In recent years the impacts of gentrification have displaced many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities in cities across the United States. Oakland, California, had the highest rate of gentrification in the country according to a recent national study, detailed in the 2020 San Jose Mercury article, “Oakland, S.F. neighborhoods fastest gentrifying in U.S.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Oakland’s Black and other POC communities have experienced the impacts of both gentrification and the recent urban exodus in response to the pandemic (explored in the 2021 Los Angeles Times article, “Wealth, class and remote work reshape California’s new boomtowns as people flee big cities”), as explains Zakiya Harris. Harris is a cultural architect who grew up in East Oakland and has worked for more than two decades on projects that explore the intersections of art, activism and entrepreneurship. She leads the Alameda County-wide business navigation strategy of the artist network and hub Arts Web, and has been looking into ways to shift Oakland’s economy to better value the Black communities who have lived in the city since its early days, shaping Oakland’s cultural roots.
In response to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the coinciding global uprising following George Floyd’s murder, Harris is in the process of co-founding BlacSpace Cooperative, which seeks to create a full-service business development and economic ecosystem that uplifts Black arts, business, ownership, and culture in Oakland from within the Black community. Still in its early stages, the co-op consists of several Black-led cultural organizations located across the city of Oakland, all run by Black women.
“We, as a collective community, recognized that we were at a critical moment, and we could leverage the opportunity of the pandemic and the uprising toward a cultural reset,” she says.
The cooperative formed as a seed group in 2020, with four Oakland organizations that Harris says are “cultural anchors” in the city, as its members: the Black Cultural Zone, the Black Arts Movement Business District Community Development Corporation of Oakland (BAMBD CDC), the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EB PREC), and the Betti Ono Foundation. The project emerged out of a previous project that was focused on reimagining business models in the arts, and is inspired by the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, with the intention to work toward more permanent strategies to support Black artist communities in Oakland so they can thrive.
Harris says she allotted funds from work with Alameda County’s Arts Web (which Community Vision, SVCreates and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation joined forces to develop) into founding the cooperative. BlacSpace has also received funding through the Center for Cultural Innovation and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA)/Culture Bank. In the fall of 2021, the project transitioned into fiscal sponsorship with Haven of Hope, a Black-led fiscal organization led by Darcelle Lahr.
“Right now we’re scraping together money just to kick this pilot off, and we need additional funding in order to really have the pilot fully funded,” she says. “We’re going to be doing a major round of fundraising to initiate and implement phase two, which is going to happen in 2022.”
There is a growing conversation nationally around the importance of reallocating funding to the artists and culture-bearers who are oftentimes overlooked, but who are at the cutting edge of cultural and economic innovation—these include groups like BIPOC, trans people, queer people, strippers and single moms. As detailed in the 2021 report, Solidarity Not Charity: Arts and Culture Grantmaking in the Solidarity Economy, artists are very often the source of local solutions to the large-scale problems that many people face today—and that many more will face in the future.
BlacSpace Cooperative’s long-term vision is to provide city-wide programming and shared back-end business capacity support toward building cooperative business models and shared space acquisitions. The model is based on cooperative and democratic business structures to sustain a network of cultural spaces throughout Oakland—and ideally inspire other cities to create similar support systems for BIPOC artists.
Harris spoke with April M. Short of the Independent Media Institute about BlacSpace Cooperative, its roots in the Black Arts Movement, and the potential to create a society at large that allows all people to thrive, by placing worth and value on the artists and culture-bearers at the center.
April M. Short: You mentioned the impacts of gentrification on Black communities in Oakland, as well as the trend of some of the gentrifying populations leaving the city during the pandemic. Will you elaborate on how this relates to the cultural work BlacSpace Cooperative is looking to do?
Zakiya Harris: One of the ways we recognize that gentrification rears its head in Oakland is that when there are newcomers, if you will, in the community, the city is magically able to identify funding and support to expand streets and create cultural districts, or expand First Fridays [free cultural festival] programs, for example. We saw that over the last decade, that “cultural revitalization” in air quotes, which is just another term for urban renewal, which we know has a racist history. We know how historically redoing the city has adversely impacted communities of color and caused rent and cost of housing to push long existing communities out.
We saw this take place over the last 10 years in Oakland, and it really came to a head in 2019 when Oakland was kind of the center of attention in the nation in many ways. It’s worth noting that throughout the pandemic Oakland’s housing rates have not gone down. At one point last year [in 2021], our rental rates were higher than San Francisco’s.
When the pandemic hit, many of the people who had been paying, you know, $5,000 a month to rent in San Francisco, or even places like Oakland, left and went back home. Their leases expired. It didn’t make sense for them to pay such high rents, having everything closed. The quality of life was no longer present for them, so many of them went back to their hometowns, and we saw an exodus of that funding, of that money, in the local economy. Even though people maybe didn’t realize in the beginning, this had a trickle-down effect. We saw not only white flight happening, but we’ve seen a dramatic increase in garbage, we’ve seen an increase in crime, in burglaries, and a dramatic increase in homicide.
A lot of these cultural anchors [like the organizations that make up our co-op] have had to deal with multiple levels of pandemic—not to mention the pandemics that we were already experiencing before [including food insecurity, housing insecurity, etc.]. And we haven’t seen any major support coming from the city to address these issues. [Instead, community cultural anchors—like those that are part of BlacSpace Cooperative—are the ones who respond, by feeding the community, working toward real estate acquisition for the community, creating initiatives to address housing, and so on.]
All of this makes the cultural permanence strategy for Black arts cultural anchors, who play these multifaceted roles in communities, that much more critical. It also speaks to why we need more resources and funds directed toward the internal capacities of these organizations to be able to expand—not just their programming. Often funders want to spend their time, energy and resources on programming, because they get the cute Kodak moments there, and funding a multiyear staff is not necessarily as sexy. Investing in true sustainability for these local, Black-led organizations stretches beyond the nonprofit-industrial complex. So that is the way that BlacSpace is seeking to address these issues.
AMS: You’ve spoken about how BlacSpace is inspired by the Black Arts Movement tradition to create a supportive ecosystem for Black arts, business and culture. Would you share a little more about how the Black Arts Movement relates to the work you are doing?
ZH: We know that across the country, whether we’re talking about the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement or even today’s movement, artists are always the first to respond to the social and political issues of our time.
We saw that very directly in Oakland, California, not only through the George Floyd uprisings but also through the protest art that immediately blanketed the city. Oakland even became a national model and made headlines for the way that artists turned literal, broken glass into beautiful murals. These are examples of cultural sovereignty and the calls to action needed for our communities.
Black artists have never had the privilege of only doing art for art’s sake. Even if you look at the organizations in BlacSpace Cooperative, these organizations are arts organizations, they’re cultural anchors—and they have real estate strategies because they know they need cultural permanence. Some of them have been on the front lines doing everything from COVID testing to food giveaways to creating outdoor, safe spaces for people to gather, to mourn and to connect throughout this pandemic and beyond.
All of this speaks to the holistic approach that Black art plays in moving a community forward. And we know that Oakland, California, in particular has always been a cultural model for the world. We feel very strongly that as we continue to iterate and incubate these new models, that the ripple effect—the butterfly effect, if you will—is moving the whole planet forward.
AMS: On the website for Art.Coop’s Solidarity Not Charity report, which is where I first heard of BlacSpace Cooperative, the cooperative is listed under the category of “cooperative marketing.” However, you’ve said that marketing really falls short to describe what you are looking to do. Can you explain?
ZH: I would say that marketing isn’t actually an accurate characterization. What we’re seeking to do is to be able to support Black cultural anchors in receiving the needed capacity that is required for them. And we want them not just to build capacity for capacity’s sake, but to integrate more models of a cooperatism, as well as access land, access real estate acquisition, and build cultural permanence.
We know some of the things that organizations struggle with already: being small, not receiving multiyear funding, not having strong number twos [in their leadership structure]. There is tremendous leadership, there are organizations that have great constituencies, communities, volunteers, champions—a lot of number threes. But they don’t have full-time staff, don’t have a chief operating officer, etc. Often these organizations aren’t interested in scaling. Because once you scale and bring on 15 staff positions, for example, then you have to fund those staff positions in addition to everything that you’re already doing. And, the way that traditional funding works is it doesn’t even pay for administrative roles. Typically, the way that you can spend the money has restrictions built in.
This co-op would allow small organizations to be able to invest in an entity, to receive the needed services that they require, whether it’s marketing, whether it’s legal, whether it’s tax work, whether it’s finances, whether it’s operations, etc. Each organization gets to decide that for themselves, and they can go to an entity with other culturally competent service providers.
That’s something that I also really want to lift up, that doesn’t typically make as big of a headline: culturally competent service providers. Typically the way funding works is they fund white-led intermediary organizations to provide technical support and expertise to organizations. But these folks don’t come from the community. They don’t understand the nuances of liberation, of what that means to be a Black-led or a POC-led or queer-led entity. These service providers are actually able to be trusted, to be culturally competent, to understand the nuance and to build in and receive insight that a lot of times folks don’t feel comfortable sharing with traditional white-led organizations, because they’re really just wanting to try to get the work done.
So this model also lifts up these culturally competent service providers, by providing them with sustainable revenue and allowing them to work with organizations that are aligned with their own missions. Both of those become part of a shared enterprise. They become member classes, and create a cooperative model that, over time, will earn additional revenue that benefits the entire ecosystem. Then, the ecosystem can say, “Hey, how do we want to invest this money?” or, “Where are those areas where we want to do some joint-fundraising together?” or, “How are we moving forward?”
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Our cultural permanence strategy allows them unrestricted funding that’s self-determined. It’s on their own terms to then move this work forward. That’s a way of cultural sovereignty that is currently not visible in the traditional nonprofit model.
AMS: Why are you personally inspired to do this work?
ZH: I’m inspired by this work because I literally am an embodiment of this work. I’m an Oakland native, I’m a parent of a daughter who was born and raised in Oakland, California. I am an artist. I have worked in the nonprofit world for over two decades. I’m also a consultant and entrepreneur.
I’m a co-founder of the former Impact Hub Oakland. Even though we weren’t buying a building, I know what it takes to lease real estate—and we lost that building because of finances and capacity. So, I literally sit at the intersection of so many of the aspects of what we’re doing, which makes me an expert, but also really speaks to the need for this kind of work. That’s really what inspires me.
It’s worth noting that when Arts Web was conceived, it was not a Black-led effort and it was not centered around the strategy of community permanence. This is something that I created in the wake of the formation of Arts Web, because I felt that was where we needed to center this work.
A lot of times new projects get funded and cast this wide net, and say, “we’re building capacity for everyone.” I’m like, no. We need to center the folks who are really the catalysts of this work, and if we can center them and be successful, then we know this is also going to be able to support other groups. But we’re not going to leave these groups behind and assume that they’re going to be an add-on at the end.
That’s what makes me so passionate: this work is not only going to benefit me, but it will benefit future generations, like my child, and it will benefit the city that I love and that I’m from.
AMS: You’ve mentioned that rather than working to market a project or expand one business or another, you are looking to create “ecosystems” through BlacSpace Cooperative. Would you expand a little more on why this is?
ZH: This is about a larger strategy of cultural reforestation. When we think about reforesting a new area, for example, we know that this has a 30 to 40 year timeline, so it’s long-term.
More importantly, embedded in the whole notion of reforestation is an acknowledgment of the role and the work that these trees and plants, these entities, have already played in the ecosystem, right? You don’t ask the forest (and in this case the forest is Black cultural anchors), “Oh, you want to buy this building? How much money do you have?” You acknowledge the fact that you’ve already been eating the fruits of the forest’s labor. The forest has already given to you.
The same thing is the case for Black arts. Black artists have already contributed to making Oakland, and to making the world, a better place. The opportunity now is for the wider funder community to pay it forward, through an acknowledgment of the work that’s already been done. It comes down to understanding that this is a long-term initiative, not a short term-initiative.
AMS: What are the long-term visions for the cooperative, as it expands?
ZH: We envision a cooperative that is able to have multiple member classes, made up of culturally competent service providers who provide direct-capacity support to like-minded and mission-aligned Black cultural anchors. We envision this not just in Oakland, but beyond.
One of the things that’s worth noting about the Black arts ecosystem is it doesn’t have the privilege of even just staying in Oakland. Many artists who are Oakland-based artists can’t afford to live in Oakland. They’ve been forced out into the suburbs. Many venues that have been supporting Black arts are not all located in Oakland. One I want to lift up is the African American Art and Culture Complex in San Francisco. We’ve been in very close talks with them, as well.
Black artists have to go where there’s safe space, and where there’s support for their work, so we don’t want to limit our work geographically. We’re really geographically limited right now, due to our limited resources, but we envision a network that is able to bring all of these folks across the region in as well, as support in the programming of spaces. As more spaces come online and more spaces are acquired, that also gives us the opportunity to have some direct offerings for artists. We want to eventually enable individual artists to become a member class in the co-op, where they can pay an annual or monthly membership fee to receive services, and have access to programming, and we envision that the entire network will be able to do fundraising for the cultural reforestation plan, etc.
This is a disruption of the status quo. This is the formation of an alternative model, of a just economy, to move forward and create more Black liberation, equity and power.
AMS: How might people in other areas replicate or create something similar to this model, to support their own communities?
ZH: We are eager to share and be completely transparent with our process with the wider field, and that’s why we’re going to be offering online learning sessions in 2022. We’re going to be sharing with the wider community some of the learning sessions that we’re doing for our seed members—and not just with the wider community of organizations… We want to be very transparent in sharing our model and sharing best practices. I’m hesitant to use the word “replicate” just because I feel like everything is so nuanced, and so rather than really replicating, I think it’s more of sharing best practices and figuring out how other communities can customize those best practices and those tool sets for their own communities’ needs.
AMS: Who are the members of the “seed group” for BlacSpace Cooperative, and how did you all begin collaborating?
ZH: The seed group of BlacSpace Cooperative, which could be called seed stewards, are four cultural anchors. The first one is Black Cultural Zone, started by Carolyn Johnson, which is located in East Oakland. They have been a pioneer in activating a cultural hub that had been abandoned on 73rd and MacArthur. They’ve been activating that space through farmers markets, through cultural meetups, through a skate park. They have a long-term strategy of purchasing the lot from the city of Oakland and building 120-unit mixed housing/retail space.
Another member is BAMBD CDC [the Black Arts Movement Business District Community Development Corporation of Oakland], which is led by Ayodele Nzinga, who is also the poet laureate for the city of Oakland. BAMBD CDC is overseeing the Black Arts Movement and Business District, and received some funding from the city of Oakland for that entire cultural district. Currently, BAMBD CDC is one of the Black-led cultural anchors that is stewarding the acquisition of the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center building. The Kaiser building is a city-owned space that they are working with a white developer to activate, and BAMBD CDC is acting as the cultural anchor to ensure the community benefits agreements of that project are honored, and that community members have buy-in and say in shaping the programming of that acquisition.
Then, also we have the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative (EB PREC), started by Noni Session, which has just raised [funds] for the acquisition of Esther’s Orbit Room located in the historic area of West Oakland’s Seventh Street—which was called the “Harlem of the West.” Esther’s Orbit Room was a popular anchor, following the Black Migration [or Great Migration], where all the jazz greats used to perform. EB PREC has purchased [real estate] within that wider complex that they’re in the process of activating. Note that EB PREC is also a cooperative and is very active in the broader cooperative movement.
And then finally, we have the Betti Ono Foundation, started by Anyka Howard, which has been doing arts programming throughout the city of Oakland for over the last 12 years. They have occupied a city-owned space, and they are currently exiting that space and expanding their programming throughout the city and even regionally, and looking toward establishing a permanent home.
So, those are the four cultural anchors. They’re all Black-led, they’re all geographically located across the city, and they’re all currently run by Black women.
And then we have a host of other cultural anchors and arts first responders, such as the Black Music Entrepreneurship Incubator, East Side Arts Alliance and others, that have been working with us either on our advisory council of Arts Web, or talking to me, or already working informally with some of the other cultural anchors that I mentioned. They’re ready to jump on board, but what has been the barrier is funding. We don’t have funding to provide them with services right now. We’re working currently to provide the proof of concept from the three organizations that are already receiving the back-end services, and building out the cooperative model.
By June 30, we’re hoping to be able to share a series of foundational documents and foundational vision for phase two of the cooperative, with the funder community and the wider ecosystem, which would allow us to bring in more clients and also complete the legal formation of the entity.
April M. Short
Independent Media Institute
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.