West Oakland, California, has seen some tough times. Once a vibrant cultural center in black America, the neighborhood was sliced and diced by a series of freeways, train lines, and a postal distribution center. At 33.9%, the percentage of West Oakland residents living below the poverty line is just over twice the national average.
In spite of this, something new is growing in Bay Area neighborhood, thanks to Elaine Brown, the 72-year-old former chairwoman of the Black Panther Party and founder of West Oakland Farms. Brown is determined to transform one of the neighborhood’s vacant lots into a booming urban farm business geared at employing former prisoners.
“I’m not in the farm business,” Brown told Civil Eats recently. “I’m in the business of creating opportunities for black men and women who are poor and lack the education, skills, and resources to return to a community that is rapidly gentrifying without economic avenues for them in mind.”
The idea is refreshing in its scope, addressing problems ranging from prison re-entry to community disempowerment. By employing former prisoners (and paying them at least $20 per hour), West Oakland Farms functions as a post-prison support program by giving individuals the chance to find a employment—no small feat for someone with a criminal record—and developing skills and experience that result in sustainable outcomes for a traditionally underserved community.
At present, employees at West Oakland Farms work the land as part-time farmers, and take classes in trade skills such as entrepreneurship and bookkeeping. Brown seeks to use the farm in the years to come as a way to address larger inequities, including the neighborhood’s lack of a supermarket.
Brown also has aspirations of building upon the project to eventually include a small business startup incubator and space that can function as a community gathering point.
“Down the road, Brown wants to add a juice bar, fitness center, grocery store, and tech design space, along with affordable housing on the city-owned property under the umbrella of the nonprofit organization she founded last year, Oakland & the World Enterprises.”
Brown’s concept is inspiring in its take on addressing systemic inequities through job creation and training. By providing sustainable, ethical job training to ex-prisoners to help encourage their long-term success, West Oakland Farms assists in revitalizing and strengthening both the community and community members of West Oakland.
By reinvesting in the West Oakland community—and inviting community members to be a part of that reinvestment—West Oakland Farms can support the neighborhood without pushing residents, forced to flee in the face of rising rents, out of the area. Brown is working to ensure not only that the neighborhood improves, but that current residents will be able to take part in and benefit from the improvements, as well.
West Oakland Farms is a community-empowerment project, with the leadership of a local community activist. Hopefully projects like these can inspire more sustainable urban renewal projects that concentrate on joining hands with those who could most use a hand up.
Canton Winer is a recent graduate of Fordham University and is currently based out of West Palm Beach, Florida. He has worked as a Collegiate Correspondent for USA TODAY and is the former Managing Editor of The Fordham Ram. Check out his digital portfolio, or follow him on Twitter: @CantonWiner.