Witness…

Photo credit: Assassin's Creed.

Photo credit: Assassin’s Creed.

A couple of months ago I was the witness of a crime. It happened so fast, yet things seemed to go in slow motion, all at the same time. It was early evening. The street lights barely flickering in the glow of the sunset. The breeze was calm, with a tinge of humidity woven in. It was a calm and beautiful evening. I was running errands when two perpetrators caught my eye. I felt guilty for pegging them as such – one was the same skin tone as mine, and the other was a shade darker. They were young, they were Black, and they were males. In my head and my heart was a tug of war, and a telepathic conversation that I hoped they were receiving via my glances. “Whatever you are thinking of doing, please, please don’t do it.” They didn’t heed my message. In the blink of an eye, they took a person’s personal belongings. He gave chase, but they were too fast. I called the police – who was to say that weapons wouldn’t have been drawn? Or someone could have gotten hurt or killed? I couldn’t just let this event happen without helping. What if I were the victim?

Approximately 10 minutes later, the police arrived. Several witnesses stepped forward, including me. Call me a snitch – so what. If the same thing happened to you, wouldn’t you want someone to speak on your behalf? Yet, I still felt a sense of sadness and frustration. Why didn’t those guys just walk away? As I was giving my statement to the officer, he mentioned to me how this was his beat, and that he had only been gone for 20 minutes to serve as back up on a shooting call across town. “I was just here,” he said, “if only I had had been here, this wouldn’t have happened.” In that moment I wondered, what if the officer had been there? What would have transpired? Would his presence have made these guys take a second guess about their potential actions, or would they still have carried out their mission? If the officer were there, would he have felt threatened and needed to use force or let off some warning shots to make them stop? If the officer had been there, would the place that these young men last stood become their memorial? A curb covered with candle wax, liquor, and flowers? Or would their names be hash tagged along with #HandsUpDontShoot? What if? Given the outcomes that the poor combination of itchy trigger fingers and dark-skinned males continue to have, in addition to past and present transgressions, as well as my own lived experience – it’s hard for me to say that anything positive would have resulted from his presence. And that’s sad. It’s sad because it doesn’t have to be. It’s sad for the children that may not make it to adulthood. It’s sad for those that will be fortunate to survive, only to ravaged by the insidious nature of racism. It’s sad for the children I hope to have some day. It’s sad for the generation to follow.

However, in spite of how sad such outcomes could be – they are not destined to happen. We do not have to let such attitudes and actions continue to be the social norm. We gotta let go of this bystander mentality in order for a sprout of positivity to grow. My hope is that someday, God willing, my future son can walk down the street on a cold day with his hoodie up. And make it home alive, or without being covered in the stench of temptation, negativity, and harassment.

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Notes to My 18 Year-Old Self

The other day, I came across a small, tattered white cardboard package. Underneath the yellowing packaging tape was a mailing label – addressed to me from Kaiser Permanente. Inside the package was a black plastic case with a VHS cassette inside with its contents produced over 18 years ago. A time capsule if you will. Kaiser was a key sponsor for the Oakland Technical High School Health Academy, and at that time, they ran a health program called Partners In Health on a local channel in the Bay Area called KBHK. For this particular airing, they were highlighting the Health Academy, and they asked me and my mom if I would like to be featured in that segment. “Of course!” I said. What teenager would pass up the chance to be on TV?! I recently watched this video, which is all but four minutes, but held so much more. I cannot tell you how many emotions and memories were stirred while watching it – amazement, humility, gratitude – all rolled into one. And how fortunate I am to look back on the mindset I once had. Analyzing what has changed and what is the same. After reflecting on this video clip, I decided to pen these few notes to my 18 year-old self:

  • Unfortunately, you did not become a pediatrician as you had always hoped to become, and that’s ok. You are not a failure. God had a different plan for you. Just embrace it and keep pushing.
  • If I could have forewarned you, I would have told you to NOT take 8 classes the first semester of your freshman year. At UC Berkeley. College isn’t high school.
  • Never let that ambition and drive you have diminish or disappear. You will always need it, and you must always cultivate and nourish it.
  • Don’t own or claim the odds that are stacked against you. They are not yours.
  • Granny was not there in the physical sense to see you walk the stage when you got your bachelors or masters degree. But know that she was there. She will always be there.
  • Your mom, sister, and brother are still in your corner and believe in you. So keep pushing!
  • Life never gets any easier. And that’s also ok. Just learn from each experience and continue to self-reflect and grow.
  • If you are fortunate to stay connected to or to reconnect with those that supported you on your journey, thank them. Thank them. Thank them.
  • You will become a champion for the kids that were like you. Those navigating challenges and coming from communities that are often cast in a negative light. The green/inexperienced kid that may not fully understand the process, but has the desire to do better in life – for themselves, their family, and community.
  • You will always carry a backpack. A very heavy backpack. But it’s never filled with burdens or pity.
  • And always, always, always – stay focused and humble.

Lift this City: Performers Band Together to Elevate Oakland

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Photo by Katherine Brown.

Have you ever had an experience that put you on a natural high? A feeling that is so positive that it keeps you from falling asleep? An experience that motivates you to try and find a way share this feeling/moment/initiative with others? I experienced such a moment on the evening of Saturday, February 8, 2014. It began with a text from a good friend Vielka that afternoon, “Are you planning anything tonight… I may be able to get front row tickets to Sheila E tonight….” With initial plans that I had falling through, I quickly accepted Vielka’s offer. These tickets were for a the Elevate Oakland 1st Annual Benefit Concert at the Fox theater in Oakland. Elevate Oakland, spearheaded by Ms. Sheila E., is a collaboration between two organizations – Elevate Hope and 51Oakland – with the focus of improving academic achievement and increase student attendance by providing creative and relevant curriculums through Music and Arts Education.

For this benefit concert, artists like Ozomatli, the Bay Area’s own Goapele and Michael Franti, and host of other artists and musicians donated their time and talents for to raise money for this cause. The stage was also a platform for those that this concert was benefiting – youth of Oakland who have an intense passion for music and arts – a resource that over the years has experienced a decrease in funding and support. It is hard to capture into words how elated these youth were to share their amazing talents with the world – and it’s even harder to explain how beautifully this passion is evident in every note they played and lyric they sang.

As a product of the Oakland Unified School District, I remember fondly on the music programs of the schools I attended, and how much those experiences were positive forces in my life. My first music teacher was at John Marshall Elementary School, and his name was Mr. Tapiro. In the third grade, he taught us the very basics of music – how to read notes, about the legends and grandfathers of music (i.e. Beethoven, Bach, etc.). He also taught us how to play the recorder – the first tune I learned how to play was Transylvania 6-5000. He would refer to us students as his team – specifically, as his “Hoosiers.” Mr. Tapiro loved music, and did whatever he could to prepare the next generation in keeping this art alive.

My next music teacher was at E. Morris Cox, and her name was Ms. Newsome. She specifically taught our 4th and 5th grade chorus classes- my favorite songs to sing were “Lift Every Voice,” and “Believe in Yourself.” With Ms. Newsome, I also learned how to play the trumpet. I can still remember the strong smell of the valve oil, and the loud clicks of the latches on the tattered brown case I would tote my instrument in. I would guard this thing with my life, and there was NO WAY I was gonna let anyone “just play” my trumpet. It was my responsibility. It was my positive outlet. It was a necessity.

My last music teacher was Ms. Morrison, and she taught 7th grade chorus at King Estates Jr. High School. She would teach us about the history of music – specifically the origins of Blues, Gospel, and Soul. She could also play a mean piano. One of the songs we used to warm up our vocals with was “Do-Re-Mi,” a la “The Sound of Music” style. When Ms. Morrison would hit the break down, she would play these funky chords that had our class belting in a collective soulful “heyyyyyyyyyy!” She made music fun and engaging, something that us Oakland youth needed.

But as time went on, budgets got cut – and programs that were once viewed as required became electives. And eventually these electives became almost non-existent. However, with initiatives like Elevate Oakland, the importance of music and arts for Oakland youth is redeveloping the recognition and respect it deserves. I am sure somewhere, teachers like Mr. Tapiro, Ms. Newsome, and Ms. Morrison are proud.

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Mark Curry, comedian and Oakland native, addresses the audience and encourages the support for the Elevate Oakland Initiative. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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Los Angeles-based band Ozomatli donate their time and talents for this worthy cause. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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Members of the Castleers – Oakland’s Castlemont High School signing group – take in their standing ovation after their brilliant performance. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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Musicians El DeBarge and Peter Michael Escovedo share why supporting youth in music and the arts is important. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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A youngster from Oakland’s Westlake Middle School performs an a cappella number for the audience. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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Young musicians from Oakland’s Castlemont High School set to perform with Sheila E. It’s hard to believe that these extremely talented young men are 15 and 16 years old. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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The phenomenal Sheila E. giving her heart and soul in her performance. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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“A family that plays together…” Siblings (l-r) Juan, Peter Michael, and Sheila Escovedo bring down the house with their percussion skills. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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A young Oakland singer performs along side Bay Area-raised musician Michael Franti. Photo by Katherine Brown.

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Oakland native and Grammy award winning artist, Sheila E., gives an impassioned thanks to all that contributed to this uplifting event. Photo by Katherine Brown.