Q&A With Towanda Sherry, OCO leader

If you’ve been at ms.SherryOCO events, actions, meetings—you name it—you’ve probably seen Towanda Sherry. But you may not know that, back in the day, she was threatened by the FBI because of her work with the African People’s Socialist Party. You may have no idea that she has organized on behalf of a variety of social justice causes over the years, from South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) to Leonard Peltier and the American Indian Movement to the case of Black Panther Party leader Geronimo Pratt.

Ms. Sherry started working with OCO when a fellow member of Brookins A.M.E. Church encouraged her to get involved in OCO’s small-schools initiatives. Ironically, that OCO leader ended up losing his home of more than 20 years during the rash of bad loans and foreclosures that hit our neighborhoods. It was the tip of the iceberg of Oakland’s housing crisis, which is the focus of Ms. Sherry’s latest efforts at OCO. —Angie Noel

“A lot of kids give up going to school if they don’t have a place to stay. We have kids sleeping in cars nowadays—it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Our kids are now at risk because of gentrification, displacement and homelessness.”

Why have you decided to get involved in OCO’s housing work?

Ms. Sherry: I think it’s important especially for African Americans. We’re being purged from this community. I think we’ve lost about 36,000 African Americans from Oakland since 2000. If we’re not careful, Oakland is going to look like San Francisco. It’s not coincidental that all over the country, Black communities in inner cities are being pushed out. It has to do with national forces—banks, big-money corporations and big real estate groups are behind a lot of this.

What are some of the specific targets for OCO and other of its allies?

Ms. Sherry: Putting Measure JJ in place, the Protect Oakland Renters measure we passed in November, and making sure the city takes responsibility to provide affordable housing. We call it deeply affordable housing because what some folks call affordable isn’t affordable. We all have to stay vigilant and active to get things enacted from Measure JJ. There’s a timeline to get things in place. The first portion was supposed to be done by Feb. 1, but the city hasn’t finished it. We also need to get creative with ways to educate folks. People don’t know about JJ and the Just Cause Ordinance [about evictions].

 

Another thing we’re working on is the right to return for folks who have been forced out. For example, African Americans who’ve had to move to Fresno, Stockton and other places should have a right to space in affordable housing that’s being built here. That’s a fight we’ll have to win with the City Council, and the mayor has to adopt it as part of her policy. And if we can get the votes from council members, we want to make affordable housing a standing item on every city council meeting’s agenda!

What are the other issues you’d like OCO to focus on—and do you see intersections in our work?

Ms. Sherry: The school-to-prison pipeline—especially around issues of willful defiance, which forces high rates of suspension, especially for African Americans. After repeated suspensions, some kids just drop out and we don’t intersect with them again until we find them out selling drugs or recruited into prostitution. A lot of kids give up going to school if they don’t have a place to stay. We have kids sleeping in cars nowadays—it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Our kids are now at risk because of gentrification, displacement and homelessness

For more info or to participate in OCO’s housing-related work, contact Reverend Damita Davis-Howard, OCO leader, at ddavis-howard@oaklandcommunity.org. OCO housing meetings are held at the OCO office every second Monday, at 6 p.m.