Hundreds of Oakland residents woke up Saturday morning to put on a surgical mask, lace up their boots and get their hands dirty during the second annual “Throw Down for the Town,” a service festival that gave Oakland residents 34 options to transform their neighborhoods.
The event was organized by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a service center which promotes leadership development and advocacy in local communities. The center’s campaigns—fellowships that address violence, juvenile detention and green job creation—are designed to give people the skills and opportunities to work together in their community. The goal of Saturday’s event was to communicate with businesses and residents throughout the city and organize cleanup sites in neighborhoods that need to a little sprucing up.
“This came by way of community folks reaching out to us—hearing of the Ella Backer Center, saying ‘Hey, I live in West Oakland. I want to help out and I don’t know what to do,’” said Abel Habtegeorgis, the center’s media relations manager, who drove to several of the service projects throughout the day. “Of course we have a bunch of events just being the center, but there wasn’t a service project for what people understand as service. We were just like, ‘Why don’t we organize this big day where people can be connected?’”
This year, the center set up 34 service projects—nine more than in 2011—throughout Oakland, including tending the garden at the Stonehurst edible schoolyard, painting a building at Emerson Elementary and beautifying the area around Fruitvale Avenue. Right outside of Snow Park in the downtown area, volunteers created trashcan art on Thomas L. Berkeley Way by applying mortar to the surface of two trashcans before sketching a design in chalk. Once the design was outlined, volunteers applied pieces of ceramic tile on top of the drawing to create a sunburst pattern in yellow and brown. Meanwhile, inside the park’s grounds, the Oasis Clinic offered free HIV testing throughout the day, and volunteers from the Ella Baker Center led workshops to help Oaklanders seeking jobs with their resume and business attire.
“I came out to bring my family and kids out to volunteer,” said Lilly Ranah, a Kaiser Permanente employee, as she pressed tiles into mortar spread across a city trashcan. Her three kids attend Peralta Elementary School and Edna Brewer Middle School. “This is a way to get my kids active and motived,” she said. “We love our city. You know, it gets a lot of bad rap, but there’s wonderful things going on and I want to show my kids the best of Oakland.”
Jorge Rosales volunteers at the Ella Baker Center and helped organize the “Finding Jobs for Oaklanders” workshop. “The goal is to prepare Oaklanders to use the skills and wisdom that we know they have to get access to those jobs they need,” he said, picking up a resources guide that had been created for workshop attendees.
Four miles away, over 40 volunteers filled into William D. Wood Park—just off of McKillop Road in East Oakland—to weed, mulch and plant native species. “I signed up for Wood Park because I never heard of it or this neighborhood, so I thought it would be a good place to go,” said Gretchen Lane, an Oakland resident who works as a special education aide at Burton Valley Elementary School in Lafayette. “Basically, I love Oakland and I just want to try to contribute as much as I can to make it a pretty city and keep it nice.”
Lane was surprised to find it was a five-acre park. “It looks a lot nicer than I was expecting,” she said. “I was thinking it was just going to be trashed. I had no idea.”
While the park wasn’t trashed, it needed a lot of weeding done. “This was my hill today,” Lane said with open arms indicating the size of the area she’d just finished weeding. “Looking at it, it feels like I haven’t done much, but I filled up two bins of weeds. I’m not a gardener or a weed puller by any means. My hands are like so sore I can barely grasp anything now.” She tried to squeeze them into a tight fist. “I’ve definitely put my work in today, that’s for sure,” she said. “It feels good.”
Lisa Lemus, a park steward who was voted Oakland’s “Mother of the Year” in 2012, helped people stay motivated and understand the cleanup effort. “Wood Park is a wooded natural park with a little bit of play area on the grassy field,” she said. “We’re doing our best to keep it clean and beautiful and that means taking out invasive weeds that choke out the California natives.”
On Saturday California native plants like Zauschneria (California fuchsia), Ribes sanguineum (flowering currant) and Arbutus (Madrone) were planted to replace invasive species like Scotch Broom, fennel, deadwood and thistle. “We’ve got all of this terrible thistle that chokes—it’s nasty for the kids, it’s nasty for the dogs, it just gets in everybody’s clothes,” said Lemus. “We’re also doing weed abatement by mulching.”
“We’re too close to the urban setting to have a completely wild habitat,” she added before yelling out to a few people to put on gloves. “It’s flammable. It’s just terrible.”
Nwamaka Agbo, campaign director of Soul of the City, one of the service project committees within the Ella Baker Center, said that most of the center’s community service projects usually take place once a quarter. With so many projects happening throughout the city, she said, they thought it would be good to have one day devoted specifically to having organizations in the communities come together and showcase the resources Oakland has to offer.
“We are starting to get a better understanding of what community service means,” Agbo said as she stopped by the “Finding Jobs for Oaklanders” stand at Snow Park. “Often when someone is asked to volunteer for a project, people hesitate because they often think they don’t have anything to give. It’s about understanding that community service isn’t something that happens just once a year, like Throw Down, but it is something that tends to occur on a day-to-day basis. People don’t give themselves credit for what they have to offer.”
In addition to Throw Down for the Town, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights has worked to elicit changes with a program called “Books not Bars,” which provides an information network for families with children who are incarcerated and advocates for policies that help rehabilitate young people in the community, Agbo said. The center also started a green collar jobs campaign where young people partner with green businesses and environmental organizations, and learn to write policies that promote the use of renewable energy resources.
At the end of the day on Saturday, Oaklanders and volunteers were asked to gather at Snow Park from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. to take part in a festival with live music by hip-hop artist Mystic and other local musicians.
As more people filled into the park they talked about the day accomplishments.“We painted. We scraped. We cleaned. We weeded. But mostly it was an opportunity to clean up the garden for them,” said Sabrina Kwist, the director of engagement and inclusion at Mills College, of the volunteer work she’d helped with earlier that day at Emerson Elementary School. “There were some walls that were unfinished from a previous project, so we wanted to clean them up and make it look nice for the students before they come back.”
The volunteers at Emerson included students from Mills Colleges’ “Summer Academic Workshop” for incoming college students who are among the first generation in their families to enter higher education.
The crowd at Snow Park, which had gown considerably for the events final hours, finished the day by taking a group photo, eating bagged lunches donated by Aroma Café and listening to musicians—Cougar Cadets, LoCura, Zakiya Harris, and hip hop artist Mystic—before hugging and waving goodbye.
“It’s really about coming together. Who are your neighbors, who are your friends and what are the tools that you need?” said Meredith Fenton, director of communications strategies for the Elle Baker Center. “We can be the change that we want to see. We can build the gardens for our schools. We can help folks find jobs. We can create art in public spaces. We can bring books to kids that need books at a time when our libraries are facing shortfalls.”