Voters Approve Tax Aimed at Helping Kids

For the first time in the city’s history, Richmond youth are set to have a local government department dedicated to serving them.

Kids First Richmond, the ambitious initiative that required passage of three separate local measures, passed its last test on Nov. 6 when voters approved an increase in the real estate transfer tax to fund the program.

According to Measure H’s official language, the transfer tax will not affect properties sold for less than $1 million, but will raise the transfer tax by the following amounts: 1.25 percent for property sold for $1 to $3 million, 2.5 percent for $3 to $10 million, and 3 percent for properties over $10 million.

At least part of that revenue will go towards implementation of Richmond Kid’s First. The plan is to roll out the program over the next few years, eventually allocating up to 3 percent of the city’s general fund over the next decade. The fund will be administered by a city-operated Department of Children and Youth.

Hopes were high at the RYSE Center on election night as supporters of the measure watched returns come in.

Isaiah Grant, 18, was part of the effort to get Measure H passed. He and his friends hiked up the hills of Point Richmond and El Sobrante and knocked on doors to inform people about the tax measure.

“A lot of people were supportive about it,” Grant said. “When we would canvass, it was usually a house that had kids. When we told them it helped youth they were like ‘Oh, it must be beneficial for my kid.’”

Even though the RYSE team, which Grant was a part of, made a big push in local politics this year, some youth at the election night watch party said they didn’t see the point in voting.

Tearra Brintley, 19, said she is disappointed by our two-party system and the back and forth between Republican and Democrat held chambers. She said she doesn’t see a point in helping that wheel keep turning.

“Even if I did vote and I go vote for things that people didn’t want me to vote, what was the point of it?” Brintley asked.

Marques Egan, 18, said he doesn’t think the items on the ballot are going to make substantial changes.

“For the Obama election, I would’ve voted, if I could, because it was the first Black president,” he said. “That changed history, but for the senators I think it’s just gonna repeat itself.”

Although Brintley and Egan did support Measure H by canvassing, they seem to be frustrated by the constant cycle they see in politics.

“This generation just does not care,” Egan said. “For us, it is just an obligation. We do not really look into politics and we do not know what is going on unless we look at a meme or something.”

Source: https://richmondpulse.org/2018/11/16/voter...

Staying Local, Permanently

A couple of years ago I began looking to buy a place of my own. I first looked into lofts and homes with small square footage in nearby Albany. But, the prices in much of the Bay Area felt so out of reach.

I would work as many hours as my supervisors allowed but still there was no way I could afford it.

During this time, my parents ran into some hardships and I moved back home to help. While I spent time supporting my family I pushed the idea of homeownership even further back in my mind.

But when I allowed myself to dream about it, I couldn’t shake the question – what does home really mean to me?

To me, a home is a space where friends and family can freely gather with laughter and love audibly filling the room. It’s a place where you have reign to make of it what you wish. A place I wanted. And after college, I knew where I wanted to plant my roots: Richmond.

Richmond has been home since I was an infant. I am pretty well traveled, and still there is no place I’ve felt a stronger sense of belonging.

Having committed to a career as a teacher, I thought maybe it was time to make a plan. Then, at a Richmond City Council meeting, I learned about a social impact bond-funded program for first-time homebuyers.

Under the Richmond Community Foundation’s Housing Renovation Program, abandoned and blighted properties throughout the city are renovated with energy efficient materials and sold to first-time homebuyers like myself.

As I heard about the program I thought, for the first time, that maybe I could buy a home in the Bay now. That maybe I wouldn’t have to wait a decade.

A few weeks later, the West Contra Costa School District hosted a housing fair and I spoke with representatives from RCF about realizing my dream.

RCF is unique in that it allows first-time homebuyers to bypass the bidding process by connecting them with one of two local agencies, Sparkpoint or Richmond Neighborhood Housing Services.

Sparkpoint and RNHS provide financial and credit advice, HUD-certified homeownership lessons, access to grants and more.

This was it. This was my chance.

Yet, it wasn’t easy. There was the issue of paperwork – so much paperwork – then getting down payment assistance, closing cost, etc. There were several roadblocks along the way but we — my fiancé and I — were persistent. We persevered.

Of the 10 homes RCF was rebuilding, we chose the house that was the best fit for us and we got it.

Our new home is a three-bedroom house with a flushed ceiling, living and dining area. It has the nice green grass in the front that I imagined as a kid. I couldn’t be more content.

The location is great too. I am right across from my former elementary school, two blocks away from my parent’s house, and I’m still close to the school where I teach. My fiancé is now centrally located to the schools he reaches through his non-profit.

We get to live and build a family in the city I know and love. Granted, Richmond has its issues, but nothing that cannot be changed.

Richmond is where my heart lives. I get to grow and live out the lifelong relationships and friendships that I invested in growing up. I am so fortunate to be able to live so close to the areas that mean so much to me.

My hope is that one-day I get to see my students go through the same process with even greater ease.

Source: https://richmondpulse.org/2018/08/10/stayi...

State ‘Soda Tax’ Ban Leaves Richmond Program For Youth At Risk

While a diverse group of community organizers in Richmond were gathering signatures in support of a citywide soda tax for the November ballot, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law banning cities and counties across the state from taxing any groceries including sugary beverages for the next 12 years.

Just weeks before the state ban, Richmond voters passed Measure E, the “Richmond Kids First initiative” and its amendments detailed in Measure K, to create a new city Department for Children and Youth Services. But, the department is dependent on a new revenue stream, which just went dry with the governor’s signature.

The plan was a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, excluding baby formula, milk, agua frescas, and nutritional supplements. The tax would be nearly identical to those passed by other Bay Area cities, including Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco.

“[The soda companies] knew that there was no way they could continue to move. We were going to win, people would continue to win soda taxes. They had to figure out how they were going to stop them,” Jamileh Ebrahimi, youth organizing director at the RYSE Center, said.

The state legislature was faced with a difficult decision. A ballot measure funded by the American Beverage Association—the Tax Fairness, Transparency and Accountability Act of 2018—was slated for the November election. If approved, it would have changed the requirement for cities and municipalities to pass any local sales tax increases from a simple majority to a two-thirds, super majority.

In a compromise, lawmakers backed the 12-year-ban and the ABA-backed ballot measure was withdrawn from the November ballot.

The timing was especially hard for Kids First supporters who had spent months collecting thousands of signatures in support of the tax.

“We’re like a week away from submitting,” Ebrahimi said.

Now, Kids First Richmond is searching for a new fund source — at least until 2031 when the ban ends.

“Moving forward, ACCE, SEIU, APEN folks are around the table trying to figure out what the next steps are going to be,” said Ebrahimi. “Once those are determined we’ll have to go back to everyone’s doors to campaign like before.”

The fund for the Department for Children and Youth Services is set to go into effect in July 2021, but that can’t happen until the committee finds a new revenue source.

“We’re clearly disappointed that the state has banned new soda taxes for the next 12 year,” Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia said. “The soda industry lobbied hard for that because they saw soda tax measures passing in cities around the state.”

But, Gioia doesn’t believe this is the end of soda taxes in California.

“I understand the legislature could undo this, so we’ll see,” he said. “There is also a group of public health advocates and the medical community that are proposing a statewide soda tax for the 2020 ballot that would be two-cents-per-ounce, not the one-penny-per-ounce that cities have passed.”

Gioia said the coalition is still optimistic and is now focusing on an increase of the real estate transfer tax on higher-priced commercial and residential properties in the city. That proposal will soon be in front of the Richmond city council.

In the meantime, the city will still create the Department of Children and Youth, which will be allocated $950,000 over the next two years.

Source: https://richmondpulse.org/2018/07/23/state...

WCCUSD Students and Parents Weigh in on Future of Schools

Guadalupe Calvario, a Richmond resident and mother of two students at Nystrom Elementary, wants to know what’s going on at her kids’ school. From events to activities and meetings that are happening, she wants information easily available so parents and students stay informed and can weigh in when it comes to bigger decisions.

“A lot of parents want to participate,” Calvario said. “I’m trying to make things change so there is more parent involvement.”

“If I don’t know about it, and I’m always at the school, then we have a problem,” she added. “It’s frustrating. We shouldn’t have to come here to fight with the school.”

Calvario was one of many parents and students from West Contra Costa Unified School District gathered at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts earlier this month to discuss how to improve the safety, learning and welcoming climate of district schools. Attendees also provided recommendations about how school funding can help support the changes they’d like to see.

Those recommendations included how to collect data to help inform district decisions, how to show the impact of existing programs, ways to include parents, students and community in positive school climate policies and support for students and families impacted by the justice system.

The event, entitled Transparent Schools, Engaged Communities, took place on May 3 and was sponsored by Healthy Richmond — a coalition of community organizations, resident leaders and advocates focused on developing projects in the community to build lasting health equity. The organization’s School and Neighborhoods Action Team (SNAT), made up of local youth and parent leaders like Calvario, organized the meeting.

The Local Control Funding Formula, a California law enacted in 2013 that revamps how the state funds K-12 public schools, promises more state money to low-income and English Learner students. As part of this law all school districts are required to engage parents and the wider school community before setting spending priorities, known as a Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP).

The aim of the event was to provide recommendations for the district’s LCAP and its Positive School Climate Resolution passed by the school board in November.

“That resolution [passed by the school board] is the beginning of the implementation of a series of major policy changes for the district,” Ryan Bealer, project coordinator and communications specialist with Healthy Richmond said, “connected to restorative justice and trauma informed trainings for all staff, the elimination of willful defiance suspensions, and a host of other changes meant to create a positive school climate.”

Other topics discussed at the event included how to transform the campus security officers’ program to better align with positive school climate goals and support for restorative justice techniques by providing a student training.

“We were able to connect the dots,” Calvario said. “Everyone is from different areas. It helped us have a bigger outlook on what’s going on.”

A panel of elected officials and district staff were brought together to listen and provide feedback to parents and students. The panel included LeShante Smith, school climate coordinator; Demetrio Gonzalez, president of United Teachers of Richmond; school board members Elizabeth Block and Madeline Kronenberg; Michael T. Booker, emergency and safety preparedness point person; John Gioia, Contra Costa County supervisor and Richmond City Councilmember Jovanka Beckles.

Bealer, said the event fulfilled one of SNAT’S biggest objectives for the year.

“The event was a new approach to our team’s advocacy, to not only build stronger relationships with community leaders and decision makers, but to also create a community led space to share our recommendations and demonstrate support and unity for them,” Bealer said.

As a student who faced adversity in his school as an English learner student, Carlos Linares, a senior at El Cerrito High School, believes that the SNAT recommendations would better support him, and others like him, in school.


Linares is the co-president of his school’s Youth English Learners Advisory Committee and former youth representative on the school board.

“I also felt supported here,” Linares said, “and even more with the students and parents sharing their stories alongside me.”

In the last few years, there has been a shift on the school board and the city council to include more voices that are directly impacted by their decisions, especially the students.

“More than anything, I’m so proud of the students and parents who have already done so much work,” Bealer said. “To see their leadership grow, that’s what this is really about: students and parents building their power.”

The panelists unanimously agreed that they supported the recommendations the parents, students, teachers and community members made – and many are hopeful that their support may mean implementation down the line.

“I want to thank Healthy Richmond for the recommendations that they have made to our LCAP process, especially around the positive school climate, Superintendent Matthew Duffy, said. ” I fully support these recommendations and will work with Healthy Richmond and see how we invest in those.”

Julissa Hernandez, a ninth-grader at El Cerrito High, said she was happy that the panelists supported their recommendations.

“This [event] inspires me to do more for my community,” she said. “I feel happy and hopeful for my future.”

Source: https://richmondpulse.org/2018/05/17/wccus...

Three Measures Aim to Put Richmond Kids First

Eleven-year-old Ayush Dahal stood in front of a gathering of local elected officials and community leaders and recounted one of the worst memories of his short life.

“This one time I went to an apartment and someone got shot right in front of my friend’s house,” Ayush recalled. “It inflicted lots of pain on me and my 3-year-old cousin. We were in tears for hours and hours.”

The young boy spoke at a kick-off event held at RYSE Youth Center last week, in support of a new and ambitious campaign to create the first city fund dedicated to serving youth in Richmond.

“We need the support,” Ayush said. “I hope the bill passes so everyone could have the support they need.”

Ayush was one of many speakers from nonprofits and community groups throughout the city to talk at the campaign’s first event.

Advocates of the campaign, known as Kids First Richmond, hope to convince voters to pass three separate pieces of legislation over the next year: two measures in June and a sugary beverage tax in November. It may be a big ask for a city that voted against a similar “soda-tax” measure six years ago.

The campaign is built around Measure E, the Richmond Kids First Initiative, which initially received enough signatures to be on the ballot in 2016. (The measure didn’t make it to the ballot, however, because county officials didn’t validate the signatures in time for the city council to include it on its agenda. Later, at a tense meeting, the council decided against adding the initiative to the agenda as an emergency item.)

If approved, Richmond Kids First would allocate up to three percent of the city’s general fund, over the next decade, to a special fund for children and youth services. The fund would be administered by a city operated Department of Children and Youth and grants and applications would be reviewed and passed on to city council for approval by a community oversight board.

When the initiative was first floated in 2016, it didn’t have a revenue stream tied to it and didn’t enjoy the wide support it does today – including unanimous city council approval.

“In a few months, we have gone from contention to collaboration, and I think there’s a great lesson here,” said Mayor Tom Butt at the kick-off event. “We’re all on the same page. We’re out to get this done. It’s not only remarkable, but it’s really a great lesson in how to move something forward.”

That collaboration came in large part thanks to amendments to Richmond Kids First found in Measure K, which will also be on the June ballot. Aside from a dedicated special revenue stream to fund the new department, the revisions detailed in Measure K include removing a restriction on how much funding the city can receive as well as a requirement that the city partner with a nonprofit organization. (Which would allow the fund to be spent on city programs as well as those provided by nonprofits.)

If both measures pass in June, the next test – and arguably the hardest one – will come in November with another attempt at passing a one cent per ounce sugar-sweetened beverage tax.

In 2012, Richmond was the first city in the nation to put a sugar-sweetened tax measure on the ballot. But it failed with nearly two-thirds of the electorate voting against it. A companion advisory measure that asked if the proceeds of the tax should be spent on sports and health education programs for local youths passed by nearly the same margin – indicating that voters liked the idea of supporting youth programs but didn’t like the idea of taxing their sodas.

However, leaders say they’ve learned from that failure and have reworked the tax so that it’s levied on the distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages rather than local retailers. It is still unclear whether the tax would mean higher prices for customers.

“This measure is very different,” said Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia. “It is modeled after the successful measures that passed in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and Albany.”

The new proposed tax would charge distributors one cent per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages but will not apply to baby formula, milk, agua frescas and nutritional supplements.

Gioia said he is optimistic that voters will support the tax this time around knowing that it will expanded services and opportunities for youth.

“It’s a different dynamic,” he said. “Last time, there wasn’t Kids First.”

Supporters agree that Kids First is the linchpin. The organizations at Saturday’s kick-off event read like a who’s who in Richmond activism: RYSE, Service Employees International Union Local 1021, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, Richmond Progressive Alliance, Richmond Police Officers’ Association, YES Nature to Neighborhoods, Ed Fund, East Bay Center for the Performing Arts and Healthy Richmond.

“Kids First Richmond might be one of the first measures in a long time where everybody is for it,” said Kimberly Aceve-Iñiguez, executive director at RSYE. “It feels good for young people.”

Aceves-Iñiguez said establishing a city department for kids was a vision RYSE brought to former Richmond mayors Irma Anderson and Gayle McLaughlin. “This isn’t new,” she said.

“San Francisco’s Department of Children, Youth & Their Families and the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth have transformed services for children and youth,” Aceves-Iñiguez said. “RYSE came into Richmond at a time young people were seen as deficits, under invested in and under valued. Without solid and sustainable infrastructures, our organizations are always at peril.”

At the event, groups such as ACCE promised to secure 3,000 signatures out of the 5,100 needed to get the sugar-sweetened beverages tax on the November ballot while reps from SEIU and APEN promised 300 signatures.

“I got about 350 to 400 signatures in 2016,” said Jaheim Jones, a freshman at Kennedy High School, who helped collect signatures for Richmond Kids First in 2016. “I am very passionate about going past that. I came in a little late [last time], and most of my friends got 600 or 700.”

Given the unanimous support from elected officials, signatures in support of putting the sugary beverage tax on the ballot may not be the deciding factor.

“If by some chance, there’s not enough signatures in time by June, the council can still vote to put this on the November ballot,” Gioia said. Though he added that the decision to collect signatures was a strategy to build community support, and it appears to be working. While it may still be early, there hasn’t been any public opposition.

“I am extremely hopeful and almost confident that we are going to win,” said Jamileh Ebrahimi, youth organizing director at RYSE. “When we submitted arguments for Measure E and K, no one submitted against,” she added.

Source: https://richmondpulse.org/2018/04/15/three...

Local Students Get Loud With Poetry

During his junior year at Kennedy High School, Anderson Esteban learned about Poetry Out Loud, but since only seniors can present, he helped out and waited.

This year, his senior year, Esteban read “The Last Laugh” by Wilfred Owen, a poem about young men dying on the battlefield. “I like history a lot and it was interesting to me,” he said.

In front of fellow students, parents, teachers, peers, and administrators in the library at Kennedy High School on Jan. 26, Esteban was deemed the winner of the site competition.

An initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Out Loud encourages students to learn about poetry through memorization, performance, and competition, helping them master public speaking skills and build self-confidence.

Poetry Out Loud is a site, regional, state and national competition where students are able to recite poetry in front of judges. The Kennedy site competition was arranged by AP English literature teacher Ian Bader and his students.

Bader said that he wanted to give students an interactive assignment that they would enjoy. Bader said Poetry Out Loud can give his students public speaking skills and bring the community together to see it.

Kennedy had 11 students compete at the site level to go on to the county competition. The students rehearsed, performed, and actively expressed their favorite poems and the audience responded with thunderous applause.

“Poetry Out Loud inspired me to go out and do more pieces of poetry and be able to go to an open mic,” Ursula Cabriales, a senior and one of the final candidates at Kennedy, said.

While Esteban took first place at the site competition, a scheduling conflict prevented him from taking part in the countywide competition. Though he would have liked to compete further and represent his school, he also has plans to join the Marines Corps and is mandated to go to training.

“I feel good [that we are represented at county] because it shows that Kennedy is not just a ghetto school,” Esteban said. “We are doing something.”

Instead, the runner-up, Luis Arzate, a fellow senior at Kennedy, took his place at county competition. Bader joined Arzate on an early Saturday morning to compete with nine other students around the county.

“Going into high school, I didn’t like poetry at all until he showed me William Blake, who’s now my favorite poet,” Arzate said. “I think just that introduction into it really opens your eyes. The county one is more real. I had a lot of fun.”

In the end, students from other counties took home top prizes at the regional competition. The Poetry Out Loud state finals are scheduled for March 18-19 in Sacramento.

Convening Brings Parent Leaders Together

On a cold Saturday morning in January, parents and children were greeted with warm hugs and soft smiles from other parents and community leaders at the Nevin Community Center. About 60 parents from various ethnic backgrounds, with children in schools around Richmond, gathered to celebrate local parents’ commitment to making schools better and their role as community leaders.

Hosted by Healthy Richmond — a coalition of community organizations, resident leaders, and advocates — the event, titled Time to Celebrate Richmond Parent Power Convening, was aimed at increasing parental engagement and honoring those who are actively involved in their children’s schools and advocating for changes in the school district.

Healthy Richmond, part of the California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities initiative, focuses each year on developing projects in the community to build lasting health equity.

Ryan Bealer, project coordinator and communications specialist with Healthy Richmond, said the event was intended to address barriers parents and students encounter at school and create a platform for parents to share stories about what they are doing to make changes in the school district. Bealer said he he hoped people would leave feeling connected to a larger community of support.

“The event itself was led by the parents to try and hold space for celebration and storytelling in order to spark new connections between parent leaders and parents who are looking to find ways to advocate for their children,” he said.

 Featured speakers Wendy Lopez, a parent volunteer, Blanca Hernandez, program director at YES! Nature to Neighborhoods and Zelon Harrison, a parent advocate, all spoke about challenges they’ve faced in schools and how they have effectively advocated in the district.

Hernandez described the barriers she experienced while growing up in San Diego as the only Latina in her class. Her experience with racism and discrimination in education resonated deeply with many parents in the room.

“We are lucky to be in this community full of support,” Hernandez said. “You are not alone.”

Harrison shared her story of raising several successful children, all while dealing with the impacts of poverty and violence. “It took my children feeling loved, feeling safe, having a place to grow and get their education,” she said, followed by applause from the audience.

Other speakers shared what they think is working well and what could be better with the West Contra Costa Unified School District. Many said that creating change in the district requires everyone working together. A crucial first step is getting everyone together, to let them know they are not alone.

Attendee Myisha Dozier, a mother with a daughter at Richmond College Prep and another at El Cerrito High School, said she grew up on the south side of Richmond surrounded by “nothing but negativity.”

“Each of the cousins I grew up with, neither of them made it out of high school,” Dozier said. “All of them are pretty smart people,” she added. “Generation after generation we are watching our kids fail. It’s time for some kind of change.”

Dozier said she really connected with the speakers at the convening. “[They grew up] going to different public schools and [they] got the same outcome from all of it,” she said. “Not really anybody there pushing you to graduate, pushing you to be somebody in life. I connected to that.”

Parents also discussed, amongst themselves, what they thought of the speakers’ experiences, analyzing how they related to it and what they believed would be best for families in Richmond.

Ana Villanueva, a mother with a son and daughter at Grant Elementary, has volunteered at her children’s school for six years. Villanueva said events like this one give parents courage to fight for an equitable education for their kids.

“This event motivates us more as parents to keep fighting for the wellbeing of our children and the whole community,” she said. “In our community, we have children who do not have a voice. We are that voice for those children.”

Parent leaders planned the festivities in just four weeks. Healthy Richmond recruited a group of local parents: Alicia Jackson, Guadalupe Calvario and Mark Saephan. Calling themselves the Plan It Team, they met once a week for three weeks until the event. They also served as emcees and said they were happy with the end result.

“I am a parent volunteer and I work with the different non-profits. It’s the same people, just in different locations,” Calvario said. “This event is a chance to bring everyone together. Plant it down, see who we all are and start working together.”

Following the success of the meeting, the Plan It Team and Healthy Richmond intend to continue bringing families together annually in similar events. They hope to build strong connections between parents and showcase the work they’re doing.

For those in attendance, it was also an opportunity to address feelings of disconnection and isolation and to help open up space where issues affecting parents can be talked about with compassion.

“I would like to see us fighting for our community and what is happening in our community,” Dozier said. “I would like to see a walk or a march with Hispanics and Blacks together. I think that would be so strong and it would send a message to our government right now. We will not stand by and [watch] one race after another get attacked. We will fight together.”

Being Head of the Class Offers New Perspective

It’s the first day of school. I’m nervous.

I’ve been thinking about this day for a while now. I want to make a good impression. I put on my t-shirt and my pants, and I head over to Kennedy High School. I come to school early and countdown the time until class begins.

I’ve done this before, but this time it’s different. I am the instructor. I was born and raised in Richmond and went to district schools. For my own K-12 experience, I attended Nystrom Elementary, Lovonya DeJean Middle and Leadership Public Schools. I know the drill.

Having been in a student in the district myself, I’m knowledgeable about the community and the students I would be teaching. I knew, however, that every day is a learning experience for me. I learn how to better serve my students with every chance I get to be in front of them. I teach Digital Arts.   

I took Media Studies classes as an undergrad at UC Berkeley. As a college student, there is only so much you can learn in the classroom. I began searching for ways that I could apply what I was learning. I starting working for several outlets, including The New York TimesThe Daily Californian, a startup called Prynt, LA School Report, and Fusion. Once I knew that I was going to be an educator, I was so happy to share what I learned.

I spent most of my summer planning for this. I knew that I had to set high expectations for my students and share the knowledge and skills that I have used in the industry. I did forget how technologically illiterate I was in high school. That was apparent in the first day.

Students are comfortable with their phones. Putting a computer in front of them, however, was a bit of a shock that first day.For some, it was one of their first times typing.

I knew I had to slow down and work with my students individually to show them how to effectively use their computers.

As a student, you don’t think about these little things. I recalled thinking how my teachers were so forgetful. What I didn’t realize is that they were concerned with fulfilling the needs of about 180 students. They have more than 90 conversations a day on a block schedule and 180 on a seven-period schedule.

In high school, I really admired the teachers that had classroom management down to a T. Those teachers were able to keep the room quiet and on task. That’s still important today, but I have a lot of empathy for the teachers that struggled to keep complete command of a classroom. It takes a lot of patience that, to be completely honest, I did not initially know I had.

I grew up dreading getting paired up in group projects with what teachers and students alike identified as “troubled students.” Those students needed the most help. I knew that in high school but not to the depth that I realize now.

Now that I am a teacher, I connect with my underserved students the most. I know the struggles they face and how far my encouraging words can go. I support all my students, but the conversations that make the biggest difference are centered around how they can best be model citizens.

I can’t wait to see where my students will be in a few years, and I am happy to lead them through that journey. I couldn’t have picked a better space to express and connect with my community. I love my job as a teacher at Kennedy High School.

‘Crime Prevention is Everyone’s Responsibility’

In the past 10 years, crime and violence has overall been trending downward in Richmond. Along with the police department’s community policing efforts, residents and community organizations have all played a role in lowering the city’s crime rate.

Richmond Police Lt. Felix Tan says one thing that has helped is the relationship between police and residents who are willing to be the eyes and ears of the neighborhood. It encourages people to report crimes as they’re occurring.

“Crime prevention is everyone responsibility,” Tan said. “The department can lead in it, but we need everyone to participate.”

Tan would know. He was among 10 people honored at the Crime Prevention awards banquet on October 21 at the Recreation complex. The banquet also celebrated the partnership between RPD and the community. This included honoring civilians and officers for their dedication to Richmond.

Along with Tan, RPD staff recognized for outstanding service in crime prevention included Officer Jameiz Terrell, Officer Savannah Stewart, Lt. Sean Pickett (retired), and Lt. Joseph Schlemmer.

On the flip side of the community-police coin, citizens recognized for outstanding service were volunteers of the year Jessie West, Vivian Williams and Madalyn Law. Tony and Maria Maura of Portumex, and Sergio Rios of Bob’s Cleaners were recognized as businesses of the year.

In Richmond, the roots of the current Crime Prevention Executive Board effort started about thirty years ago with Richmond residents Myrtle and Abraham Braxton. It started with community activism and eventually spawned neighborhood watch groups. Now, the Crime Prevention Executive Board aims to reduce crime with a focus on education, organizing and promoting safety.

Crime Prevention board members Karla and Al Perez first got involved about 10 years ago when their apartment complex registered nearly 100 shootings in a single year.

“We’ll do whatever it takes to get this community back,” Karla Perez said. “People don’t need to be afraid. It takes a village and people need to start standing up.”

Awardee Officer Jameiz Terrell, who works in the Southern District, became aware of the “crime-free” housing on her beat, a crime prevention program designed to eliminate crime and/or drug violence in apartment complexes. This caused Terrell to reach out to be a part of the crime prevention action.

“I just wanted to build a good relationship with the community there. I want to know the individuals over there,” she said.

Terrell says that while there can be a perceived negative stereotype of police officers, she has hope for the work that the officers in Richmond do.

“We’re always a police department trying to be better, strive for, I know you can’t be perfect, but we strive for perfection,” she said. “We’re always moving in a positive direction.”

While some crime numbers have improved, namely gang-related activity, Officer Savannah Stewart says other areas of crime prevention need attention.

“What people don’t realize is that there is still a lot of domestic violence and sexual assaults occurring,” Stewart said. “The shootings may have gone down, the property crime might have gone down a little bit but that comes in spurts.”

Captain Al Walle said, typically in most other places, first responders only go to a neighborhood to take a report “and that’s about the level service they provide.”

“The Richmond Police Department tries to take a more holistic approach,” he said. “We’re trying to break these patterns of victimization or violence.”

One way of doing that is by taking victims of violence alongside officers to share their story with neighbors to ultimately drive home a core message.

“Don’t be a victim, be a victor,” Tan said.

If you’re interested in getting involved, the Richmond Crime Prevention Executive Board meets every third Wednesday of the month at the Richmond Recreation Center.

RYSE Festival Showcases Films Tackling Social Justice Issues Through Youth Lens

RYSE Youth Center’s third annual film festival on October 28 showcased the works of youth filmmakers, exploring themes dealing with a range of complex issues, including social justice, gender equity and human rights.

The short films, up to12 minutes in length, were made and produced by local and international filmmakers between the ages of 13 and 24 to highlight justice. The film festival’s aim was to give youth a platform to share their truth, tell stories of injustice and hope, and provide visions of equity in the world.

In total 29 short films, animations and music videos were chosen for the showcase by the judges. Nearly a hundred audience members attended the event.

Stephanie Medley, Education and Justice Director at RYSE, said she has enjoyed seeing the festival grow and gain recognition over the years.

“This year we had 800 plus submissions compared to our first year where we had 60,” Medley said. “Additionally we opened submissions so we could showcase out of state and international spotlights.”

Lilly Chen of Bay Area of Legal Aid’s Youth Justice Team was one of 11 volunteer judges for the festival. She judged films in the documentary and narrative categories.

“Each judge got 15 to 20 short films to view in different categories,” she said. “The films ran the gamut, all different types of genres, different media, different geography/location.”

Chen said her favorite films were “Hands Up,” by Michael Love and “A Life Like This,” by Isaiah Tour. “Those really stood out to me,” she said.

“Hands Up” won the Best Narrative Short category by filmmakers ages 19 to 24. The story centers on a young black man from Inglewood who is struggling with the recent loss of his father from police brutality.

Another guest in attendance, Henrissa Bassey, had a few films stand out to her too. “School to Prison,” by Idaliah Chavez and Ernie Terrazas Jr., members of RYSE, received an honorable mention in the Best Narrative Short by ages 13 to 18 category. Their film focused on how the actions and words of people in a young person’s life can affect their outcomes in life.

“I liked the juxtaposition between what could happen and what usually does happen,” Bassey said of the film. “And that it was all from the young woman’s perspective.”

“I think it’s important when we are talking about a system of racism, and all that comes with it, to not just make it this abstract thing that no one has any control over,” Bassey said. “She focused on the day-to-day and how people can actually change their actions.”

After the showcase, RYSE staff awarded a raffle to attendees with prizes including shirts, gift cards and home decor. Audience members took part in the awarding too, by voting on a showcased work to receive $1,500. Filmmaker and rapper Leo walked away with that prize for his music video, “Plus,” about an overworked young father fighting mental illness.

Chen said that overall the event was eye-opening and rejuvenating.

“The films were very inspirational and moving,” she said. “I was really impressed with the breadth of different issues that were covered and how thoughtful they were.”

Medley, who helped facilitate the event, said that the importance of film festivals like this are their ability to create a platform for young people to express their views on critical issues in ways other mediums can’t quite capture.

“Being able to go on a journey with them and seeing what they see through the camera is inspiring,” she said, adding that the festival’s location in Richmond is another point of importance.

New California Bill Would Help Protect Undocumented Workers

A new bill being proposed in California would increase protections for undocumented workers.

Currently, employers have the right to refuse to let ICE agents into their workplace without a warrant.

The Immigrant Worker Protection Act, AB 450, would make it a requirement for employers to ask immigration enforcement officials for a warrant before allowing them to enter a workplace. Employers would also be required to ask for a subpoena before handing over any private information about workers.

“These protections are critical because we know that enforcement actions at the worksite have really serious negative implications for workers at that worksite,” said Michael Young, a legislative advocate for California Labor Federation, which co-sponsored the bill.

Young spoke on a recent telebriefing hosted by Ready California and New America Media.

“When immigration enforcement actions happen at the worksite, you typically see the result of that is a downward repress on wages and working conditions for all workers at the workplace regardless of immigration status,” Young said. “The threat of immigration raids prevents workers from wanting to complain or take advantage of state remedies or federal remedies to workplace violations.”

Undocumented communities are increasingly worried as they see reports of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids in homes and the workplaces. In California, where there are over 2.6 million undocumented immigrants, immigration officials have targeted areas with a high density of Latino communities such as Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The tools that Immigration [and Customs Enforcement] is using have been the same that they have been in the past,” said Grizel Ruiz, staff attorney at the national nonprofit Immigrant Legal Resource Center. “We still see … cooperation between local enforcement and federal immigration officials.”

Since the election, there has been a heightened sense of urgency in immigrant communities.

“What we are seeing is a normalization of violence across the board immediately after the election of Trump,” said Cal Soto, national workers rights coordinator for National Day Labor Organizing Network. “There is an increase of hate crimes, openly and on corners. There is clearly an emboldened segment of the population that now thought they have the backing of full force of the federal government.”

“There is a newfound fear since the election,” added Ruiz. “That, coupled with reports of increased enforcement practices on the ground, have left a real lasting impact in the community.”

But when it comes to implementing his plans, Ruiz said, the Trump administration is constrained by their budget.

“Even though the current administration has put a laser focus on immigration, it is important to note that for the president to fully play out his plan, it actually requires quite a bit of funding from Congress,” Ruiz said. “He is still working with the budget that there was before.”

Meanwhile, there are steps immigrant families and business owners can take to secure their finances, such as protecting their credit and saving their money.

“There are three main steps that we would like to share with the community,” explained Mohan Kanungo, director of programs and engagement for Mission Asset Fund. “The first is how to protect your money. The second is how to protect your belongings. The third is to create an emergency plan. Within all of these categories, to really think about an action plan.”

New Play About 1940s North Richmond Gets Rave Reviews

An original play written by 23-year-old Richmond resident DeAndre Evans takes the audience back to what it was like to live in North Richmond in the 1940s. Richmond Renaissance, performed by young people from Richmond’s RYSE Center, debuted at the El Cerrito High School Performing Arts Theater to a sold-out crowd that gave the actors a standing ovation.

To open the show, Randy Joseph of RYSE introduced Betty Reid-Soskin, the oldest serving park ranger. In her remarks, Reid-Soskin mentioned how essential Richmond was to the success of World War II. Henry Kaiser built 747 ships in 1942 to “turn the world [war] around.”

“I bet you did not know that Richmond saved the world,” said Reid-Soskin. “Young people on the stage tonight will bring that history back.”

That is just what they did.

To begin the play, the audience hears real-life testimonies on an audio recording from Robert Ellison and Elmer Williams, about how Richmond was a very popular destination in that era.

Richmond Renaissance takes place in the bustling 1940s, and centers on a fictional nightclub run by Annabelle, a Louisiana migrant who moved to North Richmond. One of Annabelle’s table waitresses, Lucinda, had a troubled past but found comfort when she found Annabelle’s.

Lucinda and her brother LeRoy traveled from the south after their parents died. Their story and the storylines of other characters highlight how difficult it was for people of color to own businesses and make a living.

The play references historical events such as the Black Wallstreet in Oklahoma, the Great Depression and the Ku Klux Klan.

While the play is journey into the past, Evans says the gentrification happening now in Richmond and the Bay Area was on his mind as he wrote the play.

“The theme is community and ownership,” Evans said. “How we need to come together and love one another. We need to control ourselves and have control of the property. The reason we are moving out of Richmond is because we don’t own where we at.”

Claudia Jimenez, a community organizer in Richmond who was in the audience, said her favorite part of the play was the passion of the main character Annabelle, a woman of color surrounded by women.

“It was beautiful to see the Richmond community gather together for this kind of event,” said Jimenez. “I saw many people that I work with, my neighbors… It was really valuable to get people to gather around art and celebrating Richmond’s history.”

“People still say, ‘You don’t want to go to Richmond,’” said Richmond City Council Member Melvin Willis, who was also in the audience. “Richmond is continuing to make history by the ban of DeVos, increasing the minimum wage, or writing to Congress to impeach Trump. That’s the type of story that doesn’t get told,” he said. “Plays like this highlight the rich history and culture.”

Evans says he will continue to write screenplays for RYSE Center and his companions will continue to support him along the way.

“I needed to tell a story about our history and start with the city I was raised in,” said Evans, “and then we can take it somewhere.”

DVD’s of the play will be available for sale soon. Check RYSE’s website at http://rysecenter.org.

How the Teacher Shortage Affects Richmond Students

I remember going to school in Richmond as a kid, only to find too often that there was no teacher for us. One of my most memorable instructors in middle school at Lovonya DeJean was actually a long-term substitute. There was a teacher vacancy in my science class for an entire school year.

These vacancies made me feel like the district didn’t care about me or my peers. It recently made the students at Richmond High feel the same way. They came to the first school board meetings in January to testify about their experience. As students, we were insulted that we had been robbed of our learning time.

Seventy-five percent of California’s schools are facing a teacher shortage, according to Desiree Carver-Thomas, research and policy associate at Learning Policy Institute, a non-profit research organization based in Palo Alto. This is due to a “leaky bucket,” she said, in which there are more teachers leaving the profession than there are coming in.

And communities like Richmond are among the hardest hit.

“Teacher shortages disproportionately impact disadvantaged students,” Carver-Thomas said. “They have the greatest impact on low-income students, minority students, and English Language Learners.”

Carver-Thomas spoke on a panel on May 2, organized by my fellow Students for Education (SFER) members. More than 60 teachers, parents, district leaders, and community members joined us to discuss how to address the problem of teacher shortages in Richmond.

The panel was moderated by Superintendent Matt Duffy, along with SFER alumna and program coordinator Raquel Antolin.

The event was part of a Teach Richmond campaign we launched earlier this year to raise awareness in the community about the urgency of this issue, and to do our part to work with the district and other community partners to brainstorm solutions.

We launched the campaign after attending a school board meeting last December, when students from Richmond High gave heartfelt testimonies about teacher vacancies in their classrooms. Their stories hit close to home for many of us SFER members, including myself. Even though we are in college now, we remembered what it was like to go to a school that doesn’t have enough teachers, and wanted to do something to spark action on this critical issue.

For us, the panel was a chance to bring this conversation to the community and to acknowledge the crucial role that teachers play in our lives.

“Our teachers are our direct line to students. We have to invest in them,” said Katherine Acosta-Verprauskus, principal of Montalvin Manor Elementary School in San Pablo.

Elora Henderson, a special education and intervention teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Richmond, added, “As a SPED teacher, I have not met a single [special education] teacher who doesn’t want to support kids. A lot comes from funding, budget, etc. I encourage all parents to get involved with the budget committee.”

Farihah Hossain, a former teacher at Dover Elementary in Richmond and current teacher at KIPP Bridge Academy, commented that while she loved the teachers at her school in Richmond and that they were all wonderful, she did not feel like she was realizing a vision for students. She said she often felt that her work was on “an island.”

Panelists and community members voiced the importance of investing in creating positive change to improve teacher retention.

“This event is one step on the mission to solving the teacher shortage problem,” explained SFER member Anthony Caro. “There are many ways to get involved– going to community events such as this, planning community events, going to school board meetings, talking to our school board members, talking to our teachers, and talking to our principals. We can’t do anything without discussion, and that’s what tonight was about.”

We encourage the community to join the conversation and help us in the fight for educational justice by following us on social media FacebookTwitter, and Instagram and post using the hashtag #TeachRichmond.

Together, we can shine a spotlight on the infinite impact that quality teachers make on all of our lives. 

Dogs and Their Owners Love Point Isabel Dog Park

If you have yet to visit Point Isabel Regional Shoreline in Richmond, it is a sight to see. Point Isabel, a 23-acre dog park with an additional 20 acres right alongside a stunning view of the San Francisco Bay Area, is the one of the largest off-leash dog parks in the United States.

The park is a local favorite for visitors of the East Bay because it allows dogs of all sizes to run around off the leash and enjoy the large grassy areas. Many dogs can also enjoy a refreshing bath on the shore right off the bay.

Some visitors are locals. Others drive a fair distance to have their pooches enjoy the large park.

“It’s beautiful. You get great bay views,” said Vic from Oakland, who came to the park with his dog Rose. “On hot days, it’s cooler here. The people are generally pretty good. I go to places like Redwood Regional Park and Albany Bowl but I prefer this place. I also get to hang out with my friends and Rose gets to hang out with her friends,” he said.

The park has features that are standard for most dog parks. It is equipped with water fountains, doggie bag stations, and a few communal toys. But it also has additional features such as the Mudpuppy’s Tub and Scrub, a dog-bathing and grooming center, and the Sit and Stay Café which offers snacks for humans and canines alike.

“I am a dog walker and my dogs love it,” says Delane from Oakland. “It’s refreshing, it’s sunny, not too hot. There is a slight breeze.”

One of the reasons she likes Point Isabel so much is because it’s a safe place. “I go to other trails where there are deer, coyotes, rattlesnakes, dead animal carcasses, stinging nettles, joggers every once in a while,” she said.

“When dogs see people infrequently they get pretty protective. If there are lots of people walking, like here, they have a different mindset, they don’t get all protective. They don’t chase after people or scare people. It’s dog friendly.”

Visitors to the park are friendly and it’s a great place to start a conversation and meet new people.

Dog owners also engage in park activities such as organized bonding and meet-up times. “The last Saturday of every month, labradoodles [a cross between a Labrador retriever and a poodle] and their owners visit the park for cupcakes and doggy treats. There is also a Great Dane day the first Saturday of every month,” says Anthony Caro from Berkeley.

“I like how open it is, there are no borders or fences. The view is amazing. These dogs get a better view than me from my apartment. This is a must-stop for anyone traveling with their dog.”

Whether you are a dog walker, an owner or a dog enthusiast, visitors highly recommend taking a walk at Point Isabel Dog Park.

Beauty Stylist Remembers the Day ‘Everything Changed’ in Vietnam

Fifty years after the Vietnam War, Cathy Lê remembers the day the U.S. Army came to her country and “everything changed.”

Lê, who now lives in Oakland, is a stylist at Linda’s Nails, a small beauty shop on the corner of El Portal and Church in San Pablo. She has worked there for 18 years, chatting with customers as a beauty and eyebrow stylist.

But it was back in Huê, Vietnam, where Lê first learned how to speak and write English in the sixth grade.

“I was born and raised in the country. It was a very simple life,” said Lê.

“When the U.S. Army came, everything changed. My father’s income was not sufficient to support my family. I saw the struggle between my parents and that is when I decided to drop out of high school to go work. My father started to cry. It wasn’t until later that I understood that he wanted to protect me.”

At 16, Lê decided to drop out of school to work for the U.S. Army as a secretary. In April 1967, Lê went to work for the Green Berets in the Headquarters of the Special Force Group 5. She worked for six years under various officers.

At the age of 24, Lê got married. Many of the soldiers and commanding officers attended her wedding. She and her family grew very fond of the American army.

“When we worked with them, they treated us so nice,” said Lê. “Many of the officers were from West Point. Many of the soldiers I worked with were straight out of college. We communicated during our break. At the time, I could only write and read in English. When they were speaking I didn’t understand, but I discovered that we both knew how to read. I brought a book over and we started a strong conversation.”

In 1973, the Communists made their way to South Vietnam. Lê and her family were relocated from the city to the village of Nhaīrang. She was forced to live there for 15 years, which she calls a dark period in her life.

Lê’s husband was imprisoned for aiding U.S. forces and having what they called “a changed mentality.” Lê started to work for a global non-profit, Mennonite Central Committee. With two growing boys and a lifestyle not very familiar to her, the rural life was something she had to get used to.

“We had to work really hard, like farmers, to survive,” she said.

Then one day, she heard the news.

“After 15 years of living in the countryside, I was listening to the radio and they said, ‘Prisoners are now free and allowed to go to America,’” Lê recalled.

“In the morning, I would listen to the radio because after so many years, I hadn’t practiced my English,” she recalled. “I would listen and write down what was said. They restricted us from listening to the Voice of America or BBC because it was a window to the world.”

It was not until the fall of 1994 that Lê and her family were granted the chance to move to America.

For Lê, the move was not as big of a culture shock as she anticipated. Lê’s best friend had already moved to the United States.

“After 15 years in the dark,” she explained, “the only thing that kept me living was that my best friend was in America.”

Lê knew that she wanted a new life and really liked the Bay Area. When she and her family finally arrived here, she knew she had made it.

New Developments Coming to Richmond

Driving around Richmond, you might have noticed some new additions to the city: newly paved roads, bike lanes and sidewalks, as well as construction projects.

“We finished our last paving project last year on Barrett Ave. from 18th to 23rd St.,” said Patrick Phelan, infrastructure administrator with the City of Richmond. “That was a section of the road that was really, really terrible,” he said.

Now, parts of Barrett Ave., Macdonald Ave. and Harbor Way can accommodate bicyclists and have sidewalks that allow better access for pedestrians and people with disabilities.

Phelan said the work on Barrett Ave. was done with a type of asphalt that used recycled rubber that should make the road durable. “It’s something we’re trying to do on the major streets,” he said.

Other road improvement projects include parts of Macdonald Ave. and Ohio Ave. from 1st to 23rd, where new bike lanes are marked with signage.

Currently in progress is a multi-million dollar effort to make Nevin Ave. from 19th to 27th more pedestrian and bike friendly, from BART to City Hall.

But it isn’t just roads that are being redone. Richmond residents have also seen a lot of construction going on.

In Point Richmond, there is a new 27-unit apartment complex under construction. The complex is located next to the Mechanics Bank, across from the Up and Under Pub and Grill. The train runs right behind this area.

With a growing population in Richmond, there has been an increase in developments in the downtown area as well. According to Janet Johnson, economic development administrator for the City Manager’s Office, close to 1,000 units of housing are expected to be built downtown over the next two years.

Approved projects include the development of the 60,000-square-foot lot at 12th and Macdonald Ave., across from Foods Co., that will feature 256 units of housing with ground-floor retail space.

Another development at 22nd at Nevin Ave., the site old Employment Development Department building which was demolished last year, will feature 289 new housing units.

“It’s a good time,” said Johnson, “because there is a housing shortage and just a boom in Richmond right now.”

Johnson anticipates a new and vibrant downtown area on the horizon.

“I just see a place that we can all be really proud of,” she said. “More stores, restaurants and shops, walkable to BART, something we have envisioned for a long time. More events and more opportunities for people to stay in their city.”

Richmond Students Play Role of Lawyers in Mock Trial

Over 80 West Contra Costa High School students recently got the chance to conduct mock trials at the Superior Courthouse in Martinez as they participated in the annual countywide mock trial competition.

Teams from five local high schools competed against teams throughout Contra Costa County, during four nights of presenting arguments.

Wanda Gonzalez, a junior at Kennedy High School, played the role of a prosecution attorney for the case.

“We are the first school in Richmond in a while to have a chance at winning the preliminary rounds,” said Gonzalez, who said she hopes to one day be a lawyer.

The program supporting these five West County teams is sponsored by the Center for Youth Development through Law (CYDL), a nonprofit organization that encourages students to learn about law beyond the classroom.

The students presented arguments in front of real judges and attorneys who scored the students on their defense and prosecution cases. Students acted out different roles, from bailiffs to witnesses and attorneys for prosecution and defense.

This season, students prepared a case for and against a fictional character on trial for human trafficking and false imprisonment.

After the first round of the mock trial, eight of the 16 teams advance to the quarter-finals. After that, the teams are reduced to four and then two proceed to the final round.

Last year, Miramonte High School was the winning team in the county competition.

CYDL’s mock trial program started about five years ago to help students from Richmond High, Kennedy High, DeAnza High, El Cerrito High and Pinole Valley High Schools learn about law practice and develop critical skills such as public speaking and teamwork. Coaches prepare students for five months, twice a week, competing against 11 other high schools in the county area.

Other schools “had good coaches already. Most students in CYDL teams don’t have attorneys as parents or family friends,” explained Nancy Schiff, executive director of CYDL.

Students in the program are coached by current and former attorneys with criminal law experience.

The students are well versed in how to make objections, something that both students and scorers agreed is the hardest part in winning cases.

“CYDL is meant to build life skills,” said Amy Resner, associate director of CYDL.  Some of the students in the program plan to pursue law and alumni are able to receive assistance on their journey to college and law school.

But even those who don’t become attorneys learn about the law in ways that will help them throughout their lives.

“The students know their rights,” said Resner.

My First Trip to Europe

Growing up in Richmond and realizing that it was a pretty small city, I always dreamed of stepping outside of the boundaries of my hometown. Most of the opportunities I had to travel were through school programs and scholarships. Now that I am a college graduate, I decided to fulfill my childhood dream of seeing another side of the world.

Last month I had the privilege of visiting London and Paris. The trip was completely spontaneous. My friend notified me of cheap flights before Thanksgiving. We decided we should go. Initially I was really nervous because it would be a completely new experience for me. I have been as far as Mexico but Europe was a whole new playing field.

When we arrived at Heathrow, I felt like I was in a completely new world. I remember stepping outside everyday and couldn’t believe I was actually there. The sky was a clear, piercing blue and looked unreal. The rustic architecture in places like Piccadilly Circus made it look like there was a dome over the buildings covering the sky. But there was no denying we were outside; on a “warm” day it was about 2ºC, which is the equivalent of about 36ºF.

There are definitely locations that I recommend for first timers. On our third day in London I bought tickets for the critically acclaimed play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The characters were brilliantly performed, the special effects were brought to life in amazing ways, and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time.

Throughout our time in London, we visited Elizabeth’s Tower, Tower Bridge and London Eye. It was nice to see these landmarks that I have read about. When you think about the history and the changes they have undergone since the time of their creation, you can’t help but feel fortunate to experience them yourself.

On our fourth day abroad we took the Eurostar train to Paris. Once in France, it felt oddly familiar and strange at the same time. Cars were driving on the same side of the road again but everything was in a distinct language. Being Mexican American had its advantages because I was able to understand most things, considering we share a language root, Latin.

In Paris we visited the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Versaille and Notre Dame. These places were everything I imagined them to be, and they brought back a lot of history class lessons.

We even got to attend a soccer match in the city. This made us feel like locals as we started to chant to the different plays. On our last day in Paris, we visited Parc Disneyland. Yes, Disneyland is in France. To be completely honest, I wasn’t too excited to go because I wanted to see more of the city but I am so glad that my friends convinced me. Most of the rides were more thrilling than our own Southern California park.

My travels in Europe were a great experience. I am so happy I got to step outside of my comfort zone. Being in a foreign land and exposed to a different culture pushed me to see the world in a different way. I came to value the distinct mannerisms of people, but I also realized they aren’t that different from us. I plan to go back and now that I’m versed in travelling, it will be nice to show my family around.

Finding Mindfulness Inside the Ring

“I feel I was put on this planet to fight,” says Jonathan Perez, 23, a boxing coach at Omni Movement in Richmond.

Perez, who is better known as Jonny, also works with the Mindful Life Project, where he helps teach the concept of mindfulness to elementary school students in Richmond. But his life did not always look as promising as it does now.

A Richmond native, Perez grew up in a poor household. His father used drugs and left the family when Perez was still young. He remembers school feeling like prison. “I got made fun of because of my shoes,” he says. “I felt like I had to become hard … I felt like I always had to put up this front so no one knew what was going on with me.”

“I was getting kicked out of class a lot. Then it just started to be a pattern and a normal thing,” he says.

He got into his first fistfight in sixth grade. Not long after that, he started “partying,” he says.

After that he graduated to criminal activity, such as stealing cars, telling himself that he didn’t have a problem.

Then one day he watched his older brother get arrested for attempted murder. His younger brother had also been arrested and sent to Byron Boys Ranch. “Both of my brothers were gone and it all hit me, ” he said.

Perez realized that he was hurting his family by remaining on the run. He wanted to return to be with his family as soon as possible. So he decided to turn himself in for grand theft auto when he was 18 years old. He was released about a month later and did another month on house arrest with the condition he get a job or go to school. He decided to do both.

In detention, he says, he didn’t get much help. He says that kids’ mental health needs were mostly treated with prescription medication like Adderall, which is used to manage attention deficit disorder. As for the adults in charge, he says, “You could tell that some cared and others did not.”

When he was locked up and going to a court school, he says, “It felt like a daycare. I was receiving first and second grade level assignments at the age of 16.” 

When he was released, he came back to Richmond and started a new chapter in his life. Through youth mentor Richard Boyd, he got involved with the community garden program Urban Tilth and the Safe Return Project, which helps formerly incarcerated people adjust to life after prison.

With the help of the local LEAP Center in Richmond, Perez was able to get his GED and study at Contra Costa College.

He started reading about the concept of mind, body and soul – and also giving back. He credits this with improving his self-confidence.

“It also helped me get the confidence to take boxing more seriously,” says Perez.

He had discovered his passion for boxing through an afterschool program at Richmond High years before. He says boxing helped distract him from things he was stressed about.

“You have to have discipline as a boxer,” he explains. “The discipline of boxing has made me a better person.”

Then he began working with Mindful Life and started meditating every day, combining his athletic ability with his newfound mental and spiritual strength.

“I always train and when I meditate, I train a part of me that you can’t really see. It helps me control my actions and do the right thing over the wrong thing,” Perez says.

He credits meditating with being able to mentally slow things down in the ring.

“With mindfulness, I’m able to control myself more. Now, before I react I think.”

He is also able to focus on his breath, something he says can help him win a fight.

“In boxing, it’s easy to let your emotions get the best of you. You’ll forget about your breath and you can get knocked out,” he says. “If you can win the battle of breath and take the other fighter’s breath and energy, you can win the fight. Your breath is everything.”

Perez is a local boxing hero himself, winning two championship belts – 2014 Ringside Champion and 2015 Oxnard PAL Champion.

He sees his work with Mindful Life as related, bringing together his love for boxing, kids and community.

“I get to influence and inspire them,” he says, “teaching how mindfulness — being in the present and in the moment without judgment — can affect their lives.”

He hopes to go professional as a boxer in 2018, and also wants to open his own gym in Richmond for young people to learn boxing as a way of bringing discipline into their lives.

Richmond Arts Therapist, Former Kindergarten Teacher Victims of Ghost Ship Fire

Thirty-six people died in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland on December 5. Two members of the West Contra Costa Unified School District family, Sara Hoda and Travis Hough, were among those lost.

Hough, 35, worked as an arts therapist at Montalvin Elementary School in Richmond through a partnership with the social services organization Bay Area Community Resources. After starting as an intern at Helms Middle School in 2014, he worked at King Elementary during the 2015-16 school year, before coming to Montalvin.

Hough provided services to students at Montalvin with a variety of needs, including emotional support to those experiencing grief or who were victims of bullying.

“He genuinely loved kids and loved being around them,” said Katherine Acosta-Verprauskus, principal at Montalvin Elementary. “Although he didn’t provide therapy to every single one of our students, every single one of our students knew him, they knew him really well.”

Acosta-Verprauskus said that it was a very hard week for the staff and the students of Montalvin.

Sara Hoda, 30, was a kindergarten teacher at Coronado Elementary in Richmond from 2014 to 2016 before moving on to teach in Oakland.

“Sara was a beautiful person and angelic. Just an awesome teacher,” said Tisa Smith who worked as a play works coach at Coronado alongside Hoda.

“It takes a lot of patience to deal with five year olds, especially some that didn’t go to preschool and it’s their fist time in a school setting where they have to follow direction,” said Smith.

“Her class was calm. The calming spirit that she had transferred to her class and it transferred to us.”

Linda Cohen, retired principal at Coronado, hired Hoda to her first full-time teaching job at the school. “She was calm, sweet, very dedicated and committed,” said Cohen. “She was very inspiring and extremely nurturing.

“She was just unique,” said Cohen, “very creative and wise beyond her years.”

Cohen said Hoda brought a special blend of being strict, organized and prepared along with kindness and a commitment to her job.

“Whatever the ‘it’ of a fabulous teacher is, she had it. She embodied total respect but also confidence and that’s something that all new teachers don’t always have.”

Bay Area Community Resources, along with West Contra Costa Unified School District, provided a crisis team of counselors and other support staff to both Montalvin and Coronado schools in the aftermath of the tragedy. The joint agencies provided two to three therapists a day this past week to help the community process the tragedy.

“Students wrote letters and made cards saying goodbye to Mr. Travis,” Acosta-Verprauskus said. “Some wrote down memories that they shared with him and we taped them all up by his door. We decorated his door and we created that as a space for kids to have somewhere to go to.”

Montalvin held a vigil for Hough on December 9. Students, families, staff and friends attended to share their memories and to pay their respects. “It was a real celebration of how hard he worked for the community and for the kids and how much we all loved him. It’s been hard but we’ve really just been leaning on each other as a community to get through it together,” Acosta-Verprauskus said.

Coronado held an event in celebration of Hoda’s life in the school’s multi-purpose room on December 13. With members of Hoda’s family in attendance, students gathered outside, some in tears, to watch the family and school officials release white doves in her honor.

“Our thoughts and condolences are with Mr. Hough and Ms. Hoda’s families and all those affected by the loss,” said Superintendent Matthew Duffy, in a statement. “Mr. Hough and Ms. Hoda were vibrant members of our community and touched so many lives. The loss is heartbreaking and Mr. Hough and Ms. Hoda will be deeply missed.”