Sarah Perrilliat is one busy woman. She’s a designer, a poet, a speed walker, a world traveler, a volunteer, and—by the way—she works full time as a psychiatric social worker.
After graduating from Mills in 1976, Sarah worked as a counselor for a community-based mental health program. Two years after she started, she was the clinical supervisor. Two years after that, she was the director of the program. While working as director, she also attended San Francisco State University, and in 1984 she received her Master’s of Social Work.
Her three sons were young when she graduated from Mills. When she graduated from SFSU, they were adults, and they presented her with a brand new car! Sarah says that the gift made her feel,
“OK, maybe I did something right:’ She obviously did; all three are now successfully engaged in work or school.
For the past four years Sarah has worked as Consultant/Case Manager for a special Alameda County program for chronically mentally disabled individuals. They receive supported assistance from board-and-care placement services. Sarah says, “Our goal is to keep our clients in the community and living as independently as possible. Many of my clients who were once hospitalized for many years are now out. Some have activities. Some have jobs. Some clients have gone on to graduate from board-and-care and live independently.”
The job isn’t easy. Sarah has approximately seventy-two clients and is simply hoping the number doesn’t grow any higher.
Then there’s her design work. Under the company title of S.E. Creations, Sarah designs incredibly beautiful fashion accessories for men and women. Her primary work involves “alternative wraps,” each one individually created. Her scarves are unisex accessories, nice to share with the man or woman in your life. Recently, she has expanded into other areas of design, contracting out for the construction of such items as leather check wallets. She was in Barbados in 1988 when her fashions were first internationally acknowledged.
And she does get around. Sarah has visited Spain, Indonesia, Trinidad, Tobago, and many other areas, returning to her design work inspired by the various cultures she experiences.
Sarah began writing poetry when she was a Mills student. “I still write—other than service plans for my clients!” Her poetry, of course, has changed over the years. “When I first began writing, I was in transition. I had very young children at home. I was working. I was in school. A lot of my poetry had, well, not so much pain, as trials and tribulation in it.” She adds, “I’m no longer looking back. I’m looking forward to the good times.”
One of her poems received early recognition when it won an award in the Write-On contest sponsored by National Black Network and Kraft Corporation. Known as the Ozzie Davis/Ruby Dee Write-On contest because of the involvement of the couple famous for their work as actors, writers, and directors, the contest attracted some 40,000 entrants that year, and Sarah received the fourth highest honor and second place in poetry! The poem, Home Again, has won three other awards, and Sarah has just learned that it will be read again this year at the World of Poetry contest celebration.
Home Again is one of a series of poems Sarah wrote after the death of her grandmother, a woman very important in her life.
Confronted with hush-ness
I knew I’d come
to bury the dead
A neighbor enveloped
me into her arms
Said: Hon, I’m sorry
Foggy eyes stared
as I went
to see her still
there in bed
waiting too long
For the undertaker
The series consists of three poems, the second of which tells of receiving a ring worn by her grandmother. The third poem ends the series. It is titled The Wake:
Granny never liked
crowds before, but
some felt obliged
to come and
sit in silence
She looked so
Pretty in her
blue woolen suit
her shoes didn’t matter
I remember looking
at her thinking
how nice, she
got her wish
of us to cry
“Many people hear these poems as sad,” says the poet, “but for me they were healing poems.”
Very much an Oakland woman,
Sarah can be found at such city social events as the Oakland-Ocheras, Jamaica, Sister City celebration. And she is a member of the Allen Temple Baptist Church, one of the most socially active church communities in Oakland. “I feel proud that we at the church feed the homeless, support those with AIDS, have programs for young students getting ready for college, have programs for senior citizens … you name it, it’s there. I’m proud to be a part of an organization that is not just a beautiful building, but is moving and doing significant work in Oakland.”
A central Oakland scene for her, however, is Lake Merritt. Every day after work she shakes the fatigue of her job by speed-walking around the Lake. “My feeling about the Lake is a feeling of peace. I walk as near the water as I possibly can. I feel close to nature. I pass trees and birds. There’s a feeling, too, of being connected to the city in a way that I don’t feel anywhere else. Nature, water, the paths filled with people: I see mothers with children, fathers with children, families. There is a feeling of coming together there:’ The Lake Merritt paths remind Sarah of the Ramblas in Barcelona. “It is a long walk where people gather together, some to walk, some to watch, some to exchange political ideas. Barcelona has the Ramblas. Oakland has the Lake.”
Sarah’s walk around the Lake isn’t a stroll. This is serious walking. In the most recent Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco, Sarah and a friend came in first among the walkers. “We came in with what they call the ‘slow runners,’ ” she laughs.
Mills, too, is a part of Oakland for this alumna. “When I first visited Mills as a teenager around 1960, I said to myself, ‘I would love to go to that school: I didn’t have the money and at that time my parents were very poor. It wasn’t until I was married, had children, went to Merritt [Community College], got the grades, and got a scholarship that my dream came true.”
As a resumer, Sarah found support at Mills. “This was home away from home. This was the place where I really learned to bond with sisters in a way that I don’t think I could ever have done anywhere else. I was a part of Mary Atkins. The sisterhood there was so great, so wonderful:’ Sarah says that the organization for resuming women provided everything from help with papers to great parties.
She adds, “The instructors were wonderful to Mary Atkins students. They were very supportive, always available. They knew a lot of us were working and in school part time.”
When a photographer contracted to take photos of her fashions, the background chosen was Oakland. “When I told the photographer that I had graduated from Mills, he said, ‘Perfect. You’re at home: It felt good to be able to bring my work to Mills.”
Sarah does believe that Mills could have more outreach into the city. She says the College, “could link with the community in ways that are both connection and contribution. Mills can foster growth in our youth and spark interest and support from our older population:’ She was pleased when the College brought the daughter of South Africa’s Bishop Tutu to campus, and pleased when two plays by local writer Ruth Beckford were produced. And, “When Mills presented the Black Writers’ Symposium, people from Oakland came to campus and said, ‘Wow!’ ” The more activities we have to interest the community, the more we will contribute to the solidarity of all of us in offering to Oakland what is not there and what is needed.”
Like many who live in Oakland, Sarah is concerned about news articles that center on the negative aspects of the city. “It puts me on edge, the way Oakland is given a bad name. Yes, it’s a big city. Yes, it has all the illnesses and the deficiencies that a big city brings with it. But Oakland has so many positive things going on that are never addressed in the media.” Sarah mentions “so many unique things here,” especially the Festival of the Lake, the Paramount Theater, the Oakland Museum.
“I had visitors here from San Diego a while ago. They had heard about Oakland. I mean they had heard about the crime and the drugs, but they had not heard about the beauty of Oakland. I took them to show them where I walk. They were amazed to find this beautiful lake in the middle of the city. I took them to Jack London Square. I took them to the Civic Center where music often happens at lunch time. You don’t hear about these things.”
One of Sarah’s favorite places is The Gingerbread House, a restaurant unlike any other. It is owned by a Black woman “who had a dream and has filled it,” says Sarah. “On my father’s 80th birthday, we took him there. Now his request is to be taken to his favorite restaurant on his 81st. The Gingerbread House is a playhouse for adults. It is filled with beautiful dolls, with games. It’s always crowded. Everyone goes there, not just Oaklanders. You can find yourself sitting with people from any culture. You are sitting, and talking, and eating—it’s as if you’ve been invited in for a big party!”
Talking with Sarah Perrilliat is like being at a party—a warm, intimate, creative, joyful party. Oakland (and Mills) is lucky to claim her as a daughter.