Over 200 Oaklanders spent Saturday cleaning up parks, gardens and bus stops, or volunteering at 24 other service sites throughout the city for the first-ever “Throw Down for the Town” event. Organized by the Ella Baker Center, the event brought neighbors out to help beautify their neighborhoods.
Alicia Caballero, an associate with Ella Baker Center’s volunteer division known as “Soul of the City,” said it was great to hear how neighbors were excited “to get their hands dirty and really do something for the community.” Caballero said that Saturday was more than just another day of service, but a way to encourage more residents to view their neighborhood and city as an extension of their own homes.
Judy Belcher from the First Unitarian Church of Oakland said 20 people had initially registered to help clean up Lafayette Park in downtown Oakland, but in the end over 40 people came out to help pick up trash and weed plants. “It was a great day,” she said. “We all felt a sense of community and accomplishment.”
In West Oakland, volunteers with City Slicker Farms built two raised garden beds in a neighbor’s backyard. Karlos Barlow, an Omega Psi Phi Fraternity brother from Howard University in Washington D.C., spent his Saturday helping with the project. R&B music played from a small radio set on the porch as Barlow helped erect a wooden frame upon which peas and other climbing plants will grow. “It’s hot out here,” Barlow said wiping sweat from his forehead, “but it’s great to be out giving service to the community.”
City Slicker’s Backyard Garden Program has built gardens for low-income households since the program’s inception in 2005. Saturday’s garden bed building project took about five hours to complete, from building the wooden planter boxes to planting seedlings for basil, squash, beans, cucumber, carrots and other vegetables.
“I want to eat better food,” said Shomari Mustafa, the owner of the new garden. He has lived in West Oakland for 20 years, and runs a daycare out of his house with his daughter. He said he plans to use the garden’s harvest to feed the daycare children and their next-door neighbors.
Another garden was being built for the Oakland Kajukenbo Kwoon martial arts youth program in the backyard of St. Columba Catholic Church in North Oakland. Over 20 volunteers helped to build a couple of planter boxes that will be used to grow herbs and vegetables to feed the church’s community.
Over at the Lake Merritt-Oakland estuary near Laney College, 20 volunteers with the UC Berkeley chapter of Gamma Zeta Alpha helped clean up trash. “A lot of us live in Oakland and wanted to give back,” said volunteer Luis Alcazar, who organized the service project. “It was tiring, but we found a sense of community.” Alcazar said his fraternity is considering adopting the area to make cleaning up the estuary a regular volunteer event for the group.
Back in North Oakland, ten volunteers spent the day helping United Roots, a non-profit that provides artistic development and career opportunities for underserved youth, plant fall vegetables in the garden outside of the center at 27th Street and Telegraph Avenue. The garden’s harvest will be picked, prepared and cooked by the teenagers who attend programs at United Roots. “We had fun, played music and opened up our doors to new people in the community,” said Galen Peterson, the organization’s co-executive director.
Later that afternoon at a solar-powered concert for volunteers at Mosswood Park, youth hip-hop artists from United Roots performed along with spoken-word artists and several other musical acts. Volunteers sat on the grass listening and eating plates of food from one of the four food trucks parked along MacArthur Boulevard, all paid for by the Ella Baker Center.
Zakiya Harris, founder of Grind for the Green, a hip-hop and environmental advocacy non-profit that provides job training for youth of color, told the crowd at Mosswood Park, “We don’t have to wait for anyone,” referring to the muscle power behind the volunteers who were able to accomplish so much in one day.
Caballero said she and the Ella Baker Center are hoping to turn “Throw Down for the Town” into an annual event for the city. “Even though we are struggling with a financial crisis and violence in Oakland,” Caballero said, “there’s pride and resiliency in Oakland to make our community better.”
Major Tian contributed to this report.