This story is part of a collaboration between Capital Public Radio's The View From Here and the Sacramento News and Review. You can read a version of this story in their most recent issue.
Lugging a bag of Kit Kats and other goodies, Catherine ’Ofa Mann heads into the sheriff’s station in South Sacramento. It’s a Friday night, and the spirited, 69-year-old has already put in a full day as a case worker at a local mental-health clinic—enough to send anyone home for a lazy night on the couch.
But somehow Mann, who grew up on the Polynesian island of Tonga, musters up the energy for this second job: teaching a dozen Polynesian kids how to be law-abiding citizens.
She committed to this work 20 years ago, when she heard that young Pacific Islanders in South Sacramento were learning to flick switchblades in a park and how to pick locks and steal cars. She didn’t want to see these young kids join gangs, like the Tongan Crips.
“You’re going to teach your parents about the law,” Mann announces to the young people at the station. The eager-eyed kids, who are seated at a U-shaped table under fluorescent lights, take turns offering what they’ve learned. Some kids recorded their thoughts on video, and got candy as a reward.
“The thing that makes me different from the youth in juvenile hall is I have activities to keep me away from the drugs, the alcohol, the violence,” says 16-year-old Mohelangi Siosaia Makihele, while looking into Mann’s cellphone.
Mann leads these classes many first Fridays of the month with the hope of getting kids closer to their Polynesian culture—and keeping them away from trouble. It’s all part of her work with the To’utupu’o e ‘Otu Felenite Association, or “Friendly Islands Youth.” Some nights, the kids get a lesson in Polynesian language, others, they learn traditional Tahitian and Samoan dance moves.
Some of these kids live in Meadowview, which has an area with the largest Polynesian community in Sacramento. And TOFA is just one of many organizations working to raise the spirit and prospects for the neighborhood’s young population.
It’s a side of Meadowview that most Sacramentans haven’t seen. To some, the neighborhood eight miles south of downtown is known as “Ghettoview.” It’s where Stephon Clark was gunned down by police in 2018, a place you drive through—and don’t stop.
But to people who live in Meadowview, it’s a place of pride, a nesting ground for a good life. They know it embodies the ethnic diversity that Sacramento leaders boast about, and that community members there work tirelessly to improve the lives of youth.
Mann is just one of Meadowview’s protagonists. There’s also RoLanda Wilkins of Earth Mama Healing, which takes African-American girls on road trips to the East Coast every summer to learn about black heritage.
Or Luther Burbank High School football coach Eddie Elder, who offers character-building lessons to teenage athletes, some of whom he says don’t get basic life skills at home. And Sacramento City Unified school board member Mai Vang, who crusades to keep public schools working for Meadowview kids amid an ongoing budget crisis.
“I’m always excited when I can honor young people,” said Wilkins, “because I want them to know, we need them to be OK, you know?”
Through the work of Mann, Wilkins and others, the future generations of Meadowview may just overcome the hardships of their parents—and the misconceptions and stereotypes of today.
Empty fields, white flight
Meadowview wasn’t always diverse. And like many neighborhoods, it’s had its dark periods and revivals.
When Maria Castillo moved to the neighborhood in 1963, she said she was one of the only Mexicans. “It was just white people,” Castillo remembered. “There was nothing but fields. There was no movie theaters. Nothing.”
Castillo was a teenager, and from what she recalls, it was a quiet neighborhood. There weren’t a lot of kids playing outside, and she and her sister were lonely.
In the 1970s, new developments perked her up a bit. She remembers a skating rink and record stores popping up on 24th Street and Florin Road. Luther Burbank High School opened its swimming pool to the public for free.
It was also around this time when Meadowview took a drastic turn: a mass migration of white families to newer or more spacious housing developments in other Sacramento suburbs.
“A lot of white people started moving out completely,” Castillo said, making the sound of a bird in flight. “They disappeared.”
She witnessed white flight first hand, a phenomenon that the late Sacramento historian William Mahan wrote about in his 2006 paper “The Rebirth of a Community: Meadowview.”
In 1960, Meadowview was a post-World War II suburb with roughly 6,500, almost all of them white, according to historical census records. According to Mahan and Sacramento State urban geographer Robin Datel, white families left during the 1970s in droves, to eastern suburbs like Rocklin or southward to Elk Grove.
The demographic change is evident in Luther Burbank High School yearbooks. In 1965, photos of graduating seniors were mostly white faces. Just a decade or two later, the faces were much more diverse.
According to Datel, white families grew uncomfortable when, in 1968, a new federal fair housing law allowed many low-income people to purchase homes with no money down. These mortgages were concentrated in Meadowview.
“Significant numbers of white people left when they saw that the neighborhood was going to become increasingly black,” Datel said.
She says the white flight was driven in part by fears that property values and school quality would decline with racial integration.
Dale McKinney, who is now an attorney in Meadowview, bought his first house in the neighborhood through the federal housing act in the early 1970s. At the time, he was newly married and working as an electrician, and his wife had a good-paying job with the county.
“I liked the area, and it was affordable,” McKinney said. “I paid $20,500 for a four-bedroom, two-bath in 1972. Imagine that.”
During the 1980s, more Asian residents started moving in to Meadowview. They included Hmong refugees, who settled in the United States after they were displaced because of their alliance with the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
Aiona Teu was one of the first Tongan islanders to move to Meadowview, settling into a house near Florin and 24th in 1979. She was preceded by her brother who came to perform Polynesian music at the Zombie Hut, a South Sacramento nightclub.
“I thought there would be opportunities here for our people,” said Teu, now in her early 80s. She saw it as a place for growth and solid government jobs and vast farm country.
“Not only that … I love the weather here in Sacramento,” she added.
The late 1980s, however, were a hard time for Meadowview. The crack epidemic hit the neighborhood hard.
Wilkins with Earth Mama Healing witnessed it first hand. Good parents and spouses got sucked in and just disappeared.
“Crack came [and] just kind of swept people. Like, ‘Where did this person go?’” Wilkins remembered.
When addicted parents neglected to care for their children, community members helped out. Wilkins says neighbors brought food to hungry kids, and teachers provided clean clothes for their students.
Kids in Meadowview now—some of whom may be relatives of crack addicts—still feel the lasting effects from those times, Wilkins says.
“In the crack era, a lot of those things that you learn from the generation before, did not get passed on,” she said.
A neighborhood misunderstood
When Robert Roots Sr. was a young adult in Meadowview in the 1980s, he says drug dealers and gang members roamed freely on the streets. Visitors from other neighborhoods had to watch their backs.
Today, Roots says, although you occasionally hear about people getting assaulted in the park, the dark days of rampant crime are over.
“It’s not like it was back in the day,” said Roots, now 55, a retired and disabled veteran who coaches basketball at John Still Elementary School south of Meadowview Road. “It’s real calm now.”
By many accounts, the 1990s marked an upswing for the neighborhood, starting with the election of Sam Pannell to the City Council.
Pannell was crucial in pushing through the construction of a large community center, which helped bring together residents, churches and community organizations.
“The bright spot of this community is that center,” said Jackie Rose, director of the Rose Family Creative Empowerment Center, which runs cultural activities for Meadowview’s students.
The community center is now named after Pannell and his wife, Bonnie Pannell, who succeeded him on the City Council after he died during his second term. Locals can use the center’s pool, play flag football, visit the gym or computer lab or reserve the community room for events.
Rose described Sam Pannell as a “pitbull” bringing resources and economic development into the community, and that Bonnie Pannell was no different. “They really pushed the agenda when it came to this community getting what they deserved at a high level,” she said.
But Meadowview hasn’t been able to entirely shake off its bad reputation.
According to an analysis of 2018 crime data, however, the overall rate in the City Council district that includes Meadowview are the second lowest in the city, behind only the district that includes Pocket-Greenhaven.
The rates of violent crime, including murders and assaults, are higher in the council districts that include downtown, Land Park and Del Paso Heights.
The public’s misconceptions about crime in Meadowview has been a sore point for Councilman Larry Carr, who now represents District 8.
At Mayor Darrell Steinberg’s State of the City address, which was held in February at the Pannell Center, Carr stressed to a packed audience that his community is safe. “Month after month, year after year, [Meadowview’s district is] always the second or third lowest in crime,” he said.
Another myth, according to Carr, is that Meadowview is predominantly African-American.
According to CapRadio’s analysis of neighborhood census data, Latinos make up more than a third of the area’s population, while Asians and African Americans each comprise roughly 21%. White residents are about 11% of the population, while Pacific Islanders make up at least 5%. Almost a third of residents are younger than 18, notably younger than Sacramento as a whole.
But the people who own businesses and attend schools in Meadowview don’t simply fit into broad racial categories. Refugees from Afghanistan and Syria learn English alongside recently arrived Central Americans at Luther Burbank High. Hmong shop at Moos Pheeb supermarket on Florin and 24th Street, just across from Mi Rancho, a Mexican grocery.
Farther down Florin Road, you can enjoy a “Southern comfort-style” chicken and waffles breakfast at Stagecoach Restaurant, or walk across the street to ask a storekeeper at Fiji Indian Spice & Grocery how to make tandoori chicken.
And every Sunday morning, hundreds of Tongan and Fijian Americans attend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for services in their Polynesian languages.
“There are a lot of different races here,” Roots said. “Everybody gets along. … It’s a nice place.”
Finding an identity
If you drive through Meadowview today, as Sacramento State geographer Robin Datel said she recently did, you’ll notice it looks just like many other Sacramento suburbs.
“[It] doesn’t look remarkable,” she said. “It looks like a fairly middle-class, fairly tidy, fairly well-kept...postwar neighborhood.”
Kids walk home from school, parents commute to work and retired residents such as Maria Castillo get together with other elderly Spanish speakers every Friday at the Pannell Center to raffle, eat and dance to Latin music.
Meadowview may seem like any other neighborhood, but it still has its struggles. In pockets, poverty rates are double the city’s average. And in most of the neighborhood, only about 10% of people have a college degree, lowering their prospects for higher-paying work.
Gangs are still active in Meadowview, as they are in other parts of South Sacramento, according to the sheriff’s department. But to Roots and Arthur Bowie, a longtime Sacramento County public defender for juvenile offenders, the level of danger has “died off compared to what it was.”
The same can be said about the Tongan gangs that Mann saw when she first emigrated here in the mid-1990s from New Zealand, where she raised her kids after leaving Tonga as a teenager.
“There was a loss of identity with our young people,” Mann said. That’s why she teamed up with Teu, her relative and one of the Polynesian pioneers in Meadowview, to start teaching at-risk kids traditional Polynesian dance on Teu’s front lawn.
“Some of [the boys] were too cool to dance, but they tried to do their best,” Mann said.
Now, TOFA’s young dancers perform every year at the California State Fair, showing off their vibrant costumes and elaborate, flowing gestures. This year, dozens of teenagers filled the promenade stage at Cal Expo, confidently displaying the traditional routines of various Polynesian islands: New Zealand, Samoa, Hawaii, Fiji, Tahiti and, of course, Tonga.
Mohelangi Siosaia Makihele Jr., who goes by Jojo, stood out on stage as his mother and dozens of Sacramentans watched in the triple digit heat. He performed four numbers with ease and flair, wearing a different costume each time.
In the Maori haka dance of New Zealand, he stomped and chanted in a blue skirt, sticking out his tongue in a fierce warrior face. During one of the Tongan songs, he wore a pressed, white button-down shirt and a feather in his hair, smiling as he whirled around in quick, fluid motions. He was clearly enjoying himself.
Mann was pleased after the show. Watching the boys perform on stage, she says, goes to the heart of what TOFA strives to do.
“[It] tells me that they finally found their identity, their love of who they are and what they do,” she said.