AfroTech, Where Black Excellence Meets Oakland's Unsheltered

It’s been two weeks since AfroTech has come and gone in Oakland, and I’m still hearing things about it—some good, and some not so good.

In fact, on Thursday, Nov. 21, The Town Experience hosts an open forum from 5:30pm–7:30pm at the Uptown in Oakland for people to share their experiences. Charlese Banks of The Town Experience is the lead organizer of the upcoming forum, which AfroTech management says they'll use to inform next year's conference.

“The demand for something like this was high,” says Banks. “So we’re going to have a constructive feedback session.”

That's good, because for the past few days, the conversation has been living rent-free inside of my head.

The conference, which aims to connect the black community with the tech industry, was a beautiful gathering with thousands of people in attendance. Students from local schools were represented, Congresswoman Barbara Lee was honored for her work and Bernard J. Tyson, the first African American chief executive officer of Kaiser Permanente, spoke just hours before he passed in his sleep.

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On the streets just outside of the conference, brown-skinned women in yellow blazers with long curly locs walked past dark-skinned men in collard shirts with deep waves. I hadn’t seen that many black folks concentrated at one spot in Oakland since BBQ'n While Black. Walking around at night, I saw groups of black folks trickling into a private event at Plank in Jack London Square, packed house-party-style inside of Miss Ollies in Old Oakland and circled-up at the bar inside of 7th West.

At the West Oakland Youth Center, young people making video games with assistance from the Hidden Genius Project and The David Glover Digital Technology Center.
At the West Oakland Youth Center, young people making video games with assistance from the The Hidden Genius Project and The David Glover Digital Technology Center. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

On Thursday, before the official start of the conference, I stopped by the West Oakland Youth Center, where folks from the David Glover Emerging Technology Center and The Hidden Genius Project had teamed up with the Fam1st Family Foundation to hold a coding workshop for a bouncy group of preteen boys and girls, all of them African American.

“We’re here doing this all the time,” said Akeem Brown, Program Director with The Hidden Genius Project. They meet there regularly, every Tuesday and Thursday, AfroTech or not.

It was like a sitcom the way he finished his sentence and not even a minute later, a guy named Tony walked in the youth center—black luggage bag on wheels in tow—fresh off the airplane from Los Angeles. He said he was in town for the conference, and wanted to apply for a job with The Hidden Genius Project.

And so the conference was a job fair, technical workshop and family reunion all in one. As The Hidden Genius Project's Executive Director Brandon Nicholson told me, “It’s just like Howard Homecoming.”

I could see that.

The black working class and middle class, coming together to strive for further upward mobility and simultaneously celebrate black excellence... all while some disenfranchised locals feel overlooked. That’s how it was when I was at Howard University. That’s how some felt about AfroTech.

Despite the free community stage and open workshops, it was the closed sessions, private clubs and $450 conference ticket price that left a number of people feeling like it wasn’t for them.

A few people told me in person, while others left comments on chat boards. And then there was this thread attached to a tweet I posted during the conference.

Right before I left AfroTech in Old Oakland on Friday, I talked to a guy named Ron, an unsheltered guy who lives on the corner of Eighth & Clay Streets with his partner.  I simply asked him if he’d seen any changes in the way he’s been treated this weekend, given there was a conference celebrating black excellence in the extremely lucrative field of technology, right there in his backyard. “Na, they step over me just like everyone else,” Ron told me.

I tweeted the interaction out. It ruffled a few feathers, for better or worse.

A sound response.
A sound response.

It wasn’t a shot at AfroTech, or even a commentary on the attendees. It was just an observation; a note about the conflicting juxtaposition I'd just witnessed.

I mean, on one hand, you’ve got people talking about how AfroTech had downtown Oakland looking like Wakanda.

And on the other hand, here’s Ron, a homeless African American man. In a place where 70% of the unsheltered people are African American. A place that’s currently going through a homeless crisis that the United Nations has called “cruel and inhuman.”

A place where, literally as AfroTech was going on, a group of unsheltered people were evicted from an encampment—many of them African American Oakland natives.

And days later, as I type this, Dominique Walker and Sameerah Karim, two African American mothers associated with the group Moms 4 Housing, have commandeered a vacant house in West Oakland that was foreclosed on and then purchased by  Wedgewood Properties.

It's drastic times in the town right now when it comes to black folks and housing. And I can't stop thinking about it. Reading about it. Researching.

A further illustration of the point about race and class: between 2008-2017, the median annual household income of black residents moving into the Bay Area was approximately 42% higher than that of black residents moving out of the Bay Area, according to Issi Romem, founder and director of MetroSight, a consulting firm which provides research and analysis into city data.

Meanwhile, over that same 10-year period, the Bay Area had more black residents leave (about 149,000) than arrive (about 109,000).

In other words, there's more black folks going than coming. And those who are coming to the Bay Area have deeper pockets.

What can be done?

I in no way think homelessness is a byproduct of AfroTech. Nor is it the immediate responsibility of the attendees. But there's a clear opportunity for something to be done, something that bridges the overwhelming amount of unsheltered black folks on the streets of the Bay Area and African Americans in tech—an industry that's exacerbated the cost of living in the Bay Area, and one of the many driving forces, along with lack of government oversight and greedy developers, pushing gentrification in this region.

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People in the Bay Area are working every day to solve this problem. Hopefully before next year's AfroTech, something significant can be done. Because bruh, I don’t recall seeing any unsheltered folks being stepped over in Wakanda.

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