You can’t find a mailbox to save a life within a mile of my office in West Oakland. Liquor stores, purveying basic food groups, fried chicken, and junk-for-consumption at exorbitant prices, occupy a corner about every four to six blocks. Similarly, churches, mainly of the Baptist persuasion but including some esoterica, loom on major streets or sit tucked discretely within a former residence or storefront.
The end of the month, eviction time, brings a new tide of worn, cheap furniture and household flotsam to the curbs. Taggers industriously deface the architecture of the area, along with any signs or furniture they happen upon. Hardly a storefront or wall is spared the lurid, outsized scrawls, some reminiscent of lettering. Murals, however, usually don’t get graffitied, as if painting that requires more than a few reckless, angry minutes deserves dispensation.
The potholed streets, a patchwork of attempts at asphalt first aid, provide challenge courses for defensive driving. City parks sprout grass and weeds knee-high before Parks and Rec can be prodded into half-assed mowing. Drivers of speeding vehicles, as well as pedestrians hobbling along heaved sidewalks, routinely toss food wrappers and other trash in their wake.
A once-thriving Black community, West Oakland suffered successive refashioning by earthquake and transit infrastructure. It feels like a place that could be vibrant, but has been left to wallow glumly in lost aspirations.
Every day at Oakland Women’s Center, deep in West Oakland, I discover a new variation of the damage that poverty and discrimination have wrought on women. Childhood abuse, usually a multi-generational legacy, homelessness, inferior education, domestic violence, single motherhood, custody battles, self-medication with any drug that can be had, and monumental anger behind a façade of getting by, often with an overlay of faith in God. I do not doubt the palliative benefits of religious faith, but I prefer to trust the goddess in the woman.
I am one of the few White women at a Center that attracts primarily Black women. I devote myself daily to understanding their painful – and sometimes joyous – realities. I help them find what they need. Often I ponder the ‘legitimacy’ of a White woman helping Black women. Given the egregious nature of their burdens, it seems necessary for willing assistants of any color to step forward. I am willing.