WREN SONGBIRD

“It’s always been about embracing difference, uniqueness, putting a little, of our own thing on it, coming up with unique words to describe something. That’s Oakland…”

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Your full name and age.

My name is Wren Michelle Robb and I’m 31 years old.

What neighborhood of Oakland are you from or would you say you grew up in?

East Oakland. Because I moved a lot around East Oakland growing up.

What was it like growing up in your neighborhood?

I would say that I got blessed with a lot of experience at a really young age. I chose this house cause my godmother influenced and raised me and  was really consistent in a lot of things and created a framework for what she knew I was going to experience growing up here. We read a lot of books to give history about Oakland. She schooled us on the history in terms of music here and activism and Black Panthers. When we came home from school and we had something to share, or when a kid got shot down the street, we discussed it and we always discussed what we were going to be viewed as and how police were going to treat us differently than our friends. It was all talked about at a really young age. So I’m really thankful to have had a space to hold that conversation but at the same time it’s a little heartbreaking. I want to say it’s an ongoing thing that I keep coming back to recently ,having that feeling of  yes, I’m thankful and I wish I could protect friends from not having the experience they had because it doesn’t feel like a lot of things happened to me even though I was growing up here. It feels like because of the way that I look I was treated differently. When I say to the differently, I mean white privilege and also you know generational trauma that I don’t have to feel which I’ve witnessed my friends go through.

What does it mean to you to be born and raised in Oakland?

It definitely means respect and it means something to say I’m from Oakland. I was raised by women activists who all saw this community as where they had to be, my mom was in the trenches in the 80’s doing harm reduction as a nurse for aids patients, my God mother Gail went to one of the only car mechanic programs that taught women at the time at Laney College in Oakland, the people that raised me saw this as a place that was safe for folks of the resistance, to find community and come together and connect to people different from yourself. To break bread with folks of every culture, that’s what it means to me when I say I’m from Oakland  I’ve thought a lot recently about how that means something different now. A lot of people will claim that they’re from here when they’re not, when they’ve just been here for a little while. There’s a lot of feeling of being erased  in terms of the culture that’s here and the community here. I also feel like it means sanctuary. It’s a place that it was never a bad thing to come here from another place because so many cultures contributed to Oakland from other places. Even in terms of  during the 70s, a lot of the activism was a lot of folks coming here to learn about their own cultures at the universities and contribute to the music. It’s always been a sanctuary. Although recently the disrespect that I felt from people has made people cling to who’s from here and cling to the idea of originally being from here, but it’s always been a place that’s welcoming others. Because I think it was done in a respectful way. You know honoring the land here and also always bringing it back to that we’re on Ohlone land. So I would say the one word if I had to choose is respect and all the many, many things that that means in terms of being from Oakland.

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What do you think makes Oakland special in comparison to other cities of similar stature and history?

I’ve always felt that Oakland embraces uniqueness in a way that I didn’t fully appreciate  until I lived other places where that’s not the case. Uniqueness, differences, layers of experience of culture. It’s been like a joke where let’s say you see someone and they say they’re from East Oakland or West Oakland and you may kind of judge a book by its cover and then you find out that they’re focused on learning about some sacred practice and that they only eat tofu. There is a lifestyle of things here that you can’t really judge a person by the way you see them, and then also just folks coming together. I saw something that I want to say a local Dj posted recently where it was like the most Bay Area thing that they saw was someone who wasn’t Filipinos whose favorite food was Lumpia and that they loved all these different things. That to me was just Oakland. It’s always been about embracing difference, uniqueness, putting a little, of our own thing on it, coming up with unique words to describe something. That’s Oakland…

Why do you think people are so eager to move to Oakland now?

I don’t know if I have an answer to that. I think that on a political side there’s been a lot of work that was laid down to make it easy to make people think that bringing outside money here was a positive thing. I don’t believe it ever was but I think there was years and years put into to making people kind of go along with that. Kind of brainwashing people to think that this community was in a place of lack, when I’ve never seen that. I’ve always seen it as a really abundantly rich, beautiful place. Yeah, I’m sure there’s struggle and all kinds of things that any community has but the foundation that’s been laid on a political side really did a disservice to selling out our city and making it a place that all kinds of people think that it’s better for them to be here and that they know what’s best for our community.  I really think that no matter what it is, whether it’s a micro community of this neighborhood, it’s always best to listen to the people who have lived there first. Listen to the youth and also elders of any place and outside sources can be great when they contribute, but I don’t feel that the people coming here now are contributing. I think they’re seeking just economic gains, which is definitely not helpful.

What do you wish people knew about Oakland before they came here? Or what would you tell your new neighbors are good guidelines to being like a Oaklander or good neighbor to Oakland?

I would say that the folks that you see when you’re walking down the street here, look them in their eye. We have a culture of knowing our neighbors here, talking to each other and if you see someone asking for change, maybe they have a story. Maybe they used to live on this block, maybe they’re a veteran, maybe they have a story that’s here. I wouldn’t look at a person that’s been pushed out or that no longer has a home or who looks different from ourselves as someone not to hold a space for. Because I’ll see a lot of folks moving here that really just don’t connect to their neighbors and also see folks moving here that due. But I think it’s a lot of folks that they see a difference in the people in their neighborhood and they choose to just stick to other folks that have moved here. Somebody said they were flying in to Oakland and someone else was casually mentioning that, “oh yeah, nobody’s from here anymore so we just stick together and that’s what we do because we’re all just trying to figure it out”. And I think that that’s pretty sad. I also hear people talking about the city and over speaking Oakland natives, if the folks moving here would actually listen and learn a little bit about the history.  Which as I’ve talked to people, it sounds crazy to them, they think why would I want to learn the history of the place I’m moving to? But I mean, it’s a beautiful place to learn about.

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What do you not like about the current changes going on in Oakland?

I think that with every condo being built and every change that doesn’t seem to consider the locals it’s this message that’s sent to us that says “you’re not supposed to be here anymore, we don’t see you, you’re not supposed to be here, you’re not supposed to survive here”.  I think that message subtly comes in a lot of ways and it’s also put in a lot of people’s faces that are born and raised here. I really don’t like that and I hope that going forward there’s some peace. I used to really speak negatively about all the folks moving here and I realized that I’ll never like sugarcoat it or make it that it’s some great thing to have people pushing folks out of their community. I see that like I’m now focused on the peace happening and the bridges being built in a way that doesn’t erase the folks that are born and raised here.

What do you like about the changes that are going on?

As people feel like our culture is being erased, there are some amazing people that are from here trying to capture it and make amazing art from it. So just like what you’re doing, and any artists that has been influenced and wants to honor it. I myself, I feel like I’m inspired by what I see and I also want to create more art and contribute because I feel like I’m seeing a lot of takers come here. So there’s always people that want to take and self serve. And then I’m also seeing local folks say like, what can I give and what can I create to preserve the culture that we’ve always seen and we we might have taken for granted before folks started saying oh now Oakland is popping. Also I like the little revival after I think the warriors parade, it felt like festival by the lake. It felt like my childhood again to see a whole bunch of people coming together. It was partly people were like okay, what can I sell and tabled by the lake. But it was also a party and a celebration of folks still here.

What are your hopes and aspirations for the city of Oakland forward moving forward?

We’re all seeing  we don’t have a plan and protection and really embracing each other and keeping peace and being focused on stopping violence. When we’re exposed and when people see something for the taking, they will. So nobody is in dream world when it comes to the worst things can happen to our city We’ve all tent cities pop up, the homeless epidemic. We’ve all seen destruction happen from outside forces. Going forward, if we can take that energy and really just embrace what’s always been here. Cause I really do feel like, I really do feel like there’s going to be a time when the people that come here, this wave of gentrification that has happened is going to shift. And it may still be ridiculously expensive to live here, but I think, we’ve adapted, so it’s a new Oakland, unfortunately. But I could see folks especially that are doing this work to give to our community, thriving and coming together to say to outsiders respect the community and see what you can contribute. Kind of that old mentality. I was raised on my street that if somebody came and disrespected your neighborhood or if somebody ever disrespected a black person, you were going to get it. There was no room for racism or anything like that. And you didn’t trust the police, going forward there’s been so much work in our community to hold people accountable. I really want to see that shift and maybe that’s the dreamer in me, but I always look for that. A way that people can come together even if it’s from something horrible, even after a murder happens, people can move forward together, start singing, creating something beautiful, making plans, building bridges and making connections.

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