The Social Equity Team— the informal name describing the consultancy group hired by the City of Oakland’s Planning Department to add a social equity lens to the Downtown Oakland Specific Plan (DOSP) planning process—recently held two Community Leader Training Workshops on June 12 and 15. The workshops were designed to engage community stakeholders identified by the Team in conversation about equity principles, discuss best practices, and inform them of ways they could further involve their constituents in the DOSP process. Participants included members of community activist groups; social justice, environmental, food policy, and youth-oriented non-profits; cultural arts advocates; affordable housing developers; economic development specialists; housing rights organizers; university students; small business retailers; urban planning think tank members; and even members of city staff.
The workshops were held at the downtown offices of the Institute for Sustainable Economic, Educational and Environmental Design (I-SEEED), Project Managers for the Equity Team, and co-facilitated by I-SEEED’s Antwi Akom, a professor of Africana Studies at SF State, and Greg Hodge of Khepera Consulting, a former OUSD School Board President. Each workshop began with Hodge playing an African drum and singing a traditional folkloric song, which he then invited participants to join in. The resulting call-and- response demonstrated the first equity principle of the afternoon: bringing people together in rhythm and harmony. Identifying commonalities is a key element in equitable processes; to borrow a phrase from the Haas Institute’s John A. Powell, instead of “othering” one another, the idea is to create a collective sense of “belonging.”
Hodge went on to note the importance of foregrounding the stories of those living in Oakland historically, adding that failing to do so could result in a plan for Downtown which does not appreciate the people, culture, and history of people living there.
Each person then turned to a partner and conducted pair-share interviews -- sharing their name, organization, and how race or racism shows up in their life. We then went around the room and introduced our partner by name and shared how race shows up in our life. These discussions about race addressed many ways race plays a role in life: micro-aggressions, everyday violence, workplace negotiations, and broader efforts to undo structural and institutionalized racism in our society.
This, too, was by design. While conversations about race can be awkward and tense, by everyone sharing their personal experiences, people become more comfortable opening up and speaking from an honest place. This, in effect, turns vulnerability into a strength, defusing tension while relating individual experiences to a group perspective. Like the other exercises, this one also seemed simple, but was grounded in a deep-rooted concept: inquiry into other people’s lives takes us out of our own self-involved shells and forces us to relate to others, even people we’ve just met.
Hodge’s presentation addressed the tendency to conflate “equity” with “equality,” which are similar words, but have different meanings. Equality assumes everyone is the same; it ignores context and “situational differences.” Equity, meanwhile, has everything to do with situational fairness. So, for example, in Oakland, place-based histories and accumulated advantages and disadvantages relating to historical outcomes need to be accounted for. Furthermore, equity should reflect optimal results and needs to be grounded in analysis. It requires the re-allocation of resources, which entails political will to ensure that “everyone can see the game.”
Hodge went on to explain that vast inequalities and vast inequities require more from us. What happens often around equity advocacy efforts is that, if you take that resource away, it’s taking something from dominance and requires long-term political will to maintain equitable outcomes.
One of the ways to define equity—which in a social context refers to a sense of fairness which is equally-applied—is by what it’s not. Recognizing inequitable practices is a first, and necessary, step in course-correcting those practices. To that end, Hodge showed a video clip from “Race: the House We Live In,” a PBS documentary on restrictive covenants, also known as redlining, and how government practices associated with the National Housing Act actually institutionalized implicit biases against black would-be homeowners. The clip illustrated how inequity can be personal, structural, and institutional, and participants were asked to discuss examples of these inequities.
Danielle Dehiter-Williams, The Justice Collective
Feedback from participants included a salient comment from Darlene Flynn, Director of the City of Oakland’s Department of Race and Equity: “I’m glad you called out internalized oppression and people of color, such as the idea, ‘You hate me, I hate me too.’ On the flipside of that is ‘internalized white supremacy.’ If that is the world you are socialized and indoctrinated into, you’re often not consciously aware of it.”
Shaniece Alexander, of the Oakland Food Policy Council, noted that she grew up in Detroit “and can still see the impact of redlining” there. She recalled being seven and living in a neighborhood where her family were the only black family in a white suburb, and later living in a predominantly-black neighborhood as patterns of residential segregation shifted.
Danielle Dehiter-Williams, of The Justice Collective, equated restrictive covenants and inequitable financial practices to forced servitude: “If you look at a redlining map of Oakland and overlay foreclosure concentrations, this is an extension of slavery. Predatory lending builds upon legacies of slavery and have blocked the ability for people of color to accumulate wealth. What is the remedy for that?”
No one had a direct answer to that question, but Sabrina Mutukisna, of The Town Kitchen, followed up by saying, “Now what we’re seeing is the reverse of white flight. As we are talking about the Downtown Specific Plan, we need to look at the impacts of gentrification and homelessness -- looking at policies that are creating modern day redlining.”
After a break, Hodge handed over the facilitation chair to the I-SEEED team. Project Manager Aekta Shah gave a “big picture” overview of the DOSP process to date and fielded questions from attendees around the timeline for implementation and expectations of accountability from the city to the community.
Akom chimed in that, “A huge part of our process is transparency; first laying it out big-picture and inviting people to weigh in as it’s being built. We think the process piece is a really critical piece.”
Asked what was meant by the word “community,” Shah responded by explaining the Social Equity Team’s goal is “engaging under-represented community members in the next round [of DOSP-related activities and events] moving forward. We’ve reached out to you because you are connected to and work with those communities.”
Nehanda Imara, of East Oakland Building Heallthy Communities, asked how the DOSP process is different this time. Flynn said she heard there were “significant concerns” expressed by the community over inclusion and addressing their needs. She expressed cautious optimism that “This is a harbinger of equity, to bringing something new. A part of conducting a racial impact analysis that is also new for Oakland and fairly new across the country,” which “addresses how ideas and policies impact marginalized groups. There will be elements that have not been present before. “
Flynn added that, “While we cannot guarantee an [equitable] outcome, our hope is that we are experiencing a moment in time—a movement time—and that this is a window of opportunity for different approaches to engagement and analysis that advance racial equity.”
Vanessa Whang, of the City of Oakland’s Cultural Arts Department, then noted there is more infrastructure in downtown, relative to the rest of the city, and that the creative community, particularly the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition, has been very vocal about creative engagement and equity in downtown.
Social Equity Team member Tracey Ross, of PolicyLink, then provided a review of the key strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats evident in the DOSP’s Plan Alternatives Report, and an overview of the four “equity pillars” which emerged from a technical and community outreach and engagement analysis. The pillars include building from a stronger sense of what Oakland community means and reinforcing the structural integrity of downtown as the heart of Oakland.
City of Oakland
This led to a discussion of the racial equity tool being used to analyze the DOSP. Flynn noted that the tool “puts racial equity impacts onto the table. It asks, in the best of all worlds, what would racial equity mean? Naming it, rather than just saying, ‘We’re hoping for the best.’ We stopped just hoping for the best and we say explicitly, ‘We hope these are the impacts for Indigenous people, black and Latinx communities, youth who are disconnected.’ Racial equity tools center race and those most impacted.” However, she added, “We are in a learning mode and still getting better at it.”
This led to a broader discussion among the participants, which addressed such topics as the role of the Oakland Police Department in equity impacts, the possibility of enacting new legislation around affordable housing policies, who is included and excluded in using public space, who city marketing efforts are directed at, equity in transit-oriented development, the importance of examining health through an equity lens, and the relevance of other equity analyses, such as the model being used by East Oakland Building Healthy Communities (EOBHC).
The next segment of the workshop focused on I-SEEED’s proprietary application for community mapping and data collection, Streetwyze, which the City is using to engage the public in providing feedback about how they use downtown. Akom began by briefly summarizing current practices of obtaining demographic and location-based data, then explained these practices, when not informed by local knowledge, can result in false narratives, before. Akom introduced Streetwyze, which course-corrects those errors, calling the app “people-powered placemaking” – a process and platform for participation in planning decisions that result in sustainable communities through improved engagement and asset-mapping. This “Community Engagement 2.0” model, he said, moves beyond a deficit-based approach, and can also incorporate what’s working, i.e., existing equity models.
Shah led a demo of the Streetwyze app, illustrating how more meaningful results can be obtained, which lead to altogether different conclusions than what is suggested by misleading or incomplete data. Such a tool, she said, can help close the gap between available data and uncollected yet essential data within an equity framework. The room was polled, and many participants indicated they saw a possible use for incorporating Streetwyze into their own community networks.
The June 15 workshop followed the same basic format, but had a slightly different tenor and tone, owing to the fact there were different participants: the City was represented by Strategic Planning Manager Ed Manasse and Project Manager Joannna Winter, and there were fewer critical questions asked by the student observers than the in-the- trenches organizers and advocates.
That being said, community advocates Regina Evans, Ayodele Nzinga, and Lailan Huen added greatly to the discussion. In analyzing the original community engagement process, Evans noted it was “confusing” and difficult for non-technical laypeople to understand. Huen said the feedback requested of the community was primarily about architecture and downplayed the human component of downtown. “Belittling communities,” she said, “is not what we think of when we talk about rebuilding our downtown.” Nzinga noted that urban renewal projects like I-980 and the Cypress freeway separated predominantly-African American population of West Oakland from the rest of downtown.
In regards to the DOSP timeline (scheduled to be completed in 2019), the long planning process is “problematic” for Evans, who said small businesses like hers are already facing displacement pressure, which could accelerate before the plan is completed. And Huen mentioned the failure of previous plans, specifically the Lake Merritt Area Station Area Plan, to address community concerns in a meaningful way. “Most of that plan does not have a lot of teeth in it, and there are no mechanisms to enforce it,” she said, specifically referencing recommendations for affordable housing guidelines. “For Chinatown, we put in six years into the plan and they don’t follow up on the plans that they actually set out to do. This makes our community wary of processes like this.”
Winter took the opportunity to address each of these concerns, offering a window into where the City is going in its thinking. “Downtown is home to many services and programs, and we need to ensure communities outside of downtown are still connected,” she said in response to Nzinga.
City of Oakland
“Planners are generalists, we connect with other departments. We will work with the Economic Development department, they’re also interested in making sure their department incorporates social and racial equity,” she replied to Evans.
To Huen, she said, “We are trying to build more time for implementation planning into this process. We could use community’s help in crafting concrete steps that the City will take to move forward with implementation. It’s also a resource issue—[we’re] hoping to build community support for policies that come out of the community and sometimes it takes communities pushing their elected officials.”
Some of the other concerns which were raised included the growing displacement of non-profit direct service providers; the need to engage youth, homeless, low-income and differently-abled populations; and the need to identify economic and cultural assets as part of an intentional anti-displacement strategy.
The exchanges between Winter and community members illustrated the value-add (as Akom might say) of the Social Equity Team. Typically, high-ranking members of the Planning staff don’t get many opportunities to receive direct feedback and engage in dialogue with community members. And community members are often both mystified and excluded by the planning process. The sharing of information from both sides brought each a little closer together, as did the fact that Winter fully participated in the workshop, just as the community members did – in effect, leveling the playing field from a lived experience perspective.
The trainings were a great start for the Equity Team, allowing for meaningful interaction and real-time feedback from its intended audience. In the months to come, the workshops will be followed by deeper engagement of community leaders and key downtown stakeholders, including those previously excluded or less-than- fully-engages in previous DOSP-related activities. To stay in the loop, visit the EQTDTO website and for more information about the process to date, visit the DOSP website.
June 12 attendees:
- Shaniece Alexander (Oakland Food Policy Council)
- Charmin Baaqee (Art Is Luv)
- Larisa Casillas (Urban Habitat)
- Hodari Davis (Young, Gifted and Black/Edutainment For Equity)
- Darlene Flynn (Director of the City of Oakland’s Department of Race and Equity)
- Sabrina Mutukisna (The Town Kitchen)
- Karolyn Wong (Chinatown Coalition)
- Josh Simon (East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation)
- Nehanda Imara (East Oakland Building Healthy Communities),
- Jessamyn Sabbag (Oakland Rising)
- Julie Sinai (Roberts Enterprise Development Fund)
- Kim Bardakian (Kapor Center)
- Vanessa Whang (City of Oakland, Cultural Arts Department)
- Marko Pecak (City Of Berkeley)
- Sahelit Bahiru (City Of Berkeley)
- Danielle Dehiter-Williams (The Justice Collective)
- Jeanne Robinson (East Bay Housing Organization)
June 15 attendees:
- Emily Park (Asian Health Services)
- Tina Diep (Asian Health Services)
- Joanna Winter (City of Oakland Planning Bureau)
- Stevi Dawson (East Bay Housing Organization)
- Marlon Ingram (Studio MSI)
- Ayodele Nzinga (Lower Bottom Playaz/Black Arts Movement Business District)
- Ed Manasse (City of Oakland Planning Bureau)
- Robert Ogilvie (San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association)
- Lailan Huen (Block By Block Organizing Network)
- Regina Evans (Regina’s Door)
- Imani Robinson, Marsha Calvert, Martha Arriaga, Jacob Gomez, Louis Contreras, Brianna Huerta, Kayla Lam-Little, Jennifer Sanchez, Nikee Salamanca, Andrea Morales, Luis Chumpitaz Diaz, Alma Barrios, Elizabeth Urrutia, Imani Davis (San Francisco State University)