This article originally appeared on OaklandLocal.com on January 30, 2014.
Gentrification is the word of the day in Oakland. Everywhere you look people are asking, “Am I a gentrifier? Is it bad? Should I care?” What people don’t seem to realize is it isn’t the mere act of moving into a neighborhood that makes you a gentrifier; it’s what you do once you get there.
If you come into someone’s home, do you immediately start rearranging it and moving furniture in? Do you throw away their family photo albums and tell them they have to go to bed at an earlier time or play their music at a lower volume?
No, of course not. You get to know each other, decide if you get along, and, once your host has decided you can stay, you ask politely if there is space to put your stuff. So why do you think you can move into someone else’s neighborhood and start making it over as your own? Why do you think you can move into someone’s ancestral land and start taking it over, evicting them from their homes and pushing out their businesses?
And yet, recently arrived residents of Oakland are doing just that. We would like them to stop. We would like them to include us in on their meetings. Maybe ask one of us what we think about putting in a bunch of high-end markets and pricey boutiques. While you all are dining out at fancy restaurants, some of us are struggling to find a cheap meal.
So I’ve put together a few how-to’s for avoiding the gentrifier label in Oakland:
1. Smile and say hi to your neighbors every time you see them, even if they seem scary or don’t say hi back. Sometimes it takes time to build a rapport and gain the trust of the community.
2. Recognize all the people outside of your door as your neighbors, even if they look different from you and live under different circumstances. This includes the homeless who sleep on the street, the drug dealers who sell outside the liquor store, and the prostitutes walking your streets. Replace the words homeless, drug dealer, and prostitute with the word neighbor. Treating these folks with respect and dignity from the beginning will give you later leverage to talk to them about changing their behavior and getting out of the life.
3. Change the way you look at said neighbors by changing the language you use to describe them. Think about the motivations for their actions. Instead of “that prostitute was out all night selling her body” think “my neighbor (insert name here) was forced by her pimp to stand out in the cold all night and have sex with multiple men she didn’t know.” See if that doesn’t change your opinion of her.
4. Pay your taxes, parking tickets and fines with the pleasure of knowing you are financially helping a beautiful, but struggling city. Be grateful if you are able pay them without too much difficulty.
5. Really think before you call the police. Ask yourself, is this something that can be fixed by a simple conversation? Did a violent crime just happen? Then, of course you should call the police! But your neighbor playing their music too loud is not a police issue. Remember many communities have experienced, and still experience, real trauma at the hands of the police. While you may think a person has nothing to fear if they didn’t do anything wrong, an African American will always be holding Oscar Grant and Alan Blueford in their mind. A simple interaction with the police can trigger the collective PTSD from which the entire community suffers.
6. Remember low-income communities and communities of color are suffering from hundreds of years of historic trauma and this trauma is very fresh in the minds of most Oaklanders.
7. Recognize most of the perpetrators of crime in Oakland have also been the victims of a system you have benefitted from disproportionately.
8. See all of Oakland’s problems as opportunities for growth, creative problem solving, and entrepreneurship. Refuse to complain about a problem unless you are willing to play an active part in the solution.
9. Donate and/or volunteer at local organizations that build solidarity and add capacity to low-income communities of color. Some of my favorites include MISSSEY, The Ella Baker Center, EBASE, Causa Justa :: Just Cause, Black Girls Code, Phat Beets Produce, and Oakland Rising.
10. Shop local and small. Go to the dive bars, hole in the wall restaurants, and small markets as often as the upscale restaurants, swanky bars, and boutiques.
11. If you are opening up a business, make sure your prices are within reach for the majority of people in the neighborhood you operate.
12. Hire locals, low-income folks, people of color, and people from a variety of backgrounds. Take a chance on someone with low experience, but high potential. Hire someone who has been formerly incarcerated. Train some folks. Forgive them for not understanding the ins-and-outs of the workplace as quickly as you would like. If it doesn’t work out, clearly explain to them why and suggest some job training organizations that could help them develop the skills they need for the next job.
13. Recognize Oakland has a very unique and vibrant history and culture, and you were attracted to this city because of the energy that is already here. You should be here to add to that history and culture, not to erase it. We are not San Francisco. We don’t want to be San Francisco. So please don’t try to remake our city in San Francisco’s image. And remember, you don’t gain culture by eating a burrito. You gain culture by engaging in a real and meaningful manner with the person who makes the burrito.
14. Give to crowd-funded campaigns that support local projects by Oaklanders. Encourage low-income folks to launch their own crowd-funded campaigns to help them go to college, get their car fixed so they can drive to work, buy a suit they can wear to an interview, or get a computer so they can pay attention to all that is going on in the community. Invest in your neighbors’ well being. A neighborhood where everyone’s needs are met is a safe neighborhood.
15. Identify your privileges. We all have them. Having privilege is not necessarily the problem, it’s what you do with it. As an Afro-Latina woman, I am not who you would traditionally consider privileged. However, I do have privilege in this society over people who have darker skin, less education, a less respected job, and less money. When I am in situations when these things act in my favor, I use my privilege to enrich myself and the people around me. I mentor people. I try to find jobs and internships for people of color. I teach people how to navigate city services. I know whatever success I gain, I didn’t gain it on my own. I have a responsibility to the community that has facilitated my success to be a resource and asset to those people still trying to make it.
16. If you create a neighborhood organization, make sure the racial and socioeconomic diversity of the group is reflective of the neighborhood. Actively recruit members who have differing perspectives. Find translators that can help facilitate the recruitment and retention of non-English speakers. If there is another organization working in the neighborhood, ask them what they are doing and how you can help, not the other way around.
17. If you plan any major projects in the neighborhood, make sure you do active outreach, and seek the opinions of all your neighbors. Put in the extra effort to build a consensus.
18. Engage with the government and advocate on behalf of policies that benefit all the residents of Oakland, those born and raised here, transplants, people in your neighborhood, and those living in greater Oakland. Support affordable housing, education funding, re-entry services, job training and placement programs.
19. Learn all that you can about the culture and history of Oakland. Take a free, guided walking tour of some of the neighborhoods. Read some books on Oakland. Check out some museums. Go to a few festivals. Talk to elders and ask them what Oakland was like when they were growing up. That older black guy who hangs out the park is a walking historian and a cultural asset. He should be treated as such.
20. Hella love Oakland. Fall in love with our city for everything it ever was, is, and will be. I did a few years ago and have been ecstatic to live here since.
Dannette Lambert is a community organizer and resident in Oakland, CA.