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A new economic relief fund for Oakland’s Black-owned businesses, The Oakland Black Business Fund, will start distributing money to applicants as early as next week. People who wish to donate to the fund, or business owners who want to apply, can do so on the fund’s webpage, which launched yesterday.
The fund was started several weeks ago as a GoFundMe campaign to reimburse Black businesses in Oakland damaged during the protests and civil unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Elisse Douglass, a 32-year-old Oakland resident and real estate developer, set up the campaign on the morning of Saturday, May 30, after driving from her house on 18th St. to 14th St. and seeing the aftermath of the protest downtown. She decided business owners would need help. “My initial attention was around that area,” said Douglass. “Saturday morning, there was glass on the street and cars burned.”
Initially, Douglass set a goal of raising $5,000. But the fund quickly evolved into a larger initiative thanks to partnerships with two local businesses: Oakstop, a Black-owned co-working and event space, and Benny Adem Grooming Parlor, a men’s barbershop and social club. In addition to helping Douglass promote the fundraising campaign, the partners set up a database connecting over 95 volunteers to donate time and resources to existing community organizations helping local Black-owned businesses, such as Black Cultural Zone, a community collaborative formed to keep Black residents and culture thriving in East Oakland.
By Jun. 14, just two weeks after Douglass launched the campaign, it had received over 1,400 donations from people in Oakland and around the country, totaling roughly $110,000.
Now, with a new website to promote the campaign, accept donations, and process applications, Douglass believes the fund is on the cusp of making a large impact.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” she said. “And if this original goal of $5,000 becomes the conduit to focus energy and enthusiasm on a larger problem, I’m really excited about that.”
Douglass said the campaign is addressing something much larger than temporary damage caused by the recent civil unrest. “I think the perspective of me being a Black woman and a developer, I understand that problem is a lot deeper than broken windows,” she said. “If you zoom out a level beyond that, you’re looking at the historic difficulties that Black businesses face in terms of access and capital, owning their real estate, and growth.”
Douglass recalled her own experience as a Black woman growing up in Philadelphia. “Where you grow up determines what you do in life,” said Douglass. “We don’t necessarily own our communities for a variety of reasons—institutional racism, systemic bias.”
Recognizing the value of owning and curating space compelled Douglass to pursue an undergraduate degree in architecture from Columbia University, and later, an MBA from U.C. Berkeley. Since then, she’s worked in a variety of roles in the real estate industry, from on-the-ground architectural planning to corporate finance and equity investment. All of that experience has made her “very aware that this industry is not predicated on the empowerment of Black people.”
Trevor Parham, Oakstop’s founder and a native Oaklander, shares Douglass’s passion for fostering Black ownership in the city. “We are helping to cultivate the current and new generation of Black entrepreneurs and Black small businesses,” Parham said. “In a city like Oakland that was rapidly experiencing an economic boom, we needed to be in a position where we were actually in control of spaces and real estate.”
Oakstop has operated since 2014 and is 100% Black-owned, said Parham. It primarily functions as a workspace and art gallery catering to black professionals. “You can walk into the building, look at some artwork, and not be asked what you’re doing there or what your purpose is,” said Parham, referring to the racial profiling that many Black people experience.
Parham’s business was vandalized during the initial protests, but he doesn’t blame activists for the damage. “They’re not going to go and break up a bunch of Black businesses that are supporting the Black community and Black economy,” Parham said. Regarding the nationwide protests, he thinks this is the most opportune time for the Black community to unite against “not just police brutality and police shootings, but the underlying infrastructure that has held us back for hundreds of years.”
Parham said he decided to get involved with supporting Douglass’s effort because he saw an opportunity to address the underlying infrastructure that keeps Black businesses from flourishing. “As a Black person from Oakland, growing up it was instilled in me that my presence, intersecting with police presence, is never a good thing,” Parham said.
“I want to be clear that’s not some paranoia you develop as you come of age and develop a political consciousness,” he said. “There’s things that you’re taught as a Black person in a city like this at a very early age that are essentially designed to keep you from running into trouble from the police.”
Yusef Wright, the owner of Benny Adem Grooming Parlor at 408 14th Street, said his shop went undamaged in part because he defended it along with others in his building. But having to keep his shop closed for almost four months hasn’t been good for business.
“If you see value in something, you need to be in the business of protecting what you create,” Wright said.
Still, the Oakland native’s loyal clients have supported his barbershop by buying merchandise, like apparel and hair products, through his shop’s website. Wright considers his customers to be family and pointed out that barbershops—his own and others—are cornerstone businesses in the Black community. “Outside of the church, it’s the most trusted institution for a Black man,” Wright said.
Regarding the Oakland Black Business Fund, Wright has been leveraging his community contacts to get the word out to businesses that were damaged. He said he won’t benefit financially from the fund because his shop was untouched, but believes he is still benefiting from helping other owners stay afloat. “What makes Black businesses special,” he said, “is that with no support, we keep going.”