By Robert A. Mills
Photographs from school dances and family reunions, shiny foam letters and fragmented family trees decorated posters throughout a crowded room at Berkeley’s Malcolm X Elementary School on Saturday. They were the work of dozens of African American and Hispanic youth from around the Bay Area and part of a four-month adventure into family history.
Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson created Who am I? Family Journeys: Alameda County Youth Testimonials with his staff and volunteers from the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California. Their goal: to help Bay Area youth better understand their family histories.
Carson, inspired by his own genealogical investigation, said knowing one’s self begins with knowing one’s past.
“When I think of who I am today, I have to think of who I come from and the person I’ve been,” Carson said. “I have a responsibility to my children and my grand children so they at least know who they are.”
The event kicked off at 10 a.m. with warm smiles, hot coffee and a select panel of youth who shared their personal journeys. Students from McClymonds High School Culture Keepers in West Oakland, Alameda County’s Beyond Emancipation program for former foster youth and Berkeley Technology Academy in south Berkeley made up the panel.
Tyisha Stills, a 14-year-old McClymonds High School student and McClymonds Culture Keeper, said she had some doubts going into the project.
“I was kind of scared,” she said. “I didn’t know if I would find anything or not.”
However, once she delved into the research, Stills made an exciting discovery.
“I got all the way back to 1930 and found both of my great grandmas,” Stills said. “I heard they were both dead, but then I found out one of them is still alive.”
To this news, the packed auditorium erupted in applause.
One excited member was volunteer Nicka Smith – a member of the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California.
“I’m just so happy,” Smith said. “I see a need for this in the community. This is something I’m very passionate about not only for my personal village—meaning my family—but for my community village.”
Smith worked with volunteers to help students use genealogical search tools online. They also visited the Family History Center at the Mormon Temple in Oakland.
Smith said that the project not only helped Bay Area youth to better understand their past, but it also brightened their futures, teaching them valuable researching skills they would use in college.
“This is not just genealogy,” Smith said. “It’s history. It’s vocabulary. It’s research.”
Guest speaker Dr. Wade Nobles, an expert in the study of black families, said it is important for youth to know their history goes far beyond when and where they were born.
“Your history isn’t 15 years ago,” Nobles said. “It’s 3.8 million years ago.”
Twenty-year-old Carolann Perales, a student from the Beyond Emancipation program, said family elders should be excited to help with these projects.
“I think the elderly should be willing to feed the youth information,” Perales said. “It might not mean anything to you, but it could mean the world to them.”
Robert A. Mills is a graduate student studying interactive journalism at The Reynolds School of Journalism at The University of Nevada, Reno. He is currently interning at Berkeleyside.