A Group of East Oaklanders Seek to Empower Their Community
It’s an east side story.
Photo by Clayton J. Mitchell Photography
Stretching east to west across a huge chunk of East Oakland, 73rd Avenue takes you past attractions like the airport and Coliseum, from the wealthier hills to the poorer flatlands.
A few years ago, Candice Elder drove it daily for her commute to work. As she descended through the flatlands where she grew up, she couldn’t help but notice what the area lacked.
When she was younger, things had been different. There were places for her and her friends to spend their time and money at — places like Eastmont Mall, whose blighted remains she now also passes daily.
Today, if Elder wanted to go to a cafe that was open late or simply send a fax, she’d have to travel outside the neighborhood. “I have a car. I can drive to Lake Merritt. I can drive to San Leandro. But I don’t want to,” she said. “I want to spend my dollar in my community.”
The area’s rising home prices also troubled her: She wanted to raise her future family where she had grown up, but can’t afford to.
Elder knew that if she were worried, there had to be others like her — people who had grown up in deep east who wanted more for their community, a place where residents have lower incomes, higher mortality rates, and more health issues than the rest of the city. (A 2015 report from the Alameda County Public Health Department found that parts of East Oakland had twice the amount of asthma-related emergency room visits as the county average, as well as higher stroke and heart failure rates.)
While Elder had “dibbled and dabbled” in politics and protests before — “I went to UC Berkeley, I can’t help but protest,” she said with a laugh — she didn’t have any community organizing experience. So, she started going to Councilmember Desley Brooks’ economic empowerment meetings as well as Oakland City Council meetings, where she was struck by the lack of race and age diversity. She created a Facebook group to start organizing, and in 2016, she founded the East Oakland Collective.
Now, the collective’s 65 members, most of whom are millennials, dedicate themselves to three different areas of work in Oakland council districts 6 and 7. Some members focus on civic engagement, through things like advocating for a bike plan that incorporates the needs of East Oakland residents and improving access to healthy food. Others work on economic empowerment. Last year, the collective introduced a Susu Lending Project for East Oakland, a program in which a small group of residents pool their resources to provide no-interest loans to each other, helping raise members’ credit scores.
Some of the collective’s most successful work targets its third pillar: homeless issues. They’re currently creating a rapid response system to provide immediate help to Oakland’s homeless population, and every two months, they host Feed the Hood, during which residents come together to make bagged lunches and hygiene kits before distributing them to homeless encampments around the city. The events are enormously popular with community members, whose small donations make up around 90 percent of the groups funding: The last event drew over 300 people and inspired participants to replicate it in other cities like Antioch and San Francisco.
“I used to wake up on Sunday morning, drive down East 14th, look at my city, and the sight of the homelessness epidemic used to really bother me,” said Nick Houston, the collective’s community engagement officer. Around seven years ago, he started waking up at 5 a.m. every other Sunday to make and deliver meals to the homeless people he saw. When Elder formed the collective, he joined, and his Sunday routine became the basis of Feed the Hood.
“It’s almost like the city doesn’t care. And I don’t know why it’s been like that, or why it’s still like that. But it is.” Houston said. “If it’s any one thing that keeps us doing this work, it’s to hear people say that they don’t feel human; they don’t feel like people care. Somebody has to. And we feel like that’s us.”
One of Elder’s biggest goals is to turn deep East Oakland into its own business district, the same way neighborhoods like Fruitvale, Rockridge, and Uptown have branded themselves as ideal places to work, live, and spend money in. That kind of designation has economic benefits, but it’s also a more metaphorical honor that labels a neighborhood as a desirable destination — and a way to highlight the area’s importance to Oakland’s black community.
“East Oakland was home to a lot of activities of the Black Panther Party, and for a lot of the members of the East Oakland Collective, that’s still where the black people are. We’re still here, whereas we have been displaced and gentrified from other areas.” Elder said.
The collective has drawn inspiration from the Black Panther Party and older members of their community as they plan for the future. “We are the next leaders,” said Elder. “We are millennial age, and a lot of our elders who we respect and look up to, [who] have put many years in this game, are looking at us: We are what they’ve been waiting for.”