Jakada Imani on the Ella Baker Center, his port commission bid, and fighting for Oakland
When Jakada Imani stepped up to the speakers’ podium in the Oakland City Council chambers on October 4, he didn’t look a bit perturbed. Dressed immaculately in a dark suit, he bore an expression that did not betray emotion.
That night, 18 speakers preceded him at the podium. Two expressed support for him as a new commissioner for the Port of Oakland. The other 16 were indignant that Margaret Gordon was not being reappointed to the same position by Oakland Mayor Jean Quan to serve a second four-year term. Imani had been nominated by Quan, but the council still needed to confirm the appointment with a vote before he could be sworn in, turning the meeting into a debate over which candidate was right for the job.
“Tonight I want to share with you, even in this most awkward moment for me, uh…” Imani said into the microphone, stretching his arms and pausing.
Imani is the executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland and a longtime community activist. He knew his appointment to the seven-member board that manages the port was a delicate affair. Gordon is a longtime health and environmental activist, and during her only term on the job, she spearheaded projects aimed at reducing diesel pollution and improving air quality, among others. That work had strengthened her position in many minds, including some present at the meeting, as “the true voice of West Oakland.”
“You know, Margaret Gordon’s a giant and there’s no denying it. You see it when you meet her,” Imani continued. “What makes me still willing to do this and be in this uncomfortable moment is because I came from fighting. I came through fighting.”
Imani has had to battle his entire life. As a child, he said, he was diagnosed with dyslexia, lived in a home with parents addicted to drugs, and was homeless for a brief period of time. He fought the odds to become a well-respected community leader, and strived to find ways to protect the rights of the disenfranchised. He said that was why he wanted to be a port commissioner – to fight for the people of West Oakland.
The chamber was teeming with people for the meeting on that early October evening — the council was also discussing the implementation of two controversial new gang injunctions, and a large crowd had shown up to voice their opinions. The rows of red velvet chairs were all occupied, and people lined up against the walls, with a few police officers positioned against the back wall in an effort to keep it clear.
As he finished his speech, he urged everyone to come together on principles that would allow everyone to win. “We need to come together,” he said. “And that’s what I want to stand with this people, this city, and this state for.”
But despite the fire and zeal with which Imani has fought for causes he believes in, he knew when it was time to stop and unite.
“Everybody in Oakland’s been fighting,” Imani said. “We’re fighting tonight and we’re going to be fighting later on tonight, and we’ve got nowhere by fighting. Nowhere!”
A little more than a month later, he took his name out of the running for the port commissioner position.
Imani grew up in what he calls a “nice little neighborhood” in East Oakland called Maxwell Park. “It was super, for a small kid,” he said.
In the fourth grade, doctors discovered he had dyslexia, a condition that he describes as “seeing some letters backwards.” Because he was tracked into special education classes, his mother was able to advocate for him to go to schools that lay outside his school district — Thornhill Elementary in Montclair, Maxwell Park. Montera Middle School. He went to Skyline High for a while, and graduated from Oakland High.
School was always a struggle for Imani. “Education wasn’t my thing,” he said, as he sat in a conference room at the Ella Baker Center, which is located on the eighth floor of an office building on Broadway.
“I graduated high school because my counselor took me around to all of my teachers who were failing me and explained to them that if they didn’t give me a passing grade, I would be back and she would put me in their class,” he said with a smile.
He stumbled into community work at the age of 17. While he barely scraped by in school, it was his “probing sensibility” and “racial consciousness” he said that changed his life. Some of that was from his mother, who had gone to school with Bobby Hutton, a member of the Black Panthers party who was later killed, and who had also grown up knowing Huey P. Newton. She instilled an awareness of racial issues in her boys, a trait that one of Imani’s teachers saw when she passed him a flyer for a youth leadership discussion for kids of various ages to come together to discuss issues they were dealing with.
“I saw young people really talking about race and class and liberation and oppression and sexual orientation for the first time, and I was completely blown away,” Imani said of the first leadership discussion he attended.
His life at home was difficult. His parents had started using drugs, he said, and their addiction was spiraling out of control. “Crack in particular,” Imani said. “That changed a lot of things for us. We lost our house for a while. For a while, we were homeless.”
He moved out of the house at the age of 18 when he found a job as a workshop leader focused on peer-to-peer education, teaching others about ways in which they could get involved in helping their communities, at a variety of venues in the Bay Area.“Basically hustling here and there, getting little one-off contracts and consulting gigs,” he said. He worked part-time until he found a more permanent job in San Francisco, doing youth leadership and development for The Kellog Koshland Youth leadership Program at Community Educational Services.
While working in San Francisco, Imani heard Oakland City Councilmember Nancy Nadel’s office was seeking someone with a background in organizing, and he applied for the job of constituent liaison in 1998.
Imani said he learned a lot about District 3 and how local government works during his time with Nadel’s office. He also learned about the health issues that people of West Oakland were dealing with on a regular basis because they live adjacent to a large and busy port complex. “I learned about pollution and brown fields and all the stuff that people in West Oakland were dealing with in terms of health issues,” he said.
Imani was living at the time near the post office in West Oakland, in a house that was just off the Highway 880 corridor, near the port. He remembers being confused by the excessive amounts of dust that would find its way in through the cracks in the doors and windows.
“Then I came to know that it was particulate matter,” he said, a mixture of acids, organic chemicals, metals and dust particles that polluted the area. “At the time, I was allowing one kid to breathe that in everyday.” Today, two of his four daughters have asthma, which he said he thinks may have been a result of exposure to toxins in West Oakland’s air.
As Nadel’s constituent liaison, he also had to respond to residents’ complaints about potholes and stop signs — a job which he said he respects but was never meant to do. Plus, he said, when he took the job, he really wanted to focus on work in West Oakland, and assumed Nadel would want him to do the same. “But that’s not the entire district, right?” said Imani with a chuckle. “It’s Jack London Square, and the lake and the downtown area.”
Much of his work became “liaison work,” he said; he coordinated between different departments and answered community requests instead of doing the kind of grass roots organizing he preferred. “That’s not what I was in it for at all,” Imani said. “So that led to me saying I’m going come to the Ella Baker Center.
“And that was 11 years ago,” he continued. “I became a youth organizer, worked my way up to being director of programs, later ran a campaign, because I wanted to be in the trenches, and four years ago became the executive director.”
In his early years at the Ella Baker Center, Imani campaigned against Proposition 21, legislation that allowed teenagers as young as 14 years old to be tried and charged as adults. While the proposition passed in 2000, Imani said he learned a lot from the experience and it affected his work at the Ella Baker Center. He then began to focus his work on reducing the number of juvenile prisons, and the number of inmates in California through a campaign he spearheaded called “Books not Bars.”
Books not Bars aims to transform the criminal justice system, by organizing families of incarcerated youth throughout the state to get involved in the rehabilitation of their children, and by advocating for the education of these children.
In 2006, Imani arranged for the group to take a guided tour and hold a press conference at a large juvenile correctional facility in Chino called H.G. Stark. Imani was part of the advance team sent to scout the area and meet with prison staff.
By the time he had flown to Los Angeles, and then driven to Paso Robles, the team had acquired the approval of numerous levels of prison bureaucracy. It had taken months of tedious requests and follow-ups to get various officials to sign off on the visit, and Imani’s team had to plow through bundles of red tape before they got everyone on board.
So when Imani drove into the sprawling facility, he did not foresee any more problems. He was wrong. “I got there and the shift sergeant is like, ‘No! You can’t go on tour. No, you can’t see this. No, you can’t do that. No, no, no, no.’”
Furious at being turned away, Imani strode back to his car, got inside, and began calling everyone he knew who could possibly help. “It made my blood boil,” he said. “I’m just fuming. I’m going, ‘They don’t understand that these are somebody’s kids, somebody’s son, brother, niece, nephew.’”
It was a Saturday morning, and Imani was trying to reach people who were not in their offices, but he still continued to dial every number he could come up with. Finally, he was able to reach various jail officials on the phone, and the jail’s superintendent showed up soon after and gave the group the OK to proceed as planned.
While he was waiting outside the prison, one of the guards, an older Latino man with a weathered face, drove out of the compound and sat next to Imani. Imani reckoned the man was in his late 50s or early 60s. Imani listened with increasing curiosity as the guard began to talk about the 30 years he had spent in the prison. Here was a man who had a son and daughter in college, who was getting close to retirement himself, Imani thought.
“He was talking about how when he first got here, they would take the kids on field trips, and now he’s standing there in a full military jumpsuit, with a giant bottle of mace on his hip, a panic button, a tazer, handcuffs, and a baton, right?” Imani said. “And you could just hear it in his voice that that’s not why he came here.”
For Imani, that was when a pivotal shift occurred. “That was the moment when I realized, that these guards too are somebody’s fathers, they’re somebody’s sons, they’re somebody’s children,” he said. “And as much as I want to fight for our children to get a fair shake, that I had not been present to fight for them to get a fair shake. While some of them have committed horrible atrocities, the same goes for some of our children in these facilities too.”
One of the ways that changed him, and the Ella Baker Center, was that they began to fight for the “jailed and the jailer.” He was able to connect with people on both sides of the fence.
“He is an incredible bridge-builder,” Esperanza Tervalon-Daumont, the Executive Director of Oakland Rising, an organization that works on social justice issues, with which Imani was also involved.
Daumont, who was recommended for the job at Oakland Rising by Imani more than three years ago, said this trait was what made Imani a strong leader. “He has a really bold vision,” she said.
Imani said that interaction with the jail guard made him remember a saying from Gandhi — that justice was wide and deep. “And I think that changed me as an activist, it made me a lot less angry, and I think it made me a lot more wise,” he said.”
On November 15, the final day of the mail ballot-only special election, the council was to have another meeting and vote on Imani’s appointment again.
In the preceding month, Imani’s appointment had become increasingly complicated. On Oct 18, the council approved him as the next port commissioner, only to have that decision overturned soon after by the city attorney. The reason: the president of the council, Larry Reid (District 7) had encouraged audience members to give up their chance to speak on the issue and allow the council to vote, which the city attorney then said made the vote invalid. And then the recasting of the vote was delayed more than once for different reasons.
But before the council could vote again – hours before the Nov. 15 meeting took place — Imani sent out a press release stating that he had withdrawn his nomination.
For many people who do not know Imani personally, the withdrawal came as a shock, and seemed to be related to other defections from Quan’s administration – City Attorney John Russo, Police Chief Anthony Batts, Deputy Mayor Sharon Cornu, and unofficial legal advisor Dan Siegel all who quit between June and November of this year.
But Imani made it clear that his decision had nothing to do with any falling out with Quan, who at the time was facing a lot of criticism for the city’s handling of the Occupy Oakland encampment that had been set up in front of city hall.
For Imani, this was not a fight worth fighting anymore.
“I’ve been engaged in the nomination process since September, and it became clear to me over time, that the opportunity had little to do with me and Margaret,” he said. “It had to do with the mayor and her opposition,” he continued, hinting that some councilmembers had opposed his nomination.
With the port commissioner nomination debacle behind him, Imani said he will now focus his energies on the Ella Baker Center and Oakland Rising and continue to do the work he has enjoyed doing for so long. “I know this is a critical juncture in our state and our country, so I’m going to focus most of my energies at the Ella Baker Center,” he said.
Imani did not apply for the job so he could put another title under his belt, according to his friends, and he thought the debate over the next port commissioner was detracting from the real issues in West Oakland that needed solving. “He’s not in the work that he’s in for public recognition,” said Eric Gurna, the godfather to Imani’s eldest daughter, and one of his closest friends. Gurna met Imani almost 27 years ago in a seventh grade classroom at Montera Middle School, when their teacher seated the class in alphabetical order.
Gurna remembers Imani as someone who was always willing to engage in a political discussion, and the two friends often would stay up nights talking about politics. But he knew that this was not a debate Imani wanted to be a part of – he preferred doing what he did best, fighting for the disenfranchised at his current job.
“He is not interested in the conversation being on him,” Gurna said. “He’s more focused on standing with the people of Oakland.”