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Ben Christopher | Photo: Courtesy United Roots Oakland | June 13, 2014
Counterintuitive ideas that tackle Oakland's big issues.
Editor's Note: This is one of many dispatches from Oakland that San Francisco magazine is publishing over the next month, all part of our June "Oakland Issue." To see the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.
Problem: Twenty-four percent of Oakland residents rely on food stamps—with few healthy food sources in sight.
Solution: Build a farm.
There’s more obvious acreage for going back to the land than post-industrial West Oakland. But that’s exactly where City Slicker Farms, the institutional backbone of Oakland’s urban agriculture movement, is finally getting its own spread—a 1.4-acre “urban farm and park,” the first all-in-one fruit-growing, veggie-tending, chicken-raising, bee-buzzing plot in West Oakland history. While City Slicker focuses on growing the food, People’s Grocery makes sure that the neighborhood actually eats it. PG has long been a vendor of CSA “grub boxes,” a sponsor of urban ag fellowships, and an organizer of public housing garden projects, and now the company is raising capital for its People’s Community Market, which hopes to break ground in West Oakland later this year.
Problem: Oakland has an unemployment rate of over 10 percent.
Solution: Coax burgeoning businesses into creating good jobs.
Like a VC shop with a conscience, Inner City Advisors offers training to would-be entrepreneurs on the vagaries of running a business. through its Fund Good Jobs investment arm, it provides loans to companies like Blue Bottle and Back to the Roots—with terms that require the borrowers to employ otherwise “unhireable” locals (high school dropouts, new immigrants, former foster youth, former prisoners) and provide them with a living wage and good benefits. So far, ICA has helped fund over 2,600 jobs with an average wage of $18 an hour.
Problem: Homicide is the leading cause of death for Oakland youth.
Solution: Get teens out of gangs and into recording studios.
Take troubled teenagers, put them in a room with valuable recording equipment, instruments, and art supplies, and see what they make of it. United Roots has been testing that scenario since 2009, when a coalition of music producers, youth advocates, and environmentalists converted an abandoned homeless youth shelter into a production house. Graduates have founded their own creative companies, including Simphony Productions and UR’s own graphic design team. Meanwhile, Youth Radio is taking an approach that’s a little less MC and a little more NPR. Over 400 students enroll annually in classes on audio journalism, disc jockeying, and multimedia storytelling.
Problem: West Oakland air contains three times as much diesel particulate matter as the Bay Area average.
Solution: Start a DIY EPA.
In a neighborhood bisected by freeways and crisscrossed with port-bound truck traffic—where children are hospitalized for asthma over seven times as often as the state average—the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project has stepped up to the plate. Volunteers tally truck traffic and digitally monitor air quality, then present the data to city officials—who have since implemented ordinances to clean up the airspace. This summer, WOEIP is teaming up with UC Berkeley to offer the East Bay Academy of Young Scientists, where Oakland high school students will investigate climate change and learn to measure air quality.
Problem: Suspensions of African-American boys alone cost the Oakland Unified School District upwards of $160,000 per year.
Solution: Think beyond punishment.
In the fall of 2007, West Oakland’s Cole Middle School had a track record of having suspended 50 percent of its student body every year. So the staff tried something new: meet disruption and violence not with mandatory suspensions and police calls, but with group talks and one-on-one counseling. By spring, suspensions had declined by 87 percent, expulsions had been eliminated entirely, and Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth had been born. Today, the program operates full-time in two of the city’s most troubled schools and has been adopted as a district-wide alternative to traditional zero-tolerance discipline. rjoyoakland.org