by Ann Mary Quarandillo
Early in the morning of January 1, 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot by transit officer Johannes Mehserle while lying face down on a train platform in Oakland, Calif. Sandra Davis '89, who works and lives in Oakland, remembers vividly the media frenzy around the shooting, and the subsequent verdict that the shooting had been accidental.
"The media was stoking the idea of a riot after the verdict was announced—assuming it was going to happen because of where we were," she recalls. "The community was hurt and justifiably angry, but we knew that we had the tools to help young people deal with this constructively. We called on the network of youth development providers that have worked for many years to build a restorative justice movement in Oakland."
These community leaders quickly organized a broad-based effort to both acknowledge the injustice, and provide a safe place for young people to express their anger and pain. "The message 'violence is not justice' was promoted, recreation centers and other community spaces were opened, healing circles were organized and youth were encouraged and supported to verbalize their feelings and express potential solutions."
Helping communities to heal and become healthy is what Sandra Davis does. As a trained community organizer and now program manager for the California Endowment's Building Healthy Communities (BHC) initiative in East Oakland, she knows that where we live dramatically affects our health—for better or for worse.
According to a recent study conducted by the local health department, in Oakland, a white child born in the more affluent "hills" will live, on average, 14 years longer than an African American child born across the freeway in the lower-income flats. By fourth grade, this child is four times less likely to read at grade level, will live in neighborhoods with twice the concentration of liquor stores and fast food outlets, is five times more likely to drop out of school and five times more likely to be hospitalized for diabetes as an adult.
"Look at most of our neighborhoods where ill health is prominent. The schools are overcrowded, they lack resources, and don't serve kids well," Davis explains. "Good neighborhoods provide access to good schools, parks, open space, healthy food, transportation to work, social support, connectedness. Kids have places for recreation. In order for individuals and communities to thrive, the elements of health must be present in the physical and social environment. Deliberate efforts to address the policies and practices that reinforce systemic inequities are key to making a change."
The California Endowment began in 1996 as a $4 billion health conversion foundation with a focus on expanding access to quality health care and improving the health status of all Californians. Ten years later, the board took a hard look at the outcomes and impact of the foundation's grantmaking and concluded that the investment of resources needed to focus further upstream and on the root causes of health inequities, and that the best measure of health needed to be place-based. "We felt that focusing our work on certain communities and doing a deeper investment in those communities would really show an impact both in those communities and on the individuals that suffer most from health inequities," Davis explains. And with California facing greater budget deficits, "it was also about showing policy makers that you can't deplete resources in the most underserved communities and expect the state to thrive. Communities are interconnected, so equity and health in all communities is good for business, the environment—the well-being of everyone."
In 2010, the foundation launched its Building Healthy Communities (BHC) grant-making initiative, which is being implemented in 14 communities across the state. As program manager for the East Oakland BHC, Davis helped facilitate a two-year planning process designed to prioritize community health outcomes with local residents and community-based organizations. Davis now uses the plan that was developed as a blueprint to guide her grant-making in this community. She works closely with the Alameda County Department of Public Health, which serves as a convenor of the BHC initiative, providing a vehicle for ongoing community engagement.
Davis has drawn on her Evergreen experience throughout her career, from serving as founder, director and lead community organizer for two community-based organizations, one in Oakland and one in Portland, Ore., and serving as a lead trainer and senior community organizer for the Center for Third World Organizing. After 12 years of organizing, Davis began working in philanthropy—first with individual donors and then private foundations.
"Everything is interconnected and Evergreen's interdisciplinary educational focus has been invaluable in my life and my work," she says. "I started working as a student organizer while I was still on campus and learned a lot about political theory, history, environmental justice, war, humanities and how it all connects to social movements. But I also had the opportunity to ground what I was learning with externships. I worked with the United Farm Workers and got introduced to the Center for Third World Organizing while at Evergreen. I learned how critical it is to connect with people and bring analysis to the work that was grounded in people's realities. My education and my organizing experience has helped me to be a grant maker that is more in touch and understands the critical need to bridge social justice work of people in communities with the resources of this privileged world."
A critical way to bridge those worlds is through communication. Says Davis, "Being creative about the way we're engaging folks—that's huge. Even as we work through the problems of the digital divide, technology is offering an opportunity to bring new voices to the table—like young people—that couldn't be there before." Davis looks to today's young people to take the lead in social justice work. In East Oakland, like in countries around the world, she sees teens and young adults working through the trauma they experience in positive ways, including through culture, dance, music and video, and using technology to share ideas for how to reshape the world.
"We live in a society that underestimates young people, especially young men of color," she says. "We need to allow the voices of young people from disenfranchised communities to resonate more. Young people are already leading by changing social norms through new means of communication. They are learning that we are all connected to each other and our communities are interdependent. Perhaps it's these young people who will help us see that we all have a stake in each other's ability to thrive and that inequity anywhere really does make us all sick."