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New community hub aims to bring non-profit services under one roof

on October 7, 2019

It was a record shop. Then it sat empty. Now it’s a community hub for non-profits. And at its housewarming party on Friday night, a crowd of roughly 250 people crammed into the space belonging to Restore Oakland, Inc. to learn about how it would be available for Fruitvale residents to use.

Before making their way into the space, guests and curious onlookers watched a powerful and colorful performance from Danza Azteca Cuauhtonal, a group that practices indigenous cultural rites. Against a backdrop of drumming, dancers garbed in vibrant indigenous dress moved precisely in unison.

At the front end of the former shop, guests lined the bar to sample cocktails in between rounds of fried dumplings inspired by Afrolatinx cuisine—a small taste of what’s to come from when its on-site restaurant opens. Kids and craft enthusiasts pushed up against the floor-to-ceiling windows, painting small terra cotta pots to be displayed on the restaurant’s shelves next to art from local artists. The space was ringing with energy between the loud chatter and steady cumbia beats spun by DJ Baagi.

Perched on the corner of Fruitvale’s busy E 14th Street and 34th Avenue, Restore Oakland will house three floors of mixed-use community space, where non-profits, businesses and a restaurant training center will operate under one roof. “Our job is to help connect all the incredible organizations in this building, help their campaigns come together, help their strategies come together,” said Restore’s executive director Reetu Mody in her welcome remarks. She stressed that Restore will be “a space where people can celebrate, a place where people can organize, a place where people can create art, a place where you can meet new friends and kids.”

The space is the brainchild of husband-wife duo Zachary Norris and Saru Jayaraman, who head the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United, respectively. Their goal is to create a one-stop center that offers services like housing advocacy, job training, and restorative justice services to low-income residents in East Oakland.

The idea is a product of their frustrations, as longtime Oakland activists, that nonprofits are not able to better coordinate their services, especially in helping low-income and formerly incarcerated people secure jobs. Many non-profits in East Oakland already work with each other, connecting clients to services they can’t individually provide. But having all these non-profits in one space would let them work together more efficiently.

It’s also an effort to create some stability for the nonprofits. Since opening in 1996, the Ella Baker Center has had to move nine times. But Restore will be its permanent home, Mody announced to a thunder of cheers at Friday’s opening.

Throughout the evening, guests toured the three floors of Restore, learning how the space was designed, what the rooms can be used for, and which nonprofits will work in the building. Restore’s ground floor will be home to Colors, a restaurant to be mostly staffed by trainees from ROC United’s on-site job training program. The group’s mission is to provide fine-dining job training for front-of-house positions like server, bartender, and sommelier, which earn higher wages than back-of-house positions like busser, dishwasher, and cook.

With its job-training program, ROC United hopes to address what Jayaraman believes is the heart of the race wage gap: “People of color are segregated into lower paying positions,” she said while speaking to the crowd in the soon-to-be restaurant space. After revealing to a surprised crowd that the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour, Jayaraman said, “In California, we don’t have a $2 wage. But unfortunately we do have the highest levels of racial inequity in the restaurant industry here in the Bay Area. Actually, the race wage gap between white workers and workers of color in the Bay Area is $6 on hour and it’s the largest gap of any region in the US.”

She noted that salary quintuples for workers who shift from working as a busser or dishwasher to a server or front-of-house position. “Colors is going to be a place where we are going to train hundreds and hundreds of workers of color to move up the ladder,” she said.

The restaurant does not have an official opening date, which Maria Moreno, program coordinator for ROC United, attributed to a delay in getting the necessary permitting. But once it gets up and running, the group expects Colors to become the largest fine dining training restaurant in the country.

Upstairs, members can use rooms designed to host restorative justice processes, an alternative way of resolving conflicts that doesn’t involve the police or the court system. In place of punitive action, both sides involved in a conflict talk through their feelings and find a solution that they feel is appropriate. Mody said that in these processes, “all voices are heard and harm is not perpetuated.”

Part of that healing process relies on the space itself, which is why architect Deanna van Buren designed the building with the principles of restorative justice in mind.  The main room, for example, has two entrances to allow the victim and perpetrator to keep some distance from each other, if needed. At one end of the room, there is a door to a small adjacent room, which acts as a “cooling off space,” according to Moreno, who led a tour of the building midway through the evening’s program.

For event attendee Cas Chen, restorative justice, which is practiced at the school where she teaches in the Fruitvale, means repairing relationships. “But in order to have a relationship to repair,” she said, “you have to actually have relationships. Part of restorative justice at our school is building those relationships, so I see that as also part of the work here.”

Many visitors at the housewarming expressed excitement about the community rooms in the basement, which can be rented out for anything from business meetings to healing circles. One tour participant whispered that the basement rooms reminded her of organizing during the civil rights movement, when most organizing had to take place underground. These and the restorative justice rooms are equipped with chalkboards and modular furniture that invite users to get creative. Furniture can be moved around according to how many people are at a meeting, and a large blackboard is open for members to write notes and brainstorm.

The community rooms are already in high demand, Mody said. She’s received lots of requests from small private groups, non-profits and businesses, which she attributes to the lack of space in the Bay Area. Non-profits can’t afford sharply increasing rents, according to Mody.

“The non-profits that serve communityare getting displaced,” agreed Itzel Diaz, development and communications manager at Unity Council, a non-profit that has been in the Fruitvale community for 50 years and is located just around the corner on Fruitvale Avenue. Her group pairs clients with a social worker who connects them to services for housing, jobs and language classes. “We’re excited about having space for non-profits,” Diaz said of their new neighbor during a phone interview before the kickoff.

In a phone interview before the center opened, co-founder Norris described Restore as a “center of gravity,” a space that will help partner organizations collaborate on their shared goals. And specifically, he said, it would be one of the few in Oakland that would help people find steady jobs after incarceration. “I’m hopeful that this can be an example of new opportunities for democracy to take shape,” said Norris.

On Friday, the party came to end a few hours after its opening, with stragglers dancing their way off the dance floor. The appetizers were long gone, and partygoers caught a glimpse of the stack of painted pots before heading out the door.

“I was surprised by the hands open here, you know the willingness to make everything better,” said Fruitvale resident John Hughes, who said he had come to the event with no expectations, but felt inspired by the evening’s talks. “And you can feel everyone is just here to enjoy each other’s time—you would like to see this everywhere you go. And it’s different ethnicities of people in here having a good time, and that’s what you want.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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