An Activist's Vision for Developing Lives, as Well as Property, in Oakland

Elaine Brown and Jerry Elster stand at the future site of an urban farm in West Oakland. (Mina Kim/KQED)

Pull up to the corner of Seventh and Campbell streets in West Oakland and you'll find a vacant lot, overgrown with weeds and strewn with trash, broken glass, empty spray-paint cans, a tire. Graffiti covers the fences and walls that border the lot, and every few minutes, a BART train rumbles overhead.

But Elaine Brown sees something else, including an urban farm and a high-rise housing development employing the formerly incarcerated.

Brown, head of the nonprofit organization Oakland & The World Enterprises, and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson have entered into a license agreement with the city of Oakland to develop the lot into an urban farm, owned and operated by by the former inmates. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan helped them acquire the vacant lot. To realize their full vision for its development, they still need millions of dollars.

But first, they're going to clean up the lot and start on the farm, which will be owned and operated by former prisoners and other people who have trouble finding jobs. The group is still raising the funds to build affordable housing on the lot, but Brown is optimistic.

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"We're giving ourselves a year, the building will cost, you know, it will cost a lot of money. But we believe we can find the commitment," Brown said.

Quan says that the group will be eligible to apply for affordable housing funds and possibly cap-and-trade funding.

This isn't the first time that Brown, 71, has led young people and former inmates toward self-sufficiency. She led the Black Panther Party from 1974 to 1977.

She says that many current training and re-entry programs don't work because so few people will hire the formerly incarcerated.

"This is not a panacea, we know that, it isn't even approaching one. But it is creating a model so that people can say: Maybe I should hire these people," she said. "People are going to come out and have nothing to do. Some people are getting ready to go in because they have nothing to do and have no money, and they will try to hit somebody in the head for $20. And if you get $200 coming out of the joint and you hit the street running and you don't have any family, you're going to do desperate things to keep alive. So, it's in the interest of all of us, it makes sense, to create opportunity."

Project board member Jerry Elster, a program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, says he faced housing and employment barriers after serving nearly 26 years for a gang-related murder. He's been waiting for a project like this.

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"The possibility of actually becoming a vested interest in your community, to own property, to be a taxpayer citizen and to have those same doors that was closed to you opened up—people are excited," Elster says.

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