Meet Public Health Advocate Kathy Ahoy of Reflections of Healing

In A Blade of Grass Fellow Brett Cook’s Reflections of Healing project, nine prominent Oakland-based healers were selected with help from community organizations to be honored in large-scale participatory portraits by Brett and community collaborators.

As a model for the final paintings, each participant was asked to provide an image of him or herself as a young person to symbolize the collective power of youth. The finished portraits, along with captions translated into languages local to Alameda County, chalkboards for community reflection, and free health and wellness services, first debuted at the Life is Living festival in DeFremery Park, Oakland, on October 11, 2014, and were part of a yearlong public installation at the Oakland Museum of California.

In this report we feature Kathy Ahoy, retired Public Health Nurse of Alameda County, and co-founder of the Street Level Health Project in Oakland, CA. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Kathy over email late last year.

Watch a short film to learn more about the Reflections of Healing project.


Namaste Joelle,

Thank you for your e-mail and sorry it has taken me so long to connect with you!

The day to day living and being mindful of what I was doing in November, took on a path of its own these last few weeks!

It’s raining hard outside and I am listening and rejoicing at the dripping sound of the rain drops, at last, we are getting some water that my plants need so badly to survive.

Now to answer your questions:

How did you meet Brett and become involved in Reflections of Healing?

I was nominated for the project by Suzanne Takehara, Administrative Director of the East Side Arts Alliance and Cultural Center. I have known Suzanne for many years, mostly through volunteering at their Malcolm X JazzArts Festival and art fairs.

I met Brett face-to-face when he came to my home for the first time. I was not sure what to expect of the interview – I was a little nervous and stressed to share for the first time my personal story, a story that may not have wanted to be told.

It took some encouragement from my husband Tom, who knows me best and has supported me and provided me the freedom to be an independent woman. With his urging I came to understand that each one of us is unique like a blade of glass.

Brett’s sunny, at-ease and relaxed personality also made the interview very non-threatening and fluid.

What was your favorite question that he asked? 

The two questions that resonated and stood out with me were: “What does healing have to do with social justice?” and “Why are black children left behind?”

To me social justice and healing go hand-in-hand.

Having gone through prison and internment at a young age, I grew up learning to survive and endure the pain of hunger and fear. The need and aspiration to be “fair” and “just” to oneself and others perhaps came from these experiences.

During high school, while catching up on my education, I slowly realized that going through the prison and camp for three-and-a-half years was a hands-on learning experience. The social injustices that were inflicted upon my family gave us the strength to survive the considerable pain and trauma of living in the US afterwards. We each put our heart and soul into healing by moving ahead each day with purpose and persistence.

I went into a caring profession to help others and myself. As I re-examine my activities to care for and help others in the public service arena, I see it all as part of the healing process. It gives me happiness and joy to see others nourished and flourish in their freedom. No money could buy that deep gratitude and inner feeling of knowing that I have advocated for someone who has been denied services or treated unfairly.

My work in East and West Oakland 30 years ago as a young public health nurse made me want to respond to the question “Why are black children always left behind?”. The children I worked with grew up in an environment that had no “community,” and they were imprisoned in an environment of poverty and fear from birth. Parallel to my imprisonment in the internment camp, a black child growing up in a housing project or ghetto was exposed to crime and violence at a very young age. The spirit of a child, if vibrant and curious, was crushed. Many of these children grew up to be teenagers in the “projects” and were not given the chance or freedom to be themselves. Their scars, and society’s stigma, stayed with them.

Correcting the social injustices in that environment, and giving black children the chance to be their talented and creative selves, will move them forward. I know that children have the resilience to heal if nurtured and given the opportunity. When the young people that I mentor feel defeated or hurt, I try to let them know that life gives them an opportunity every day to move forward.

I carry a cutting of Maya Angelou’s famous quotation “We can learn to see each other and see ourselves in each other and recognize that human beings are more alike than we are unalike”. She expresses how I wish we all looked at the world, aware of our likenesses.

What was it like to see people respond to your portrait and quotations at Life is Living? 

I felt very humbled to be honored and acknowledged by friends. They were glad to see the likeness of my teenage portrait to present-day face. I am living life with awareness more acutely in the present moment than when the picture was taken.

We had discussions on gratitude, on our relationships with the world and on people of various faiths and values at LIL. Here are some of some of the quotations people wrote in response to my question, “How do I let others (youth especially) know that each one of us is special and part of a whole and that we are all healers?”:

Provide outlets to be self-expressive and creative; highlight similarities and celebrate our uniqueness; let our light shine; live positively; love, ask, listen and act; connect from inner space; let our light shine; self-acceptance of both light and dark; and lead by example.

Many quotations had a similar theme – the young people at the festival wanted the adults in their lives to hear them, support them, and to tap into their potential. They wanted to be accepted as who they were. Several young people invited me to visit them at the youth projects or link them up with organizations who they want to volunteer with as a part of their community service for school. Communication and the need to be listened to and heard were all important to these young people.

Do you think art and healing are related?

Art, science and healing are related.

Here is an example – if I have a client who has elevated blood pressure, I invite him or her to listen to beautiful music, visualize a sunset or look at a picture of a loved one, and breathe deeply and consciously. This simple exercise sometimes helps the client’s blood pressure to go down. Many of us nurses have used this approach to teach our clients to be their own healer.

If you had to pick one moment from this project that was the most meaningful to you, which would you choose?

The most meaningful part of the project was the participatory process. How Brett involved me from the beginning to pick a photo, interviewed me at any place of my choice, had me come to the park to do my sketch after the “teach in.” My favorite part was the sketching. I could see my whole life moving at that moment to present day.

It was surreal.


Kathy AhoyBrett Cook interviewing Kathy Ahoy, Spring 2014

Left: Kathy Ahoy original photograph. Right: Kathy Ahoy original drawing, ink on prepared polyester, 11″ x 14″

Kathy Ahoy and community members during participatory sketching at DeFremery Park Social Hall, Summer 2014 

In the Oakland Studio/Practice Center, August 2014

Kathy Ahoy, retired Public Health Nurse of Alameda County, co-founded Street Level Health Project to serve the communities of Oakland in 2000, and the project quickly became more than health care. Kathy actively nurtured the sharing of knowledge, resources and skills, built relationships that bonded all together in the work of caring for and responding to the particular health disparities and health issues of the growing immigration population. Through her work, Kathy is committed to human flourishing and working for the common good of all. Her passion and compassion to serve the most vulnerable people in our community derives from her own life history and background. Kathy came to the US as a refugee/immigrant from India. Born in Kalimpong, she and her family were unjustly jailed and interned in India for three-and-a-half years, due to a border dispute between India and China. She graduated from UCSF with a Masters in Community/Cross-cultural Nursing. Currently, she is mentor/preceptor for many health care students. Hunger and homelessness are no stranger to Kathy. Her history/memory of poverty, hunger and injustice equips her with a fierce determination to bring fairplay and justice to others.

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Brett CookEquityHealthOaklandRacial JusticeReflections of Healing
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