Ex-Black Panther Elaine Brown Has a Vision for West Oakland
Oakland & the World Enterprises (OAW) is a nonprofit organization founded by former Black Panther leader Elaine Brown and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, aimed at creating for-profit businesses owned and operated by former inmates. On about an acre of land at Seventh and Campbell streets in West Oakland, the OAW plans to develop retail spaces, a fitness center, affordable housing, and more, all sustainably built. One key element is already underway—an urban farm and green space. Sierra spoke by phone with Elaine about her vision to turn the once-blighted lot into a cooperative urban center.
What is the main goal of the Oakland & the World project?
To create pathways for people to develop independence and stay out of prison, and to eliminate recidivism, by creating for-profit, cooperatively owned businesses. The shareholders will be formerly incarcerated people and those facing extreme barriers to employment, such as lack of education, racism, and so forth. OAW is the nonprofit that will finance, launch, and help sustain them until they are profitable.
What will it look like?
Our vision is to build up the property with a fitness center, a grocery store connected to the farm, a tech design business, a restaurant, and clothing manufacturing. And then we’ll go from there. The top portion of the building will be affordable housing available at 60 percent or below the market rate. The farm has been operational since January. We are working to raise money to develop the rest.
Why is the urban farm an integral part of the development plan?
Farming is not new to this area. Almost every home in West Oakland in the 40s had a farm where they grew their own collard greens and tomatoes and okra. It may be new to the people who are there now because blight...has wiped out even the memory of growing their own food. The workers are really enjoying it, and they’re making money—we pay $20 an hour, above a living wage. But this is not an 'enjoyment' project, a social service, or something to be cool; this is to figure out how to get people out of poverty doing something good and decent. The workers bought in with their sweat equity—so they’re not only thinking of themselves as employees, but as invested owners.
Will you keep the farm after construction begins?
Selling the produce and a few flowers alone is not going to create enough of a profit, so we have to incorporate other ideas. But we will keep 10,000 square feet of the farm, because it has its own intrinsic value. There is a need for green space, especially in these urban, blighted areas.
What local issues do you hope to confront with this project?
On top of unemployment, there are health issues in the black community. You always hear ‘you just need to eat better food.’ Well, how are you going to do that when you’re poor? You can get some cheap takeout or go to the dollar store. Fresh? Forget about it. As I tell people, you’re not going to be a vegan in the hood. That’s why I’m developing the fitness center. We will teach people to farm at home, and also have a place to talk about exercise, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. It’s trying to improve the community in two ways: by creating places and businesses that are healthy and that also make money. And of course, our building will be totally green.
Why is it so important to provide former inmates with avenues to employment?
A whole community of men who could be working and providing for their families aren’t able to, because once they go to prison, it’s a mark against them for life. If we ever want our community to rise out of poverty, we have to get these men back in the workforce. And we need a better option than all the reentry programs that train people for jobs they’re never going to get. Because if employers aren’t willing to hire people coming out of prison, you can train all you want, but it’s not going to get you a job.
What’s the next step for OAW?
We need to raise more money to get this off the ground. We have a grand dream, and I don’t want to give up on it. I want to make an oasis figuratively and literally. The whole point of Oakland & the World Enterprises is to develop a model of success. This isn’t a panacea, but it certainly provides—in the existing scheme of things—a means for people to dig themselves out of the terrible quagmire of poverty and incarceration.