OAKLAND, Calif. – A vision took its first steps toward reality Oct. 27, as area elected officials and community leaders gathered in West Oakland to announce plans for an urban farm – and ultimately other small businesses and affordable housing units – all to be built, operated and cooperatively owned by formerly incarcerated people and others with severe employment challenges.
The enterprise’s founders say they aim not just to start another re-entry program, but to create real cooperatively-owned, money-making businesses. They plan to start with an urban farm, producing greens and other vegetables through aquaponics and other organic methods and selling to local customers.
“We know this looks like nothing, it’s been like this for three decades,” Elaine Brown, the project’s CEO, said as she looked out over the bedraggled vacant lot at 7th and Campbell Streets. “This is our place and we need to find the ways to make something happen. So we decided we would build a wonderful field of dreams.”
Oakland and the World Enterprises, Inc., which has acquired the nearly one-acre lot, was founded by Brown, a longtime community activist, together with Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, who has long worked to help formerly incarcerated people overcome the serious problems they face, including barriers to employment.
Carson stressed that the project’s mission goes far beyond “just growing fruits and vegetables,” to “processing, selling, creating a work ethic, creating an opportunity for people to reconnect with their families and community, and become productive people in the community.”
Among advisory board members: attorneys, a judge, a leader in urban farming, a formerly incarcerated activist, bankers, tech and sustainable development developers, realtors, a former Oakland City Councilmember, a Grammy-winning musician – to name a few.
Their goal is that once it’s operational, the project will be financially self-sustaining. To get things going, they are putting resources together through private investments, philanthropic contributions and government funding.
Several speakers cited the area’s rich history as a lively, largely African American community with successful businesses and a flourishing arts scene.
“As we stand on 7th St., said area City Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney, “this was a thriving enterprise zone where black migrants from the south came and made their way in a segregated Oakland, creating businesses that worked.”
McElhaney cited “decisions made in governmental houses” that resulted in the breaking up of the neighborhood, including erecting above-ground rapid transit tracks along 7th St. and building a huge Post Office. Large numbers of area residents were displaced in the process.
Construction of a freeway also divided the neighborhood and separated it from the city’s downtown area.
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan recalled visiting West Oakland in the mid-1960s, when as a teenager she tutored neighborhood children. There she met Brown, then a Black Panther Party activist. When they learned that the new Post Office wasn’t hiring area residents, Quan said, they helped tutor the children’s parents so they could pass the Postal Service exam.
“Today with that vibrant community, with the Lincoln Theater and Esther’s Orbit Room (a leading jazz venue) gone, I see this as part of rebuilding that heart and soul, and staking a cultural ground here, to make sure we don’t forget our history,” she said.
Board member Jerry Elster, now healing justice coordinator with the American Friends Service Committee and earlier incarcerated for over two decades, emphasized the project’s role in achieving “true public safety – public housing, food, and job opportunities,” with participants “becoming an owner, being invested in this.”
After the urban farm is up and running, further plans include a fitness center, a tech business, a juice bar, athletic shoe and clothing manufacturing companies. A housing development is also planned for mixed income families, including those with low and very low incomes – all to be cooperatively owned.
Photo: Oakland and the World, Inc. board members gather with Elaine Brown (center), Oakland City Councilmember Lynette McElhaney (left) and Mayor Jean Quan (right). Marilyn Bechtel/PW