Multiple Communities, One Oakland

Tara at Oakland HeART Beat. Photo: Sahar Shirazi

I left San Diego (La Jolla, in particular) to teach in the Bay Area 3 years ago. For those who have never been to La Jolla, it is a rich community surrounded by beautiful beaches, schools enriched with lavish swimming pools and football fields, and a big population of impoverished Black and Latino youth who spend two hours daily commuting there in pursuit of greater educational opportunities.

My first two weeks in Oakland were filled with hourly phone calls from family and friends wailing “be safe..don’t get shot…only stay in the nice areas.” I was aware of the Oakland stereotypes, and tried my best to ignore them. But the phrase “stay in the nice areas” really stuck with me. Did they mean don’t walk in dark alleys or were they intending to be more racial, as in avoid certain dangerous-looking people?

Really, though, what do they, and anyone else, mean in saying that?

I lived in “Fruitvale” my first year. I put quotations around it because, in my experience, there are two Fruitvales. The actual Fruitvale surrounds Fruitvale Bart and is home to almost 50% of Oakland’s Latino population. The other is actually named the Dimond District and lies on the opposite side of Fruitvale. If you ever drive all the way down Fruitvale until you hit MacArthur, you will see a sign that says “Welcome to Dimond” and this is technically where Fruitvale ends.

In wanting to be an integrated Oakland resident, I would mistakenly call my neighborhood the Fruitvale, probably so I wouldn’t feel the guilt of separating myself from the community. On the other hand, my landlady would label herself a Dimond resident. When I moved into my house, I remember distinctly she gave me directions to the Peet’s warning “when you stop hearing English-speakers, you’ve gone too far.”

That year, Oscar Grant was shot.

In the Dimond, everyone responded to the shooting with statements like “See? I told you, never take Fruitvale BART. There are dangerous people there.” Not much talk about the police's involvement in the case, and even when there was, it was with a level of detachment. In the 'real' Fruitvale, families worried about when that level of injustice would happen next, to their kids or their neighbor’s. These families saw themselves in Oscar's death,  mourning the past loss of a loved one to a similar tragedy.

Striving to integrate myself into Oakland, I moved to what seemed like a more culturally authentic neighborhood. My new place was on International Blvd in the 1-10 blocks. I had access to a grocery store, international markets and diverse environments. It seemed like I was finally living “in Oakland”.

Then I started teaching at Horace Mann Elementary, located on International Blvd and 50th. Driving down those 40 unfamiliar blocks daily made me realize that I was, again, living in a different Oakland from the majority. Even worse, the crime started getting more prevalent in the area by Laney College and Lake Merritt Bart, to the point where my neighbors were getting robbed daily. Though I was enjoying being in a more diverse part of Oakland, I did not want to come home in fear every day. Was this what they meant by “stay in the nice areas”? More cultural diversity meant more violence? I was really hoping not. But, again, I chose to move further down the streets of gentrification.

Lakeshore, Lake Merritt. First impression: beautiful apartment next to the lake, amazing food and seemingly safe and diverse. At first, I sat on my patio every morning without a single worry in the world.  Then I realized that while I was able to move away from the crime-filled International Blvd, the families who had been my neighbors were not so fortunate. I talked to a lot of them before moving, because we had all planned on having a community block party to build solidarity. When they heard I was moving, they understood my reasons but also expressed that going to a “nicer” area was not an option for them.

This is actually where my struggle begins.

I saw a movie called Life and Debt, a documentary about the impacts of globalization on Jamaican agriculture. There was a quote that comes to me whenever I think about how I interact and work with poor communities. The narrator basically said “if you ever get the amazing opportunity to come to Jamaica, make sure you experience everything you can. But, keep in mind that if the poor people on the streets look at you with envy; it’s because you got to leave your reality to come to this paradise, and they can’t leave theirs.”

In an article about Berkeley students leaving their reality to venture to Fruitvale’s taco paradise, one student said "Hipsters and the Mission now go hand in hand, but Fruitvale isn't like that yet. I don't think anyone I know would move here just because they had a fun day."

This leads to my eternal question: how we can live in a city, specifically Oakland, as conscious residents, with the reality that we will always be on the outside? This question used to make me frustrated with my privilege-- I got to say I lived in Oakland, but I didn't really haveg to be aware of the experiences of the majority of its residents. The Oakland I live in consists of Arizmendi pizza, happy hours and farmer’s markets. But at the same time privilege and gentrification tend to go hand in hand.

So, what can we do? Stop consuming and just talk and cry all day about the existing problems around us? That’s no good! Understanding the problem is part of the solution, and the more I learn about it, the more I realize how little I know.

I thought the solution was to move, yet again, to a neighborhood or city free of gentrification. This was my plan until I helped out with an Ella Baker Center, Soul of the City event, Oakland Heart Beat. Being surrounded by United Root’s talented youth, motivated community members and various organizers showed me the power of people in creating thriving cities and making change. After three years of trying different avenues of social change in the Bay Area, including education reform, economic development and a variety of gender equality issues, I finally feel like I’m in my element interning for Ella Baker Center’s Soul of the City campaign.  I am re-gaining the inspiration to pursue social change through community organizing in Oakland. I know that community organizing sounds daunting, but to me, being an organizer can take on many forms.

As an energetic soul, I am most effective at getting people pumped about an issue such that one or two, even hundreds feel inspired to take action. I will be doing this at Team Ella Baker Center’s Runner’s Delight celebration for participants, supporters and viewers of the upcoming Oakland Running Festival. Writing is another form of organizing that is typically underestimated, but surprisingly powerful. This blog post has clarified a lot of my thoughts on how to strengthen Oakland, as well as created new questions for further exploration. While a lot still remains unclear, one thing I do know is that moving from Lakeshore will not remove my privilege nor will it make me a conscious resident. This is what being a conscious resident now means to me: using my privilege for social change through civic engagement and finding new solutions to existing problems.

This has become my Oakland experience. What’s yours? Please comment and share.

Tara Ramanathan is an intern for the Soul of the City campaign. She likes rocking out on guitar and climbing trees.