Top: John Colle Rogers grinds down the barrel of a decomissioned firearm, and Dr. Aisha Mays from Dream Youth Clinic. Bottom: Members of Teatro Jornalero, and a previous Culture Makers event at The New Parkway. Credit: Top: Amir Aziz. Bottom: (left) Carla Hernández Ramírez, (right)Ximena Natera for the Oaklandside/ CatchLight

Alameda County is experiencing another spike in COVID cases this winter, and we can’t be certain how the pandemic will play out in the months to come. Still, 2022 was a year when vaccinations became more widespread and, as a result, the health risks posed by infection became less severe for most. And while precautions like masking in crowded indoor settings, washing hands, and keeping up-to-date with boosters are still highly encouraged by health officials, a lot of the activities that we avoided in 2020 and 2021—getting together indoors with friends and family, eating at restaurants, going out to dance, taking in a movie or a show—began to feel (at least somewhat) normal again.

Azucena Rasilla, The Oaklandside’s arts and community reporter, sat down with managing editor Jacob Simas to revisit some of her most memorable stories of the year, talk about her reporting process, and reflect on year one of hosting the newsroom’s live-event series, Culture Makers.

If there were one overarching theme to your arts and community coverage in 2022, what would it be?

This year, it felt like we entered into this strange period where we’re still in a pandemic, but more and more people felt safe venturing out and congregating again. To me, the theme was “it’s safe-ish to go out again.”  

One story that reflects that was the opening of Crybaby in downtown Oakland this year in the space formerly occupied by the Uptown Nightclub, a popular dance spot that closed in the early months of the pandemic in September 2020. The owners of CryBaby helped lead the way in the re-opening of nightlife in Oakland by making the venue available to promoters who’d been hosting popular events pre-pandemic, that were looking for a new home. 

Speaking of going out again, when we started the year, Culture Makers was just an idea. Now it’s a full-fledged Oaklandside live event series and you’ve played a huge role in its success. What have you enjoyed most about the event?

I love seeing the diversity in the crowd that reflects the Oakland where I grew up. Also, it’s been rewarding to have people approach me after the event and wait to chat with me about how much they loved the theme and why they decided to come. 

Also, setting a theme for most of the events—Oakland culture, filmmaking, local sports, and food justice—was helpful. We ended up with guests who, for the most part, all knew or had heard of each other. In some cases, they’d even worked or collaborated together. As a result, we were able to have some really natural, well-informed conversations. 

I don’t want to say too much about what we’re cooking up for next year’s Culture Maker series, but I’m excited to get started and already have a solid lineup of folks that I’d like to have on for the first one in March.

Speaking of events, your weekly column “This week in Oakland” is a popular post. And although you technically started it towards the end of 2021 I feel like you really established it as a fixture on our site this year. How do you decide what events to highlight each week? I imagine it must be hard at times to choose.

When the column first started, I was heavily relying on finding events on Instagram. I still gravitate towards that platform, but we also include a callout in the column for readers to suggest local events for me to highlight, and, more and more, I’ve gotten emails from folks wanting me to include their events as part of the roundup. One example would be an event we promoted called “Respect the Crown” that some community members were organizing at Oakstop to build awareness of the Crown Act, which is stage legislation making it illegal to discriminate against people in the workplace, mainly Black people, for how they choose to wear their hair. That event came directly from a reader who emailed us. 

Sometimes, what I decide to include also depends on what’s happening with COVID. It feels irresponsible to highlight indoor and maskless events when there’s a surge. I’m mindful of adjusting the events I highlight—switching to a focus on outdoor events, for example—based on community risk level. 

In addition to writing about arts and community, you’ve also played a big role in helping to grow our audience on Instagram. What types of Oaklandside stories do you see being successful in that space, and why?

Our Instagram followers heavily favor politics, education, health, and public safety stories. Any and all social justice stories tend to spark conversation. 

One example of this was a post highlighting a report by my colleague Jose Fermoso about a new Oakland social movement that’s protesting traffic violence in the city. 

Another IG post that generated a lot of engagement was a story by Natalie Orenstein about people who grew up in family homes in Oakland but now can’t afford to purchase a house of their own. 

Our IG posts about Oaklander Amy Schneider becoming Jeopardy! champ, and Too $hort getting a street named after him in East Oakland, were also really popular. 

The Oaklandside doesn’t have a dedicated health reporter, and you’ve taken the initiative to fill that role for us whenever you can, mainly by keeping readers informed about the pandemic. Why is this in particular something you’ve felt passionate about doing?

Early on in the pandemic, my two biggest concerns were keeping my grandma safe and getting information to Oakland’s undocumented Latinx community, given that it’s a community that historically has had less access to health care and other critical resources, and less job security. We’ve also seen that COVID rates have been consistently higher in East Oakland, where a majority of Oakland’s Latinx immigrants live. Also, when the pandemic started, my sister was a nurse on the frontline caring for COVID patients. I remember seeing pictures of her after a whole day of wearing PPE and not being able to grasp the devastation and death caused by the pandemic that she was seeing as part of her work as a frontline worker. My reporting throughout the pandemic has reflected these concerns. 

You’ve also played the role of Spanish translator for our newsroom at times. We don’t currently have the bandwidth to translate all of our stories into Spanish. But you have some good thoughts about when we should translate stories, and why. Can you explain?

The biggest thing for me is that if a source was interviewed in Spanish, I believe those sources should have access to the story in their native language. For example, one of my last stories of the year was about Teatro Jornalero, a group of day laborers who formed a theater troupe and put together a theatrical production to tell their migration tales. I conducted all of the interviews in Spanish because most of the members are monolingual. I knew how important it was for the folks I interviewed to be able to read the story in their native tongue. 

The “community” part of your beat sometimes gets reflected as stories about local nonprofits providing services, creating space, or doing other important work in the community. What’s one organization you covered in 2022 that you’re particularly excited about?

Dream Youth Clinic, which is part of Roots Community Health Center, is doing an extraordinary job of addressing inequities in the healthcare system. The team has been at the forefront of local efforts to battle misinformation when it comes to COVID and is helping young women get access to abortions and birth control. This year, after Roe v. Wade was overturned, I got the chance to talk to Dr. Aisha Mays, who leads the Dream Youth Clinic at Roots.

I also spoke with Roots CEO Dr. Noha Aboelata for a separate story about the continued importance of masking.

What story was the most difficult for you to report or write, and why?

By far, a first-person story I wrote about my grandma’s passing. Although it was heart-wrenching to write and relive, I knew how important it was to provide context to how predatory the funeral industry can be. It breaks my heart to see GoFundMe pages asking for donations for funeral expenses. Some people do not plan ahead for how expensive burying a loved one can be. 

What story from this year are you most proud of?

A story I reported about a local violence prevention program called “Guns to Gardens.” I had the opportunity to interview a blacksmith and a local resident who are working together to bring more gun buyback events to Oakland. The guns recovered then get turned into gardening tools. It was cathartic to see the process of taking something so deadly and having it turned into something completely different.  

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.