Watching Buzzards Swirl:
It has been my honor and privilege to work for fifteen years on an urban inner-city psychiatric unit that is currently being targeted for closure by a hospital system that is facing a budget crisis. There is a proposal on the table to merge our program with its suburban counterpart, taking away the specialized care we provide to the urban, primarily African American, community that we serve.
This week I went in front of the board to argue against the closing of this clinic. In preparing to do this, I found myself recollecting things I had learned at commuter college I attended in Camden New Jersey. I developed a grand plan to tell a story that would change the board’s mind.
I sat in front of the board for three hours before I was able to break the spell of the story. Listening to the board belabor many points, I realized it wasn’t the place for my personal perspective. I ended up barely getting my head together and saying some words that fit in with the wider efforts of my professional peers.
Our team said what it had to say and did a good job. Now I must wait two months and see what will become of my life’s work.
Community Stories Outta Oakland:
I have learned a few things about Oakland in my years working with local people. Stories surface that paint a mosaic for myself and the people in the program that are central to the way we put our wellness together, that are central to our community. While Asian Mental Health and Casa Del Sol Clinics primarily serve Asian and Latino clients, our population is mostly black and a minority white. As I share slivers of our stories that we have learned from, I realize that these may not be as welcome in the new community.
Historically, a diaspora of black people primarily from Louisiana settled in segregated neighborhoods in the West and East after World War II. Fleeing from racism and economic oppression, many families prospered. The old Richard Hawkins gospel song Oh Happy Day came from Oakland and made it to the charts in 1968. Elders in the community tell many stories of prosperity and strength. Indeed prior to World War II only 3% of the community was African American.
I have heard many say that within segregated communities, black people could get anything they needed within their community prior to the civil rights movement. Crosses were burned in surrounding communities. Though, of course, currently there are many other enclaves of diverse peoples to which I have less ability to speak about, similar changes have resulted as work went from manufacturing to our current service economy.
Prior to this shift, Huey Newton, Bobby Seals and the Black Panther Party grew out of Oakland and worked to defend the community against racism during desegregation. I have heard many memories of this movement was targeted by the U.S. government and was replaced starting in the mid-seventies, by Felix Mitchell’s crime organization. Word has it that Huey Newton got into drugs and was shot three times in a West Oakland Neighborhood in 1989.
Felix Mitchel’s influence survived only ten years and brought crack into the community. I have heard one community member say, “It’s like you just woke up one morning and everything was just crack,” Felix Mitchel competed with Micky Moore, who survived, reformed and became a preacher. I have heard stories of relatives killed and butchered during these years. In 1991 Tupac Shakur was brutally beaten by Oakland PD. Many large businesses tended to leave the city. Though neighborhoods differ significantly, post-industrial poverty continues to pulse through parts of the city.
During the shift to post-industrialism, the incarceration industry expanded. Residents are allowed three jail visits and then are shipped out to the pen. In the pen, many enter gangs out of which they can never leave without surviving protective custody and solitary confinement. They can get assignments that they must carry out that can jeopardize their efforts to maintain employment in the community. Probation and parole monitor a person very strictly and marginalizes ones’ career opportunities.
While many proud Oaklanders object to criminal organizations and work hard to stay free and safe, it is easy to see how post-industrial wages and generations of poverty have necessitated them. The war is zoned and police precincts fight to keep it out of wealthy districts. Task force reality in your neighborhood makes living hard. I am always in awe when I walk through suburban neighborhoods and smell cannabis wafting where people are safe and free to use it.
Still there are predominately services available in Eastmont Mall, which was once a shopping mall. Still, there are neighborhoods rife with shootings and even, before 2000 there has been migration out of the city out to places like Pittsburg, Antioch, Vallejo, Hayward and Freemont.
Currently, however, the price of housing is skyrocketing, causing more and more working families to commute to the city for work spending long hours in the car. However, displacement seems to be slowed by an extraordinary amount of homelessness. Between 2017-2019 homelessness has increased 47% according to figures released in the Oakland Chronicle. Fifteen years ago, when I started working, a person could easily get into a shelter; now an Obama phone and a waiting list is a must and the streets are full of tent encampments.
Those of us witnessing this believe that people in the tech industry are taking over the city and displacing people who have made this their home since the nineteen forties. For years I have heard of tech companies handing out the tents that are erected throughout the city. Current figures suggest that 34% of Oakland homeless live in tents and 23% live in their cars. While only 11% of the city is now African American, 50% of the homeless population is African American.
Fighting to Save Our Unit:
Perhaps the story I wanted to tell was as much a testament to why I, a white man, choose to work in an urban, primarily African American community. Perhaps it helps me understand why despite the privilege of my skin, I feel put upon to go out to the suburbs into stories that are significantly different.
If I feel this way, imagine how our community participants feel! There are many white participants who feel the same way I do. We have learned to use this community to enrich our lives.
I have sensed that the decision has been made by the company and that our appeal to power is just theater. Nevertheless, I decided to speak because my bosses said that we needed to fight for the people currently being displaced in the city of Oakland.
It hurts me extraordinarily to lose all the love I have built with patients who have been healing and improving their lives over the course of my fifteen-year tenure. Many will not tolerate the move.
Still, I recall the story that lived in my mind and wonder what it meant to me. Why did I think it would help people of power change their minds about the value of culturally competent care?
The Story that I Couldn’t Share:
Back in my junior and senior year in college I remember a woman lived in the apartment complex across the street, It a little while, but eventually she introduced herself as Gwendolyn. She was just a tad masculine when she shook my hand. She did not use the standard neighborhood handshake like the youth I’d befriended first couple of years in the city.
She was clearly the elder with her freckled face, well-tended hair, and shades. She took it upon herself to start up the conversations. Although I was initially a little guarded, fearing she’d end up asking for money, I remained receptive and open to her.
One of my schoolmates was known to joke about the amount of money he imagined that I would give out to street people. I heard him call me out of my name with his little comedy routine once. I didn’t think it was cute. He took writing classes with me and like most of our cohorts commuted into the city when he wasn’t at work. He was known to stop off at the frat house and write about his escapades.
I clearly didn’t fit in with him or many of my schoolmates. Many would tease me as they got to know me. I didn’t pay them much attention. I just thought they were dumb, in and out of the city in their old suburban high school cliques and stereotypes.
Gwendolyn (and the rest of the neighborhood for that matter) did not ask me for money.
Maybe they knew I worked at the local Korean-owned deli, which meant that I was paid under the table and was expected to guard the shop with the Glock under the grill and the shotgun over the trashcan.
I’d just recently moved into the one local apartment complex which did not allow drugs. I had spent my first year in the city living with an older woman who would not let me have outside friends. My second year was devoted to breaking up with her and establishing some independence in writing classes.
I would talk to Gwendolyn about the roach infestation problem we had.
“Oh, we won’t allow bugs in our apartment,” she exclaimed, adding, “I am absolutely certain of that!”
This seemed strange, with all the traffic going in and out of that building, it didn’t seem clean from the outside. I always did wonder if that meant they did not have cockroaches or if she was talking about something I didn’t understand.
I still think of the three winters I lived there as Gwendolyn’s neighbor and our conversations by the corner payphone. There were times I wanted to give Gwendolyn money when she was underdressed on the corner in her jean jacket shivering. But then again, I too was often too lazy to dress for the cold and was also shivering. We were both far too thin for our bodies.
Perhaps we were both not taking care of ourselves. She was often drinking from a bag and I occasionally had a small bruise on my throat.
But the fact is that Gwendolyn’s constant respectful outreach meant a heck of a lot to me. There was very little college life outside the frat house. I delivered sandwiches to the dorms and was mad at many of my lazy peers who would neglect to tip me.
Just as she practically lived alone on the corner using the phone and talking to associates, I practically lived in the library belaboring to outline everything that I read. I’d later learn that I was battling my undiagnosed ADD and Dyslexia. If I wasn’t at the library, I was at work. Once a week, I was coming home from the suburban shrink appointment on the speed line with bags of groceries that I’d bring into my studio.
Maybe Gwendolyn sensed something in me to which she could relate. In fact, maybe we were both trying to escape some of the same demons. I wouldn’t understand that until many decades later. Finally, I would recapture some memories that would help me understand my odd take on things and how my senses often turn out to be correct. I think Gwendolyn could relate to that!
I did know that I was trying to escape the dependence on a family and community that I didn’t trust.
I had been born into a Quaker school community where both of my parents were teachers, my father a principal. I had spent half of my senior year in several mental health institutions and had returned to a close-knit community that was informed of intimate details of my struggles.
I was no longer able to play sports, so I spent my time writing. My writing efforts now appeared downgraded. Now my best essay nearly got me kicked out of school! The school psychologist, the wife of my English teacher, arranged a confrontation with my parents. Everybody knew about it before I did.
I started to have the sense that grades were political and stupid. Now there is research that says that sense is accurate particularly when skin color is involved.
During my time in institutions, I had come to see things differently. I wanted to badly to avoid all the people who seemed to make up their minds about me in a way that wasn’t going to ever change. I turned down my admissions to private liberal arts colleges and made an escape.
Somehow, I sensed that Gwendolyn understood me better and valued me more than all the people in my old community of privilege.
And it was not just Gwendolyn, it was Doc and Ray who’d trained me to work at the Korean Deli. It was Julio and Jose who I’d trained to work there. It was Ruth the security guard at the library, my coworker Craig, his cousin the janitor. It was my apartment manager who I delivered lunch to on a regular basis. Sprinkled throughout the neighborhood were people who I could connect with and who kept me afloat. I felt they gave me another chance. They didn’t see me as the skinny anorexic that I was, they were curious. It was the familiar look of the customers who came in and out of the Deli. They seemed to respect me and believe in second chances where others did not.
Overcoming Generalizations and Stereotypes:
In retrospect, I was twenty years old. It was an era of extremes in my life. I overgeneralized and felt the whole world of privilege was united against me. Maybe, I just needed to establish my independence from it.
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe some of the privileged world that had reared me could understand that people deserved second chances. Many of them seemed to choose my parents and their secrets over me, but maybe not all of them were like that. Maybe there were some of them that could learn to see beyond stereotypes.
Sure, there was all the disrespect I’d witnessed towards me going to my sister’s graduation. Sure, there was the same disrespect in family get-togethers. I would eventually learn that I had a great aunt who was given a lobotomy and left to rot in an institution. Maybe the whole community of privilege is not like that.
Maybe it’s possible that some other suburban people find community in other contexts. Maybe some people on the board could understand that need to be understood and respected that is necessary to find when you have no place else to go.
Maybe that’s what I have spent the last fifteen years of my life going above and beyond in my work efforts! I feel guilty that I take a competitive salary away from the community. I must pray that I am not only taking from, but also giving back to the community that gave me a chance to come back.
I am not the first person who has had the meaning and purpose in my life taken away by some people of property. I feel like I am waiting for the buzzards to pick over my bones.
When I first started leading groups on the unit, I recall walking into the “low-functioning” group and having an African American male who thought he was an aristocrat scream and had an IQ that was likely higher than mine scream, “Buzzards!”
Initially I didn’t know what to do because I was hiding my own history of “schizophrenia,” homelessness, and psychiatric incarceration. I needed the salary and did not want to set off a negative ripple.
But I came back into health. I started responding in ways that were more helpful. I’d do things like flap my arms and making a few, “caw-caw” sounds. And then, I’d simulate being shot by the aristocrat. Then I’d have a real conversation with the aristocrat. Eventually we’d end up talking in the hall as if it was Gwendolyn and I back on that corner in Camden New Jersey.
Leadership that Perpetuates Stereotypes?
Good mental health care must teach people to re-examine themselves beyond the stereotypes! I have a hard time believing that people of power know how to help people like Gwendolyn, myself, and the African American aristocrat. They seem to be like all the people back at Quaker school, not willing to give me a second chance.
If a board member was to engage me in a conversation, I would want to tell them that displacement, union-busting and psychiatric incarceration (which is precisely what our program prevents) hurts. It attacks relationships and ways of life. We lose our love and our means of survival. The architects behind these attacks should be ashamed of themselves! I am ashamed of my part in it!