By Selam Kidane
CILSA Campus Bonner Leader
Class of 2012
(Above: Birds eye view from West Oakland overlooking the 980 expressway and into downtown Oakland)
The 24 Hour Urban Immersion took place from October 22-23, 2011 in West Oakland. The overall goal of the immersion was to educate Saint Mary’s students about the intersections of health, poverty, and justice. As one of the lead organizers for the immersion it was my goal to challenge Saint Mary’s students to think about what areas of privilege they benefit from. Another objective was also to help students recognize the intersections of health, poverty, and justice as integral parts of fighting systems of oppression.
To raise awareness about these issues as a group we went to the community of West Oakland and engaged in multiple conversations. We talked to three community organization representatives who are attempting to improve the quality of life through health in West Oakland.
We visited People’s Grocery, an organization that caters to the needs of the low-income community of West Oakland. People’s Grocery also promotes healthy living, by healthy eating. At one of their many sites they have a community garden where they grow fresh produce and distribute it to the members in the surrounding areas. West Oakland does not have one grocery store; therefore there is no access to fresh produce for those that cannot travel outside of the vicinity to purchase groceries. People’s Grocery is one of many community organizations lobbying to have a grocery store in West Oakland.
The second community organization we visited was the Prescott-Joseph Center which sponsors the Breathmobile program. The Breathmobile program was created in response to very high incidence rates of asthma within children ages 5-12. The Breathmobile is a 33-foot RV that travels throughout West Oakland and neighboring communities to give residents medical resources and provide them the means to better take care of themselves.
The final community organization we visited was What Now America which is an academic enrichment program that creates activities for the youth of West Oakland every Saturday afternoon. The program includes time to work on the academic disciplines of science, language, art and mathematics. The students are then fed a healthy lunch and given the remainder of the afternoon to participate in recreational activities. To end the day the children are given healthy food to take home.
West Oakland’s community mission in improving the quality of health is astounding. The grave levels of poverty create added stress for the members of West Oakland, yet the organizations listed above see these issues as human issues. Human in that the people of West Oakland have the right to live and breathe fresh air, they have a right to an education, and most importantly they have a right to health care. Despite the validation of being citizens in our American society, the sad reality is that there is a group that seems to be invisible, the poor. The poor in our country are judged by the fact that they have little or no education, therefore it is “their” fault; they are a part of this particular social class. What goes unnoticed is that the poor are a socially marginalized group. Marginalization means that although a person may have the right to an education or employment, other social factors, such as race, gender, etc. dictate the quality of the resources a person will receive. Social marginalization contributes to a system of oppression that has existed throughout our history. Those who question these systems of oppression are people within the community that have enough social capital. Their social capital allows them to question the inequalities that exist and demand they change. By questioning these systems they are empowering themselves to become a part of the solution.
This immersion for me was an amazing experience. Planning the event helped me raise my consciousness and empowered me to educate others about the issues that exist in close proximity to our campus community. The small group of SMC participants (11) really seemed to be greatly effected by what they were learning about the quality of health and access to resources in the West Oakland community. As a student leader seeing the willingness and the mere interest from a group of my peers made me remember why I love doing service and helping others. Although it is one small act, empowering others to think and question a system that seems to benefit one group of people gives me great pride. I think some people do not do service because they are not educated on the severity of the issue nor do they see the negative effects on specific groups of people. I think this immersion put a face on the reality of poverty for the students; I could see them really struggling with the issues and questioning their social positions. As a group we grappled with the question: why does poverty exist? What can we do as individuals to help be a part eradicating poverty? These questions weren’t questions we answered in our time together, but they did challenge us to start thinking and questioning the roles of social institutions and how poverty really isn’t a personal issue, rather a societal one. I cannot be more grateful to CILSA for sponsoring this event. It is events like this that make social activism and grassroots movements a part of a history that has experience so much pain yet also so much happiness.