Former Prisoners Could Find Opportunity in Ambitious West Oakland Project
From a trash-strewn vacant lot in West Oakland a group of community leaders hope a “field of dreams” will sprout in an ambitious plan to develop an enterprise to give people coming out of prison a chance at a better life.
Led by former Black Panther Party chairwoman Elaine Brown, the group of organizers, business leaders and investors hopes to have work on an urban farm in the vacant lot at Seventh and Campbell streets started in the next few months.
The lot, across from the post office and surrounding the abandoned Western Service Workers Association building, today is a dusty garden of scattered weeds, abandoned tires and broken glass lined by graffiti-covered walls and rickety fences looped with barbed wire.
But in the run-down lot the founders of the newly-formed nonprofit Oakland and the World Enterprises, Inc. sees not blight but opportunity for convicted criminals trying to find their way after prison, and a future for the once bustling neighborhood.
Brown said today that while the project will start with an urban farm, the group hopes to construct a 12-story building of housing and businesses, all owned by the people who live and work there, intended to be people coming out of prison or in a situation where they’re at risk of going to prison.
Brown and the coalition she has assembled hope to address a litany of problems facing West Oakland, including the loss of working class jobs, the destruction of the neighborhood’s economy, forced displacement from rising rents and the challenges of reintegrating people who have spent time in prison.
Former prisoners having completed their sentence “continue to serve the sentence when they return home,” Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson said today.
Prisoners returning home find themselves disconnected from their families, unable to find jobs, and marginalized in such a way that forces them to seek survival by returning to a life of crime, he said.
As incarceration rates have skyrocketed over the last 30 years, communities like West Oakland have struggled to reintegrate people getting out of prison. Opportunities are scarce with few employers willing to take a chance on someone who served prison time.
“As long as there’s islands of poverty here and in East Oakland, there will be no peace in this city,” Mayor Jean Quan said today. “This, we believe, will create a new dream in West Oakland.”
She reminisced about tutoring in the neighborhood when she as a teenager in the 60s, as the post office was just being built and before BART trains rumbled past the jazz and blues clubs that dotted Seventh Street at the time.
City Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney cited the construction of the massive post office and the above-ground BART tracks through the corridor as something that disrupted the thriving community, a largely black community that remained prosperous despite the challenges of the 40s, 50s and 60s.
“We’ve known for a very long time how to keep healthy and whole communities but there’s profit to be made in keeping things broken,” McElhaney said.
The opportunities afforded the community through the project, she said, would help to drive down incarceration rates while bringing up people in the neighborhood to create communities where people aren’t being constantly sent to prison.
The project could be slow to start, as first the soil must be tested for contamination. If it turns out to be polluted, they will take the first steps in building the farm with raised beds and aquaponics, urban farm activist David Roach said.
Meanwhile, Brown said fundraising efforts are beginning in earnest and they will begin recruiting marginalized residents to come work and devising a pay scale for them.
Roach, who has taught business at West Oakland’s McClymonds High School, is enthusiastic about setting up the first stages of what they hope will become a thriving cooperative business selling fruits and vegetables.
The founder of Mo’ Better Food, Roach has worked with other local urban farming and healthy food initiatives in West Oakland like City Slicker Farms and People’s Grocery.
But Brown said they aim to have the project grow far beyond that, incorporating athletic shoe and clothing manufacturing businesses, a fitness center, a tech hub, retail outlets, a juice and fresh food bar and low-income housing into a 12-story building to be constructed on the same lot.
The farm won’t go away with the building’s construction — the top two floors will still be devoted to growing produce, Brown said.
Opportunities will continue for former inmates, who they intend to employ at every step in the construction.
If all goes well, she said they hope to break ground on the building in about a year.
But today was all about celebrating the acquisition of the plot, a home base and springboard for their dream of “1,000 businesses to bloom” giving opportunity to West Oakland’s most troubled residents, Brown said.
“We don’t want the city to be a place where if you don’t have enough money you’re not welcome,” Brown said.