Miss Towanda Sherry (Sister Hiba)

Listen to Miss Sherry’s interview!


Miss Sherry has lived in Oakland for about 38 years and, before that, lived in San Francisco. She is a community organizer. She loves community organizing. She belongs to several organizations. She organizes around issues that touch her heart and impact people living in Oakland, including displacement, gentrification, healthy environments, and community benefits agreements. She also works for criminal justice reform so that, “Mass incarceration does not mean mass enslavement of people of color.” She works with groups that challenge unfair sentencing laws that disproportionately burden communities of color with felonies and long sentences for non-violent crimes.

Miss Sherry originally came to the Bay Area from Tampa, Florida, specifically to do work around social justice and human rights issues, such as winning freedom for political prisoners in South Africa during apartheid, and campaigning for political prisoners in the US, including Leonard Peltier and Geronimo Pratt. This was not her first time organizing on behalf of prisoners. In Florida, Miss Sherry had been working for several years on the case of a woman named Dessie Woods—later known as Rashida Muhammad—a black woman who in 1976 was sentenced to 22 years in prison after she killed a white man, in self-defense, who tried to rape her and a friend at gunpoint. Years later, after she moved to the Bay Area, Miss Sherry met Woods, who now has a street named after her in Oakland.

Miss Sherry has firsthand experience with displacement. First, in San Francisco, she and other black tenants living on Haight and Steiner were forced out due to high rents. Later, in Oakland, she was forced out of her apartments near Lake Merritt and then again in the Foothill area. Miss Sherry has seen many families lose their homes and disappear from Oakland since the housing crisis of the 2000s. She has been especially struck by the disappearance of children from her neighborhood and others in Oakland. “Children represent life,” she says. “And it’s important to have children on the block.

She notes the disrespect that newcomers to her neighborhood tend to display towards others in the community. “They don’t speak to you,” she says, “And they’ll run past you with their dogs….They’re jogging or have their dogs. ‘Move out the way! Move out the way!’ Or they’ll try to run over you with their bicycles.” She continues: “And the people [will] come in and rebrand where you live at.”

With the gentrification, since “now the hood has condos,” the people who used to live in Oakland can no longer afford to live there. Miss Sherry is troubled by the increase in homelessness—she has never seen it so bad. She lives across the street from a major bus stop and sees women with children with their suitcases, taking residence around the bus stop because they have nowhere else to go. She has spoken with bus drivers, who tell her about the increase in senior homelessness; seniors will ride their busses all day long, because they have no place to go. There are families and children sleeping in cars in her neighborhood, because they have nowhere to go, and even if they did, they can’t afford to move out of the area. Miss Sherry believes that city and federal governments should be held accountable for this situation. People have a right to housing, she says—housing is a human right.

People tout Oakland because of its diversity, but Miss Sherry says that that diversity is disappearing. “The people that make up Oakland, and the people that make it vibrant and whole and great and unique are disappearing.”

If it were in her power, Miss Sherry would put a moratorium on evictions, place a stiff rent control on apartment, ensure that that there was more affordable housing, and she would create a right to return policy for Oaklanders who have been displaced.

For her future, Miss Sherry hopes to live in Oakland as long as she can—although she is unsure whether she’ll be able to afford it for much longer—so that she can enjoy her children, her grandchildren, and so she can continue to do community organizing. With joy in her voice, she goes on to say how Oakland has created people who have transformed this nation, and she would like to see a return to that.

Finally, Miss Sherry shares a photo of children from her Bible study class and who lived on her block, many of whom have been displaced to places like Hayward and Richmond. For her, “Oakland is a land of opportunity,” which is something she wants for children of the community. The only way that this will happen is if Oakland is a land of opportunity that shows inclusion. If we follow Miss Sherry’s example and heed her advice, wonderful, incredible things can happen when we work together.