With AfroTech Coming to Oakland, How to Handle Tourism Responsibly?

Morgan DeBaun, founder of Blavity Inc., which launched and produces AfroTech. (Courtesy Blavity)

Tourism in Oakland isn't new. Hell, even in the 1800s, when colonizers settled in the Bay and built San Francisco into a world-class city, Oakland was the other coast—or "contra costa"—where wealthy folks would buy summer vacation homes to get away from the big city.

Nearly 200 years later, tourism in Oakland is still a thing. According to Visit Oakland's 2018 Annual Report, an estimated 3.8 million people visited Oakland in 2017, bringing $668 million along with them (a 6.5% increase from the previous year). Oakland has been mentioned as a top tourism destination in the New York Times, Essence and, most recently, this Travel Noire piece about spending 48 hours in black-owned Oakland.

This Thursday through Saturday, when Oakland hosts this year's AfroTech conference, thousands of new people will become part of that history of tourism in Oakland.

The conference is one of the biggest tech happenings in the United States. You might’ve heard of it—if for nothing else, its mention by Jay-Z in the song "Legacy":

We gon' start a society within a society
That's major, just like the Negro League
There was a time America wouldn't let us ball
Those times are now back, just now called AfroTech

This event or, um, "society within a society," started in 2014. This year will be the first of two scheduled years for it to take place in Oakland. And in 2019, it's set to be one of the largest conferences to happen in the town.

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“Oakland is a natural choice—in the heart of Silicon Valley, but often overlooked,” says Morgan DeBaun, founder of Blavity Inc., which produces AfroTech.

The aim of the conference is twofold: one, to create opportunities for black folks in the tech industry. Secondly, DeBaun adds, to “create spaces for the tech industry to get access to black talent.”

The conversation about diversity and the tech pipeline isn't new. Just last month Wired noted that while a few big-name tech companies—Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft—have been transparent about their diversity numbers for the past five years, still, virtually nothing has changed.

But folks like DeBaun believe that the narrative about a lack of access is inaccurate. “People aren’t looking in the right places,” she says. “AfroTech is breaking down those barriers.”

Over the three-day span, events will take place all around Oakland’s downtown area, from the Marriott Convention Center to Jack London Square, and what some folks refer to as the Uptown neighborhood; here’s a full list of happenings.

One event this weekend that's not on that list is Oakland Gameday '19, at the Esports Arena on Saturday night. It features a who’s-who of local stars—E-40, Mistah FAB, Ryan Nicole and more—not only speaking on panels, but squaring off against a bunch of young folks in a video game battle royale.

Gameday '19 isn't an official AfroTech event, although it's happening during AfroTech. Instead, it's put on by The Town Experience, a slate of events that include happy hours, speaker panels and more.

Charlese Banks
Charlese Banks (Photo: Jeff "Silence" Arthur) (Jeff "Silence" Arthur )

The Town Experience is founded and run by Charlese Banks, who wants to add some flavor to Oakland’s growing tourism industry.

“The idea was to give the conference-goers and travelers an authentic Oakland experience while they're in town,”  says Banks. (She was mindful to "do this in a way that's not competing with each other," scheduling events on the frontend and backend of AfroTech.)

In theory, Banks' idea is a way of combating the gentrifying force that's inherently intertwined with the tourism industry. People want to visit Oakland? Ok, well, they can spend their dollars in businesses owned and operated by folks actually from the community, and who are invested in the future of the town. Part of that means putting special decals in the windows of businesses like Spice Monkey and Dope Era to give shine to locally owned and operated shops.

"I was inspired by the fact that [AfroTech] announced they were coming to Oakland, and figured that as a community, we should have some say on what that looks like," says Banks. "AfroTech is a predominantly black event, and they're coming to a city that is in line with that."

Banks, a San Jose native who's called Oakland home for over six years, tells me this is a model for things to come. "The idea was inspired by this weekend, but I spoke to the tourism department and realized it's something bigger. Seems like the time is right," Banks says.

The time is right: last year in the United States, African Americans reportedly spent $63 billion on tourism. And in Oakland, where black businesses are going the way of its rapidly depleting black population, it's now or never when it comes to putting the black dollar where it's needed.

“We're an event space and tourism guide for black and brown folks in Oakland," says Banks. "Think: how would people use the Green Book as a tool in Oakland?”

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