By Doniphan Blair

On a typical West Oakland street (West, as it happens), on the first floor of a average-looking residence, behind an old fashioned sign, sits the Attitudinal Healing Connection, now called AHC, arguably the greatest advocate for, and enabler of, arts in the area.

Started in 1989 by Aeeshah Clottey and her husband Kokomon Clottey, from Louisiana and Ghana, West Africa, respectively, AHC set out to literally heal the community using the power of culture in various forms, from retreats and healing circles to art classes.

“We believe that everything is art—the clothes that you wear. You walk into a house and it was designed by an artist,” explained Aeeshah, a warm, older woman in an African print dress, who welcomed me in when I knocked on the front door.

The Clotteys developed their system from the non-traditional mental health ideas of the psychiatrist Dr. Gerald Jampolsky who founded the first Center for Attitudinal Healing in Tiburon, California, in 1975. Now there are over 100 similar healing centers across the world.

“They mostly work with death and dying issues. But we define violence, racism and poverty as mental illnesses. We use the principles of Attitudinal Healing for social justice,” continued Clottey. “We discovered it through group work and by becoming friends with Jampolsky in 1989.”

A recent mural AHC organized on Market Street between 32nd and 33rd Street. photo: D BlairA recent mural AHC organized on Market Street between 32nd and 33rd Street. photo: D Blair

“Our schools need STEAM quarters—science, technology, engineering, art and math—not just STEM quarters,” is how Clottey summarizes our scholastic situation, but “Usually in the schools, art is the first thing that goes. Art helps people to think critically.”

“I decided I didn’t want to be a traditional teacher, I wanted to be a more creative, to really focus on the arts,” explained Amana Harris, a striking woman in boots and a bright top, whom I had come to interview.  A West Oakland native, Harris had obtained her entire rather stellar education in Oakland along the eight-block stretch of upper Broadway that runs from the Oakland Technical High School to the California College of Art.

“After a nine years of substitute teaching in Oakland, I found [art] was a really engaging tool for young people,” Ms. Harris continued. “[So] I founded ArtEsteem on Saturday mornings, a seven week session—really just being creative, grassroots, raw.” It was held in the front room of AHC’s offices, before the remodel, when the rooms were small and wall-to-wall carpeted.

“Seventeen years later, we serve 3,500 kids a year during and after school at Prescott Elementary, West Oakland Middle School, Claremont Middle School, West Lake, McClymmonds…  We are working with Alternatives in Action, the afterschool agency, and are recruiting from schools all over West Oakland.”

“ArtEsteem brings soul back into learning, it helps students think creatively and manifest positive outcomes, to become active change agents in the world.”

Using art curriculums infused with attitudinal healing, they provide classes in visual art, cultural art and fashion design. They also organize public art projects, like the mural on San Pablo and 38th Street and an annual art show.

“All the kids from our schools have an opportunity to perform in a fashion show or drumming performance—we just started a drumming group on Saturdays with a wonderful South African drummer, Malu Ketsi XXX. This year will be our 15th annual exhibition.”

AHC's drumming room and they have a back up row of drums twice as long in the hall. photo: D BlairAHC’s drumming room and they have a back up row of drums twice as long in the hall. photo: D Blair

Indeed, every year ArtEsteem has hosted an exhibition of the art, music and fashion created by its kids replete with performances, awards and speeches. This year, they are hoping to have it at American Steel, the 100-plus artist studio on Mandela Parkway.

“Now our work had morphed into more parent work,” Ms. Harris continued. “We are doing WOPAN—West Oakland Parent Action Network—a 12-week program. It has been really effective and parents are really excited. They want to find ways to make sure their kids are successful.”

“For every piece of art we do with kids, we have a story that goes with it,” she said.  One of the techniques she has explored at length is the notion of “self as superhero,” which helps kids solve problems and parallels the ideas of famed New York City educator Jeffrey Canada, iconically expressed in the documentary “Waiting for Superman” (2010).

For example, the mural Harris and her team recently completed on San Pablo Ave is based on a story developed by kids at McClymonds, a hard-hit West Oakland high school.  In fact, most of her public art projects are based around mythic narratives composed in concert with the kids.

“We just have to invest in them and give them opportunities to express themselves positively.  We have to work with young people, preferably at a younger age,” she went on.

Ms. Harris and a children's book she did developing AHC's ideas. photo: D BlairMs. Harris and a children’s book she did developing AHC’s ideas. photo: D Blair

Not only do they provide programs but they advocate for the arts with the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) to get the funding for schools, if there is a lack of the arts at that particular site.

“We have close ties with Alameda County Department of Education, Sheila Jordan, Louis Music, who have been advocating for the arts for the past over ten years.”

“I like to keep things exciting and fresh,” continued Harris. “We have a campaign to raise money to paint the other five walls right here under the freeway, go to OaklandMural.com for more info.  From now until forever we will be looking for sponsors.”

“The first wall was supported by the Neighborhood Project Initiative, of the WOPAC West Oakland Project Area Committee, but of course Redevelopment is gone—so that is gone.  We had $75,000 to do that first wall.  We want to do more public art projects.”

“Right now we are working with San Pablo Corridor Coalition.  We just had [them] approve a project that we are going to do.  It is a huge sculpture of a cow lily to be built by Kevin Bial who works out of American Steel.”

A recent mural AHC organized on Market Street between 32nd and 33rd Street. photo: D Blair

“We really want to engage young people in the public art projects. We can pay stipends or get interns to participate and learn skills and understand that they too can participate.  It is not like this stuff just pops up. It is very intentional, people work to have their work in a public space in the city. It is something that could be a viable career and [it shows] that they can be the creators of their world as well.”

Sixty-five percent of AHC’s work is involved with art in the schools and public art. But they also still cover their core curriculum of Attitudinal Healing: working with Oakland Housing Authority on how to be a good neighbor, doing retreats—California-style—at the Quaker Center in the hills of Santa Cruz replete with healing circles.

“The last healing circle we did was for Kenny Johnson,” a young man who survived a shooting on 8th Street last year. “The first circle was with the family and the second was with him [after he was discharged from the hospital].”

They also do events through out the year: an important one this week is for Martin Luther King Day; there’s the annual ArtEsteem exhibition; and in November 2012, they did their first gala, which they want to make an annual event.

Following the “Everything is art” principles of the Dadaists or Japanese Zen masters as well as tribal artists around the world, AHC is leading an emerging and energetic culture in West Oakland

Read more from the original publishers, West Oakland Works.