Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Is There Hope In West Oakland? A Cell Phone Saga

On April 21, 2007, I attended the 45th anniversary of the African American Association Reunion at the DeFermery Park with keynote speaker Dr. Khalid
Al-Mansour at DeFermery Park in West Oakland between 1:00 and 4:00 PM.

My participation in the event came as an invitation to support a non-profit organization whose mission is to empower the underserved communities offering free programs like entrepreneur workshops, homeownership program, financial literacy and credit education for adults and banking education for youth. We set up a table complete of Operation Hope information on the programs, seminars, workshops and gave away can sodas.
Although it was over cast with few sprinkles, Dr. Al-Mansour delivered a speech emphasizing the core values of the Association include unity, self-help, education and dignity in communities.

While he encouraged African Americans to participate in the global economy, to show brotherly love to one another, there was an un-brotherly (or un-sisterly) thief in the crowd. I busily gave away flyers on home ownership and business seminars while my friend Colleen who was visiting from England assisted. We spoke compassionately about the Hope’s mission of helping people in the community and gave away can sodas. Somewhere towards the end of the event, Colleen’s pocket had been picked. In her pocket was my cell phone that served as my mobile bible containing numerous of important phone numbers. The phone also displayed a recent photograph of me and the first lady of California Marie Shriver taken at Laney College, which was also stored as my wallpaper in the face of the phone.

When we discovered that the phone was stolen, I could care less than a pig’s hoof about helping the underserved community in West Oakland. Where was the unity in West Oakland on this day? And where was there any dignity?

UPSET AND PISSED. I was not upset with my friend Colleen (well maybe a little for not being more aware of her surroundings), but I was actually angry with the neighborhood and angry at myself for thinking that we could make a small difference on this day.
I questioned the efforts of the African American Association holding their reunion in De Fermery park in a neighborhood, (I felt) where consciousness did not exists.

On May 15, 2007 around 10pm, almost four weeks after the De Fermery Park event, I received a phone call. There was a young girl with an inner-city dialect on the other end asking, “Is this the lady who lost her cell phone?” It was Dee, a 15 yr old girl from West Oakland. I asked Dee where she lived. She replied, “In the lower bottoms.” I then asked her where she attended school. She said she Ralph Bunch. I later became aware that the school is located directly across the street from De Fermery Park in West Oakland, where the students are economically disadvantaged. I told the young girl that I would give a reward once I got the phone and would not ask any questions about how she got the phone. Dee told me to meet them at De Fermery Park at 3PM the next day. I didn’t care; I was just elated that I was going to retrieve my phone. But at what cost?

The next day, I showed up at the park. I went to the office and was told that I just missed a girl dressed in pink looking to return a cell phone to a lady. Dee called me again, “Wheh was you? We was there.” She told me to hold on and then covered the mouth piece of the phone. I could hear the rough cracking voice of a woman coaching in the background, “Can you meet us tonite at West Oakland BART station?” Dee asked. “NO,” I replied for obvious reasons. I the young girl what was her last name and she repeated, “...my last name?” The street wise woman belted, “Don’t you give yo name! How much she given you?” I asked Dee if the woman talking was her mom and to let me speak to her. The cracking voice woman said, “Whaddya want her name fo? I don’t trust given info’ on the fon. You gonna give her some money, right?” I told her yes, “I will call you tomorrow.” So back to square one I thought.

The next morning, I drove to the school went straight to the principal’s office and told the administrator what happened. Less than an hour later, I received a call from the principal stating that they had security collect my phone and that I may pick up my phone. Thirty minutes followed with several calls from unfamiliar numbers that came from the panicky student. I told Dee that I was busy and would have to talk later. The next call came in thirty minutes from the pissed-off mother, “That ain’t what we agreed on. You came to the school and told the principal. I talked to the police and they said if she found the phone, it belong to her. The police gonna be there when you come. You was supposed to call me!” the crackish voice woman threatened. I replied, “Okay, Mam. You go ahead and call the police,” and hung up.

Little did the woman know, I had already prepared a package for Dee, which included a Citi Bank Finance CD Rom for students; a teddy bear from Bank of the West, gourmet caramel corn and a “Thank You” card with $50 with the following scripted message: Dear Dee, thanks for returning my phone. Always remember it is better to do the right thing. Don’t allow others to sway you away from having integrity and good character. Just know that you have done a good deed and that is worth more than any reward in the eye of God. After the threatening phone call, I wanted to pick up m phone then tear up the card, forget the bag of gifts and put my money back in my wallet. After all, why should I pay to get back my own phone that was stolen from me?

After toiling in anger, I finally I decided to have my husband in his armed security uniform drop the bag off at the school and to pick up my phone.

Less than an hour later, I received two more phone calls. School administrator Ms. Thorn somewhat chokingly, “Ms. Brooks, I am lost for words. When I saw what you had done, tears came to my eyes. I am so sorry that this is the way you became acquainted with our school. But I want to thank you for what you have done.” The second call was from Dee. She wanted to know if I had picked up my phone and to tell me that she received the items.

All ended well, but I remained slightly disturbed by the irony of events that began weeks ago with Dr. Al-Manssour’s message: ‘each one teach one.’ This was perhaps my opportunity to teach one person the importance and value of good character. Somehow, I felt that Dee had hoped to make a new friend or perhaps even a role model.

Finally, Dee thanked me saying that she was glad that I got my phone back. I wished her well and hung up.