‘What We See–Is That Oakland Is Beautiful’

Young women in Oakland and Chicago speak for themselves through art. As they do, they challenge the sexual abuse and violence that too often surrounds their lives.

By Hatty Lee Jul 11, 2012

Young girls from about 11 to 23 years old fill up the small room as playful banter, laughter and hugs are exchanged. A couple of them search for their personalized, painted cameras in the box  that Nhuanh Ly, the program coordinator at Banteay Srei, has put out earlier for me to see. There is a slight buzz of excitement as they gather before heading over to Berkeley’s the Addison St. Window Gallery, where their photos are on display. 

On the way there, some of the girls share with me how the project has changed them. A couple of girls say they lacked confidence, and the program gave them a boost in self-esteem and made them feel stronger. Another girl tells me how it has changed her as a person–how she used to be stuck-up, but now she has opened up and talks and shares more with others. At the gallery, their confidence, bond and strength is apparent as they check out their framed photos and pose next to them with big grins. 

These young women are part of the HOLGA program at Banteay Srei. The name is both taken from the Holga camera brand and an acronym for "hopes, obstacles, love, gratitude, and…" Most women are from the San Antonio neighborhood in Oakland, coming from Cambodian, Vietnamese and Lao families. This part of Oakland–on International Boulevard from 14 Ave. to far into the 80s–is known nationally for being a visible area for a sex trade, and too often sexual exploitation. 

You don’t normally see many Asian American faces out in the open, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Many young Southeast Asian girls are involved more discreetly, through Internet sites and pimps. Banteay Srei was created to support young girls who have been impacted by sexual exploitation or are highly at-risk of it. 

"We have girls who are living right on the track of International Boulevard where they, no matter if it’s nighttime or daytime, they are coming across recruiters all the time," says Nhuanh Ly. "The sex trade is so visible, which makes it a viable option for them to be able to get involved when they want." 

The HOLGA program was set-up to give these young women an outlet to share their voices. Each year the girls come up with a different theme. For 2012, the theme was "Oakland: See What I See." Ly says the girls came up with this theme in response to the influx of violence and crime this past year in their community, and particularly the Cambodian community. 

"After a while the girls just got tired of talking about the violence and talking about these problems that felt like they were unstoppable. And so, they were like, ‘Hey, why don’t we ever talk about the good things that happen in our community?’ The HOLGA project was a great way to show the world what is the beauty of Oakland and the beauty of our community through our eyes." 

It’s also a way for the community to see the beauty of these young women. 

Below are some of their photos, along with their own words of context. All the photos will be displayed at the Addison St. Window Gallery in Berkeley throughout the month of July.

"Single" by Maria "Ya-Ya" Chandallis San

"I can’t go back to Cambodia. I still have a kid under 18. I cannot leave the kids. And money, I cannot save money yet, because I support all these kids. I live paycheck by paycheck. I don’t save money. It costs a lot of money to go to Cambodia. If I get the chance, I will!"

This bird reminds me of my mom, a strong, independent, single mother. She raised three kids on her own. Everything she did was for us. She always tells me to go to school because back in Cambodia she never had the opportunity like us kids out here in America have. So she says that we should take advantage of it because it’s free. I used to think that I go through a lot of struggles here in the ghetto, but it’s nothing compared to what my mom and her family went through in the Khmer Rouge days. They had to leave their homeland, which they loved so much. They didn’t even want to come to America like everyone else, but they had to, in order to survive. My mom had to start her life all over again because her kids were her first priority–we’re her reason for living. This is why I admire my mom so much, she’s my inspiration.

"Beautiful Path" by Annantha Yim

I’m not ASHAMED to say I’m from Oakland.
Even though I’m not living in a dream place like New York or even LA…
I still manage to act like I’m in Hollywood or in the Slums.
There’s not just "GHETTO" places in Oakland,
I’ve been around the rich side, the clean side, the dirty side,
& even the most unbelievable side.
But yet it’s still OAKLAND.
It’s HOME.
Even if I’m making 1 million dollars in Miami…
I will never forget where I’m from.

My Beautiful Path of Oakland.

"Riding" by Monica "Wookie" Then

Our country [Cambodia] is fun. Our country during the Sangkum [the socialist government] was a happy place. I liked to go out, liked to work in the fields, garden, and farm. I liked to cook, and do everything–all kinds of things.

I also remember my mom telling me other childhood stories, like how she used to wake up everyday as a child to her mom’s voice telling her to go to school, and to wait for the bus so that she won’t be late. And how she used to linger at the bus stop, hanging out with her friends, sometimes not even going to school; instead, going to pick fruits with her friends. That reminded me of myself–how my mom used to always yell at me, trying to wake me up: "You better go to school, Monica! You better not be late! Watch, you’re gonna miss your bus! I bet you’re gonna end up cutting! You better not come back home during school to eat or sleep!" True story, true story. Growing up hearing my mom’s stories, I never ever thought that we would have the same experience because we did not get along at all. But from hearing her stories, it made me realize how much we are alike in our life experiences, which makes me feel like I can relate to and understand her more. A mother knows her daughter best.

"Beautiful People" by Malena Suon

Step into our shoes.
See what we see?
What we see–is that Oakland is beautiful.
Be YOU. We accept you because you are Be-You-Tiful.
Accept your flaws and all.
Oakland is DIVERSE.
We are our own personal army.
We come together,
Protect each other,
And most importantly, love each other.
Oakland is the reason why I became who I am.
The support that comes from this group is great.
We are a family.
This is what I call a happy home.

Love, but try not to lose.

A Long Walk Home in Chicago

Another group also doing healing artwork with young women is A Long Walk Home, based in Chicago. The organization, which will be featured during Colorlines.com’s Facing Race conference in November, works mostly with African American girls. Through its Girl/Friends Leadership Institute, the group supports young women in becoming leaders, using arts for advocacy, activism and policy change. According to Régine Michelle Jean-Charles, the programming chair of A Long Walk Home, the Girl/Friends program has "increased awareness about dating violence, domestic violence and sexual violence, a sense of activism, and progress towards healing for those who are survivors as well as the confidence to be leaders in different situations."

Girl/Friends recently published a book capturing photos, poems and essays by the young women in the program. Below are some photo courtesy of A Long Walk Home.

"I Love My Hair!" by Diamond Shavers

As I go through the rough edges of my long silky black hair, I smell the fresh scent of aloe oil sheen in the air. I love the feeling of a comb and grease and the smell of coconut as I begin the starting point of a unique style of braiding. I can feel the depression and hurt washin’ out as I go through.

 "Got Consent" by Larrinitta Starks

You are your own voice. Your mouth has its own choice. Yes and maybe can change at any hour. Because I have consent, I have power.

"Unpretty" by Justice Smith

Teenage girls do everything possible to make their bodies perfect.

"The Honeymoon Cycle" by LaNesha Baldwin