“Hear no evil, speak truth! There’s power in my voice so I’m speaking to empower the youth!”
This summer I had the opportunity to interview Denisha ‘CoCo Blossom’ Bland, a current University of California, Davis student, Sacramento Area Youth Speaks poet-mentor-educator, and my then-student.
I first met Coco in the African Americans and Education course I was teaching. While the class was relatively small, Coco and a couple other classmates ensured that we always had vibrant discussions. As a nontraditional student and experienced educator, Coco shared with her peers (and me) some of her experiences, her own struggle with education and entry into higher education.
For a final assignment, students were given the option of conducting a mini service-learning project with a local education-based nonprofit or school that specifically served marginalized students, particularly Black and Brown youth. The second option was to conduct an oral history interview with a Black educator, transcribe the interview and write a final paper using the interview as a primary source–most chose the latter.
Much of my teaching pedagogy is grounded in the recognition that I learn from my students, and creating a space where students feel as if they too have ownership of the classroom, empowering them to have an active role in their own development throughout the course. Additionally, I often try and execute assignments with my students, so I too decided to conduct an oral history interview. Because Coco was dropping so much knowledge in class, I found myself admiring her work, and I was deeply interested in learning more about her experience as an educator and longtime Sacramento resident.
Born in Pittsburg, California, Coco spent much of her childhood growing up around Sacramento, constantly moving to different neighborhoods with her mother and older brother:
When we first moved to Sacramento, we moved to New Helvetia. That was my first introduction to Sacramento. I could remember of being a little kid and going to, well I didn’t go to school at the time, but my brother went to which is now, Leataata Floyd. I’m not sure what the school was called at the time, but I know Leataata Floyd, which is the school right next to Seavey Circle, was actually named after a racist person, I wanna say. Coming to the brick projects, being a little kid, running around Sacramento. But I been in Sacramento ever since. After we moved out of Seavey Circle we moved to Meadowview. Ummm, Meadowview by the John Still area. Umm, grew up in that John Still area, it’s a trip now to see all the new housing development that has developed over there. Because when we first moved to John Still, it was just the older homes and the actual middle school, there was no elementary school, there was no houses or nothing like that. It was just, not even the Sam Pannell Community Center there. It was just little houses and uh, we stayed right there and I actually was going to the school around the corner, I think that is Meadowview, which is now closed down and a charter school. So it’s a trip to see how many schools that I’ve went to over the years either is closed down or became charter schools.
Throughout the interview, Coco discussed the changes she witnessed around the city through the different schools she attended and worked at, as well as charterization–the creation of charter schools over public schools and conversion of formerly public schools into charter schools. With both education and urban studies scholars pointing to charterization as a precursor and aide in the gentrification and resegregation of schools and communities, Coco’s personal experience speaks to the impact this phenomenon is having in our own city. She would later go on to attend Sam Brannon Middle School and Valley High School.
Through middle and high school, Coco navigated many neighborhoods as her family continued to move around the city, this became much more complicated during the 1990s and early 2000s as the city was confronted with a wave of gang violence. She was forced to learn how to navigate between Crip and Blood territories.
I like to say, Pittsburg made me, and Sacramento raised me. And the reason why I say that is because a lot of the morals and a lot of the ways I carry myself it like comes from Pittsburg.
But the way I speak. The way I talk. Kinda the way I act. Umm, the way I might do something is real Sacramento-ish, you know? I, I, I’m kinda with the “YEEEEE” and “Aye-Holup” you know the way I talk and stuff. Its real Sacramento-ish, ummm. The way the gang codes work.
The way I can maneuver in and out being a Crip and a Blood. That’s real Sacramento stuff, you know. Because when we first moved to Sacramento, that’s what it was about. It was about Cripping and Blooding. Coming out here living in G Parkway, we used to couldn’t wear CK shoes going to school.
Later in our interview Coco discussed how she still uses her street literacy, this time helping marginalized youth living in South Sacramento.
Coco entered my classroom as a recent graduate of Cosumnes River College, where she first discovered the Sacramento Area Youth Speaks (SAYS) program. In collaboration with UCD, the program seeks to improve the city’s literacy rate amongst Black and Latinx youth via poetry, and strengthen the pipeline of Black and Latinx Sacramentans attending UCD. Coco’s own trajectory is a testament to the success of the program.
Coco’s engagement with poetry predates her formal entrance into the SAYS program, having been active since 2006. She credits poetry for helping her through an abusive relationship and out of Sacramento gang culture. She describes the work that she’s been able to do as an independent poet and with SAYS as ‘artivism,’ defining the term like this:
Using your art to do better for your community. Or using your art to speak about something… I actually learned it over the years, but just political art. So, like, using my voice and my agency to do better for my community, in some type of way. And I always have that on my mind every time I sit down to write a poem that’s like one of the first things I think about. Is this poem, is this poem for me first? Is it something I just need to write and put in my book? Or is this a poem finna be something that I need to give to the people, via in my voice work, Facebook, however. So, using my art to do good and uhh, SAYS actually helped me learn that… I didn’t know poetry can take you into spaces… I thought it was just something that my grandmother told me to write to get my feelings out.
Coco’s description of artivism stuck with me. It was a term that I came across in my own research, but became so much more real hearing someone self-identify as an ‘artivist’ and speaking so passionately. She would go on to further discuss her work at SAYS in helping middle and high school students become poets, visiting the homes of students during moments of crisis. Like when students from different gang territories were feuding, or when a student was shot and she and another SAYS educator served as first responders.
Beyond the work she was doing in the community, Coco also discussed her own development, her struggle transitioning to a university campus and fearing her voice and personal experience as a Black woman from South Sac wouldn’t fit within academia. And finally, her fear of not seeing her dream of purchasing a home for her parents in South Sacramento materialize due to rising housing prices.
Coco’s experience of growing up in Sacramento during the early 1990s is one that many share. Memories of a not-so-distant history of gang culture, redevelopment, navigating access to education and basking in the rich culture and history of the city. Moreover, her narrative sheds light on just how much native Black Sacramentans are committed to their communities and “put on for their city.”
Toward the end of our interview, Coco listed off all the things she loves about Sacramento, in particular South Sacramento–the elote, ‘hood icees,’ taquerias, the mix of Black, Latinx, and Southeast Asian cultures, the lady that sells rugs on the corner, the ice cream man and the Pan African market. It is this memory of Sacramento and her community that she holds dear and is committed to sharing with her son, and ensuring that future generations also have a chance to see and provide their own contributions.