October Spotlight: EastSide Arts Alliance & Public Counsel

EastSide Arts Alliance’s 2017 Malcolm X Jazz Festival Photo Credit: Tasin Sabir


The 16 racial justice organizations that are currently part of Akonadi Foundation’s Arc Toward Justice Fund (ATJ) are building collective power to shape the policies and systems that affect communities of color in Oakland. We at Akonadi lift up the work of our ATJ grantees through our monthly spotlight series; for our October installment, we feature EastSide Arts Alliance and Public Counsel. We heard from EastSide Arts Alliance’s Elena Serrano and Public Counsel’s Oscar Lopez about their organizations’ work in Oakland.

What is the vision that guides your work? What will the world – and specifically Oakland – look like if you are successful?

EastSide Arts Alliance: In EastSide’s vision the cultural contributions of Oakland’s communities of color are lifted up, celebrated, and recognized as critical components to building a racial justice movement. As Malcolm X said, “Culture is an indispensable weapon in the freedom struggle.”Currently, the two themes that drive our work are Los Desaparecidos, those who have “been disappeared” through deportation, detention, and displacement of immigrant communities; and a new Black Reconstruction, the necessary rebuilding, and self-determination of Oakland’s Black communities. The idea of a new Black Reconstruction is manifest in our work to develop an East Oakland Black Cultural Zone (BCZ). We have brought together residents, artists, church groups, organizers, health and housing groups, funders, and city officials to help realize a thriving Black community in East Oakland. Through culture and the establishment of a cultural hub, we are providing opportunities to build power and effect lasting change. Through our Live Arts in Resistance (LAIR) program, we connect artists who want to use their talents to address these issues with organizing groups that recognize the power of the arts to build and inspire their base. LAIR  is in its third year, and we have worked with over 25 artists and organizing groups.

Public Counsel: The Statewide Education Rights Project at Public Counsel uses a movement lawyering model to support grassroots organizing aimed at creating supportive schools for students of color. We believe that communities of color have a sophisticated understanding of how policies affect Black and Brown communities and already possess the answers to oppression. We use our time and skillset to lift up the voices and power of organized communities of color, specifically in the context of creating schools that will allow students to thrive. Through this collaborative model, we hope to shift the power dynamics so that Black and Brown communities will exercise self-determination. We envision that Oakland schools will transform so that they promote students’ growth and well-being, rather than criminalizing and dehumanizing students. We envision that Oakland schools will be spaces for exploration and learning, not prison-like environments that demand conformity. Ultimately, we envision that OUSD will transform and become a model for the education of Black and Brown students.

What current campaigns are you working on?

EastSide Arts Alliance: We have been able to include cultural workers in the writing of a new narrative around what defines a safe community.  We’ve brought poets, dancers, theater artists, and musicians to be a part of a Prop 47 Justice Reinvestment Campaign in four counties, in an effort to pressure counties to adhere to policies that spend less on mass incarceration and reinvest the savings into the community. We’ve also adopted cultural preservation as an anti-displacement strategy, partnering with tenants’ rights groups and affordable housing developers to help ensure that Oakland’s communities of color still have a place here. By demanding space for cultural gathering and the creation of cultural work, we are making sure that our past, present, and future will all be a part of the story of Oakland. Through partnerships with other organizing groups, we are also using cultural strategies in campaigns addressing immigration, police, and prison issues.

Public Counsel: As a movement lawyering project, we support the campaigns of racial justice organizations like the Black Organizing Project (BOP). Currently, we provide support to the BOP’s “Bettering Our School System” (BOSS) campaign, which aims to remove police from schools and eliminate punitive and ineffective disciplinary practices that disproportionately harm students of color. This work requires a narrative shift on the meaning of “safety,” as well as ongoing monitoring of policy implementation, including ending suspensions based on “willful defiance” and tracking law enforcement contact with students. We intend to continue following BOP’s leadership and dedicate our time and resources to support the BOSS campaign.

What will you be focused on for the rest of the year?

EastSide Arts Alliance: Our Live Arts in Resistance program has showcase events scheduled throughout 2018. Some artists include Amara Tabor-Smith and her work on homelessness; Marshall Trammell and songs of resistance; and NAKA and their continued work on state repression and the 43 disappeared students in Mexico. We have partnered with the Dellums Institute for Social Justice to create a community-based investment strategy via the Beloved Oakland event to be held on Feb. 18, 2018. The goal is to raise funds to support community initiatives such as the building of a Black Cultural Zone and nurturing the next generation of social justice advocates. During 2018, we will present a series of jazz events throughout East Oakland as a component of building a Black Cultural Zone.

Public Counsel: Over the next year, we will evaluate the implementation of discipline and law enforcement-related policies and practices in the Oakland Unified School District, which will culminate in an analysis of the strengths and challenges of implementation. We will partner with BOP to gather information about the everyday experiences of students and parents to add life to the quantitative data we collect. Then, we will support the new recommendations developed by BOP’s members and will partner with BOP in advocating with the school board to adopt those recommendations. In addition, we know that students are criminalized not just by school staff and school police but by all the other law enforcement agencies that have a presence in the life of Oakland students. With that understanding, we intend to investigate and address the umbrella of criminalization that hovers over our students in Oakland, including the collaboration between schools and probation. We also know that Black students are disproportionately pushed out of Oakland, and we intend to partner withBOP to investigate the disciplinary practices in the school districts to which Black students transfer after being displaced from OUSD.

Are you working in partnership with other Akonadi grant partners in the Arc Toward Justice Fund?

EastSide Arts Alliance: Yes, we work in partnership with several other Akonadi grant partners. For example, or example, Both CURYJ and AYPAL are our long-time partners on many issues and campaigns – we look forward to continuing to work collaboratively on cultural events and projects. The Bay Area Black Workers Center is part of our Justice Reinvestment work in four counties and part of the planning for the Black Cultural Zone in East Oakland. We work with Black Organizing Project as part of East Oakland Building Healthy Communities (EOBHC) and on plans for a Black Cultural Zone in East Oakland. With Mujeres Unidas y Activas, we support women immigrant rights and domestic workers campaigns through cultural workshops and projects and through theater and visual arts programs.

Public Counsel: Our main partnership is with the Black Organizing Project, but we are in relationship with several other Akonadi partners, such as the Genders and Sexualities Network, Californians for Justice, CURYJ and Public Advocates. These partnerships are crucial to eradicatethe school-to-prison pipeline, because each partner has great expertise in intervening in different stages of the pipeline. While we fight for policy changes and a narrative shift on “safety,” we also fight alongside CFJ and Public Advocates to ensure that OUSD schools invest in strategies that support students. At the same time, we continue to use an “all of us or none” approach to advocate for the rights of trans and queer students and students with disabilities, particularly where those identities intersect with race. Through these partnerships, we know that we will be able to transform Oakland schools to be the schools our students deserve.

Akonadi Foundation strives to eliminate structural racism that lies at the heart of inequity in the United States. We work towards a racially just society by funding organizations and leaders fighting on the ground through grassroots organizing, culture shift, and policy change. Find out more about Akonadi Foundation’s Arc Toward Justice Grant Partners here.

BOP in partnership with Public Counsel Photo Credit: Black Organizing Project