond.

“I came to Richmond and realized that there was no visible bike community, (yet) there is a large underground community of people that just bike until their bike fall apart and then they get another bike.” In addition to creating healthy opportunities for youth, he said, “The idea was to get some affordable bike repair here in Richmond and train people to build bikes and maintain bikes.”

In addition to Spokeshop Bike Lounge, Richmond Spokes operates other projects and services, like valet bicycle parking for public and private events, which Drayton hopes will build more awareness of the burgeoning bike culture in Richmond.

Youth Opportunity
Gerardo Lopez, 12, is the youngest staff at Spokeshop. He goes to school, but every spare moment he has he spends at Spokeshop helping clients, keeping the store clean and organized, and sometimes assisting the bike mechanics.

“My mom says it’s cool because I can have a lesson in life [about] how to build my own shop and how to do my own business,” Lopez said.
Like every other worker in the shop, Lopez doesn’t receive a salary for his work.
“I don’t really care about the money,” Lopez said. “I just want to help the community. I don’t come here for the money.”

Nonetheless, during the winter break he worked so hard that the other members of the cooperative decided to give him a thank you present, a little black BMX bike that he liked. Now Lopez said he has new friends, three bikes and the experience of participating in the brainstorming that happens at the cooperative.
Members of the cooperative describe the bike shop as an incubator for what could be future youth-led businesses in Richmond.

“I had an idea for a design studio,” said Jari Smith, a volunteer at the shop. “I came here and eventually it grew.” Smith now has plans to launch her studio, which will be the first entrepreneurial business to spin off from the Spokeshop co-op.
“If we had a cafe within the bike shop, eventually that cafe is going to outgrow the bike shop and it will be time for them to launch their business,” Smith explained. “Who knows what kind of businesses could grow from that, from people congregating in the cafe, dreaming, creating goals, putting deadlines on those goals and branching out.”

According to Drayton, Spokeshop already has all the necessary equipment to start a cafe, but they lack the money for the initial investment.

Growing the Ranks
One of the big challenges facing the cooperative, said Drayton, is attracting new members and keeping them active. If a person wants to join, he or she must commit to doing 6 months of volunteer work at the shop, while getting trained by current members.

“In disadvantaged communities, it’s hard to incubate people,” Drayton explained, “because if it takes 6 months to train someone and they don’t have another source of income, we lose people.”

“As people realize what it is that we are doing, they get passionate about it,” he added. “But we all have personal lives, we all have rent and food and bills and things that rack up, so it is a challenge to stay on top of [everything].”

In the near future, Drayton hopes to find bigger funders that could support a salary structure for co-op members, even while they are in training, to sustain Spokeshop’s model and “keep it going.”

Re-Writing the Story of Richmond Through RAW Talent

Story, by Molly Raynor

On a sunny afternoon in Richmond last Spring, a group of 5th – 8th grade students gathered outside in a circle on the grass to write poems during their weekly RAW Talent workshop at the Making Waves Academy. One of the students, ten-year-old Leeah Thomas, has already mastered the art of personification in her poems. But even more impressive is her understanding of the city that she calls home:

There’s this girl named Richmond
She mad
She pissed off
Watching people destroy her and mess her up
They don’t care
They don’t want to care
They don’t know how
She feel
She cursing yelling screaming
But they won’t listen
Leeah is right. In a community where young people in particular are so often stereotyped as being too loud, her poem is a reminder that their voices are, in fact, still not being heard.

If Richmond was a teenage girl and the Bay Area was her classroom, there’s a good chance that the teacher would call on Berkeley, San Francisco or Piedmont before they called on her.  That same teacher would probably also be quick to give her detention when she got loud or lashed out at another student, seeking the attention that she so desperately needs but never gets.

I came to Richmond five years ago when I started working at Making Waves, an organization that provides after-school academic support to students in Richmond and San Francisco.  The first thing I did on the job was a google search for “Richmond, CA + teen centers.” Nothing. Then I googled “Richmond, CA + youth programs,” followed by “Richmond, CA + poetry,” and many other combinations of words. I was taken-aback by the lack of positive programs and resources for young people in the community. This was before the RYSE Center opened, before I learned about the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts and some other great programs targeting youth in Richmond. But the beautiful work of those few flourishing youth programs can only reach so many.

While art is not the answer for everyone, I do believe that everyone is an artist in their own right; everyone has the desire to create. In her poem “Boy Breaking Glass,” Gwendolyn Brooks describes a young man who comes from poverty and struggle, who wants to be heard by any means necessary:

Whose broken window is a cry of art…
Our beautiful flaw and terrible ornament.
Our barbarous and metal little man…
“I shall create! If not a note, a hole.
If not an overture, a desecration.”

How we create depends on the materials we have to work with. Those who are given love, support, food, shelter, money and a paintbrush are likely to create a mural. Those who are given fast food, poisonous air, burnt-out teachers, eviction notices and a gun are likely to create a murder scene. It may sound overly simplistic but statistics and common sense will show that the equation is simple: positive outlets = positive outcomes; negative outlets= negative outcomes. Youth make their own choices, but adults in the community have a collective responsibility to help our young people find positive venues to channel their emotions and experiences. We cannot continue to fear our own youth.

When I was 15, I got involved with the local poetry slam in my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan. From the moment I entered the spoken-word and writing community, my life changed. I found my voice.  I found myself.  I became confident in my identity, my beliefs and my purpose in this world because I finally felt heard by my peers and the adults in my world. Because poetry shaped who I am today, because I watched it change and lift and save so many of my friends, I know the power of creative expression to transform individuals and communities. That is why I started RAW Talent, the creative arts program at Making Waves. While I wanted to create a space for creativity, even more importantly I wanted to create a community where we could build and grow and heal together, through that cathartic experience of storytelling and self-exploration.

Over the last five years, RAW Talent grew from a single workshop with one student, Donte Clark, into a thriving program.  Donte is now at the forefront of that program as a teacher and leader, and he is not alone. Workshops are regularly taught by former students, allowing youth to learn from people who came from the same place and have gone through similar struggles.

RAW Talent offers weekly visual arts, theater and music production workshops, but our focus is spoken word poetry.  We organize poetry performances, plays, town hall events and publish an annual anthology of poetry, accompanied by CDs and DVDs of recorded spoken word. While most of our workshops and events happen at Making Waves, we also run a poetry workshop at the RYSE Center on Tuesdays from 6-7:30 that is open to the public, if you’re interested in joining.  And last year, for the first time, Youth Speaks asked RAW Talent to host a Richmond preliminary bout for their annual teen poetry slam. Two members of RAW Talent made the Bay Area slam team. They went on to compete at the international slam a few weeks ago, where their team made it to the finals stage at the Fox Theater in Oakland, performing in front of 3,000 people. They were the first poets from Richmond to ever grace the finals stage at the national teen slam.

Imagine how many more poets there are in this city; imagine all the untapped raw talent waiting to unfurl!  Yet arts programs are usually the first things to be cut from city budgets in low-income communities, which is ironic, because cities like Richmond are capable of producing the most radical and raw artists.  In the midst of repression, revolution is born.

I believe Richmond is on the brink of a cultural and artistic renaissance.  There are so many individuals and organizations doing great work, so much creativity bursting from every corner of this city, every crack of the sidewalk. It feels like the rebirth of something that has been here forever, but buried for too long. It is time to revive the City of Pride and Purpose; time to build on the community’s history of blues and jazz with their children: hip hop and spoken word.  Let’s make this city the place to come on a Friday night! But let’s also be intentional with creativity. Art for art’s sake is okay, but RAW Talent is about more than that. It’s about using creative expression as a catalyst for social change.

Ciera Gordon, a graduating senior from Richmond, perhaps put it best:

“Our goal is to show that we, young poets in Richmond, choose to better our surroundings and raise awareness, but also to bring the community together. We all have common stories and we work to build each other up. We are welcoming you to be a part of the RAW Talent family.”

If you are interested in getting involved with RAW or would like to support them and stay updated on future events, please email Molly Raynor at


Advice, Alicia Marie

When it comes to high school, first impressions really do last a lifetime. So to make sure that you’re counted in among the 75.4 % who graduate from high school in Richmond, here are some tips to help you through your journey.

Tips for the Successful High School Student:

Be On Time
High school is training for the real world. Yes, some mornings things do come up that we don’t expect, but remember teachers are watching you. Showing up early and ready to work shows responsibility and gains teachers respect.

Do All the Homework
“To do something you want to do you’re going to have to do something you don’t want to do…well.”
Not many teens enjoy doing homework after a long day at school. However, all teens want to graduate high school. If teachers see a student arriving on time and striving to complete all the homework, they are willing to work with you more and give you more opportunities.

Make Friends, Not Enemies

High school is full of teens with completely different personalities. Many times you’re not going to get along with every student in the entire school. However, associating with students who are known to have problems with other students is known to create drama. Instead of limiting yourself to only one group of friends, be known and respected among as many students and teachers as you can. Trust this will help out in the long run.

Don’t Be Lazy After School
Granted, most of us are really tired after school. However, two to three more hours of after school activities is worth the extra exhaustion. Search around for internships or jobs that you are interested in. For instance, if you are interested in radio or T.V search and ask around how you can be involved in it. Most of the time you are awarded school credit and you get a chance to see what career path interest you.

Tips for High School Girls:

Avoid Heartbreak
Many seniors like to prey on freshmen because they feel like first-years are the least experienced and most vulnerable. The first heartbreak is usually the hardest and can be very distracting. Be careful who you choose to date.

Have Fun With Fashion
What seems to happen in high school is no one wants to stand out and be different when it comes to fashion. Have fun with it! If your personal fashion is to match from head to toe or if you like rain boots and tank tops DO YOU! High school is about finding yourself and being you.

Tips for High School Boys:

Stay Focused
In high school you are surrounded by beautiful people. Most guys want to do whatever they can to impress. Instead of focusing on getting with the prettiest face in each of your classes, focus on making sure your school work is done. Don’t be that guy at home on graduation day because you didn’t stay focused on the end goal of your diploma.

Make Smart the New Cool
People like cool. Make it your goal to define the new cool. Instead of not striving to achieve your full potential because of being afraid to being teased by your peers, show that it is possible to be smart and cool at the same time.

Tips for Parents:

Always Communicate
As parents watch their kids grow, sometimes it’s hard to decide how much freedom is too much or not enough. It is very important to stay involved with your child. Having open, honest, non-judgmental communication with your high school child will help them achieve success this school year.

Be Involved with the School
When teachers see parents at school, they respect the student more and are willing to be involved too. Make sure you are checking grades, attendance, and homework to help your teen be successful.

Going to school in Richmond can be difficult at times. However, it can be the best four years of your life if you stay focused, stay organized, and stay true to yourself. Have a great 2012 school year.

A Message Home, from San Quentin to Richmond

Written and compiled by “Malik”

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. — Since 2006, the men of the Richmond Project – a group of inmates from Richmond who are now incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison – have been striving from behind these walls to be a part of the solution to the problems plaguing their city; problems that they themselves at one time contributed to, but now seek to change.

The primary goals of the Richmond Project, which uses the San Quentin T.R.U.S.T. (Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Sociological Training) program as a vehicle for its development, are to reduce the level of violent crime in Richmond, develop youth leaders and mentors, increase parental and community involvement, and collaborate with city officials to restore Richmond’s sense of self and create a positive community image.

The Richmond Project also seeks to prepare inmates for their transition home, by equipping them with the skills they need to be an asset, instead of a detriment, to their city.

The work of the group, despite the reality of their incarceration, has even reached into the Richmond community itself, through toy drives for children, donations given for school uniforms for Richmond youth, and the sponsorship of two annual essay contests at Richmond Leadership High School, where cash prizes and gift certificates were awarded to students, thanks to donations from the incarcerated members of the T.R.U.S.T. – donations that were then matched by local business owners and the Richmond Police Department. Through the creation of positive partnerships with the police department and Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, the Richmond Project looks to do much more in the future to prevent crime and promote peace in the city.

Following is a letter written in a collective voice, by the men of the Richmond Project:

Dear Richmond Community,

Hello and salutations to all those concerned. This letter is a peace offering to everyone who has ever been involved or affected by the senseless violence that has plagued our city. We here in the Richmond Project are all in agreement when we say, “Enough is enough!”

We have stood by for too long and watched those who use violence destroy our community and kill our loved ones. It’s time to put a stop to the madness.

We have some questions for you: When are you going to put the guns down? When there is no one left to shoot? Haven’t enough people lost their lives already? Take a look around you. What do you see? That’s right, nothing. You know why? Because people are afraid to come out of their homes or even walk down the street for fear that they may be shot, and that’s real sad. No, that’s pathetic! Stuff like that is unacceptable and no longer tolerated. We want our city back. Our children deserve the right to play in the front yard, not be stuck in the house because of safety issues. People have the right to be safe in their neighborhoods and if you are part of the reason that they don’t, then this message is directed to you.

As a community we are asking you personally to please, please, please stop all of this senseless killing and respect the ceasefire ordinance! God love you and we do too! We would hate to see you in here with us, or even worse… dead.

Sincerely yours,
Richmond Project
(And the men who serve it!)

Following are some shout-outs to the young people of Richmond, from the Richmond Project inmates at San Quentin:

“Don’t be afraid to be your own natural self, instead of trying to be or act like someone else. You’ll find it easier to do. It will help keep you from ending up in here, too.”
– Maverick

“It’s easy to say stop the violence, but it is hard to see someone you love or care about die to violence. Peace and unity to all. Violence is the road to disaster, and peace is the road to success.”
– Larnel Wolfe Jr.

“To my young brothers and sisters, this is not a life to live. Do you know what hell is? Hell is being in a little cell… Do right, not wrong. Stay strong at home.”
– Waylo

“Education is the key that will unlock the door of opportunity. Don’t allow your present condition to blind you and hold you back or hold you down. Believe, have faith and strive to achieve. Whatever one seeks to endeavor, seek to perfect.”
– Malik

“My young brothers… Is taking the life of another young brother worth two lives – yours and the victim’s — being taken from their families? Ask yourself that question.”
– Reginald Hunt Jr

“Stop killing each other! And choose a better life and live a life that is free of crime. Killing does not solve any problems, it only creates more problems and victims.”
– Ishmael “Ish” Wesley

“Look you guys, you destroying a whole generation with this senseless violence. My only advice to you is, quit while you’re ahead. Is it really that serious? That is the question you need to ask before you go on your next murder spree. Please, stop the violence!”
– Bill Boy