My sister, Bronwyn Harris, who recently published a book about her experience teaching in East Oakland, wrote this blog post for me, to complement the photos I took for Harbor House. I’m sharing a ton of photos, because it’s an amazing organization, and because the children who attend, like all children, deserve all of our love, attention and support. I am not a Christian/ religious, but I believe in love, and community, and this is a shining example of people helping each other, practicing love and kindness, and stepping up to actually support their community. People come to Harbor House to learn English, to receive free food, to learn how to navigate needed government agencies, to get clothing/ books/ toys for cheap or free, and, most of all, to have a safe place for children to go after school to learn, study, and play, when they might otherwise be on the streets or cooped up, in neighborhoods that aren’t safe for them, from a far too early age.
Please take a minute to read about Harbor House, and to see the kids in action at their after school program in central Oakland! Here are a few screenshots from their website (with some of my photos), so you can see more about what they do. Their mission statement is: “Since 1972, Harbor House has served more than 100,000 under-resourced children and families through high quality programs that nurture the heart, soul, mind and body. Our mission is to inspire children and families in Oakland to build healthy relationships with God and community through educational, spiritual, and economic programs. Harbor House offers after-school tutoring and enrichment, leadership development, food and clothing distribution, English as a Second Language classes, and economic development opportunities for women.”
“As our country is arguing about refugees right now, and certain news sources are trying to tell us that Muslim immigrants are a danger to national security, I’d like to tell you about the kids at Harbor House. Harbor House is a Christian organization that provides a secular after school program for very low-income kids in Oakland, many of whom are refugees and recent immigrants. The children who attend the after school program often have parents who can’t help them with their homework, either because they don’t speak English, they are working too much, or they have other kids to take care of. The staff is made up mainly of young adults from the neighborhood, often people who know the kids and can relate to them in a way that older adults are not able to.
This group of kids is truly a melting pot; at one point we had kids from 20 different countries, all who lived within blocks of each other. Countries of origin included Nigeria, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mexico, China, Iraq, Guatemala, Myanmar, Yemen, Sri Lanka, and many more, as well as Native American and African American kids. The amazing part was that all these kids got along. I mean, they fought like kids fight, but they didn’t fight about religion or culture, or even appearance. There were squabbles over toys and whether or not someone pushed someone else on purpose, but even the kids who were old enough to have heard about why they should hate a certain group that was unlike them… didn’t bring this cultural baggage into their relationships.
As our outspoken Native American fifth grader said, “I’m the only one who’s actually supposed to be here. If I’m not mad that you all are here, I don’t think anyone should get to be mad that people came into our country.”
I’ve thought a lot about these kids since leaving my job at Harbor House to finish my book about teaching in Oakland. I don’t think they are inherently better people than everyone else in the country, although I do have high respect for them. I think that being in an environment where they had no choice but to interact with peers from other countries, who often speak other languages, taught these kids to respect other cultures and different kinds of people. I think if we were all in that sort of environment, we would all be better humans.”And, from a letter I saw posted when I was there: “Did you know that Oakland is one of four cities in Northern California that is resettling refugees? What a privelege to be in Oakland for such a time as this! At Harbor House, we will warmly welcome five new refugee children to our afterschool program… from Iraq, Syria, and the Congo. They will join the other 60 children we serve, many of whose families have recently immigrated from Vietnam, China, Mexico, Guatemala, Cambodia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Eritrea, Sri Lanka, and Peru.” This is the global village we should all be working towards. I am so disheartened and ashamed of my country right now; this organization is proof of goodness.