New 10-year initiative aims to help Black families thrive in East Oakland

East Oakland community leaders last Thursday announced the launch of Rise East, a $100 million privately funded initiative that seeks to address systemic inequities facing Black residents in the neighborhood over the next 10 years.

Beginning in 2024, the plan will focus on a roughly 40-square-block portion of East Oakland extending from Seminary Avenue to the Oakland-San Leandro border and from MacArthur Boulevard to the Bay. The “40×40” region is home to the city’s largest concentration of Black residents, many of whom are considered low-income.

“This program is something we need,” said Keyanna Trahan, a longtime East Oakland resident and the athletic and holistic resource manager at East Oakland Youth Development Center. “The funds will go a long way toward making our community beautiful.”

Rise East’s decade-long effort lays out a framework for addressing longstanding inequities in education, public safety, housing, economic opportunity, and health and well-being. More than 400 community members in East Oakland contributed their ideas to the plan, according to a press release from Rise East.

Rise East is a partnership between two organizations: Oakland Thrives, a collective of policymakers, community leaders, and representatives from public agencies, including Oakland Unified School District and the city of Oakland; and the 40×40 Council, a nonprofit network comprised of the Black Cultural Zone, Brotherhood of Elders Network, East Oakland Youth Development Center, and Roots Community Health Center.

‘40 acres and a mule’

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, East Oakland was a middle-class community at the heart of the city. But from 1990 to 2020, Oakland lost almost half of its Black population due to economic and social turmoil. Today, roughly half of Black families experiencing poverty citywide live in the 40×40 area, according to the release.

Beyond income inequality, there are more glaring disparities among East Oakland’s Black residents. An investment report from Rise East—which was shared during a virtual presentation to a group of Northern California philanthropists on Aug. 17—stated that third-grade reading levels and eighth-grade math proficiency rates are two to five times lower in 40×40-area schools than in Oakland Unified School District overall. Furthermore, Black residents in East Oakland live about 15 years shorter on average than white residents in the Oakland Hills.

“We use [this data] … to raise awareness about the importance of the work to uplift all communities by starting with the group that has faced the greatest institutional and structural barriers to health, wealth, and upward mobility in East Oakland: Black people,” Rise East leaders said in the investment report.

The use of the number 40 has another meaning: It refers to the phrase “40 acres and a mule,” which Union Army Gen. William T. Sherman promised as reparations to freed slaves after the Civil War. This significance underscores the intent behind Rise East: to act as a form of reparations to East Oakland’s Black community members, who were—or are being—displaced due to economic hardship.

“We may not have gotten our 40 acres and a mule, but now, we’re thinking about bringing all of the possible resources to a neighborhood that has over 30,000 African American residents,” said Gregory Hodge, CEO of the nonprofit Brotherhood of Elders Network and former Oakland school board president, during the Aug. 17 virtual meeting.

In addition to serving as reparations, Rise East is also seen as an investment in a community that has long been underserved and disinvested. District 7 Councilmember Treva Reid, whose district falls within the 40×40 zone, calls the initiative a “down payment.”

“When you love people, you invest in them,” Reid said. “I can’t wait to see that deposit in generational outcomes and the excellence this will bring to our community.”

Bringing Rise East to life

Rise East is rooted in existing efforts to create a Black economic and cultural zone in East Oakland. Similar to Harlem, New York, such a zone could act as a space for Black residents in the 40×40 to preserve and promote their culture and cultivate a sense of belonging and community for generations.

“In a world where Black people are often marginalized, these zones are a place where Black people can express themselves freely and celebrate their heritage,” added Rise East leaders in the investment report.

In the press release from Rise East, Carolyn “CJ” Johnson, CEO of East Oakland-based coalition Black Cultural Zone and member of the 40×40 Council, said she envisions the initiative fostering “a robust and vibrant renaissance” in Black arts, cultural, and commercial areas.

The $100 million effort will be backed by a combination of private funding and public resources, with fundraising to continue as the 10-year plan progresses, according to the investment report. In 2021, Blue Meridian Partners, a national philanthropic group dedicated to investing in communities most impacted by poverty, pledged to contribute $50 million to the work, selecting Oakland as one of five cities nationwide to receive philanthropic capital. Oakland Thrives, a nonprofit group, is working to secure the remaining $50 million from local businesses, foundations, and donors, per the press release.

“This is the opportunity for you to jump out of your seat and into this community of partners that are uplifting children and families,” said Oakland Thrives CEO Melanie Moore, addressing potential funders during the Aug. 17 meeting.

The Rise East 10-Year Plan consists of five investment areas: improving education for children and youth, reducing community violence, increasing affordable housing, boosting the local economy, and expanding health care services.

As a Black girl growing up in deep East Oakland, Selena Wilson, CEO of East Oakland Youth Development Center and a member of the 40×40 Council, said at the Aug. 17 event that she benefited from extended learning programs outside of the classroom and hopes current and future Black children will have the same educational opportunities.

“From the very moment our children join us on this planet, they are learning and absorbing everything around them,” Wilson added. “We want to ensure that elementary and middle school students are not just performing at grade level, but that they’re excelling and prepared to continue to thrive.”

With Black maternal mortality rates reaching disproportionate highs, Dr. Noha Aboelata, founder and CEO of Roots Community Health Center and member of the Oakland Thrives Leadership Council, said efforts to ameliorate birth outcomes for Black families are necessary now more than ever.

“It’s time that we invest in healthy pregnancies and postnatal care to improve life expectancy for moms and babies,” Aboelata said.

Other solutions proposed in the plan include forming community peacekeeping committees to resolve conflicts before police are involved, creating programs to promote homeownership among Black residents, and opening an adolescent health center that provides mental health resources and reproductive health services.

“I applaud the East Oakland community leaders and everyone that has been working tirelessly toward the Rise East initiative and securing this investment in East Oakland,” Mayor Sheng Thao said in a statement. “My Administration is committed to working in partnership with this coalition to ensure the resources needed for the health and vitality of our East Oakland residents are provided to address historic inequities and ensure current residents continue to call this community their home.”

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