Making Connections event addresses ways to improve life in black communities

Former Black Panther Party chairman Elaine Brown, former Oakland school board member Greg Hodge, Black Panther Party founder Bobby Seale and Ella Baker Center for Human Rights executive director Jakada Imani participate in the first panel discussion of the day at the Making Connections event on Saturday.

Former Black Panther Party chairman Elaine Brown, former Oakland school board member Greg Hodge, Black Panther Party founder Bobby Seale and Ella Baker Center for Human Rights executive director Jakada Imani participate in the first panel discussion of the day at the Making Connections event on Saturday.

In celebration of Black History Month, Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson and other community leaders hosted the 2nd Annual African American Organizations Making Connections “Strategies and Outcomes for Our Black Community” event on Saturday.

This year Laney College hosted the program, which brought together private companies, faith-based organizations, health care service providers, job recruiters and residents to exchange ideas about work, improving personal and spiritual relationships and reducing crime.

“Connections is such a simple word,” Carson said. “There are a lot of things going on and the ability to at least know each other helps us to figure out if there is a nexus there. Can we leverage things to help improve life in the black community?”

Peralta Community College district chancellor Jose Ortiz, Laney College president Elñora Webb and Oakland’s congressional representative Barbara Lee started the day with greetings and good wishes for a successful event.

“Then and now” was the opening topic for the first panel, which was moderated by former Oakland school board member Greg Hodge, and included Ella Baker Center for Human Rights executive director Jakada Imani, Black Panther Party founder Bobby Seale and former Black Panther Party chairman Elaine Brown.

Imani said he grew up during a time in the 1970s when African American communities in the U.S. were beginning to fracture. “We were beginning to lose community,” he said. He said he now sees the possibility of multi-racial and multicultural connections if African Americans and other communities of color learn to work together.

Seale recalled the outreach programs created by the Black Panthers in the 1960s, such as providing free breakfast for children, community health classes and setting up the first youth jobs program in North Richmond in 1964.

Brown’s comments led audience members to stand and applaud as she spoke about life for African Americans in the 1960s and today. “We need a movement,” she said. “There hasn’t really been one since the Black Panther Party, which is why we’re still talking about the Black Panther Party.”

As the first panel came to a close, breakout sessions formed in several classrooms on the second floor, where people discussed issues like safety, health and wellness, intergenerational relationships and workforce development.

Every session drew a sizable crowd, but the business and job creation panel filled so quickly there was only room to stand in the doorways as men and women, young and old, crowded into the room to hear from several local business owners, including those in construction, marketing and housing development. All the business owners told the audience members, especially the young adults, that it is important to acquire some formal training, whether that means getting a high school diploma, completing a specialized training program or continuing on to college.

Leland Turner of the Bay Area company Turner Group Construction spoke about the value of learning skills that can be applied anywhere. “The way you hammer a nail in Oakland is the same way you do in China,” Turner said. “You can take the skills that you learn from … Turner Construction Group and take it anywhere, whereas some other job may be centralized to just one area. Once you get these skills you have them forever, and they don’t pigeonhole you to one location.”

“People think construction stops with a pick and a shovel,” said Art Shanks of Cypress Mandela Training Center. His organization offers “green,” or eco-friendly, construction training. “There are engineers, surveyors. These are the jobs that our kids are deficient in that we need to boost them up in to get them into the trades.”

As young adults waited afterwards to speak to the entrepreneurs, in the gymnasium downstairs other organizations were looking for people to sign up for their training programs. Fernando Estrada is part of the Laborers Training and Retraining Trust Fund for Northern California, which administers funds that are used to train and hire workers. Their scope of work—working on bridges, paving streets or demolishing buildings—can be hard and it’s dangerous, Estrada said, but it can also be a career.

The group represents over 3,600 members in Alameda County, of whom some 750 live in Oakland. The organization offers a laborers’ apprenticeship program to young adults that provides paid construction skills training on the job and in the classroom. “We want some young men and women who are not afraid of getting dirty, hard work and it’s decent pay,” Estrada said. “If they want it, our doors are open.”

Students from Laney College and other schools in the Bay Area attended the Making Connections event hoping to learn how they can contribute to the success of their communities. Carol Archie, who grew up in Richmond and Oakland, came to the event to get information about jobs. “It was more than what I expected,” Archie said at the end of the work discussion session. “Not only did they talk about social issues in the community, but about non-profit programs and–after the company makes money–how to give back to the community as well as employment for young adults.”

Supervisor Keith Carson said the next challenge for conference attendees would be using the information they’d discussed during the event. “How do we leverage it and use it? How do we check back to say we did the things we said we were going to do?” he asked.

Carson hopes that program participants will share practices that have contributed to a company’s success, exchange ideas and promote events on the new website, blacklink.ning.com and use a new phone app created for Making Connections that allows users to browse the website, make comments and post event notices.

There are already plans to hold the event again next year. “I think we have a good working group that is intergenerational, multi-organizational, that really wants to continue to do this,” Carson said. Making Connections is his opportunity to give to others what people have given to him over the years, he said.

“I got here because somebody helped me out. Somebody mentored me,” he said. “Now I have to pay it forward.”

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