Community Relations Blog

Meet the Ten Amazing Oakland Youth Poet Laureate Finalists!

The Oakland Youth Poet Laureate program is an unprecedented citywide effort to celebrate literacy through poetry and connect young writers to far-reaching opportunities. Each year we accept submissions from talented Oakland writers (ages 13-18) to be considered for the city’s top literary honor. The Laureate earns an educational scholarship and embarks on a year of opportunities as an ambassador for literacy, arts and youth expression.

 

This year we have ten wonderful Finalists. Please join us at the James Moore Theater at the Oakland Museum on California on June 7th, 2019 at 7PM to find out who our next Youth Poet Laureate is! Hear amazing performances from all of our finalists and our current Laureate, Leila Mottley. 

You don't want to miss it!

Every few days leading up to the final event we'll be introducing a Finalist and sharing their work.  Keep an eye on this space to meet all of these incredible young poets.

First up, Hayden Beaulieu, an 18-year-old high school graduate.  

Siara Edmond, 14 years old, goes to Skyline High School.

Darien Em is a 16 year old who goes to Oakland High.

Next, we have Samuel Getachew, who is a 16-year-old at Oakland Technical High School.

Monique Nadine Jonath is a 16-year-old at The College Preparatory School.

Here is Greer Nakadegawa-Lee, a 15-year-old who goes to Oakland Technical High School.

Zouhair Mussa is a 15-year-old who goes to school at Oakland High.

Here is Jordan Tisnado, a Dewey Academy 17-year old.

Eleanor Wikstrom goes to Skyline High School and is 16 years old.

See video

17-year old Lizette Navarro goes to Oakland School for the Arts.

See video

Growing Up Oakland: Interview with Toni Ratliff

Read more about Growing Up Oakland, a project entirely created and run by Oakland Youth Poet Laureate poets. 

As a part of Growing Up Oakland, Oakland youth interviewed adults who grew up in the city. These interviews have served as jumping off points for poems in youth poetry workshops and also as breathing histories of Oakland through time. Here is a full interview between Leila Mottley, 16, and Toni Ratliff, 38, used in Skyline High School workshops:

Full name: Antoinette Andrea Ratliff

Leila: Where did you grow up? what neighborhood? what time period?

Toni: North Oakland. 56th Street. In the 80s.

L: Do you have family in Oakland? Is your whole family here?

T: Yes, actually. My mom and dad’s side of the family lived on the same street. On 56th street. So my grandmother lived over here with my mom and all her siblings and then my dad’s family lived across the street and down, but on the same block.

L: And did both of your parents grow up in Oakland? And their parents?

T: Yes. Um, my mom’s parents both grew up in Louisiana. And my dad’s mom...I don’t know.

L: Do you know what brought your family to Oakland?

T: California had the reputation for having better opportunities for black people.

L: Do you think they found that to be true?

T: Probably, compared to where they were. Yeah. Because my grandmother moved from Louisiana to Texas and then from Texas to Oakland.

L: When you were a teenager, where did you spend most of your time?

T: Emeryville Public Market, baby.

L: All the teenagers hung out there?

T: No, no, just the nerdy ones. The bookstore [Borders] actually, if I’m keeping it real. And then there was a movie theatre right there, so you could catch the bus really easily.

L: What high school did you go to?

T: Holy Names.

L: What was your high school like? How would you describe the people and your experience?

T: Well, I have to back up a little bit, then, and explain my elementary school because I went to a Catholic elementary school, but it was predominantly African-American population in that school. And, so, when I got to high school it was way more diverse than I was used to. But that was good--it was diverse in a good way, I was just exposed to more than I was in my elementary school. But I also noticed that it was pretty segregated. Like most of the white girls hung out with the white girls, most of the black girls hung out with the black girls. And I found this group of people that didn’t do that and so there was a Mexican girl, a white girl, a black girl; our group was very diverse, but we would all pop in and out of the other groups, like “you know, we can hang with you guys, but you guys only hang with each other. That’s weird, we’re gonna hang over here too.”

L: Do you think that reflected your experience outside of school too, where most things were segregated and you looked for the integrated pockets?

T: Well, no. I mean, I feel like most of the people I hung out with outside of school were black. And so, in school, I was like “oh, hey, I see you in school, we’re friends. We didn’t make time to hang out outside of school.”

L: What was your neighborhood like?

T: Black. It was described--I remember this because my grandmother was really upset by it--it was described as a “run-down part of Oakland” in the news, because something happened and they were like “in the run-down part of Oakland” and she was like “ hey! That’s right down the street from our house. That’s not okay.” I didn’t feel like it was a run-down part of Oakland at all. I did realize, once I got to college, that litter is not a norm everywhere, you know, little things like that where I was like “huh, it’s not grimy most places. That’s interesting.”

L: Did you have a lot of friendships in your neighborhood?

T: I’m gonna say no, to be honest, mostly because I was not cool enough--like they wanted to do stuff and I was like “you’re not supposed to be doing that and Imma say something. Don’t hop that fence ‘cause that’s not your yard,” you know? So I grew up in my grandmother’s house and my cousin grew up on the same block and we would go hang with the neighborhood kids, but they were always like, “ugh, why are you always bringing your little cousin, she’s just gonna tell on us.” And I’m like “well maybe you shouldn’t be doing that.” So, no, I had like one friend on that street and then she moved and I didn’t have any. But I had a lot of cousins, so I didn’t feel lonely.

L: What was your favorite part of Oakland when you were growing up? And why?

T: Well, when I got to high school, me and my mom moved out of my grandmother’s house on 56th Street and we moved to 40th Street and Telegraph. Between Telegraph and Broadway. And I was just like “it’s awesome over here. Like, it’s so cool. There’s pizza down the street and there’s this over here and that over there. And all the buses and MacArthur BART was right there, so it was super close. Easy access to a lot of different things. I liked that the bus stops were really close by. I don’t think I thought about that that much, I was just like “this is where I live.” Later, my husband has such pride in San Francisco, every time somebody says San Francisco, he’s like “alright, alright!” and I’m like, “really?” I just never felt that. When I was younger, I would rep my street or whatever. That was my connection. Like “‘where you from?’ ‘Forty-one-hundred.’” Like, I’m from Oakland. I had an appreciation for other places and I never felt like Oakland had the best burgers or the best ice cream or the best blah blah blah.  It’s just like, this is my homebase and I go out and explore other places. This is home and then you go out and visit the world.

L: Who influenced you most when you were growing up?

T: My grandmother and that’s funny, because I was very confused as a child because of her, actually. Because she didn’t identify as black. She’s Creole, so her skin was lighter, but her hair texture was like my hair texture. Watching the news she’d say stuff like, “ugh, those black people” and as a child, growing up, I didn’t know what that meant. I was just like, she’s saying “those black people” so I’m not….I asked her one day, “aren’t we black?” and she was like “no, honey, we’re peach.” So, I literally thought that was a thing, went to school and people would ask me because they couldn’t tell since I used to wear my hair straight and I wore more make-up so I got mistaken for Mexican a lot. So they’d be like, “where you from? What are you?” and I’d be like, “I’m peach.” And it took one of my cousins being like “no,” ‘cause it was my grandmother, you can’t tell me she’s wrong; that’s my grandmother!

L: How do you think people perceive Oakland?

T: I think Oakland has a negative reputation most places that you go, unless they’ve been there. Unless they’ve seen that those things aren’t true, it has a really negative reputation. Like sometimes when I tell people I’m from Oakland, they’re like, “oh” like they’re surprised that I am from Oakland. I think the perception is changing because the population is changing.

When I got to college--it was Saint Mary’s College so it wasn’t far from here but it felt really far to my family in Oakland--it was really small, not very diverse, so all of the black people at least knew of each other, we knew each other. And I remember going out. Me and my other friend from Oakland were like “okay, we’re gonna take you guys to Oakland and we’re gonna go to the movies, we’re gonna go to Nation’s. We’re gonna take you to all the hot spots.” So there were two cars and my friend was like “we’re gonna take them through East Oakland.” You know that street that’s like: houses, houses, cemetery? So we drove them just past that ‘cause it was fun, ‘cause that’s normal to me and growing up we didn’t realize that it was unusual to have a cemetery in the middle of a residential area. Usually it’s off in the hills or a scenic area. So we took them past that and the other car was calling us from their car like “what the hell? Where are we? What is happening right now?” And so we took them to a liquor store and we were like, “we’re gonna eat here: food and liquor, see? It says food and liquor.” And they were like “what?” Some of our friends were from L.A. and they were really scared because of the reputation of Oakland. These are like football player guys and they were like “uh uh, my jacket’s blue though. Should I take it off? ‘Cause there’s gangs in Oakland” and I was like “you’re gonna be fine” and he was like “no, for real, I’ll take it off” and I was like “you don’t need to take off you’re jacket.”

Then we got to Nation’s and it was a Friday night, so it was packed, ‘cause it was the one on Broadway that’s really small. So it was packed and there was a lot going on and they were like “we don’t feel comfortable here, we should go, there’s too many people” and I was like, “but you guys are from Compton” and they were like, “no, no, no, Toni. Our hoods are poor, yours are dangerous.” That’s the distinction they made for Oakland. And I’m saying, “I don’t wanna go to your neighborhood because Compton’s got a reputation” and they’re like “no, no, no, everyone’s just broke in Compton. We don’t have guns. Your hoods have guns. I should take this jacket off, I don’t wanna get shot.” But just seeing that these big, tough black guys from a hood in California were still scared to be in Oakland, out on a Friday night--we really did not eat there, I forget where we went, but yeah.

L: Did you stay in Oakland? If yes, why? If no, why not?

T: I did not stay in Oakland, actually. I went to college in Moraga, which was so so far away. And then, after college, I lived in Pleasant Hill for a while. It was lovely, except there weren’t enough black people for me to feel comfortable. And I didn’t realize that was a thing because of what I was used to and then in college I knew that was unusual, this is not reflective of the real world, we’re seriously outnumbered here. So, we lived in Pleasant Hill for while and then I started feeling like, I’m tired of getting excited when I see another brown person on the street. That’s when me and [my husband] decided to move to Oakland, when we moved in together. He wants to live in San Francisco and I hate San Francisco and that was before the rent prices were outrageous, it still felt possible for normal, average people to live in San Francisco and I was like no, I don’t want to live there. So we compromised because Oakland is near San Francisco.

L: Do you think disliking San Francisco is a common Oakland thing?

T: I remember we went on a field trip in elementary school to San Francisco and we had some free time, so me and my friend stood in the doorway of wherever we were supposed to be and we were just waving at people on the street and they were just giving us really crappy looks and I was like “I don’t like San Francisco. I feel uncomfortable right now.” ‘Cause, in Oakland, I feel like people would smile back or you’d get a positive response.

L: Where do you work? How is your work environment different from your home environment?

T: [A preschool]. When I started at [the preschool], I used to tell people here “I live in Berkeley, I don’t live Berkeley.” I’m from Oakland, not Berkeley. I found that a distinction I needed to make for myself. And, over time, it’s been 8 years now, I can’t say that anymore. I’m composting, I’m looking at my eco footprint more, I’ve tried to go gluten-free a couple times. Friends who’ve known me since elementary school see me and are like “wow, okay, you’re just all in Berkeley now.”

L: In 5 words, what does Oakland mean to you?

T: Lake Merritt. Zachary’s. Family. History. Resistance.

L: What was Lake Merritt like? What did you do at Lake Merritt?

T: Aw man, okay, you’re too young for this, they don’t do this anymore. Festival at the Lake was a real thing that used to happen once a year at Lake Merritt and they would shut down the streets around Lake Merritt and it was a huge festival with concerts and food venues and all this stuff and it got so violent and crazy that they shut it down because, the last time that I went, I actually saw a mob of guys moving together as one surround a girl and then move on. She had no clothes. That was insane. I was like “who’s gonna help her?” She got swallowed, groped until her clothes were gone. I was probably twelve and I was with my dad and my sister, so I felt safe, but I was like, “who is she with? Who’s going to help her?”

I remember going again when I was fourteen and I was with two of my friends and we were walking past an area they blocked off because they didn't want people there. And there was a fence and guys were just standing  along the fence and as girls walked by they just grabbed at their bodies. You knew if you walked past there, you might get groped. And then they would do sideshows sometimes and stuff like that. And then they stopped doing Festival at the Lake, but it turned into every Saturday was like a mini Festival at the Lake and police would just have to be over there. Things like that would happen at the Lake, but also really fun family-friendly walks around the Lake and hanging out there with my friends and that kind of stuff.

L: Did you feel connected to that history of resistance growing up?

T: No, not until I was older and not living there did I really understand because of my family. My family moved from Louisiana to Texas to here and my grandma’s parents didn’t teach her the Creole language because they wanted her to assimilate and just fit in. And I think the culture they were trying to fit into, they said it was Catholic, but I feel like the culture they were trying to assimilate into was white culture. They didn’t talk to me about what the world is actually like, I just had to learn it from experience.

L: You mentioned the police. What was your relationship with the police?

T: My relationship with the police when I was growing up in Oakland was very much “they are the people who bring my grandfather home after he’s gotten drunk somewhere” so I didn’t see them as a threat, necessarily. They seemed like they were there to help and then once I got to high school, when I started hanging out with more guys who had gotten into trouble with the police, I was like “oh, some people feel really strongly that the police are dangerous.” And personally I might have gone into law enforcement and then in college I did an internship with the ATF. My experience with law enforcement hasn't been negative enough for me to be like “I hate those police.” But then, living with [my husband], he has experienced that and he is such a loving, patient, caring, positive person, so for him to be like “I hate cops,” that says a lot.  there was a time when they were like “we’re looking for a black guy, get on the ground” and they put their knee in his back and that happened and I was like “oh my God, I’m scared for you.” But at the same time I know black police officers…it's just another group of people. There are good people and bad people in all groups.

L: Do you have children? How do you think your experiences growing up have influenced the way that you raise them?

T: Yes, I do. I have two children. I think it's interesting for my kids because [my husband] is identified as a black man in the world, but he’s Samoan, culturally in every way. Like, he didn’t see Roots, he didn’t watch Shokazulu on TV when he was growing up and I was like, “that’s what all black people did, what do you mean? It comes on every year, you watch Shokazulu, that’s just what you do.” And he was like “I’ve never seen it.” He wasn’t familiar with some soul foods, he’d never had cornbread. They’re Samoan, they don't eat that. [My husband’s] family is so much bigger than mine and they get together so much more than mine, I feel like [my kids]  are getting so much of a bigger influence from their Samoan side, so we have a lot of conversations about “what am I?” [and I say] “you’re Samoan and you’re black, but when people see you they're going to think you're black. So if you want them to know, you're going to have to tell them you’re Samoan.” We also have conversations about what Creole means. We pray in Samoan together sometimes, so for them I think a lot of it is about navigating that experience, which I didn't have to do when I was younger because we didn't talk about it.

Also, they go to a school like the one I went to where it's predominantly African-American, so they  see a lot of faces that look like theirs when they go to school everyday, but then they also come here [to Berkeley] where they don't. The fact that they live in Berkeley and they go to school in Oakland is already so different from my experience where I lived in Oakland and went to school in Oakland, so it was like brown people, brown people, brown people everywhere until I got to high school. They are exposed already to so many more cities then I was, whereas I was just in Oakland all the time. My mom did not go to San Francisco until I needed a prom dress and we got lost in San Francisco. Everything you need is in Oakland, you don't have to leave. But, my kids, their grandmother lives in Fairfield, my mom lives in Sacramento, we have family that lives in Fresno, their God-sister lives in Las Vegas, so they’ve already been to so many other places. They’re spread out more.

L: If you had to pick a favorite street in Oakland, what would it be and why?

T: Martin Luther King. We lived on 56th and MLK, but also, my school was down that street--40th and MLK--so that was the street I would walk up and down. Is it the nicest street? No. But when I get there, I’m just like “that’s the corner store where I used to get all my candy and that’s where my uncle used to work and that’s where my school was, when we caught BART we’d go there and yeah.

L: What was BART like? Was it the same?

T: Oh my God, no, it’s so different now! I got on BART last year to go to San Francisco and it was ridiculous how different it was. Like everybody was on their phones, earbuds. So different, so different. I feel like I was guaranteed to talk to at least one person somewhere along my way on BART and [this time] I didn’t interact with any human beings the whole time and it was very isolating and weird compared to the last time I went on BART. I remember this one time when me and my friend were riding BART to go to Target to get stuff for college in El Cerrito  and this guy was like “y’all cousins, huh? I could tell, I could tell.” And me and my friend couldn't look more opposite. He just struck up a conversation and I don't think that would happen anymore.

L: What about bus? AC Transit? Same? Different?

T: Well, now you can get on the back, you don’t even have to go in the front or interact with the bus driver. The seats are all different:  they used to all face forward. They're structured differently so there's less interaction there too.

L: Did people use cars or public transit more?

T: I don’t know, I feel like  life is so different now that I have kids and a car. I feel like when I was growing up a lot of people caught the bus, especially because I was in a little bubble, living in Oakland and going to school in Oakland, everything in Oakland. Once I got to high school it was like, no, lots of people have cars but also a lot of my friends caught the bus to school and caught the bus back. Now I feel like Uber’s available, so I don’t know, I feel like people don't feel the need to have a car the way they used to. Teenager’s now are like “I don’t need my license” and when I was growing up, that was the thing. There was a movie about it: in the 80s where this guy just wanted his license so bad, that was the premise of the movie. Everybody got it, even if they didn't have a car. Very few of us had a car, but we all had our license, just in case.

 

Growing Up Oakland

Growing Up Oakland is a project entirely created and run by Oakland Youth Poet Laureate poets. Seeing a need for an expansion of the Oakland narrative, they are retrieving and broadcasting stories of childhood in Oakland through poetry, interviews, and visual art.

Growing Up Oakland highlights the variety of experiences of childhood throughout the long life of the city by using both interviews from people who grew up across various decades and creative work by current Oakland youth. This is a memorial of how the experiences of Oakland and youth have both changed and stayed the same throughout time.

After interviewing a variety of people who have grown up in Oakland, the poets have been taking these interviews into Oakland schools and leading poetry workshops.

The first workshop was with an 11th grade class at Oakland Technical High School. Some of the poems born out of these workshops have transformed into tangible postcards that are currently being distributed around the Bay Area.

  

  

This series will continue with more postcards, the release of full interviews, and a zine. Look out for them!

Growing Up Oakland Project Leads: Lizette Navarro - 2017 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate Finalist, Samuel Getachew - 2018 Oakland Vice Youth Poet Laureate, Leila Mottley - 2018 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate

 

Growing Up Oakland: Interview with Toni Ratliff can be read here.

 

Get to Know Your Grants: Community Kiosk

By Emily Weak, Senior Librarian at the Main Library

In any community, the library is one of the most trusted government agencies. We are a safe haven for folks who need it. And life is hard for a lot of folks in Oakland right now.  Homelessness increased 25% between 2015 and 2017. Our patrons are increasingly vulnerable, due to demographic factors like immigration status or gender identity. Sometimes the air itself is unfit to breathe.

Librarian Emily Weak at the Community Kiosk

Library staff are natural helpers. We love to find just the right book, or to connect patrons to the information they’ve been looking for - everything from finding lyrics to that song they’ve been humming to the email for their new city council person to exactly the right job listing. But sometimes patrons need more help than we can provide. In those cases, it is great to be able to provide a direct referral to an expert.

In December of 2016, a colleague and I applied for and received a Friends of the OPL mini-grant to expand our Veterans Center, a small corner of the Main Library lobby, into the Community Kiosk. We wanted to be able to invite local organizations to provide direct service to patrons in need. With a $1,500 grant from the Friends, we enhanced this space – making it more visible and more useful – with a second table, a storage cabinet, a video display, and a new laptop.

Prior to the grant, this area was staffed with an employee or volunteer who provided help for veterans for only 10 hours a week.  And while we still provide at least 10 hours/week of service to veterans, we now also host partners from local social services agencies almost every day, offering an additional 12-18 hours/week of help on a wide variety of areas.  For example:

  • Once a month, Veronica from the Alameda County Community Food Bank signs people up for CalFresh (EBT aka food stamps)
  • On a weekly basis, the East Bay Community Recovery Project and Peers Envisioning and Engaging in Recovery Services both provide drop-in hours for folks looking for help with substance abuse and mental illness
  • On Tuesdays, the Employment Development Department provides help with job search, resumes and career development. They have a huge list of job fairs and open recruitments!
  • Every other Sunday, Eddie and his colleagues from the Oakland Tenant’s Union help people stay in their apartments (and avoid homelessness).
  • On Second Sundays, the first two hours of the day are staffed by Naomi, who is a certified financial planner, and the last two hours belong to Open Oakland, who does a walk-thru of a tool that patrons can use to clear their criminal records
  • For updated schedule, click here

We also use the space for one-off events, such as free flu vaccinations (provided by Alameda Health Care for the Homeless) or open recruitment for Census workers ($17.25/hour!)

The Community Kiosk provides life-changing interventions in a place that patrons already know and trust: the public library. It allows staff to form closer relationships with organizations providing vital services in Oakland, so that even when services are not in the library, we can provide confident referrals and high-quality information. It helps Oaklanders stay safe, feel better, and maybe even thrive.

Read

The Friends of the Oakland Public Library offers annual mini-grants of up to $2,000 each to fund the implementation of a new service or program proposed by library staff. The Friends of the Oakland Public Library is an independent nonprofit that has been supporting the library since 1950. You can learn more about their work at www.fopl.org.

Get to Know Your Grants: Seed Lending Library

From the desk of Kate Hug, Branch Manager, Melrose Branch Library (4805 Foothill Blvd)...

Two young children planting seeds

Earlier this year, I applied for a Friends of the Oakland Public Library mini-grant, asking for $950 to establish a Seed Lending Library and to improve the backyard garden here at Melrose Branch.  These projects are part of a longer-term goal:  to increase community engagement through food, gardening, sharing of recipes, and seed lending.

Getting the garden up and running brought together staff, and along the way we found amazing adult community partners on whom we could rely.  The dirt was sourced and ordered by a new patron, who saw us unloading the metal troughs and “wanted to get involved.”  He brought along friends to help shovel dirt into buckets, cart them into the garden, and repeat.  These gentlemen have taken it upon themselves to be responsible for watering.

The seed lending library is located upstairs.  We found drawers that fit the aesthetic of the library and our Ready, Set, Connect intern learned all the ins and outs of Microsoft Publisher as we worked with him to design our “Seed Lending” and “Seed Saving” information brochures in both Spanish and English.

Photo  of the seed lending library

We had our Container Garden Party / Seed Lending Kick-Off party on June 23, and approximately 75 people attended (including 30 adults), despite the extremely hot weather.  Patrons went upstairs to check out the Seed Lending, ate ice cream in the garden, painted terra cotta pots donated by Ace Hardware, and planted seeds.

 We will be partnering with Scientific Adventures to continue to grow and expand our garden this fall.  They will be teaching sustainable STEM programs and by winter will have built a butterfly enclosure in the garden.

 The Melrose Garden was already beautiful and a welcome place of quiet respite for the East Oakland Community.  Moving forward, we have plans of partnership as well as community driven ideas to plant medicinal plants for teas and salves this winter. Thank you so much for making this possible!

FOOTNOTE:  The Friends of the Oakland Public Library offers annual mini-grants of up to $1,500 each to fund the implementation of a new service or program proposed by library staff. The Friends of the Oakland Public Library is an independent nonprofit that has been supporting the library since 1950. You can learn more about their work at www.fopl.org.

 

Mam Cultural Festival Celebrates Growing Mayan Presence in Bay Area

 Musical ensemble Maco y su marimba el quetzal play the marimba at the Mam Cultural Festival

To view pictures of the Mam Cultural Festival, click here. All photos courtesy of volunteer photographer Khai Pham.

As a high-schooler, Henry Sales frequented the César E. Chávez Branch Library in Fruitvale; it was a perfect place to finish school work and hang out until it was time to head home. However, he found it difficult to communicate with his fellow library goers - many of whom were fluent Spanish speakers.

Henry’s native language is Mam, the second-most popular language of the 21 Mayan languages currently spoken in Guatemala and Southern Mexico. For the last 15 years, thousands of indigenous Mayan immigrants have settled in Oakland and the East Bay, including Henry.

“I used to ask the staff and other patrons a lot of questions, but I wasn’t fluent in Spanish. And, I didn’t speak English very well at all back then. So naturally we had a lot of trouble communicating,” says Henry, now 25 and a library aide at the Chávez Branch. “I assumed if this was happening to me, then a lot of other Mam might be experiencing the same thing, and not just at the library.”

So, Henry decided to get involved. Upon graduation, he volunteered as a tutor at the Chávez Branch before joining Oakland Public Library’s Ready, Set, Connect! - a professional development program designed to help Oakland youth discover the professional skills necessary for technology focused careers. Eventually, he became a library aide at the Chávez Branch, where he immediately became the go-to person to help communicate with Mam patrons. Non-profit organizations and government agencies asked Henry to be a language consultant to cater to the needs of Mam clients.

Henry Sales (left) speaks with a patron during the festival.

Photo: Henry Sales (left) speaks with a patron.

It became obvious to Henry that the Mam community was growing. He was being asked more and more questions about his heritage - the language, the dress, the history. In addition, he encountered Mam families directly affected by changing immigration laws, limited access to healthcare and education, and an expensive housing market.

“Instead of blaming someone, I thought, maybe I can help by letting people know that we are [in the Bay Area]. We’re active, proud members of these communities, and we have a unique culture that we want to celebrate,said Sales. “So, that’s where the idea came from.”

Sales organized the Mam Cultural Exchange - a group of Mam community members that help out fellow Mam and share the Mam culture to the wider public. And, with the help of two grants - Cal Humanities’ Library Innovation Lab and the Akonadi Foundation’s Beloved Community Fund - he organized the Mam Cultural Festival at the Chávez Branch.

So on Saturday, September 15, nearly 300 attendees joined Henry in a celebration of the Mam culture.

Two dancers perform in front of the Marimba.
Photo: Two dancers in traditional Mam dress dance in front of the marimba.

Traditional Mayan music resounded throughout the afternoon as three musicians played the Marimba - an instrument resembling a large xylophone - with men and women displaying traditional dance in the center of the courtyard.

Mam women served hungry patrons chuchitos with corn and beans, a typical Mam meal, and displayed traditional weaving techniques while making blankets and clothes. In one corner, patrons were invited to learn basic phrases and words in the Mam language.

All in all, Henry was grateful for the opportunity to display his culture to people who might not have even heard of the Mam.

“It was an amazing experience. For me, it was a success,” says Henry. “To see the public enjoying watching our traditional performances, eating our food, enjoying our company - it was more than I could ask for. I’m excited to do it again - and not only in Oakland.”

Henry hopes for the opportunity to showcase his culture to other areas where a Mam community exists.

“Since we are a minor group that keeps growing every year, we want people to know we are human beings just like everyone. Many families have been separated and this is a good way to show that we are not a threat, we are not criminals, we are not the enemy,” says Henry. “We still exist. We’re not extinct, like many people believe the Mayans are. We are a part of this century, this country and this world.”

A woman showcases the traditional weaving process.

Photo: A woman in traditional dress displays a Mam weaving technique.

What is Community Relations?

I have a confession to make.  I've put off writing this first post for weeks because I haven't been able to come up with a good title for this blog.  What is Community Relations?  Well, I suppose it is an official sounding way to describe broadly what I do - which is to work, in any way imaginable, on connecting the library and the community we serve.  What it isn't, though, is a fun and sassy name for a blog that the community might actually want to read.  

This is going to be a great space where I can share all the different ways that we are working together.  I have videos and photos to show you, and an abundance of stories to tell.  

I'm going to give us some time to get to know this blog and then we're going to come up with a name for it, you and I.  If something brilliant comes to you, keep it in mind and when I'm ready, I'll let you know.  I'm thinking about a blog-naming contest in the next couple of weeks and I don't want you to give away your best ideas too soon.

Fentons Creamery Flyer

 

In the meantime, go eat some ice cream (supporting the Friends of the Oakland Public Library), and check back here soon! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by Sharon McKellar, Community Relations Librarian