Rolanda Wilkins grew up in Meadowview and lived through its crack epidemic in the 1980s. Now, she dedicates her life to empowering neighborhood girls, some of whom may be working through residual effects of the crack epidemic’s “lost generation.”
Healing From The Crack Epidemic
Pauline: If you live outside Sacramento, you’ve heard limited things about this city. Maybe about a wildfire nearby, a surprising California law passed at the Capitol, or, about an unarmed black man named Stephon Clark who was killed by police in a neighborhood called Meadowview.
[Sound of TV news clip: “In a crowd of some 50 to one hundred folks from Black Lives Matter have congregated here”]
Pauline: Protests broke out in March 2019 when the news hit that charges wouldn’t be pressed against the officers involved. But not everyone had the same reaction.
[Sound of Rolanda: “Baby we got to bring those tables in you know that..”]
Pauline: Just blocks from where Stephon Clark was killed in his grandmother’s backyard, RoLanda Wilkins was playing music while putting tables and chairs away in an elementary school… She had just led an awards ceremony for local black teens with leadership skills.
RoLanda: We honored African-American young folks from different high schools around Sacramento... in the spirit of Harriet Tubman. So not just taking care of yourself, but also taking care of others.
Pauline: Wilkins has done a lot of community work in South Sacramento over the years. She spent part of her childhood in Meadowview, and everyone here seems to know her. Today, Wilkins is literally too busy to sit down and talk… She was also too busy to go to the Stephon Clark protests. Those weren’t her thing.
RoLanda: I think we have to have another plan. It just can't be protesting and stuff like that..I'm really sorry that they're not going to indict these officers, but, you know, that's nothing new. I'm not gonna say it like, “oh, my God,” like I live in reality...You don't depend on someone who don't like you to take care of you or to feed you. It's like somebody hating my guts, but I'm a buy all my food from them where they can poison me. It don’t make no sense...There's other real issues going on besides this one.
[Theme music comes up]
Pauline: So on this episode, we’ll get into those other issues people in Meadowview are facing… The ones RoLanda Wilkins is working on - like healing wounds from the decades old crack epidemic.
RoLanda: So, crack to me is, it really broke down the black family. And that is something that we don’t talk about… Somehow in the crack era a lot of those things that you learn from generations before, did not get passed on.
Pauline: RoLanda says the best way to heal a society’s ills is by educating and empowering women, especially young black girls.
RoLanda: I’m a bit concerned right now with what I see happening with the black girls and the lack of attention they’re getting from the black community.
Pauline: RoLanda’s story is part of our series, Making Meadowview, about how leaders are tackling seemingly insurmountable problems. And what’s working for them. I’m Pauline Bartolone, your guide in this series from Capital Public Radio’s documentary podcast, The View from Here.
[music continues and comes to end]
RoLanda: There's a famous saying in the black community. They say black mothers love their sons and raise their daughters…. If something happens to a black male, we’ll go to the street for him. But if something happened to a black girl, we'd be like, oh, well, maybe she was loud. Maybe she was this. What did she do?
[sound of school bell]
RoLanda: Hello beautiful people!
RoLanda: Black girls in particular feel so disconnected and not valued.
Pauline: RoLanda has dedicated her life to making black girls feel more valuable… Through her organization, Earth Mama Healing, RoLanda gives workshops at local high schools, like this one, Luther Burbank in Meadowview.
RoLanda: “We gotta circle up so we have to change the chairs so we are in a circle..”
Pauline: Every week, at least 20 girls stroll into this classroom just after 11am…sometimes it’s a lesson in finances, or a chat about future planning. The goal is to give them the life skills they need to build their confidence and realize their potential.
RoLanda: A lot of young people they really struggle with really basic things. You know what I mean, why should you care about what happens to other people…You know like how to smile and say good morning to people and you know just you know acknowledge each other or something. Like they don’t have that part.
RoLanda: So today what we gonna talk about is do y’all really feel like y’all connected to each other and your experiences. Do you feel connected? You said no…. Why you say no?
[Sound of young girl: “I feel like as girls we don’t like to talk about what we go through, our experiences…just based off the facts that”]
Pauline: Rolanda goes around the room, pointing at the girls one by one. They’re are all african american, all about 14 to 18 years old…. Do they feel their experiences are shared by others who look like them?
[sound of Rolanda counting the girls who don’t feel connected: “No, no, no, no, no, no. Wow!”]
RoLanda: In our society, we're just not connected enough, which is why people can walk in a place and shoot up people and then go have a hamburger. Like, who does that?
[Sound of Rolanda continuing counting: “no, no. Wow, that’s kind of deep.”]
Pauline: Only a few girls thought other people may have the same experiences as them.
RoLanda: Why wouldn’t y’all experiences be connected?
Pauline: So, to get them over this feeling they’re alone, RoLanda starts asking them basic questions, and getting them to link arms with people with similar experiences.
RoLanda: Remain standing in front of your desk if you went to your 6th grade graduation...if you went to your sixth grade graduation.
Pauline: Then the questions get a little more personal.
RoLanda: Step forward if you’ve felt like you’ve ever been in love…
Pauline: Then some of the harder questions. How many of you have a good relationship with your mom?
RoLanda: Why have you never really had a relationship with your mom? Where we at?
Student #1: My mom is fake. I mean not fake, but she just think she younger than me. And you can’t be younger than your daughter.
Pauline: The questions get even more personal, exploring traumatic experiences that the girls may have faced.
RoLanda: If you ever felt like somebody has violated your person. Step in the circle. If you feel like you’ve been violated, touching violated. I say touch, but normally I would say have you ever been raped, molested, incested, any of that kind of stuff. If that’s been your experience, step into the circle. And we have two people.
RoLanda: With that being said…Y’all doing really good. the people in the middle, do not say details, but just say how old you were.
Response 1: 7
Response 2: 15
Response 3: 9
RoLanda: People on the outside of the circle, if you’ve known someone that that’s happened to, say the person, not by name, like aunt, uncle … Just say that part.
Response 1: Cousin
Response 2: ex best friend
Response 3: Friend
Response 4: Your momma
Response 5: Cousin
Response 6: Grandma
[fade under Pauline’s narration….]
Pauline: About half the class named someone.
Response 7: Cousin
Response 8: Aunt
Response 9: Cousin
Pauline: And the tough topics continue… do you know anyone who has been sex trafficked, or is working as a prostitute? A handful of students talked about family members.
RoLanda: If we're going to talk about some of the really ugly things that happen in our community that's gonna take some heart and some guts. And I know people don't want to look at that. But it’s like we're not gonna get better until we get to the root of it.
...What I want them to be able to do is to do some things differently. If you don't like the way you was raised. You could change that. If you don’t like the way people talk to you. You could change that by how you talk to other people. Like we are our best medicine. You know, we don't have to carry on bad traditions….I want them to be productive citizens. I want them to be involved adults, I want them to improve our society.
[music comes up for transition]
You’re listening to Making Meadowview, a series from Capital Public Radio’s documentary podcast, The View from Here. I’m Pauline Bartolone. When we get back, RoLanda talks about the root of some of the problems she sees in her community.: You’re listening to Making Meadowview, a series from Capital Public Radio’s documentary podcast, The View from Here. I’m Pauline Bartolone. When we get back, RoLanda talks about the root of some of the problems she sees in her community.
Pauline: A lot of the problems RoLanda has talked about in this episode, they are not unique to the black community. Sexual assault, incest, prostitution, it exists everywhere. But one thing she believes is at the core of many problems in black families is something that happened in the late 80s and 90s in Meadowview. Widespread crack addiction.
RoLanda: Crack was like no other drug we've ever had. Ever. Like I don't know what kind of drugs would make you sell your children or... that's why I think that's an era that you just can't leave out because it really scrambled up a lot of stuff.
….Crack came and just kind of swept people. Like where did this person go? Because they were viable, they were great parents, they were a good wife.You know whatever it was like they were gone…It was just... people were absent. You know it wasn't the way we see it like on TV and it's like, “Man we out here selling” like it really wasn't like that…
Pauline: RoLanda was a teenager in the 1980s in Meadowview. She remembers that era also brought out the best in some people, neighbors came through for families in trouble… like feeding kids who were hungry next door.
RoLanda: I remember once in one of my schools it was a young man who was in my class and he would come to school and he would be smelly. and you know how kids are, they'll pick on you and we had a teacher Mrs... Ms. Winnie Bender. She would basically you know excuse him to the bathroom but give him a different set of clothes, you know, then she would take those clothes home and wash them and bring them back the next day. She was a teacher. Like that wasn't her job but she knew he couldn't learn if he in the classroom and he smelling, but his mom was also an addict. That was one of the first inklings, like something’s wrong here...
Pauline: RoLanda says she thinks people use drugs as a way to escape deeper, unresolved problems. And that was the case with the crack epidemic too.
RoLanda: Inside of black homes there are things we don't talk about. Like a lot of them, a lot of counseling I work with people, a lot of molestation, a lot of incest, a lot of rape. And that's what kind of makes some people wanted to, they needed some relief…. You don’t want to deal with that...Some people drink. Some people go have sex with people and some people I know roll up a spliff or whatever we call it and they get up like that.
[music comes up for the transition]
RoLanda: Even in my own family, I had my oldest sister was on drugs. And, you know, she died when she was 34 of complications from drugs...And so seeing her like that, that really impacted how I seen women who were struggling with drug addiction. I had compassion anyway. But that made me have more compassion because my sister started using drugs behind her boyfriend. But my sister also didn't think she was pretty enough. My sister had buck teeth, you know. I've always thought she was beautiful, but I don't think she thought she was beautiful. So when she got with this man who was, he was mixed race. He was black and Native American. He liked her. She's like, “oh, my God. Somebody like that. Like me.” You see what I'm saying. So that was just like wow. And then that's how she, you know, was on drugs. So that really impacted me. Like in terms of you feelin some way about yourself. That's why it's important for us to feel good about. So we don't be picking people who we know like that’s not for us, that’s not supposed to be with us.
Pauline: The crack era was formative for Rolanda not just because of her sister’s addiction, but it’s also when she began her path of educating and supporting young girls. She started working with the Birthing Project, a Sacramento based non-profit that mentored teenage moms, as a way to reduce infant mortality in the black community.
RoLanda: 1990 I went to work for the Birthing Project. So we started seeing babies being born with crack on board….It felt like sometimes you couldn't get help as a young girl unless you were pregnant. because every time I would do an intake on a pregnant girl, she would always have a little sister or cousin rolling with her and more than likely she's probably gonna be pregnant too because that's something that's almost like a right of passage ... But yet they’re not married, in terms of whether we need public assistance. Because my mother always taught us that you don’t want to be a burden on society. You should always be thinkin’ about what you’re doing when you’re doing stuff. What’s the impact? How will that impact not just you, but you’re attached to other people. So that's what made me want to work with girls.
[sound of RoLanda talking to young women in her class]
Pauline: Almost 30 years later… RoLanda says she’s still working on the residual effects of the crack epidemic.
[Sound of RoLanda: “We gotta do a better job” to class]
Pauline: A lot of the girls in her classroom at Luther Burbank High School are grandchildren of people who were somehow caught up in that era.
RoLanda: Today I wanna hear what your dreams, what your goals are. What do you wanna do? If I bump into you ten years from now, most times I can remember what you used to do.
Pauline: Her role in this classroom, is kind of like a grandma. Grandmas listen, without judgement. And today, this workshop is all about listening to these girls dream about their futures.
Student 1: I’m currently in the tenth grade, I have seven number of sisters and brothers, I am the second oldest. When I grow up, I want to become a singer, actress, and help young black kids because I love all the attention on me and I want to help my culture for once.
RoLanda: Sometimes I work with young people and they don't have a dream for nothing. But you gotta have something… What keeps you going, what keeps you motivated...So for me the process of dreaming really helps you to hold onto something that helped push you through.
Student 2: I have four brothers and I’m the youngest. And my passion is to become very successful and overall just acquire a bunch of wisdom throughout my life. When I grow up, I want to become a lawyer, because I want to prevent young black people from becoming victims of the law. I want to attend Loyola Marymount or UCLA...
Student 3: I’m in twelfth grade, I have six number of sisters and brothers and I’m the oldest. When I grow up, I want to become a pediatrician, cause I like kids, or a teacher, or whatever I like, cause I want to do everything.
Pauline: At the end of the school year, RoLanda asked the girls about their summer plans. Some of the girls were graduating.
RoLanda: You’re graduating, right?
RoLanda: So how do you feel about that?
Student: I feel like, you feel me, I aint even gonna lie to you, I’m gonna cry.
RoLanda: Why you gonna cry?
Student: Cause it’s like, I’ve been with everybody for four years, I’ve been fighting for four years, I didn’t stop fighting… and I’m just proud of myself cause I’m about to walk...
Pauline: Rolanda says by the end of the year, she’s seen growth in them… The girls are a little more open and comfortable with each other. During the summer, she takes a handful of girls on a road trip, to learn about African American women and history, including sites where black people were lynched and enslaved.
RoLanda: And I said, when you think about all the people who died, yours and my ancestors didn't die. So there is something in you that is special and unique that you, that your ancestory survived all of that for you to be here. And so when I’m working with young girls, and women, I want them to know that there is something special inside you that you now have to activate to go into the world and do all of those wonderful things that we need you to do.
[background sound of RoLanda talking to the girls in the classroom]
Pauline: At the end of the first class we heard earlier in the episode, the girls at Burbank said they felt connected to each other, after linking arms with people around them. At the last class of the year, they shared words of support, to help each other in their next life phases.
RoLanda: What do you want people to know?
Response 1: To be yourself
Response 2: Confident
Response 3: Happiness
Response 4: Success
[Music starts up for end]
Response 5: Self appreciation
Response 6: Joy
Response 7: Be yourself
Response 8: Strength
Response 9: Self-love and strength
[music continues and comes to an end]
That’s it for this episode. Making Meadowview was edited by John Biewen and Joe Barr. Jen Picard is our senior producer. Jesikah Maria Ross heads up community engagement. Olivia Henry, Erica Anderson and Mounia O’Neal were part of her team.
Sally Schilling, Gabriela Fernandez, Paul Conley and Linnea Edmeier also helped produce this episode.
Our Digital Editor is Chris Hagan. Our web site was built by Renee Thompson, Veronika Nagy and Katie Kidwell.
Our Chief Content Officer is Joe Barr.
Tell us what you think of this episode, or any of the previous Making Meadowview stories. Email [email protected]
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Special thanks to the Sacramento Public Library, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the Listening Post Collective. Our music is from blue dot sessions.
I’m Pauline Bartolone…. Thanks for listening to Making Meadowview...from The View From Here and Capital Public Radio.