What makes you an outsider? — Carmen Elster
Is it the way you dress, your hair color, your skin color? Is it the way you walk and look around? Are you comfortable? Are you scared? Have you been here before, or just visiting? Are you just passing through, or analyzing your surroundings?
When our all-white vans reading “Mills College” were finally parked in front of the Goodwill on International Boulevard, the twenty or so Mills women hopped out and began to survey their surroundings. We had gone deep into the Fruitvale district where we could see taco trucks in their reserved parking spots and the Native American Health Center across the street. It was hard to feel like we didn’t stand out, being scholarly women enrolled in a private college, walking around with notebooks, cameras and wide eyes. Being out in Oakland that day was like being on a tour, in a city with so much to see, but in an area we’ve been told to fear. Some of us live on campus, some of us live in that same neighborhood, but something separated us. Why was it necessary for us to get familiar with the city we all live in?
When I traveled to Europe last year, it was the first time I had ever felt like a tourist. I was constantly going to different cities I had never been to. In just a few days I would try to capture the city’s essence, get what it was about, what the people were like, what the city had to offer. When I came back to the states I realized I had never toured my own city. I had lived inside it for so long that I aligned myself with it. I only knew my own experience. It wasn’t until I stepped outside that I learned how my city was perceived by others and consequently, how others perceived me.
So when I tell outsiders, “I live in Oakland,” and all they think of is violence, I know they haven’t really seen my home. There are places, like Fruitvale and San Antonio, where there is so much diversity, community, creativity, and yet it is so misunderstood. Even in a dense city like Oakland, we are separated by wealth, class, privilege and color. As students at Mills we’ve lived in Oakland, but do we really know it? We are here to tell those untold stories. We are here to stop being strangers to our community.