EastBay Today

Feature
Posted November 23, 2021

Community Connection

How Pioneer professors, alumni, staff and students give back to the East Bay

At Cal State East Bay, we’re not just here to educate, learn and work. Our faculty, staff, alumni and students are passionate about improving their communities and the lives of those in it — at the university and beyond. Some were inspired to get more involved by the COVID-19 pandemic. Others have been hard at work for years. All are making the world a better place. Here are some of their stories. 

G.T. Reyes is passionate about empowering young people who have been involved in gangs or otherwise historically disparaged.
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G.T. Reyes

Associate Professor of Educational Leadership
Organization:
Homies Empowerment

What he does: G.T. Reyes has long been involved in East Oakland’s Homies Empowerment organization, which empowers young people who have been involved in gangs or otherwise historically disparaged. Today, Homies Empowerment is expanding its liberatory schooling work, and Reyes, who has been an educator for more than two decades, is helping found a new community charter school. Working closely with his good friend, Homies founder and Dean of the Secondary Schools program at Harvard University, César Cruz, Reyes is the board chair and founding school designer for the forthcoming Homies Empowerment Community High School for Oakland's Success (HECHOS), which hopes to open its doors in Fall 2022.

"These folks are pipelined into prisons, into poverty, into houselessness. We want to interrupt that and change that trajectory to rethink schooling."
G.T. Reyes

In his words: “Both Césarand I were folks who had grown up in violent conditions in various ’hoods in the United States and abroad. We found that schooling was intended to educate a certain type of person and we didn’t fit that mold. While we were both smart even by traditional standards, our way of demonstrating our intelligence wasn’t valued, so we felt marginalized, we felt demonized, we got into trouble, we felt like we couldn’t connect in school. School didn’t center around us. (With Homies and HECHOS), we have been basically trying to create a school for ourselves. 

“The work with Homies is about reframing and being able to let folks who have been disenfranchised from schools to re-see themselves as scholars, warriors, healers and hustlers. These folks are pipelined into prisons, into poverty, into houselessness. We want to interrupt that and change that trajectory to rethink schooling and really draw from folks’ strengths and the way they’ve been able to cultivate them.

“The work I do is what some people might call nontraditional. I do it because, one, folks think and do things differently. And two, the dominant norm is centered on capitalism, white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy. So I could replicate that or I could try to disrupt that in ways that empower more folks who have been left out.

“The work has to be interconnected — I still have to be grounded in the schools and I have to be with the community to build community. It has to be a process that builds relations over time. Ultimately, that long-haul journey is really about cultivating the capacity to transform the conditions that we’re in. What I’m looking to do is, yes, support the day to day, but also work toward something. It’s not enough to be anti-racist or anti-oppressive — you also have to be pro something. For me it’s pro-liberation. That’s the work. I’m really trying to push the boundaries about ‘what is’ so we can really think about what needs to be and what should be.”

Alexa Rivas-Fernandez spent the summer and fall educating people about the COVID-19 vaccine.
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Alexa Rivas-Fernandez 

Cal State East Bay Senior Majoring in Public Health 

In her words: “Through the UCSF and Unity Council Community Vaccine program, we are helping to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates in Alameda County and San Francisco. The program allows us to go into communities where information about the vaccine is missing or not easily accessible. We encounter many people who do not speak English very well, and having information in different languages or speaking the same language as [the people in those communities] helps us provide information that they couldn’t receive elsewhere. Along with the information we present, people will also ask about clinics or access to healthcare, and being able to refer or inform them of places like La Clinica or where to get a COVID test helps alleviate barriers. Everyone in the Fruitvale district [where a lot of our outreach takes place], is very kind and grateful. There are always people thanking us, telling us we are angels, or offering to buy us a meal or drink. What I am most proud of is all the people we’ve encouraged to get vaccinated. Between Alameda County and San Francisco, there have been over 10,000 vaccination sign-ups or administrations [of the vaccine].”

Men's basketball coach Bryan Rooney rallied the entire Pioneer Athletics community to raise money for the Alameda County Food Bank.
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Bryan Rooney 

Cal State East Bay Men’s Basketball Coach
Organization:
Miles for Meals 

In his words: “The idea behind Miles for Meals is to run one mile every hour for 24 hours to raise money for local food banks. While the pandemic prevented us from physically running together, the goal was to join our efforts, create some positivity, and bring attention to the important cause of hunger. Over the last two years, Miles for Meals has raised over $12,000 and we’ve had over 225 participants.

“The pandemic has changed many things in our lives. However, one thing that remains the same is the power of people coming together for a common cause.  I am extremely thankful for the money that has been raised as it has helped our food banks feed hundreds of families.

“One of the things I am most proud of is that we have had participation from all of our Cal State East Bay athletic teams with Miles for Meals. Cal State East Bay is a special place for many reasons. One of these reasons is the culture of service that exists here. Having our athletic department unified with this effort of service has been phenomenal.”

Alumna Nina Woodruff-Walker brings art to children in Oakland.
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Nina Woodruff-Walker

BA Communication ‘16; MA Communication ‘20
Organization: Oakland's Museum of Children's Art

In her words:  “At Oakland's Museum of Children's Art (MOCHA), our vision is to ensure that the arts are a fundamental part of the lives of all children and their families in the Bay Area through hands-on art experiences, arts training, and curriculum for educators. Art, as one of the oldest disciplines, allows us as humans to reimagine, innovate, design and configure solutions, worldbuild, and integrate new ways of envisioning all other disciplines. I support my community by being in service to over 30,000 children each year.

“I was born into a family that believed it was important to give back to the community. My mother introduced me to community building at an early age. When I became a MOCHA kid through the East Oakland Youth Development Center in 1989, the internship solidified my commitment to community service. Although I had a 15-year career in tech, I continued volunteering with various organizations. When the MOCHA board asked me to join the staff as the executive director, I accepted. It has been very rewarding to collaborate with amazing educators at an organization that, by design, assists youth and their families to discover visual arts practices and creative inquiry.” 

Professor Jennifer Kim-Anh Tran works with immigrant and low-income communities in Oakland.
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Jennifer Kim-Anh Tran

Professor of Ethnic Studies
Organizations: 

Oakland Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce; Oakland APIA Unite

What she does: Jennifer Kim-Anh Tran is the executive director of Oakland's Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce. She also leads the racial justice coalition Oakland APIA Unite, which pushes for sustainable infrastructure in Oakland’s communities. Intersectionality is a constant focus of her work.

"We’re more diverse than ever but how are we using that diversity and that privilege?"
Jennifer Kim-Anh Tran

In her words:  “I’m born and raised in Oakland, so Oakland is home for me.  I engage the immigrant-refugee community here so that we can address themes around racial equity in a nuanced way to factor in the unique challenges that monolingual communities experience and encounter. That hasn’t been more apparent than during this pandemic and what it has elevated in terms of the lack of resources for low-income communities of color and immigrant communities of color.

“What I’m pushing for in my work is long-term investment. Our cities and our realities have been constructed and designed by our government and our decision-makers. So it is up to our decision-makers, our elected officials, our institutions who have so much power, to re-invest in our communities. It’s a two-pronged approach. Building as we educate. In order to achieve long-term investment, my organizational and coalition work advocate for equitable policies and community engagement.

“One of the main ways that I reach communities is through cultural festivals so that we can educate and connect [the people] that live next to each other but may not always share their experiences together. It’s through culture that we have reason to celebrate our shared experiences but also learn about our differences. These (cultural) events are always opportunities to build as we educate. 

“My big call and motivator for doing this work is that there are so many people who have power, who have privilege and wealth, ideas and passion, who are looking to make a difference. Our goal in life shouldn’t be simply to survive. I think we should raise the bar to what we can provide and should contribute to really transform what it means to be a human being in the Bay Area in the 21st century, when we’ve never seen more inequalities in our daily lives. We’re more diverse than ever but how are we using that diversity and that privilege? The work is plentiful and yet we don’t have enough resources. [The question is] how can we use ourselves right where we are, to make a big impact?”

Sam Cobbs is the CEO of Tipping Point, a philanthropic organization that works to eliminate poverty.
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Sam Cobbs

B.A. Psychology ‘99, M.S. Counseling ‘06
Organization:
Tipping Point

What he does: Tipping Point is a philanthropic organization that raises money and gives it to organizations, usually non-profits, who are trying to eliminate poverty in the Bay Area. Each year, Tipping Point funds somewhere between $50-60 million dollars in four areas: early childhood, homeless and housing, economic mobility, and education. As CEO, Cobbs is responsible for putting together the strategy and vision, as well as implementing the strategy across the region.

"Nobody in my family had ever gone to college before, nobody in my neighborhood had ever gone to college before. I had to utilize all of those services, and because of that I also wanted to give back to others.”
Sam Cobbs

In his words:  “When I moved to California for college I got a part-time job in Richmond working in what was then the murder capital of the United States. There were more murders per capita in the Iron Triangle in Richmond than there were anywhere else. The things I saw that those young people had to worry about and had to think about were things that I never had to worry about and think about when I was growing up. So that really made me realize how privileged I had been and I really wanted to give back to those young people. That led me to working at the Boys and Girls Club and getting deeper into working in community and working with kids. 

“At the end of the day I realized that all of the things I had been working on were a manifestation of poverty. The reason we had those social ills is because people didn’t have enough — they couldn’t make ends meet — and that manifested itself in different ways. Some people self-medicate and use substances, other people struggle with their mental health, other people have to go out and work late hours, so it stresses them out and their kids end up in the foster care system. But all of those things you can relate back to people living in poverty, so that is what led me to doing the work at Tipping Point. 

“Part of being drawn to this also has to do with my experience at Cal State [East Bay]. I was one of those students who needed to utilize the student services that they had there, like short-term loans until your financial aid kicked in. Utilizing those services also fed into me going into a practice of service after I got out of school. Nobody in my family had ever gone to college before, nobody in my neighborhood had ever gone to college before. I had to utilize all of those services, and because of that I also wanted to give back to others.”  


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