A vacant lot left blighted for over three decades on 7th and Campbell streets in West Oakland now has a new purpose in the community as the launching pad for cooperative businesses that will provide opportunities for the formerly incarcerated to become business owners.
Led by co-founders social activist Elaine Brown and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, Oakland & the World Enterprises (OAW) is partnering with the City of Oakland to create six co-op businesses on the abandoned lot.
The project is designed to reverse the decades of neglect and lack of resources – to restore hope in a community that has been struggling with crime and poverty.
“We decided that we would build a wonderful field of dreams,” said Brown at the launch event Monday.
Those who attended the event included Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney, Mayor Jean Quan, Len Turner of Turner Group Construction, staff of Congresswoman Barbara Lee, CEO of Oakland PIC Gay Plair Cobb and School Boardmember Jumoke Hinton Hodge.
The businesses at this new center will be owned and operated by those who are often denied access to economic opportunity and will provide individuals returning home from prison a chance to rebuild their lives and families by supporting their economic stability.
“West Oakland has become a vast empty place where people are being moved out by gentrification and mass incarceration, and so forth. With the help of Supervisor Keith Carson, we can say this is our place and we need to find ways to make something happen,” Brown said.
OAW will launch an urban farm that will produce organic fruits and vegetables for the West Oakland community and for sale to local restaurants and farmers’ markets. Implementing healthy economics, the farm will “redirect the school-to-prison pipeline to a school-to-agriculture manufacturing pipeline,” said David Roach, CEO of Mo’ Better Foods.
“Healthy economics promote (the idea) that every school should have a garden, a farmers market and a grocery store…that every child should gain the education to not only learn the sciences to grow healthy food but to also learn the careers connected to the agriculture industry,” Roach continued.
Other businesses will include: a fitness center, tech hub, an athletic shoe and clothing manufacturing businesses with retail outlets, and a juice and fresh food bar.
The development will also include over 100 housing units for mixed-income families, and 40 percent will be affordable to low- and very low-income families.
OAW will promote economic development and encourage self-sufficiency for individuals who otherwise have a hard time finding employment. Jerry Elster, a member of All of Us or None, emphasized the importance of community in this new project.
“I’m standing here for the formerly incarcerated and underrepresented populations of people throughout this nation,” said Elster, who served time in prison. “I’m standing here for countless others including those in Campbell Village. This is our community. We’re bringing opportunities of entrepreneurship for them and the rest of Oakland.”
Elster acknowledged those who helped him reenter the workforce after he was released from prison, including Rev. Raymond Lankford and the Oakland PIC.
“I’m excited about today because today is only the beginning,” said Supervisor Carson, who recalled meeting Elster 14 years ago when Carson visited San Quentin State Prison.
“It was the education we got from individuals in prison saying, if you don’t want us to commit the crime, we have to be a part of changing the dynamic,” Carson said. “Let’s support these brothers and sisters who are returning back home become self-sufficient, to welcome them back to our community.”