Tuesday, May 18, 2004

More meetings with city officials re the Convention Center ...

To date, all have been male -- a clear disadvantage for two women of color. We tend to be seen as glorified house maids -- regardless of credentials -- and that could prove to be a problem. Jennifer is clearly a trained professional in the field of arts and culture administration as well as theater management. I'm pretty impressive myself, but a generalist, with a long but unfocused resume. Makes me self-conscious in interviews. My experience is long and varied, touching upon so many aspects of life that it's difficult to capture all that and put it into "25 words or less." Nonetheless, we have completed another round of obstacles and have the go-ahead now from two city managers. That doesn't remove the financial instability I'm dealing with, but it helps to know that at some point my bills will be paid and that total collapse may not come until the fall... .

Back to 1978:

In those first few days of assessment I made several interesting observations. There was some inherited goodwill that would help me through the months ahead while I sorted things out. There were some paradoxes that would have to be dealt with -- a layering of life that had only just begun to unfold for me.

The drive from my home high atop the Berkeley hills and through the university campus to South Berkeley created a kind of culture shock day after day. I was beginning to live in two totally different worlds, full time. While on a given evening I would have gathered before our hearth the likes of the Episcopal Bishop of Northern California, Kim Meyer; his Archdeacon, John Weaver; Tarthang Tulku, Rinpoche of Padma Ling; Dr. Leonard Duhl of the U.C. Dept. of Public Health; Gay Gaer Luce of SAGE; Carol Sibley the godmother of the school busing program of the city -- I would the next morning drive to the other end of town to a world that was to these leaders the stuff of pure sociological speculation, like a Third World country.

I once found myself in a friendly dinner debate with the city manager of Rome who was visiting the Bay Area and our home. He and Bill were extolling the virtues of regional government. I was standing alone against these giants, arguing energetically. In time they couldn't compete with my every-day-living-in-the-midst-of-the-inner-city logic. It angered me to hear them defending the right of whites to abandon core cities to develop the suburbs then to suggest usurping political power as well. This had largely been caused by the removal of services and financial resources that whites took with them as they fled. Remember, I'd just left their world and knew them well. I was the anomaly.

For the first time, due to an expanding Black population, it was possible to elect minority candidates to run those cities. However, we were forced to do it with dwindling resources and deteriorating governing structures. White Flight and increasing poverty had decimated all systems. Due to an involvement in national black caucus activities, I'd met mayors and other public officials from Gary, Indiana; Cleveland, Ohio; and our own Berkeley. This was not new for me. How dare these men presume to now try to defend the move to subsume those same struggling and abandoned inner cities into regional governments? They wished to now complete the transference of power totally? It was a heated debate. A growing sophistication about racial matters played a huge role in helping to re-establish my racial identity.

In this new world of contrasts, my "difference" played a positive role. My brown skin had become an asset in a curious way. Bill encouraged my active participation in all such debates with a glint of pride in his eye. He seemed to delight in my verbal skills and willingness to stand alone on principle. That evening of our good-natured argument established that their advanced degrees were simply no match for my living day-to-day in that dichotomy. I was literally driving in and out of those worlds, experiencing culture shock each day, and finding it both exhilarating and frightening each time. Eventually it became abundantly clear to me that those worlds would meet only marginally in our lifetimes, if at all. The distance between was far too great. The river too wide. The bridge too weak to trust. I would move between them as long as I could, but it was clear early-on that a choice would have to be made at some point. This was the new arena for growth and I embraced it. Bill, quite wisely, accepted that this must be lived through, whatever the outcome.

After pillow talks far into long and often troubled nights, Bill and I eventually knew that it was necessary that I develop a clear sense of what could be accomplished by restoring the business and what could not. It would never be financially profitable. It hadn't been for a very long time. If my plan was to end up in the Fortune 500, this would surely not be the place to make my stand. However, if I could rehabilitate it enough to amplify my voice toward social change in a community that desperately needed it, this may be just the place to do so. As a faculty wife (and a trophy wife at that) living in the hills of Berkeley, flirting with academia and the heady life of the jet setters, I didn't mean much. I felt decorative, but relatively powerless. But -- as that "little Black woman storekeeper down on Sacramento Street" in a liberal city wallowing in white guilt -- well, this just might be peculiarly well-suited as a venue for social change. After all, the echoes of the Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties were still being heard and making possible the monumental social adjustments that would rumble through all other minority groups in the decades to come.

I've often said that when I was young idealist, visions of changing the world lurked in the back of my fertile mind. As I matured as a young wife and mother -- active in the defense of myself and my family -- there were dreams of changing the State. On Sacramento Street I had to become enough of a realist to know that I had to settle for no more than 500 feet! And I did. Within those limits, over about 7 years, I looked out from behind the counter through the iron bars that promised protection, at just about that distance. I proudly claimed territory. This would be mine to shape; drug dealers, prostitutes, floating crap games, local crime bosses, social policy, and all.

It was possible to bring all of the experience of the preceding years to bear on what happened there over the time. How rewarding it was. Every minute of every seemingly-unrelated day of my life rose to serve in the rehabilitation of my 500 feet. The concentration of effort paid off handsomely. The fears and pain, the disillusionment from time to time -- all grist for the mill. Nothing was wasted, not one minute.

The book that would guide my efforts had not been written. Maybe this is it.

We'll see.

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