A blurred figure walks past a stunning mural filled with colors and faces painted by Troy Lovegates on Broadway in Uptown. August 7, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

Months before we officially launched in June, The Oaklandside’s founders embarked on a listening tour of the city—a series of in-person community events (remember those?) that gathered residents from all over the Town to talk and dream about what a local news organization for and about Oakland should look like, what it should do, and who it should serve. 

Those rich conversations produced insights that led to the formation of our newsroom’s founding values. Chief among them is a commitment to “passing the mic”—creating opportunities for everyday residents (and not just professional journalists) to participate in our coverage, make their voices heard, and help tell the story of our city.

Oakland residents participated in listening and feedback sessions in the spring, which helped shape The Oaklandside’s founding values. Credit: CB Smith-Dahl

Who could have guessed that we’d be launching in such an unprecedented and uncertain time? With every passing day, the colliding crises of COVID and air pollution are further exposing long-standing health inequities in our city along racial and geographic lines. The economic slowdown is placing added stress on Black and immigrant neighborhoods and small businesses, and threatens to accelerate a process of gentrification that was already displacing residents and pushing people into the streets. Meanwhile, Oakland is again at the forefront of a national protest movement against racism and police brutality.

We believe it’s critical, now more than ever, that the voices and lived experiences of residents, especially our most vulnerable neighbors, be clearly heard and understood, and that far more Oaklanders are empowered to share their lived experiences with their neighbors in their own words. 

To that end, The Oaklandside is launching a new program called Amplify Oakland, inspired by other newsrooms that have launched powerful first-person storytelling series. In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll be inviting Oaklanders to directly participate in our coverage with first-person stories about how they are experiencing our city, and how their lives are being directly impacted by policies, events, and systems. 

Shaping and sharing these stories takes work and time, and we’ll be compensating Amplify Oakland contributors at our regular freelance rates thanks, in large part, to a grant from the Akonadi Foundation, an Oakland-based nonprofit that supports social and racial equity in our city. 

What kinds of stories?

You don’t need a formal background in writing or reporting to work with us—in fact, most Amplify contributors won’t. You’ll just need a true personal story that fits the guidelines below, and a desire to share your story with your neighbors. First, you’ll want to get familiar with our contributor guidelines:

  • Your story should tell us about something you’ve experienced directly that will help others better understand some important aspect of life in Oakland
  • We should be able to verify basic details of your story
  • It should offer a perspective on an issue that is also impacting other Oaklanders—not just yourself
  • We’ll ask you to be descriptive: tell us what it’s like to walk in your shoes
  • The story should be written in your own “voice.” Tell it the way you would if you were speaking to a friend 
  • We’re not looking for op-eds, political advocacy, or promotional pieces. We want stories that can deepen our understanding of an issue affecting Oaklanders, not convince us of something
  • Written stories should aim to be in the ballpark of 750 to 1,200 words—and if you’re not comfortable writing, we’ll work with you in other ways. More on that below

Oakland has its fair share of challenges, and our hope is that Amplify Oakland will be a platform that chronicles and contextualizes the struggles that many residents face. 

But Oakland and its communities also contain incredible beauty, resilience, and joy. Since our launch, we’ve tried to reflect that reality in our reporting. We wrote about a relief fund for Black-owned small businesses started by two concerned residents, and a free store set up by a grassroots organization to encourage self-sufficiency in deep East Oakland. We told the story of two Oakland Tech students who got 15,000 people to march against police brutality, and another group of scrappy teens who started their own organization to fight climate change. We spoke to a doctor treating patients at a community clinic in East Oakland (the city’s ground zero for coronavirus), and with local social justice activists who are building new coalitions in the midst of civil unrest.

We hope Amplify Oakland can be a platform to share more stories of organizing, healing, and connection—about how Oaklanders are finding strength in their communities, working together toward common goals, and making positive impacts in their neighborhoods.

How we’ll support you

The Oaklandside doesn’t want to simply take your story and publish it. We’ll put in the work—with you—to make it happen. You should expect to spend five to 10 hours working with us on your story, including going back and forth with an editor on drafts. 

Writing takes time, and depending on the subject matter, processing personal experiences and putting them into story form can also be emotionally draining. We wouldn’t expect professional writers to work for free, and we won’t expect Amplify Oakland contributors to do so either. That’s why we’ll be compensating contributors $250—our standard freelance rate—for stories that get published. 

How we’ll find stories—and work with residents across barriers

Interested community members who feel comfortable with our guidelines are invited to share their story idea by filling out the online form below. To be clear, we aren’t looking for people to send us finished stories—we’re asking only for a brief description, along with a bit of information that tells us why it’s important to share this story with other Oaklanders now.

We know that writing, as well as communicating in English, are going to be barriers for many of our neighbors who have important experiences to share. We plan to collaborate with some of our existing local media partners—including El Tímpano, a Spanish-language reporting lab serving Latino immigrants in East Oakland; Oakland Voices, a community reporting program; and YouthBeat, an organization that trains local youth in digital media production—to reach residents who might not otherwise find out about this opportunity through our website.

We’ve already published two powerful stories with El Tímpano’s help in recent months: José Martin Aguilar, a Mam-speaking Fruitvale resident, described being laid off from his job at a local restaurant due to COVID, and the role his tight-knit family has played in supporting him during a rough time. And Orlando Ruiz, also an East Oakland resident, shared his family’s story of surviving multiple COVID infections and gave us a window into why many Latino immigrants have continued to work outside the home during the pandemic, despite the risks.

Lastly, we know that Oakland has a rich tapestry of community-based organizations that are deeply embedded in neighborhoods and doing critical work with residents on issues that we want to understand better—from healthcare to housing access, violence prevention to food security, from reentry to education advocacy, and so much more . We view these organizations as key resources in the community, and that’s why we’ll also be reaching out to local groups in the coming weeks to share our vision for the series and ask for their help in extending the opportunity to residents who may want to take part.

Jacob Simas is Managing Editor of The Oaklandside. He joined us from Univision, where he led social-impact initiatives and established the Rise Up: Be Heard journalism training program at Fusion for young people and community organizers in underserved areas of California. He was a senior editor and director of youth and community media at New America Media, where he led a community news network that amplified student and youth reporting in California news deserts. He is an advisory board member for Youth Beat, a graduate of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and a former producer with KPFA's First Voice apprenticeship program.