Ella Baker Center Director: “I feel blessed to be alive right now”

“We need a vision for Oakland that’s about lifting up the people who are here now.” - Ella Baker Center Executive Director Jakada Imani

Oakland native tells Laney students, “Your lives are powerful”

By Ryan Ariel Simon

Raised in East Oakland, Jakada Imani has made a career of affecting positive change in his community. As executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights since 2007, Imani said he works with his colleagues to “find and promote solutions to lift up low—income communities, communities of color, and urban communities all over the country.

Imani recognized early the dichotomy between Oakland’s proud history and the dysfunctional characteristics that had come to plague it. “There was this contradiction,” Imani said of his experience “My family was on drugs, drugs ravaged my community, but don’t forget. Oakland was the home of the Black Panther movement and a center, an example of the potential power of black communities.

“East Oakland historically was a working class community,” he told a packed African-American Studies Laney College classroom at of over 70 people early Tuesday morning February 9th.  “People could walk to work in factories in good jobs, people could own homes…but something had changed.”

As a child Imani experienced firsthand how out of touch local government could be, treating its constituents like enemy combatants rather than citizens to be represented.

“What was really striking,” he said, “was how many resources the government was expending adding damage to damage.” He mentioned a college friend of his whose study found the War on Drugs made the trade more violent and profitable, and therefore more attractive.

Since joining the Center, Imani has been involved in all of their initiatives. In North Oakland, on a mural-sided building, Center employees work supporting youth in the prison system, advocate educational investment over incarceration, attempt to reduce violence in the Oakland streets, do police oversight, build support for Green Collar Jobs, and advocate for community businesses.

He acknowledged that the scope of the Ella Baker Center is broad in some areas, but that “we need a vision for Oakland that’s about lifting up the people who are here now.”

Imani criticized Oakland’s economic strategy that he says focuses on building “market rate housing.” According to a government definition, this means a residential project where at least 80 percent of new housing is for sale or rent, and considered affordable to moderate to higher income households without requiring housing subsidy.

Despite adding construction jobs to the city, few of the jobs created by these strategies provided living wages; few Oakland workers could afford to live in, let alone shop in, the retail outlets being brought into the community.

This strategy, Imani said, “displaces you. It says there’s not a place for you here in the future.

“The Ella Baker Center watched through the 1990s as 20-year-olds drove Jaguars across the Bay Bridge because they got themselves a Silicon Valley job, while the unemployment rate in Oakland was in double digits.”

Imani remains upbeat about the future, however, seeking to educate Laney students about what “used to be a white thing”—“green collar jobs” according to Oakland, based Green For All that preserve or enhance environmental quality, require little education and can lead to family-supporting careers.

When Imani reports a 15-year difference in life expectancy between Montclair and East Oakland residents, and 1 in 3 kids in the city suffering from asthma—the primary reason for school absence—for him, the “green thing” is a matter of life and death.

Because of climate change, “we are going to have to figure out a new way to produce energy, and save and reduce energy.”

He made the connection to jobs and job growth, too, noting small investments in a green future can, “…put underrepresented folks in the front of the line because they were at the back of the line for the dot com boom.” The Center’s Oakland Climate Action Coalition supports involvement in Oakland’s energy and climate change plans to insure these folks don’t wind up “at the back of the line” again.

He summed up the fight for a seat at the table with a provocative metaphor. “Had I known the United States government was going to leave people to drown in New Orleans, I would have drove down there in my minivan and picked people up, and if I had known the government was going to dump billions of dollars into rebuilding New Orleans I would have drove back down there and said you from New Orleans? We’re taking you home so you can get these damn jobs.”

The Ella Baker Center’s “Soul of the City” envisions cities as “socially just, spiritually connected, and with a sustainable ecology,” supporting projects that increase “shared prosperity.”

This campaign encourages using tax dollars to support community-owned businesses that “would be kept in the family, and passed down through the generations.” Imani says when he presented his ideas for the Oakland City Council, they told him they preferred to work with businesses that “knew what they were doing.”

This sort of rejection doesn’t faze Jakada Imani.

Asked how recent attacks on Ella Baker Center founder and White House Green Jobs advisor Van Jones affected his work—Jones resigned after months of attacks from Fox News commentator Glenn Beck—Imani responded that Jones said very simply “It’s an attack on our movement, [but] this is about getting people jobs, keep pushing.”

Imani will keep pushing and thinks history is on his side when he says that, “God must really trust in us to figure all these problems out.”

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