Mapping Oakland’s Magic

A Benchmark Report on Grassroots Arts Organizations of Color

Today, Regina’s Door in Oakland serves as a healing artistic space for survivors of sex trafficking, as well as a launching pad for theatrical productions featuring the stories and performances of survivors. Its start came in 2014, when Regina Evans decided she needed to do something to help her community. “We have young girls being brutalized every day. In Oakland trafficking is very hidden, but if you go down International Boulevard, you also see very young girls — twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old, and you know they’re being raped,” she said. “I am not sure how we as a community can abdicate our responsibility to them.”

Evans quit her job and began exploring small-business incubators, doing pop-ups, and eventually found a storefront on Seventeenth Street in the Uptown Downtown neighborhood, where Regina’s Door is still located. The boutique is a social enterprise, specializing in vintage dresses and pieces from the Victorian era to the 1980s, with clothing hung on the walls like artwork. In addition, Regina’s Door is a costuming small business run by its multitalented founder, when she isn’t writing or performing plays. Evans recently organized a troupe of black and brown artists in CEREMONY, The Fashion Ritual, a theatrical fashion healing ritual utilizing poetry, music, dance, and costuming to raise awareness about the issue of sex trafficking across the region and even at the United Nations.

Regina’s Door and other small organizations and formations led by and serving people of color in Oakland embrace a similar approach. These groups work across sectors — food justice, housing, transportation, health, economic development, and education — to support their communities, often under the radar. As local funders with an interest in better serving our communities, we wanted to understand this sector better. Oakland has long been known as a culturally rich city. However, little comprehensive data have been available about the large and varied set of cultural formations, collectives, and organizations, who employ a wide range of strategies to sustain their work. Many of these groups have fallen outside of view of mainstream philanthropic arts funding but have managed to produce work and be engaged in communities for years, if not decades.

Why a Benchmark Report on Grassroots Arts Organizations of Color?

The Kenneth Rainin and Akonadi Foundations commissioned Anh Thang Dao-Shah, PhD, and Kate Faust, MPP, of Creative Equity Research Partners to conduct a groundbreaking project in 2017. This study is the first to collect and map quantitative and qualitative data about the grassroots arts and cultural organizations serving communities of color in Oakland. Mapping Small Arts and Culture Organizations of Color in Oakland fills a fundamental gap in research.1 It also establishes a benchmark for understanding a complex, vibrant sector that serves communities in the rapidly changing landscape of a gentrifying city. The work of Regina’s Door, along with many others highlighted in the report, is part of the cultural fabric that builds social bonds, addresses community needs, and contributes to a strong sense of place in Oakland. For these artists and communities, as many of them put it, “culture and art is a way of living.”

“The value of Oakland’s grassroots organizations and the contributions they make to the health and well-being of the city cannot be overstated. We commissioned this research to better understand how this segment of the ecosystem operates to ensure these groups can thrive and continue their important work,” said Shelley Trott, director of Arts Strategy and Ventures at Rainin Foundation.

Although grassroots arts organizations emerge from and have deep ties within communities of color and provide programs that address immediate community concerns and needs, they struggle to access philanthropic resources. As people of color have increased in population nationwide, racial inequity in funding has grown even wider. According to the 2017 report Not Just Money: Equity Issues in Cultural Philanthropy,2 60 percent of arts funding goes to 2 percent of the largest organizations that present white and Western European art forms. Meanwhile, only 4 percent of arts funding goes to organizations serving communities of color even though people of color comprise 38 percent of the US population. For communities of color in the United States, the persistent disparity in arts funding has deep social consequences. Communities of color have utilized the arts to challenge structural racism that functions through both government-sanctioned policies and extralegal processes to destroy social bonds and threaten communal identity. Stakeholders in this study highlighted how arts and culture form the fabric of their community and, as such, are inseparable from the community’s understanding of self.

Now is a dynamic and opportune time for the sector in Oakland and for a growing movement toward racial equity in the arts nationwide. Despite the pressures of gentrification and constant resource challenges, a wealth of cultural activity and creativity continues to spring up from Oakland’s communities of color. There are strategies for resiliency and insights to be shared. As funders of Mapping Small Arts and Culture Organizations of Color in Oakland, we hope to inspire more opportunities among grantmakers across the nation to recognize the value of grassroots cultural work. We hope the report contributes to better understanding of how to support the people and organizations doing that work, and to advancing racial equity in the field of arts philanthropy.

The Oakland Context: “Magic in the Ground”

We know that low-income communities — especially communities of color — artists, and arts and culture organizations are at risk of displacement, and many organizations are fighting to remain. Over the past decade, Oakland, like the Bay Area as a whole, has experienced rapid gentrification and displacement linked to the region’s and the state’s worsening housing crisis. The growth of high-wage and low-wage jobs (with a shrinking middle-wage sector), the shortage of affordable housing, skyrocketing rents, and the ongoing legacy of racial segregation and disinvestment in communities of color have combined to accelerate the pace of neighborhood change in Oakland and the pushing out of longtime residents. Oakland’s black community, once comprising 47 percent of the city’s population, could fall to as low as 16 percent by 2030, according to an article in the East Bay Express.3

The map of today’s cultural districts in Oakland is a map of continued forced migrations. This history includes Spanish colonial expansion that decimated the Ohlone people, decades of discriminatory immigration laws, the Great Migration of African Americans to the region, and policies such as urban renewal and redlining that impoverished neighborhoods of color (just to highlight a few historical milestones). “People have moved according to where they were allowed to go, then they built cultural spaces and places to reflect their everyday life,” said Gina Acebo, vice president of programs at Akonadi. “It’s like magic in a city like Oakland.”

As multiple artists and cultural workers reiterated, communities of color “put magic in the ground” through their efforts to survive. There is a vibrancy, an energy, and a history that nourishes the life and creations of the people who draw inspiration from being here and from each other.

“There are some very exciting, very promising things going on in East Oakland that I know can be influential as cities across the country try and figure out strategies to have development without displacement,” said Elena Serrano, program director for the Eastside Cultural Center, an organization that works with numerous groups throughout East Oakland to produce hundreds of events and organize community projects. “The arts get so little public dollars and public support because we are not seen as a public service. Culture is the place where the community can muster our will to move forward. It is our asset, our strength.”

These grassroots arts and culture organizations have deep ties within the communities they serve. Their programs benefit the community as a tool to address broader social issues. For example, Lower Bottom Playaz, a transformative theater organization, has a project “Behind and Beyond BARS: Story Circles” that engaged formerly incarcerated people and direct service providers about incarceration as it intersects with gentrification. Beyond the Bars: Growing Home was being developed into a fully staged work with a cast that included people impacted by the incarceration system, service providers, and abolitionists. The cast reflects an acknowledgment that the history of incarceration is as deeply rooted in communities of color as it is invested in systems of structural racism and systemic oppression.

Artists and arts organizations are key to a city’s economic and social diversity and help to maintain a sense of place, identity, and cultural tradition. “We’re using the arts to lift up the neighborhoods that are there,” Serrano said. Much of this deep work being done in communities of color has not been visible to funders, and while the Oakland arts ecosystem is dynamic, diverse, and vibrant, it is significantly underresourced. Many of the grassroots organizations serving communities of color have come together organically, with structures that allow them to do their work year after year but that are often outside of traditional funder guidelines, limiting their access to philanthropic support. They also tend to be embedded in their own communities, which makes them especially attuned to the needs.

“We are overworked, underresourced, underfunded, and not highlighted. So when we apply, they’re like who are you, but we are doing some really deep work in the community,” Evans said. “I could do more, but for my own health I’ve had to pull back because my structure is not supported so I can grow. You have these big organizations that don’t have their ear to the ground, so there’s no linkage to what’s happening or how to support us.”

Core operating support is necessary and also the hardest funding to access, especially for arts groups, added Serrano. “This comes to measurables. We have to justify that people need art in their lives,” she continued. “How do you measure the fact that your community is more engaged, and able stay in the fight? How do you measure joy?”

Key Findings from the Study

1. The grassroots arts organizations serving communities of color inventoried in this report are densely clustered in gentrifying commercial areas.

The arts and cultural organizations and venues identified in this project are most densely clustered in a gentrifying commercial area of the city with a majority of low-income residents. There are limited data on organizations and events located in the historic cultural zones of Oakland’s communities of color, such as Chinatown, Fruitvale, San Antonio, West Oakland, and East Oakland — and a vital need for more research with those communities.

2. Grassroots arts organizations serving communities of color are part of an independent cultural ecosystem fueled by a strong sense of place.

These organizations form a robust, independent cultural ecosystem that is mission-driven and fueled by a sense of place defined by racially specific communities and locations. Community stakeholders emphasized deep ties with communities, which allow the organizations to build strong social nets and provide relevant programs that address immediate community concerns. These programs often straddle different sectors, using arts and culture to address issues such as food deserts and human trafficking.

3. Lack of fiscal sponsorship capacity and limited general operating funds are central challenges for the sector.

Central challenges for the sector are the limited capacity of and lack of resources for fiscal sponsors to support the sector as well as limited general operating funding. Due to their size and operating model, these organizations often require fiscal sponsorship to be eligible for grants funding. Stakeholders also identified as key challenges the lack of general operating funding and funders’ use of sustainability metrics that do not account for the ways that many grassroots organizations sustain themselves.

4. Social enterprise is a key model and a resiliency strategy for this sector.

At least 11.6 percent of grassroots organizations identified in the report utilize a social enterprise model in order to provide low- or no-cost arts programming to communities of color in Oakland. These organizations sustain arts and cultural community work through cafés, catering, boutique clothing stores, and so on. The People’s Kitchen Collective, for example, creates social art projects with food-centered political education, community building, and cooperative business at the center of its model.

Community stakeholders explained that Oakland’s cultural sector consists of many small organizations with alternative structures: artist collectives, ritual gatherings, and a variety of small businesses that double as event halls, performance spaces, and artist studios. These informal organizations thrive on spontaneity and rely on strong community networks. By leveraging intellectual, human, and social capital, the Oakland arts sector strategically addresses financial barriers despite limited access to philanthropic funding.

What Funders and Local Partners Can Do

As local funders cognizant of a national conversation about racial equity, we see this report as providing a rare moment when a new baseline is established from which to rise. It is essential to retain the vibrancy and cultural richness of the full spectrum of art forms in Oakland’s local communities. Now is the time to establish policies, build partnerships, deploy grantmaking, and fashion other solutions to support a thriving arts and culture ecosystem that is inclusive of low-income communities of color. Strengthening these community voices and providing resources are strategies in combating displacement. The report offers these recommendations to respond to the central challenges hampering their growth, stability, and sustainability:

1. Provide explicit racial equity funding.

The undercounting and underfunding of grassroots arts organizations serving communities of color in Oakland are the result of historic systemic inequities in arts funding that mirror racial inequity in society. An explicit racial equity funding framework requires funders to do the following:

  • Adopt and apply a holistic racial equity lens to all facets of grantmaking, including hiring staff with racial equity competency and a deep understanding of the communities served.
  • Involve communities of color in the planning and implementation of funding strategies aimed at addressing community needs.
  • Use an approach that engages the community to establish indicators of financial readiness that align with operational and organizational models utilized by small organizations serving communities of color in Oakland.
  • Dedicate funding for small arts organizations serving communities of color.

2. Gather more data, and continue inquiry.

This study is a benchmark, a first step in understanding the complexity of this sector. The study reveals the scarcity of data within specific communities and neighborhoods, including the Latinx and Asian communities, and in historic cultural hubs such as Fruitvale, Chinatown, and parts of East Oakland. A community engagement methodology in the report’s appendix lays out a strategy for funders to continue identifying and collecting information about grassroots organizations and determine indicators of organizational health and stability using communal knowledge.

3. Establish cross-sector funding strategies.

Arts organizations in Oakland work across sectors — food justice, housing, transportation, health, economic development, and education. Stakeholders adamantly advocated for what they termed empowerment funding, a deeper funding strategy that allows grassroots organizations to utilize their understanding of the community to identify community needs and find timely solutions. This strategy would involve the following:

  • multiple-year general operating funding that is flexible and higher in net value
  • capacity building that draws on community knowledge, such as mentorship from community elders rather than bringing in outside consultants
  • funding and time to implement and evaluate what has been learned, and support for succession planning so those lessons can continue to benefit the organization and the community at large
  • investment to increase the capacity of fiscal sponsors, and provision of resources to fiscal sponsors rooted in the arts and communities in Oakland
  • collaboration between funders to provide cross-sector funding sources for community development, health, civic engagement, housing, and so on that allow grassroots organizations working across these sectors to access funding for this work

4. Invest in place keeping.

The high risk of displacement remains a key challenge for residents and grassroots organizations in Oakland. Building on lessons learned from the Community Arts Stabilization Trust’s Keeping Space – Oakland pilot and the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s complete capital model, funders can develop community-driven metrics of organizational health and stability.4 Such an approach can help to build a pipeline of organizations in Oakland that are poised to take on long-term leases or purchase commercial property. Now is the time to invest in affordable housing, affordable live-work spaces for artists, and space for arts organizations with a focus on place keeping in gentrifying neighborhoods.

As an example of these funding strategies in action, the Akonadi Foundation through its Arc Toward Justice Fund, Beloved Community Fund, and BOOST programs is deploying a comprehensive approach that invests in cultural strategies to build voice and self-determination in communities of color.5 Organizations and projects supported through these funds use arts, culture, and organizing to reclaim public space and resist gentrification and displacement.

Culture Builds Community Power

This year, the Eastside Cultural Center held its eighteenth annual Malcolm X Jazz Festival, now an iconic gathering of music, arts, and community building for many Oakland residents. This event marked the Cultural Center’s founding in 1999. “We were an alliance of four very small grassroots groups, and we wanted to demonstrate to the San Antonio neighborhood community what a cultural center could be,” recalled Serrano. “It was rooted in jazz, because jazz is America’s music. This neighborhood is Southeast Asian, Chicana/Latino, black and indigenous. The culture is so rich.”

Serrano remembers going to countless community meetings to discuss local needs — housing, better schools, less policing. Yet when it was time for “dot voting,” community members kept putting all their dots on the idea of a cultural center.

“It was the only positive thing — everything else was what was wrong, and this was a celebration,” she said. “We really were able to push forward because we had community behind us saying this is important to us. Culture is a way to build the community power we need. We need to have enough voices and power at the table to be able to affect all of those things — housing, schools, economy, police — but this cultural spot was a place we could build power.”


NOTES

  1. Anh Thang Dao-Shah and Kate Faust, Mapping Small Arts and Culture Organizations of Color in Oakland, 2017, commissioned by Kenneth Rainin Foundation and Akonadi Foundation, http://mapartscultureoak land.org/.
  2. Helicon Collaborative, Not Just Money: Equity Issues in Cultural Philanthropy, 2017, http://heliconcollab.net/our_work/not-just-money/.
  3. Darwin BondGraham, “The East Bay’s Changing Demographics,” East Bay Express, February 14, 2018, https://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/the-east-bays-changing-demographics/Content?oid=13262928.
  4. Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), Keeping Space – Oakland, https://cast-sf.org/strategies/keeping-space-oakland-2-2/; Nonprofit Finance Fund, https://nff.org/.
  5. Akonadi Foundation, Arc Toward Justice Fund, https://akonadi.org/grantmaking/arc-towards-justice/; Beloved Community Fund, https://akonadi.org/grantmaking/arc-towards-justice/; Boost, https://akonadi.org/blog/boost-the-beloved-community-funds-organizational-strengthening-pilot/.