Tom Butt
  E-Mail Forum – 2017  
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  Betty Reid Soskin In Support of Annexation of North Richmond
October 9, 2017

Dear Mayor and Council:

Hoping that you will accept these comments in the spirit of Betty Reid Soskin, private citizen, a role that I’ve tried hard not to relinquish to my more recent identity as a national parks ranger. 

On occasion I find that my dual roles in conflict since — prior to becoming a federal employee subject to the limitations imposed by governmental regs — I served as a field rep to both Assembly members Dion Aroner and Loni Hancock.  In that role there were many occasions over several years, that placed me in North Richmond attending meetings of the MAC in a variety of settings with members of that small and troubled community where the social workers, case managers, service providers, police representatives, those from non-profits and county staff often out-numbered the service recipients present in the room.  It was hard to not conclude that North Richmond was operating more as a jobs program for white professionals than designed to meet the needs of the low income mostly black folks the services were created to provide.  I sensed this at the time as systemic, and common to most low income communities throughout the country.

I’d come from many years as a struggling black small business person in a similar “crime infested” and impoverished community in South Berkeley, so the lessons and observations were highly informed. Annexation was clearly the answer that would make of the City of Richmond whole, and I viewed the experience through that lens based on years of experience as such. I remember while sitting in one of the many pre-election community meetings — a meeting where the candidates for city positions were gearing up for another round of promises to the community of need in which my store sat red-lined and crime-ridden. I wondered whether the reason that almost every large city in the nation maintained such a district in order to serve as a magnet for federal funds which, once received, disappeared into the general fund.  My cynicism was increased by the politics of the times, a politics that saw the police explaining to my frustrated husband, when he complained after the third break-in in a month, why our community wasn’t better protected, “… we value neighborhoods like this because when something happens in other parts of Berkeley, we can usually guess where we can pick up the perpetuator.”  Yes.  That actually is a true statement.

In recent years serving in a position that requires a good deal of and access to research into a city that rose from a population of 23,000 in 1942 to 130,000 by 1945 (and is just over 108,000 today), and with a history that reflects the inequities and injustices imposed by a nation that continues to struggle with forming “…that more perfect Union,” there are necessary adjustments to be made.  Annexation for North Richmond’s will do much to remove invisible walls created by decades of neglect and need, walls that must be torn down if the city is ever to reach the unity it so often grandly proclaims. 

North Richmond’s status as a segregated enclave that has persisted to this day, a tiny community that lies — encircled by the city —  less than 10 minutes north of Richmond’s Civic Center Plaza, and continues to be perceived in the light of the racial separation of an outdated social system.  It’s inhabitants are still regarded as “needy,” and “less than”.  The distances between North Richmond and the rest of the city continues to create psychological barriers that are by now neither necessary nor of benefit to either.

I’m old enough to have lived through many eras. but also old enough to know that these periods of chaos have been with us cyclically since 1776, and that we’re experiencing another at this moment in time.  It is in such periods that democracy is redefined.  The re-set buttons become available for adjusting.  The opportunity to re-shape change is upon us.  There’s work to be done, and on my personal agenda, this annexation is a piece of unfinished business from a former life; thus this appeal. 

Before there were Moderates and Richmond Progressives vying for a say in the direction of growth in this City,  there was the man, the industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, who, mostly alone with his crew of geniuses, helped to shape not only the city, but the times in which we were living — the era of WWII at a time when we were living under the threat of Fascist world domination with no time to take on a broken social system.  Were it possible to transport our current community back to the Home Front Era, we would see that the legacy left in the wake of the Kaiser effect is not dormant, but very much alive if we bother to look. 

It is the Kaiser legacy that is celebrated by the 6-7,000 visitors who are coming from every part of the country and the world to Richmond each month to be reminded of that glorious history that we have lived, yet for most in the community, that history remains undiscovered. 

If we’re only looking back to two most recent election cycles where one side rose to dominate, we’re missing the point.  The social changes we’re experiencing today are those set in motion by what happened here much further back in our collective history.  We have only to continue to build on a time when we in the Greater Bay Area set the tone and planted the seeds of social change that grew into the Civil Rights Revolution of the Sixties.  I believe that those seeds were first sown in the Kaiser Shipyards here in Richmond, and that they underlie all that followed.  It may be that it is that history which serves as inspiration to both sides of this annexation debate, though it is all but forgotten by most.

By annexing North Richmond into the city-as-a-whole, and therefore erasing the final signs of Richmond’s dark history of segregation and discrimination, we will make real “One Richmond,” in order to continue on the path of forming that “…more perfect Union.”

Please be reminded by this article recently uprooted by Kaiser Archivist Lincoln Cushing — and let it serve as an indication of just who we were in the recent past, in order to bring together our full city with no one left behind.  We deserve this.

Betty Reid Soskin In Support of Annexation of North Richmond