If anyone knows the power of music and art to inspire children and give them hope -- even in the bleakest circumstances -- it's Yoshie Akiba.
Akiba's parents died before she was 5. She was sent to an orphanage near a U.S. military base in Japan. Her salvation was the officers' club, which would invite orphans to music performances at the base. "Those things really inspired me and made me who I am right now," says Akiba, co-founder of Yoshi's, the legendary jazz and sushi clubs in Oakland and San Francisco that bear her name.
Akiba is passionate about the importance of children having art and music as a creative outlet and to teach them the rewards of discipline and hard work. But deep cuts in state and federal funding to public schools have decimated arts education.
Akiba teamed up with Jason Hofmann, a former teacher who shares her passion for the arts, to do something about it.
Early last year, they founded the nonprofit 51Oakland to raise money for children's arts and music programs. 51Oakland -- the name is a cross between the 510 area code and the city's name -- kicked off its new speakers series last week. The idea is to bring in adults who have successful careers to help motivate children and show them what is possible in their own lives.
Don Reed, an Oakland native who is the warm-up comic for "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," brought his comedy routine to Edna Brewer, Alliance and Elmhurst middle schools as well as Fremont High School.
Reed infused sidesplitting impersonations with life lessons. He told students about his challenging upbringing with a father who was involved in illegal activity but who taught him to "always go 3 feet past the finish line, and you will do better than anyone else."
Reed said while attending UCLA, he was so poor he had to sleep on the couches in the women's bathroom and survived on food from the vending machines. Now, he's on national TV and just completed a project with Oprah Winfrey. He's set to appear in another one-man show, "The Kipling Hotel," a follow-up to his long-running routine about growing up in East Oakland, "East 14th: True Tales of a Reluctant Player."
"Nothing is better than making big bank legally," Reed told the students. "People will try to get you into all kinds of madness selling drugs. Don't do it."
Kiarah Whyte, an eighth-grader at Edna Brewer Middle School, said Reed was funny and got her attention.
"Even though he didn't have anything, he was able to go to the top," she said.
Reed got involved mentoring Oakland youth after witnessing an incident in New York City. Some boys had thrown rocks through a car dealership window and were running away. He could envision the consequences of their actions: imprisonment, getting a girl pregnant and fathering a child who would repeat the same cycle of dysfunction.
After meeting Akiba, he joined the 51Oakland board.
The nonprofit group also runs "Live at Yoshi's," a twice-a month concert series at the Oakland club showcasing the city's youth talent. There is an artist-in-residence program at Glenview Elementary School, where Jahi, an Oakland artist who performs socially conscious hip-hop, teaches fourth- and fifth-graders to appreciate and critique music.
51Oakland has also created an instrumental music fellowship program called the Oakland Eastside All-Star Ensemble for middle and high school students. Twenty-four fellows are selected through auditions. They perform throughout the community, take field trips to local colleges and universities and are mentored by musicians and other adults.
"Our kids are in need of more positive role models," says Hofmann. "We all need to pitch in so future generations can have the same opportunities as some of us had."
Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Her column runs Tuesday and Sunday. Contact her at email@example.com.