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ANNA: I’ve heard that you grew up in Oakland.

NANCY: I did, on this very block.

ANNA: Wow, that’s amazing.

NANCY: My parent’s home is in the next block. This was my grandparents’ home. And that was my great aunt and uncle’s house.

ANNA: The white one?

NANCY: Yeah. And then when I married, we actually bought a home on 10th and Magnolia. So we were three generations all on Magnolia. And my mother was one of the founders of the Oak Center Neighborhood Association, which is what this is. This is considered Oak Center. It’s West Oakland, but the specifics of it is Oak Center.

ANNA: What was it like growing up here when you were growing up?


NANCY: Well, for me it was wonderful. I felt so loved and so empowered and so protected, and I really was. I have to say that it probably wasn’t that for a lot of people, but it was for me. I think also because of who my parents were. My dad actually was Oakland’s first affirmative action manager for Pacific Bell. So he had a great job, which enabled my mom to be a stay-at-home mom. So my mother was very active in the community and in the PTA.

I started off elementary school at Willow Manor, which is further down. I would not walk down there, even though I used to do it as a kid. That would be a walk. It’s several blocks down. But when my brother was getting ready to go into middle school, he tested really high, which allowed him to go to Montera. And so my mother thought, “Well, if I’m going to take my son to Montera, I might as well take Nancy to Joaquin Miller,” which was right next door.

And it’s in Montclair. And at the time, and I think it probably still is, they had the best test scores. And that was the other reason why my mother chose to do that. But, thinking back, and the era was in the early ’70s, late ’60s, early ’70s, and so I was the only African-American girl in my class. Times were very different. Well, I don’t know if they were so different. I see how Trump voters came out for him, I don’t know how different the world really is.

So, I had that best of both worlds. I had the very protected African-American community, and then I had another community in Montclair that was predominately white. I must say, I felt more protected here.

ANNA: Was it your father’s parents’ house, this house?

NANCY: No, it was my mother’s parents.

ANNA: Your mom’s parents.

NANCY: In fact, where I run my childcare, it was my parents’ first apartment. So this is a one-bedroom where the childcare is, which is actually where I was… I wasn’t physically born. I was born at Kaiser, but they brought me from the hospital here because this is where the family was. And my grandparents were upstairs. And then in ’62, 1962, they bought the home down the street. And that’s where my dad still resides.

ANNA: I was going to ask you. So I know this is where you run, it’s called Little…

NANCY: Little Nancy’s. And it’s L-I-L, Lil Nancy’s Primary School House. And that is because my grandmother was Nancy, and the family called me Lil Nancy. And because they were from the South, it wasn’t Little, it was Lil.

ANNA: Lil. That’s sweet. You had another career before you decided to get into early childcare.

NANCY: I taught elementary school, but also prior to that I was in corporate. I actually was in marketing for American President Lines. At that time they were the largest shipping company in the world, and they were based downtown. Actually, I left Blue Shield to go to APL. I was recruited out of Blue Shield and went to APL. And then from APL, that’s when I started. I opened up a book store. I had a small, independent store. It was called The Torch Light. The focus was African-American literature.

ANNA: Oh, cool. Where was that?

NANCY: It was on Bellevue by the lake, which is now, it’s an empty building. And it was a coffee shop next door, so we would do events together. So we had, I guess, our most famous writer or author or celebrity was actually Johnny Cochran after the big scandal. And my aunt, my dad’s sister who lives in Washington, DC, she said, “Okay, now, after he signs all the books you whisper to him, ’We know OJ did it.’” That was always the funny story. That’s so horrible.

NANCY: Now, that is the home of the Black Panthers, DeFremery Park. I don’t know if you all realized that. That’s where the Black Panthers kind of got started.

ANNA: There’s a lot of history in this area.

NANCY: It’s a lot of history. When I grew up, it was a lot of influential African-American people that lived here. And, certainly, many of them went to the churches down here. So, for example, that’s Taylor Memorial right down the street. And then further down is Beth Eden Baptist Church. Those are two of the oldest African-American churches here in the city.

Gosh, it’s so much down here. So this building here was owned by Dr. Crawford. He was one of the first, if not the first, African-American doctors here in the city. And his practice was that building right there. When we walk I’ll point out his home. And the family just sold it about two or three years ago. They lived there. And he built this apartment building, and on the cornerstone it says Hotel Francis. And that was his wife’s name, Francis Crawford.

ANNA: That’s sweet.

NANCY: Growing up as a child, what I really remember is how active this community was in terms of activism. Not only did we have the Panther party, but we also had an organization called Model Cities. Oh, look at the humming bird. It’s beautiful. But also with the neighborhood association, so there were people that were constantly, that I saw, and specifically African-American women, they were always fighting for this community to get the simplest of things, such as these trees.

ANNA: Do you feel like that experience growing up here in a neighborhood with that activist energy is sort of… I guess I’ll ask it as a more open question. How has that influenced your choice to open up your school? I know you’re also very politically active.

NANCY: As hard as I have fought it, it is in me because I saw my mother doing it, literally, all my life. In fact, she held a seat at Model Cities. You had to run for this, and she ran and won, so she represented West Oakland. My mother was very active. She belonged to the New Oakland Committee, Oak Center Neighborhood Association, Model Cities. And these were all different organizations that helped build Oakland and redevelop Oakland. We would accompany Mom to city council, my brother and I, if my dad had to work and the meetings were at night. Mom would drag us along.

So I literally grew up seeing her and Lillian Love and Martel Manyweathers. These were key people here in this community. Dorothy Paine, all of them have passed on, but they certainly impacted my life. But, of course, the main person was my mother who impacted me and her activism. And practically on her deathbed she said, for me, she says, “Activism is really hard, and you don’t win every battle. And it can be very hurtful, so I don’t know if I would want to see you do that.” And I just kind of pushed it aside.

But then when I made the decision to open up my childcare and realized how depleted this whole system is, the whole early-ed system. And when someone came knocking on my door, an organizer asking me if I wanted to participate in organizing, initially I wasn’t too sure. But then I thought, “Wait a minute. We don’t have the basic rights. We don’t have benefits. We don’t have medical, retirement, all of the things.” We’re the CEOs of our companies, but we certainly don’t have the stock options and the fancy vacations. And so that really is what just made me kind of give it a second thought, that I needed to maybe try to help and see what we could do. I had no idea the journey would be so long.

ANNA: How long have you been doing this?

NANCY: Well, I have been a childcare provider for 17 years, but the journey for many started 16 years ago. But I’ve only been in the fight for about 12 years.

ANNA: Now when you say the fight, can you tell me a little bit about it?

NANCY: Sure. That means just the right to form a union. And it wasn’t until last October that Governor Gavin Newsom gave the green light and signed the bill that would all us to form a union. And so, the other previous two governors declined. They wouldn’t allow us to. Declined is not the best word, but didn’t vote for it.

ANNA: I heard that you testified before Congress. Was that about this issue, then?

NANCY: It was.

ANNA: What was that experience like?

NANCY: Well, that was an amazing experience. That was more on a national level because nationwide childcare providers simply have not gotten the respect. And this was pre-pandemic. And now that we have been declared as essential workers, people truly understand the benefit of the fruits of our labor, the love and the passion that we have for this industry, and that we have enabled families, particularly parents, to go to work. And they could go to work with an understanding that their children were safe and being well taken care of, getting nurtured and educated. And so, now our industry is finally getting the value that it deserves. For years during the political debates and so forth, no one ever mentioned childcare. Now childcare is first and foremost.

ANNA: So how does it work with balancing? You have a family. You have a big family, it seems like, and you have the childcare center that you run. And then you have your activism. It seems like a lot, I guess. How do you balance all those things?

NANCY: Well, now it’s a lot easier now that my children are grown. But I always had amazing staff, and I still have amazing staff. And they’re very much part of the day-to-day running of Lil Nancy’s. And the beauty of it is that when you bring people in you can train them, and you can say, “Okay, I don’t have to micromanage. They know what to do.” And they too have taken classes like I have over the years. So it was through the amazing help of all of my assistants, such as Ms. Wilson, Yolanda Wilson, Ms. Nadia. We’ve had a variety, Ms. Kyla, Ms. Isabel. So I’ve had some just amazing women. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic and due to the, I don’t want to say loss of clients, but clients that chose to stay home, I didn’t need all of my helpers, my staff. And so, it was just Ms. Wilson and Ms. Nadia and I. And so Ms. Kyla and Ms. Isabel were not here.

ANNA: How many kids did you have, generally, before the pandemic?

NANCY: I had 14 enrolled. I didn’t have 14 every day, but I at least had 12 every day. And so now we’re averaging about seven to eight a day. So, it’s been really hard. It’s been a fight, and I’m happy that we have the union because we fought for the PPEs. We fought for the masks, the gloves, the thermometers that we take the children’s temperature on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the parents can’t come in. And all of the cleaning supplies, not all, but quite a bit. And it was through the fight that the union gave us, that the union did that allowed us to continue to keep our doors open. And then they kept us abreast of all the different guidelines that kept changing and are still changing.

ANNA: What’s your favorite part of teaching the kids?

NANCY: Just, really, watching them grow. And I would say language development. That is so amazing because they come to me crawling, not even that, even. They’re infants. And then when they leave they’re three. They’re asking questions, telling jokes. They’re doing all this little cute stuff, and you’re like, “Oh.”

So just seeing them help each other. And if somebody falls and they begin to cry, everybody comes over to comfort. They learn that so early: to be decent, nice, caring human beings. And when you see what’s going on in Washington, you’re like, “You didn’t go to preschool, did you?”

ANNA: “You need to go back to preschool.”

NANCY: “You need to go back to preschool and learn the basics because you missed out.”

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