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5 Questions with Board Member Arnold Perkins


Arnold X.C. Perkins is more than just a Cal Wellness board member, he is a gift to us all – a respected community leader, activist, advocate, and steward whose impact has been felt widely across California. “Baba” Arnold, as he is known, has served in several diverse positions throughout his career, including as director of the Alameda County Public Health Department; director of the Alameda County Alcohol and Drug Prevention Program; program officer at The San Francisco Foundation; coordinator of the Alameda County Homeless Program; co-executive director of Youth Advocates; faculty member for California State University, Hayward, and for Antioch University West; and high school teacher and principal with Berkeley Unified School District. Cal Wellness President and CEO Richard Tate joined Arnold for a wide-ranging conversation as we launch a new series focused on leaders working to protect and improve the health and wellness of the people of California.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Richard: What's your "why" and what has kept you inspired across your journey — from education to government to philanthropy?

Arnold: I'm a steward. And from time to time, I have the opportunity to lead, but stewardship is something that I own and cherish. My mantra is, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest until freedom comes.” That's how I begin and end my day. I'm also my brother and sister's keeper, meaning that I am you and you are me. If you are doing poorly, so am I. If you are struggling, so am I. For example, it just hurts my heart to see folks struggling, to see my relatives unhoused in a country that is just teeming with resources and with money. I call them my relatives because I am my brother’s and sister's keeper. So, in my stewardship, I want to make sure that I do my part so that folks do not struggle.

Richard: Recently, you returned from Montgomery, Alabama where you toured the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Bryan Stevenson has created a sacred space for remembrance, reflection, truth and reconciliation, and recommitment. Talk about the moment we are in as a state and nation. How can the past inform the present? And what is giving you hope in this moment?

Arnold: I grew up in Florida during a time of racial segregation and hostility toward African-American people. During that time in Florida, if a white person was walking on the sidewalk, you had to get off and walk in the street. Gas stations prohibited us from using the restroom. And you had to use the Green Book to determine which gas stations you could stop at.

When I visited Alabama a few weeks ago I toured the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. Having lived through it, I was brought to tears by the way both museums told the stories of African-American people seeking freedom, equality and justice. We are still waiting to be fully free. We have waited since 1619, and the racism has continued. We had a brief bubble in the ‘60s and ‘70s during the civil rights era, just a brief bubble. But if you look where we are now, it’s the same thing. They would carve out the sections of the Bible, when they allowed enslaved folk to have a Bible, and use that to justify them being servants. They are doing the same thing now in some ways with banning books that talk about African people in this country. There is a consistent effort to erase the contribution of the people that built America. We built the South. I was in South Africa on one occasion, and at that time I used to always critique America. I wouldn't stand for the national anthem. And this South African brother, he said, "I don't understand why you don't claim a country that you built." He said, "You ought to be proud of America. You built it." And that moment shifted my thinking. I'm proud of this country, because I know for a fact that my relatives built this country. They were from Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. I know because I've seen some of the very places that they helped build. We built this country and yet still there's a notion to deny us of our birthright in terms of what we've done in this country. That's what I witnessed in the museums. I was simultaneously reminded, troubled, recommitted and re-dedicated to the notion of “we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”


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Richard: We've witnessed multiracial and intergenerational organizing efforts across our history - from the civil rights movement, efforts demanding policing accountability in the wake of the death of George Floyd, and ongoing movements for economic justice and racial equity. Talk about the importance of multiracial organizing and intergenerational work.

Arnold: When I was in the armed services, I served as an operating room technician. If I walked in the room, I had no idea what [race] you were. Everyone's spleen was in the same place, heart was in the same place, liver in the same place. You only make judgment when you got to the recovery room and saw who was who. And that always taught me a lesson that this thing that we call race is only skin-deep. We are all from the very same blood — it just shows up differently in all of us. My oldest son is white, and my grandchildren are European-Irish. My next son is African. My third son is African and European, and my fourth son is African and Japanese. Any of us would live for each other or die for each other. We're a very proud family. And so, I don't get hung up on race. We often use the term “white supremacy.” But I say the notion of white supremacy because white people are not supreme. They never have been, and they never will be. We are collectively supreme. The power of words is important. Your words determine how you think and vice versa.

As far as intergenerational work, one of the things that I think is important is mentorship. Part of my responsibility is to sit with our young people and share with them, and even more important, to learn from them. Out of my work in co-founding the Young Executives group with Woody Carter and Robert Wilkins came the Brotherhood of Elders Network. It's an intergenerational network of African men where there are the elders, and there are the brother men. We've been around for about 14 years now, and it's an intergenerational effort to exchange wisdom, wealth, and knowledge. Every Monday, I go to a juvenile facility, and I work with young men who have been involved in all sorts of crimes. And what I've found out from them is few people have been in their lives long enough to imprint on them what's right and what's wrong, or what's positive or what's negative. In working with them over a period of time, I see changes in them. I also spend time at our state prisons with the men there. It's all about spending time with people and helping them get on track. These are not bad people — they're just people that no one spends time with and they end up raising each other. So as I listen and learn from them, I'm able to provide meaningful interventions for them.

Richard: One of the many pieces of connective tissue across your journey of servant leadership, has been a focus on racial and health equity. One of our beliefs here at Cal Wellness is that “wellness requires social justice.” What does wellness mean to you?

Arnold: It means mental, spiritual, physical, and financial health. It means  having a sense of belonging. I belong to something bigger than myself. To me, wellness is a state of positive mind and positive thinking. It's a feeling that you have inside. You could be in pain and still experience wellness because you know that there's a future, there's a tomorrow, there's a sense of stability. One of the things that wellness has taught me, is to live in the moment. There's a saying, "The past is history, the future is mystery. The gift we have right now is a present." And so, I just really relish the discovery of living in the present. And to me, that's what wellness is about. Wellness is being present at all times.

Richard: This month highlights the history and culture of African-American people in America. For many of us, it’s both a celebration of the diversity of African-American excellence in our country and a sobering reminder of how much more work there is to achieve liberty and justice for all. As an activist, grounded in history, experience, and action - where do we go from here? And what should be mindful of along the way?

Arnold: The month is often a reminder of the pain that we've gone through — that's usually what is played back at us, more than the achievements that we have achieved and the incredible things that we have done.

One thing that’s important to me is to practice the seven principles of Kwanzaa. That's one of the things I think is so important that we practice those every day. The second thing is the belief that freedom cannot rest until freedom comes. We have rested and made it easy for our children and our children are in some ways out of sync with what we went through, and what we are going through presently. So, I want to see us in the community providing mentoring to our young people, so they get back on track. And I want to see us making commitments to give to the less fortunate, to provide for the least. I want to see us pool our resources so that we aren't always begging as a community and not being on the bottom.

I'm very proud of the work that the California Wellness Foundation is doing, and the way that we help our community is great. And I want to see us do participatory philanthropy. I want us to figure out how we make this real so that we can alleviate some of the suffering as well as enrich our young people in the community.

Someone said to me just the other day, “dead bodies float downstream and live bodies walk upstream.” I want to see us boldly walk upstream because I think it's important to look carefully as we take those steps upstream, because floating downstream is easy to do. You don't have to do anything but just float downstream. I want Cal Wellness to continue to walk upstream.


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