Vigil Honors Memory of Fallen Southeast Asian Community Members

Photo Essay, Edgardo Cervano-Soto

Gwai Boonkeut wore a white t-shirt, emblazoned with an image of his deceased daughter, Chan Boonkeut, holding a rose. Her murder, he told a group of community members, was the undoing of his immigrant family, the failure of their American Dream.

If there is anything positive to be taken from Chan’s murder back in 2003, it’s that it galvanized Richmond’s Southeast Asian community to organize against gang violence. From those efforts emerged a group called South East Asian Youth Leaders (SEAYL), which promotes “leadership, community improvement and sharing of cultural practices.”

On Saturday October 12th, SEAYL members and supporters gathered for a candlelight vigil at the public library to honor their ten years of existence and to remember five of their fallen community members. The vigil included speeches by Mayor McLaughlin, the Boonkeut family, Torm Nompraseurt and Councilmember Jael Myrick, as well as a dance tribute by current members of SEAYL, and additional words from SEAYL alumni.

Below are the five community members who were remembered:

Chan Boonkeut was murdered at her front door in October 2003. She was a student of Middle College High School at Contra Costa Community College.

Alan “Ace” Lee was murdered in October 2009, at the age of 19. He was a member of SEAYL.

Mearn Leepom, 56, his wife Bounkeo Viengvilai, 50, and their son Chandee Viengvilai, 28, died in house fire this past July.

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At San Quentin, Reflections on Personal Space

by Pendarvis Harshaw

SAN QUENTIN — As I walk down the hill, beyond the blind curve, “the yard” reveals itself. I walk past groups of men congregated around tables. There are more inmates over on the running track, and about another dozen on the basketball courts. Men play catch on a baseball field in the distance, and three men surround a punching bag in the foreground.

“CDCR” (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) is written in yellow letters on the back of prisoner’s jean jackets. “Tennis Shoes Only – No Boots Allowed” is written on a sign near the tennis courts. The words “Lower Yard Shack” label a small building, smack in the center of the yard, and another sign reads, “No Toilet Paper Allowed On Lower Yard.” I wonder to myself why, without breaking stride.

There is racial division in the yard, with African American men near the basketball courts, and the majority of white inmates near or on the track and on the baseball field. Latino inmates are between the tennis courts and the punching bag. There are also a few Asian inmates, who sit amongst themselves. With so many people on the yard, I wonder: how many are in the cells?

As I walk, I use head nods to acknowledge everyone I make eye contact with — I believe every human being deserves at least that much respect. I also give a nod of respect to the Corrections Officer as I sign one last tablet with my name, the date and military time.

Then I walk into the San Quentin newsroom. I’m here with my journalism teacher from UC Berkeley, William Drummond, and another student. We’re at the headquarters of the San Quentin News, a monthly publication that is printed and distributed to inmates at this prison and which is also available online at It is one of the only newspapers currently written by and for incarcerated people in the United States.

The newspaper’s offices are nestled away in a portable, which is on the opposite end of the yard from the prison entrance. It has the feel of a traditional newsroom with chairs, desks, and computers. There’s a TV off to one side, and a whole bunch of old copies of the San Quentin News mounted in the rafters of the single-story trailer.

Anywhere from 6 to 10 men of all ages and races come in to write and edit stories. The articles consist of recent happenings in the prison, their personal stories, and their perspectives on life.

One of those writers is a man by the name of Watani Stiner, who is serving time in connection to the murder of Black Panther leaders Bunchy Carter and John Huggins. He once escaped from San Quentin, lived in exile for 20 years and then turned himself in – just so the kids he fathered while in exile could have U.S. citizenship. He writes a column called, “From an OG’s Perspective,” which he uses as a platform to voice his opinion on issues having to do with the generation gap, as he sees it, and to create dialogue between people with conflicting perspectives.

In the June 2013 edition of the San Quentin News, Stiner wrote about the perceived lack of respect between elder and younger inmates. He cited a conversation that he had with a young inmate who claimed that he knew the rules of the game and showed respect to his cellmate, an older gentleman, only to have the older man not reciprocate the respect.

“Some of these OG’s around here don’t deserve no respect!” Stiner quoted the young man as saying, while they spoke in a stairway. “If you don’t give none, you don’t get none,” continued the young man. “That’s the way I think.”

In his analysis of the young man’s experience, Stiner wrote:

“While initially the young man wanted to know ‘who is wrong,’ I don’t believe that’s the real issue. It’s not a question of who is wrong — the young man or his ‘OG’ cellmate — it’s a question of what is wrong. And what’s wrong is two grown men being forced to live together in a cage half the size of a small bedroom closet. Such a condition, by any stretch of the imagination, is certainly not conducive to a harmonious relationship between any human being(s).”

In prison, it’s true that many of life’s basic needs are met: There is shelter and nourishment. There are religious buildings and hospitals. There are places for exercise and places to write. But in California prisons, where overcrowding is the issue of the day (and has been for years), the question that begs to be asked is: How can humanity truly be achieved in prison without the one key thing that’s missing — personal space?

I leave the newsroom, give the CO a head nod and sign the tablet confirming my exit.
I walk past the baseball field, the basketball courts, and the “No Toilet Paper Allowed On Lower Yard” sign. I walk up and around the blind curve, and past the patio where the well maintained garden is. After showing my I.D. to the guard and signing out on two different tablets, I’m back in a world where we value personal space. •

Racist Remarks Put Obscure Elected Official Under Spotlight

News Report,  Malcolm Marshall

Racist statements about African and Asian Americans made by West County Wastewater District director Leonard Battaglia, who was quoted in a news report, have led some Richmond city officials to call for his resignation.

Battaglia, 84, a former Korean War fighter pilot who has served as an elected official for three decades, made the statements to Bay Area News Group reporter Thomas Peele who published them in a recent article about the exorbitant salaries earned by some part-time elected officials.

According to Peele’s article, Battaglia said:

“I flew with black pilots. I’d say ‘break’ (suddenly turn right or left) and they’d hesitate. They’d miss it because they think slower. They have an African-American mentality. They can’t help it. It’s the way God made them… Like in Richmond. It’s a mess.”

The article mentions that Battagglia made “racial slurs” against Asian, but did not go into detail.

Battaglia was also quoted by Peele as saying that he “is not a prejudiced person,” and that his constituents shouldn’t be offended because he is only saying “how things are.”

In response, Richmond councilmembers Jim Rogers, Jael Myrick and Jovanka Beckles issued a statement during Tuesday night’s council meeting to demand that Battaglia apologize for his remarks.

Rogers read the proclamation on behalf of the councilmembers, referring to Battaglia only as “the speaker.” “We call upon the speaker to rethink the assumptions that the remarks were based on,” said Rogers. “We’re not mentioning the name of the speaker because we wish to focus on the dangerous nature of the quoted remarks, not on attacking or name-calling against the speaker.”

Councilmember Beckles said the comments were reprehensible coming from an elected official who represents Richmond, a community that is largely comprised of people of color.

The West County Wastewater District constructs and maintains the sewer system for western Contra Costa County, and serves approximately 93,000 people.

“For him to make a statement like that scares me, quite frankly. It scares me because this is someone who’s supposed to be working on our behalf, and if he thinks that we are less than… I wonder, then, is he really working on our behalf.”

Battaglia had not returned phone calls made by Richmond Pulse by the time this article was filed.

“My initial thought was [that] he should apologize, but on second thought I really believe he needs to be removed from office, however that (apology) looks,” said Beckles.  “I think the honorable thing for him to do would be to resign, but if he refuses to do that, then voters can… remember this and have him removed at the next opportunity.”

His term as board director expires December 2014, according to the agency’s website.

Councilmember Myrick said there is some urgency to resolving the matter, because the council still has to work with Battaglia and the West County Wastewater District.

“It is not acceptable for us to have somebody that we’re dealing with, representing this community, to blatantly and unapologetically be claiming that he believes that the majority of our community, and frankly the majority of our council, are less than, are biologically, predisposed to not being as intelligent as others,” said Myrick.

If he was misquoted, he needs to explain that.  If not, I agree with Council member Beckles that he needs to go. He needs to do it tomorrow.”

“It’s clearly out-and‑out racist,” said Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, “and I don’t think any elected official, regardless of the community they represent, should be holding that perspective.”

Many of those in the audience were hearing about Battaglia’s comments for the first time and some began to ask for the name of this public official, regarded to only as “speaker.” Someone eventually yelled out “Battaglia.”

After the three councilmembers spoke — councilmember Tom Butt said nothing on the matter, and councilmembers Boozé and Bates were absent from the meeting – audience members were given an opportunity to make public comments.

“He actually ran for the Board of Supervisors many years ago against Nancy Foden, but lost the race because his loose lips got him in trouble when he said that Nancy should not be running and she should go back into the kitchen where she belongs,” said Andres Soto, a Richmond resident. “So, he’s got a long record of this kind of… behavior.”

Vivien Feyer of the Richmond Human Rights Commission commended the council for acting quickly to address the issue.  “I think you made a powerful statement. Thank you for the effort to bring it as not so much an issue about one person, but about behavior that’s unacceptable.”

“He is what he is,” sad Richmond resident Jackie Thompson. “He’s a bigot, and he needs to be identified just as that. That’s Archie Bunker, that’s who that is. You have to put the cards on the table and call a spade a spade.”

“I know Leonard for over 25, 30 years,” said Mark Wassburg, a Richmond resident. “Leonard, he was an ex-pilot in Korea.  That’s why he’s kinda prejudiced against Asians.  He’s just a good ol’ boy.  He’s just like Archie Bunker.  I know Leonard and he’s just the type of guy… he’s just a hard headed white man.  That’s all he is, and he will say it again. It’s gonna be tough to get Leonard off of there (his elected seat), but you guys can do it.”

Others warned against rushing too quickly to judgment.

Pamela Hampton said it was important to not attack a person’s character without a full review of the facts. “I really was emotionally moved to hear [about the] racism. Those types of words are strong, but… I’m saying innocent until proven guilty, not guilty until proven innocent.”

Tercer Anual Major Taylor Bike Fiesta

Documento Fotográfico, Salud y Ambiente de Richmond

Cientos de miembros de la comunidad salieron a la tercera anual Major Taylor Bike Fiesta en la primaria Lincoln el 1˚ de junio. La fiesta de bicicletas incluyo comida gratis, reparaciones a bicicletas, rifas de bicicletas, cascos, rodeos de bicicletas, un santuario de salud y bastantes actividades familiares. La fiesta de bicicletas se realiza cada año para promover el uso de bicicletas de manera segura y la accesibilidad de bicicletas para todos los niños y miembros de la comunidad de Richmond. La Major Taylor Bike Fiesta se nombra en honor a Major Taylor, el primer campeón mundial afro americano – una hazaña que volvería a lograr seis veces más en el mundo de ciclismo. •

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Richmond Celebrates International Women’s Day, 2013

Photo Essay • David Meza

In 2008 Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin and her staff, in conjunction with numerous local organizations and community members, organized the city’s first annual International Women’s Day celebration. The event, called Women in Solidarity: Honoring Self, Honoring Community, was an opportunity for women to network and celebrate their collective struggles and victories.

Continuing the tradition, this year’s event was held on March 9, 2013 and was titled, Sisters in Solidarity: Promoting Peace and Well Being Across Generations and Cultures. Approximately 300 people were expected to attend for a day of networking and round-table discussions with co-sponsoring organizations, performances by local women artists of different ages, inspiring speakers, and a walk for health.

This year the keynote speaker was Dolores Huerta, who spoke about her life growing up, the horrific struggles women of her generation have had to overcome, how much things have changed, and how much more women can do and be recognized for today.

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Bringing Richmond’s Black History to Life

Profile, Malcolm Marshall

Betty Reid Soskin is our country’s oldest National Park Ranger and one of the most beautiful people I have met in Richmond. I had the pleasure of meeting her recently as she led a bus tour of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond. According to Reid-Soskin, the park is home to the largest concentration of intact World War II historic sites in the country. The tour made several stops at key park sites, while reflecting on the African American home-front experience. Reid-Soskin’s charm, knowledge, passion and personal history made for a very special tour.

Born in Detroit, Michigan and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, her family relocated to Oakland in 1927. During World War II she worked as a clerk for Boilermakers A-36, a Jim Crow era, all-Black union auxiliary. A Black woman who has seen both the end of segregation and the election of the country’s first Black president in her lifetime, Betty Reid Soskin is a local treasure whose understanding of local and national history is unique and insightful, and who at 91 years of age still has much to offer the Richmond community.

As the tour bus traveled from place to place — the Rosie the Riveter Memorial at Marina Bay, the Maritime Child Development Center, the SS Red Oak Victory Ship, just to name a few — the lives of a great era gone by called out to me. The old buildings, ships and restored sites, along with Reid Soskin’s narrative, brought the tour to life with stories of Blacks and Whites, Asians and Native Americans, all living together, not always harmoniously. Our tour guide didn’t shy away from that imperfect history, filled with racism and inequality. In fact, she embraced it while encouraging others to do the same.

“A Black man on the sidewalk in Jackson, Mississippi… would be expected, by southern tradition, to step off the curb if a white person approached,” she said, recalling the Jim Crow days. “That same man would find himself in Richmond, riding in the front of the bus, ten years before Rosa Parks,” she added. “Can you imagine what was set in motion here? Under that seriously flawed social system was a situation in which you had white southerners, mostly sharecroppers, coming here (to Richmond) expecting the continuation of white privilege, and Black people coming in with raised expectations. And the interplay of those people…how to negotiate, getting through each day and completing those 747 ships, and to do it without killing each other.”

Where some might look and see only a history of racial tensions and conflict, Betty recognizes seeds of change that are still bearing fruit throughout the nation today.

“They literally set the pace of social change, accelerated it to the point that social change still radiates out of the Bay Area into the rest of the country, because of what happened here. So not only is this the story of Rosie the Riveter, which is the impetus for creating this park, but also of what was set in motion here over that 20-year period between the war and the 60’s that changed the course of history. It’s that social history that interests me because it is just an amazing story of social change.”

In the long view of Reid-Soskin, Richmond is still a very young city, one made up of strangers. The history of Black people in Richmond, particularly, is not yet old enough to have worked its way into school textbooks, “so the kids have no way to learn what the migration that brought their families to Richmond meant,” she explained. “The people who were brought here were all required to do a very small part of a very large job (during the war). So until you can provide context in which people can understand their role in the bigger picture, I don’t think African American people in Richmond understand their importance.”

Reid Soskin sees Black history as still being relegated to a sub-category of American history, one that’s confined to 28 calendar days a year: “At some point, we need to move that into the national narrative because we are a part of national history.”

Her view of Black history and history in general, says Reid-Soskin, has evolved as she herself has, with age. It’s a wisdom that has given her keen insights into the very identity of the city she calls home:

“Community comes out of shared history, and we (in Richmond) haven’t lived long enough nor shared history long enough with each other to be able to learn from that or have community develop from that. We are too young as a city, and that’s true of the whole Bay Area. So we borrow things from other cultures at this point or we dogmatically try to cling to that which is Black and it keeps us from becoming part of the larger narrative, because we are still searching for identity — both as a people and as a city.”

Reid Soskin’s great grandmother, Leontyne Breaux Allen, was born into slavery in 1846 and died in 1948. “When she died it was three years after World War II ended, after my experience in the Jim Crow union hall,” she recalled. “I was 27 when she died, a full grown woman and a mother of two. My own mother was born in 1894 and died in 1995. My mother was 101 when she died. My great Grandmother was 102, and I’m 91. That means that all of this history since slavery happened within the lifetime of three women who knew each other. That’s how fast it goes.”

Understanding her place in history, Reid Soskin now feels empowered to bend it to shape, just by her being alive. And she feels compelled to share the lessons she has learned along the way, with as many as are willing to listen.

“Last December I was invited to the World War II museum in New Orleans. I was a panelist for three days (at a) conference for 500 people, all white. The hotel where the conference was held at, the Astor Crown Plaza Hotel, just outside the French Quarter… My parents could have only entered through the back door, if they had a service or delivery to make. That’s how much change has occurred in my lifetime. I want us to be able to go back and recognize that process, because in that lies hope for the change that we still need to go through. I know how far we’ve come because I’ve lived long enough to know that,” explained Reid Soskin. “My experience tells me that the arc is bent towards fairness and justice, just as Dr. King said it was.”

Comfort and Serenity in the Iron Triangle

News Feature, William H. Fraker

In the neighborhood known as the Iron Triangle, comfort and serenity can be found at the corner of 6th and MacDonald, where a once-barren lot is now host to chickens, rabbits, beehives, and dozens of blossoming garden beds. In and amongst this thriving hub of life, a burgeoning community has taken root and found peace.

“I definitely feel like it’s a privilege to grow your own food,” shares Lena Henderson, founder and director of The Garden of Comfort and Serenity and daughter of lifelong Richmond activist Lillie Mae Jones. “It keeps you grounded,” says Henderson. “It’s a nurturing environment.”

But it hasn’t always been this way. Two years ago, the roughly 2-acre plot of land was nothing but an abandoned parking lot, where the only things growing were useless weeds and Richmond’s crime rate. But in the heart of the Iron Triangle, long reputed as one of Richmond’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods, Henderson’s vision has proven itself resilient, transforming the vacant land into a powerful resource for community growth.

Like most things in life, The Garden of Comfort and Serenity started as a seed.

“First she had the mulch, and then she had the beds built,” explains Annette Howard, who lives adjacent to the garden with three of her daughters and serves as the garden’s co-director.

With input from Richmond’s Youth Build and Self-Sustaining Communities, a non-profit organization, the hard work and commitment of Henderson and Howard has resulted in not only fresh produce, but changed lives.

“People just show up,” Annette explains. “We get all kinds of people that come through and sit down and talk their problems out.”

Neighbors come to plant in the boxes; strangers also come, some to sit silently in peace, some to find an open ear and heart; homeless men and women come and receive fresh food; cars pass with a honk; people pass with a smile.

For longtime residents of the Iron Triangle, the change brought by the garden is palpable.

“I was depressed a lot,” explains Howard, struggling to hold back tears, “and Lena used to tell me to come out, because I had lost everything. She used to come and get me, put me in the garden and work me to death, make my problems go away, because once you’re in the garden, your problems go away.”

Her narrative hovers over the soulful tunes of R&B station 102.9fm, resounding through the solar-powered radio that is virtually always on, a signal to passersby that, according to Henderson, says, “welcome to our garden.”

“It’s really nice and soothing to put your hands in the soil and give all your problems to the dirt,” Howard says. There’s something profound about turning pain and sadness into beauty and life, a magic reaction that here only the garden seems to accomplish — a positive alternative to other routes so often taken by Richmonders, those of drugs and violence.

Yet the healing powers of the garden are much more than mental and emotional. By offering nutrition, exercise and relaxation, it has worked miracles for the physical health of those involved in the project. Leonard Tally, a long time friend of Annette, was recovering from heart surgery due to two clogged arteries, when Annette got him to start coming to the garden as a place to relax.

“Instead of just sitting at home, it’s more relaxing at the garden,” he explains. “[Annette] would give a lot of vegetables and different stuff for me to take home, and made sure I eat healthy.” The next time Tally went to the doctor, he was told he had made a marvelous recovery.

“It feels good to know that you grew something,” says Lynette, one of Annette’s daughters. “That the stuff you planted… changed something.”

African-American Elder Plays Key Role in Violence Prevention Efforts

Profile, Monica Quesada

Bennie Singleton quietly entered the church, Richmond’s Garden of Peace Ministries, looking for other “night-walkers.” With a household of children and grandchildren waiting for her at home, there were plenty of other things Singleton could have been doing on a Friday night — but the 78-year-old grandmother just had to come out and walk.

“We are tired of going to funerals,” said Singleton. “We are tired of children killing each other.”

For more than a year now, Singleton has been involved with Ceasefire, a group of concerned residents, clergy and police who are working together to stop violence, especially gun-violence, on the streets of Richmond. Their main activity is a weekly Friday night walk through problematic areas of the city, where they distribute information and do their best to get young people and other community members on board with the idea of a citywide ceasefire.

On this particular Friday the walkers were at Pullman Point, a townhouse-style apartment complex in central Richmond with a history of street violence. Once there, the walkers formed two-person teams and canvassed the entire grounds. It was a quiet night with only a few people out on the sidewalks, but each person the group encountered was given a few words and some literature.

Singleton was more quiet than usual. With the Ceasefire flyers held close to her heart, she walked strong and steady through the neighborhood while we spoke.

“I don’t really like people to know what I’m doing. I get embarrassed if people give me a compliment,” she said. “I like to do things in the background.”

Nonetheless, Singleton has shown herself to possess the character to act and responsibility to lead when necessary.

“I wish there were a lot more Bennies in [Richmond] because the city would already be a better place,” said Rev. Eugene Jackson, an organizer at Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization (CCISCO) and one of the leaders of Cease Fire. “She represents the fact that even though you are a senior you do not stop serving. She has a place and a purpose.”

Singleton, said the Reverend, is an important source of encouragement for young people because like other elders with deep roots in Richmond, she carries the memory of a time when the city’s reputation was not so tarnished by negativity and community violence.

No Jim Crow, But No Less Racist

Singleton still introduces herself as Bennie Lois Clark Singleton. Clark, her maiden name, is one she has been unwilling to let go. “I use [the name] now, more than anything because [my parents are] responsible for what I am,” she said. “They made me who I am.”

Clark-Singleton was born in Louisville, Arkansas in 1934. Like thousands of other African Americans in the south during the Jim Crowe era, the Clarks looked to the north and the west as places that could offer more opportunity. They migrated to California after being recruited to work at the Richmond shipyards during World War II.

Back then, in the 1940s, Richmond was a racist town. Still a child, Clark-Singleton remembers seeing Ku Klux Klan marching down McDonald Avenue. Nevertheless, she still preferred Richmond to the segregated south because she was able to attend an integrated school.

“I really liked that,” she said, “[because] whatever they taught those white kids in that class, I could learn it. They couldn’t exclude me.”

Even though the schools were integrated, they still did their best to track African-American children into trade classes like machinery or woodshop or domestic courses for girls, like sewing or cooking. But Clark-Singleton was raised in a family that valued education and her parents managed to force the school to give her a college-prep education.

“[My father] was a strict disciplinarian who pushed us to get our education,” said Clark-Singleton about her father, Benjamin F. Clark Sr.

Clark-Singleton started working at the age of 17 at the U.S. Navy as a clerk. She got married a year later and had her first child at 19 years old. A life of family and work distracted her from studying. However, when her father started attending night school, she also went back to school and eventually earned her college degree. “That man is not going to outdo me,” she recalled thinking at the time about her father.

When Clark-Singleton and her husband, James Singleton, were going to buy a house in Richmond, they were told that only whites could buy the house. Unwilling to accept the limitations being imposed on them, they packed their bags and headed south to Los Angeles.

“My dad always had us in situations where we were just people with other people. We always lived in a mixed neighborhood,” Clark-Singleton said. “I have never felt inferior to anybody because of my color.”

But Los Angeles turned out to be no fairytale for the young couple. “It was worse than Richmond,” she said.

Ten years later, the family was back home in Richmond. The Singletons, now with three children, bought a house at Atchison Village in 1971. Her husband died that very same year, and Clark-Singleton has been living in the home ever since, the matriarch and main provider for a growing family. She continued working in the banking industry until 1997, when she retired. Today, her family has expanded to include five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Like Father Like Daughter

Benjamin F. Clark Senior was a loving but strict father who would take his six children to the movie theater every weekend to see a western, although he usually fell asleep. “My dad [would] sleep everywhere,” said Clark-Singleton. “Anyplace.”

Clark-Singleton and the other children didn’t know at the time that their tired dad was not only busy working multiple jobs – he was a welder and the owner of a grocery store, among other things – but helping others in the community. Clark was a man of service.

It wasn’t until her father’s funeral that Clark-Singleton “found out all the things that he was doing,” she said.

Among those things was his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. He also helped to start and manage the city’s first farmer’s market, and fought for improved schools in Richmond. After retiring, he would take care of senior citizens and sick people, visiting them, feeding them and cutting their hair.

“I see myself in him,” said Clark-Singleton. “I see a need, and I just do it. I don’t like wasting time.”

Like her father before her, retirement didn’t stop Clark-Singleton’s drive to remain a productive and helpful member of her community, and she soon began looking for volunteer opportunities. Her first stop was the Literacy for Every Adult Program where she volunteered as a teacher, but soon came to feel that education wasn’t her strong suit. So she switched her focus to neighborhood improvement efforts in Atchison Village and the Iron Triangle.

At the time, the area around McDonald Avenue and 8th Street weren’t being regularly cleaned, and city properties like the Nevin Community Center and Park had become dangerous areas, hot spots for criminal activity. So Clark-Singleton and other neighbors got organized and began attending city council meetings to demand more attention be paid to their neighborhoods.

“What do you mean no street sweeping? What do you mean you can’t ticket the cars?” Clark-Singleton remembered her reactions to the city’s justifications. “We would go up there en-masse.”

After applying lot of pressure, the city finally took them seriously. They got their streets cleaned and the Nevin Community Center back from drug dealers and drug addicts. It was a victory for grassroots democracy, and a good indication that residents in Richmond could change their circumstances, if they were persistent enough.

“It takes a lot of people concerned enough to do something,” Clark-Singleton said.

Richard Boyd moved to Richmond six years ago, and met Clark-Singleton at an Atchison Village neighborhood council meeting. He’d decided to get involved, he said, because of the amount of violence he witnessed on his block. Through Clark-Singleton, Boyd got involved with CCISCO where he now works as a community organizer.

“Bennie is by the book. When we get off track she pulls us back, she keeps us focused,” Boyd said. “When she’s around, we listen.”

Today, Clark-Singleton keeps on helping community-organized programs, dedicating almost half of her week to two volunteer programs: Ceasefire and Safe Return, another program organized by CCISCO, the Pacific Institute and the Richmond Office of Neighborhood Safety. The program aims to help parolees integrate back into the community.

Cease Fire is the program to which she dedicates the most time and energy, motivated by the young people in whom she still sees hope. “These are children starting out,” she said. “They still can make choices and decisions that can alter their lives.”

When she walks on the streets of Richmond with the other Ceasefire volunteers, she approaches young people as if she were a grandmother or an aunt. “I speak to them with respect,” she said, “And if they need a hug, I give them a hug.”

She also has a wish for Richmond youth. “I hope [young people] will see [Richmond] as the city I grew up in,” she said. “Where people trusted each other and you could go out, all over.” It shouldn’t be too much to expect, said Clark-Singleton. After all, she said, “there are more good people in Richmond than there are bad people.”

Something Like Jazz: Roots and Renaissance in Richmond

Commentary, April Suwalsky

“It was a new song and its deep and plaintive beauty, its great cadences and wild appeal wailed, throbbed and thundered on the world’s ears with a message seldom voiced by man…They sneered at it—those white Southerners who heard it and never understood. They raped and defiled it—those white Northerners who listened without ears. Yet it lived and grew; always it grew and swelled and lived, and it sits today at the right hand of God, as America’s one real gift to beauty; as slavery’s one redemption, distilled from the dross of its dung.” –W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880

It is a new day in Richmond, and it is something like jazz.

Jazz is not only the quintessential American music; it is an icon, metaphor and the embodiment of slave struggle, African heritage, the Civil Rights movement, Creole, Latin and African-American roots, liberation, expression, patriotism and everything it means to “be an American.”

The history of Richmond is tied inextricably to certain things: To the people, the movement for racial justice, American patriotism and courage, and the language of jazz that permeated the entire culture and tone of the city.

Richmond has welcomed numerous innovators and social justice workers over the years. Duke Ellington performed multiple times at the Richmond Auditorium. Richmond and North Richmond were, and have remained, homes of the Black Panther Party and civil rights organizers. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first visit to California was in fact to Richmond, to the Easter Hill United Methodist Church. Fred Jackson devoted his life to justice, service, and freedom through expression. The flow and the music created in Richmond were manifest responses to the racial injustices and legacy of slavery–recognizing years of struggle and bondage across the country–noted by cultural critic Ralph Ellison who wrote, “In those days it was either live with music or die with noise, and we chose rather desperately to live.”

In North Richmond jazz and blues clubs once thrived–Minnie Lue’s, Tappers Inn, and Club Savoy, among others. Club Savoy was home to the legendary Jimmy McCracklin, and owned by his sister-in-law Granny Johnson. The building later became the Green Pastures Church of God in Christ, (now Green Pastures Independent Faith,) and for more than half a century has maintained a deep commitment to living with music. Octavious Webster– grandson of the church’s founders, Pastor William Combs, Sr. and Missionary Irene Combs–is now a drummer himself.

He stated: “I’m a drummer, I play the drums in church. In the past there were days when there were three or four drummers lined up for one service, six to seven piano players, so many musicians. Now it’s not even a remnant of what it used to be. The music…it’s there, but it’s hidden.” The clubs may have disappeared, but the music continued to live…in the churches, homes, and people.

“Jazz came out of the church,” he continued. “Churches were on every three or four blocks, and you heard the music and you knew where it was coming from.” And in many jazz compositions one does hear a church-like, traditional brass chorus, a seeming revelation—a “pastoral theme” which reminds us of church, or a riverboat, or 19th century American countryside. This juxtaposition moves the listener from a city environment in the present, to the past–a rural, religious, or perhaps New Orleans or deep-South sound. Jazz is as much about church and countryside as it is about cabarets, urbanism, and the city streets.

Ann Douglas, in her book, Terrible Honesty, wrote:

“If the blues were the roots of America’s modern religious sensibility, jazz was its oxygen; if the blues were buried treasure under the ocean’s floor, jazz was the deep-sea diver bursting back up into the air.”

Here in Richmond the “jazz” that is the city and urban life has again burst upon the scene and emerged proudly into the light. Though the diverse players have changed, the issues and struggles have not.

In October we celebrated the grand re-opening of the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in the historic Winters Building on Macdonald Avenue—the structure itself referential of the “hot jazz in stone and steel” Le Corbusier found in Manhattan’s skyline. The East Bay Center trains students in diverse forms, honors the deep roots and legacy of the Iron Triangle, and seeks to be a living cell that is connected and accessible to the broad Richmond community—for example creating theater productions showing the unification of Black and Latino families who once had been in conflict.

Operation Richmond, the interfaith collaborative of clergy founded in response to incidents of gun violence—particularly the Valentine’s Day church shooting at New Gethsemane—has brought the diverse faith communities together toward a common vision, to the healing of neighborhoods and families. Richmond Main Street has launched neighborhood ambassadors, new entrepreneurs, and hosted beautiful community gatherings inviting the appreciation and exploration of a revitalized downtown corridor.

Community leaders have found innovative ways to bridge past, present, and future. Dedan Kimathi Ji Jaga, an activist, documentary photographer, and mentor, works with Tommie Smith Youth Movement (founded by its namesake, the 1968 track Olympian who issued a Black Power salute from the podium upon winning the gold medal in the 200m race) to coach and mentor young people in Richmond and the Bay Area. Betty Reid Soskin–park ranger, activist, writer and musician–leads interpretive tours of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park helping to connect current generations with Richmond’s lesser known histories. Community steward and retired City Recreation Specialist Rosalind Randle–whose family has been instrumental in building community and mentoring athletes at Shields-Reid and throughout North Richmond–came out of retirement to learn construction and install insulation at the historic Maritime Center.

People make the city, and the relationships compose the “music.” Like Matisse, Debussy, Marie Curie, and Ernest Hemingway in the last century, Richmond’s engaged community members have fostered a break-it-all-open sentiment in the present that welcomes a new day, and supports the intellectual freedoms and democracy we value so greatly–or at least attempt so ardently to maintain. Richmond is no longer known as a “three-headed dragon”; groups are now working together collaboratively.

Given all of this, it is truly sad how some individuals in the city have seemingly forgotten this history of social struggle, and are now themselves perpetrating the same acts of violence they had experienced against fellow Richmond residents. (“If I’d known you were ‘Mexican’ I wouldn’t have voted for you,” exclaimed a heckler at a recent City Council meeting. “We don’t get Mexican customers, so I can’t take your fliers,” “reasoned” an African American business owner to a Latina volunteer of a non-ethnic community organization.)

In the words of Duke Ellington: “Of all the walls, the tallest, most invisible, and most insidious, that according to some observers mars the image of our country, is the wall of prejudice.” People live in houses and may throw stones, but “Did God ever build a wall?” he questioned.

Whether speaking of the city’s literal constructions like walls and fortresses, or more figurative ones like racial category or cultural identity, the goal is the same. We must move beyond divisive and hollow categories and unite in a common humanity.

Jazz is characterized by oppositions where both elements are nonetheless equally true—these play off one another, push-pulling to maintain some kind of equilibrium. Happiness and sadness, freedom requiring discipline, dark and light, the primitive and the modern, purity and sexuality, hot and cool, free-flowing and structured. These same oppositions also drive urban life and are subject to the pitch, timing, energy and flow of the city. From roots to renaissance, Richmond is something like jazz.