Black Cultural Zone signage at Liberation Park in East Oakland.
Black Cultural Zone signage at Liberation Park in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Since 2014, the Black Cultural Zone—a community development corporation working with a coalition of residents, local nonprofits, organizers, churches, and city agencies—has been spearheading projects that aim to create economic opportunities and preserve Black culture in deep East Oakland.

One of the Black Cultural Zone’s signature projects, the Akoma Outdoor Market, reopened on Feb. 7 and is scheduled to take place on the first and third Sunday of every month from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The market, which features local vendors and Black-owned food and retail businesses, takes place at 7101 Foothill Boulevard, a formerly vacant lot that was purchased by the Black Cultural Zone and renamed Liberation Park. More information for visitors and an online application for vendors interested in selling at the market can be found here.

The Oaklandside’s Amir Aziz caught up recently with Black Cultural Zone CEO Carolyn Johnson, and the organization’s economic development manager, Ndidi Okwelogu, for a conversation about the BCZ’s vision and how it’s going about addressing the needs of deep East Oakland residents. 

You can read an edited version of the interview below, or listen here:

Amir Aziz: You mentioned deep East Oakland and the importance of recognizing that area as a focus of the Black Cultural Zone. Can you talk about the population in that part of the city?

Ndidi Okwelogu: The Black Cultural Zone extends from High Street all the way down to the San Leandro border, and the population here is quite diverse, quite varied. There’s a bunch of wonderful Black and brown folks—we have folks who are here from El Salvador, Honduras, we have Sudanese folks, we have our North African friends who are here in East Oakland. And so this is a really beautiful and diverse space, but it also has some very interesting and complex needs. There is a housing crisis all over Oakland and it’s particularly concentrated across East Oakland. 

So with the Black Cultural Zone, there is a strong focus on commercial development as well as just real estate development, in general, to ensure that Black folks can stay in their homes and own their homes in East Oakland, and have Black-serving commercial properties that are held by the community and used for the community.

Carolyn Johnson: I want to add something about deep East Oakland residents—I think it includes people who probably would never ever call it “deep East Oakland.” It’s a new term, and that’s okay. But it’s also folks who may no longer live there, that have been displaced and are not able to return. I have lots of friends who moved to Atlanta, to Antioch, either because they wanted to or they had to—but really, they got their heart from Oakland and East Oakland in particular, which is now called deep East Oakland. There’s a lot of new words in Oakland and the folks who understand who we were before these terms existed are folks who are also still residents—because our heart’s still there.

Amir Aziz: Yes, deep East Oakland, as a term I grew up with, is a really complicated thing. It alludes to this very far-off place and gets to this question of what’s “central” and what’s, you know, kind of outcast. 

So the challenges faced by communities there, and the mission of the Black Culture Zone, are multilayered. What kinds of on-the-ground activities are going on that people can engage with?

Ndidi Okwelogu: You’re able to come and visit the Akoma Market and get access to Black business resources. If you need support filling out applications, getting licenses or permits or certificates, we provide that support. And we’ve been doing extensive Black business outreach, just making sure Black businesses know we had our shelter-in-place order lifted, that they can reopen safely and how to do that, sending reminders out through text banking, and phone banking. We also have a wonderful program that we are pushing for, to create a vendor-owned social franchise out of the Akoma Market, so that there can be a vendor-owned and Black-led farmers market in East Oakland. 

Other on-the-ground activities at Liberation Park [include] fun stuff like drive-in movies. Last week, we screened the Warriors game against the Spurs. You can come in and get some food. You’re also able to come out to Liberation Park and get PPE. Last week we gave out some fresh hot meals as well as some hygiene kits and some warming materials because we knew it was going to get cold. We gave out about 50 beanies. We’re making sure that we have safe outdoor spaces where Black folks can come and know that they’re going to be surrounded by folks that look like them, who are here to provide genuine services—and that’s not something that we can always say we have in East Oakland.

Slideshow: Vendors and community members enjoy the Akoma Outdoor Market at Liberation Park on 7101 Foothill Blvd. in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Carolyn Johnson: In addition, we’re looking to activate publicly owned spaces that have been vacant, underutilized, or eyesores. Just as we did at Liberation Park, if there are vacant lots or blighted buildings in the [Black Cultural Zone], let us know. We will look to figure out ways to bring art and culture and music and economy to those areas. We’d love to see murals and art throughout all of East Oakland. At Liberation Park, we’re also going to be bringing an outdoor roller skating rink, and there’ll be an opportunity for folks from the community to invest small amounts to really make it their own.

We’re also going to be bringing on 150 block and corridor captains in the East Oakland Black Cultural Zone. These are people who are trusted voices on their block, or in their corridor. My family, for example, has lived on 84th Avenue since 1966—no one has lived on that block longer. We want folks like that to be able to come work with us to get information out about what’s happening with COVID, what’s happening with jobs, what’s happening with food. So on your block, that one person that has lived there forever is that person you can go to. 

We also have job opportunities at the Black Cultural Zone. So if folks are looking to do work as a crew member, community ambassador, coordinator, or manager, we do have funding for that as well. We’re looking to actually put money in people’s pockets and get them to work.

Amir Aziz: About the corridor captains, I think there’s a lot of potential there for folks having their needs met, and their voices heard directly. East Oakland is so large and it tends to get folded into one area, despite the fact that it’s very nuanced in how all the different communities interrelate to each other, and their needs are very different. Are there currently plans to expand the Black Cultural Zone to different parts of Oakland?

Carolyn Johnson: I see Black Cultural Zones as a real way to network Black legacy communities, nationally, throughout the diaspora, and connect with our motherland. We would love to partner when we have the capability, with other neighborhoods who may want to bring in what we do—ultimately creating these Black Cultural Zones where legacy Black communities have been pushed out. They didn’t leave, they were pushed out. We want to help bring them back, build them up and connect them so that we can do business together.

Amir Aziz: I wanted to go back to the Akoma Market and the idea of it being a worker-owned cooperative. Can you speak on that idea and what’s being done differently there to support small vendors?

Ndidi Okwelogu: We don’t do anything without having community engagement. We’ve tapped some of our partners who are subject matter experts in this area. It’s been a really good process, [working] towards the larger end goal of making sure that the vendors can fully own this. We have the ability to really influence what’s happening in East Oakland and give an opportunity for Black dollars to circulate through East Oakland with the Akoma Market.

For a lot of these vendors who are in our market, they’re emerging businesses. It’s a good place if you really want to see if that cake you make could be a business—you can come to the Akoma Market and test it out. We also have some more legacy businesses, and they’re able to be in this market for free. Some had been rejected from other markets for silly things, [for example] if there were two pastry people serving at a market, no one else could sell baked goods. Or if there are two beverage people at a market, no one else can come in and sell beverages. We don’t have those kinds of stipulations because, for us, it was never really about turning this into a cash cow. It was an opportunity to give our community basic necessities. But along the way, we found that we were able to get them to a place where they are now competitive at those markets that rejected them. People are coming to the Akoma Market to recruit for other markets, and that’s exactly what we want. We want our vendors to be competitive.

Amir Aziz: Liberation Park is located in a really residential area and a lot of folks who are newer to Oakland might not know this part of the city. Are you looking to have people come from other parts of Oakland, or even from outside of the city? And if so, how are you going about outreach?

Carolyn Johnson: We want the residents from around there to come. So we’re using Nextdoor and other means to incite folks to get there. Again, I always say we’re still reaching out to folks who may no longer live in Oakland, but whose heart is still here, and we’re doing that through social media networks. We want this to be a place of reunion, where you can come on a Sunday and be like, “Oh, my God, look at so-and-so. I haven’t seen you since high school!” We really want that to be a part of it—bringing folks back. 

But also, to really build a strong economy, we have to have more dollars that come into our community from outside. Come and buy your groceries and your vegetables here. Come buy your hair products here, instead of at Walgreens, which absolutely does not invest in the community.

Amir Aziz: For folks who aren’t able to make it, how can they support the market and the Black Cultural Zone’s other efforts? 

Ndidi Okwelogu: Folks can support by coming out to the Akoma Market. And if folks are interested in volunteering for any of our food distributions, or in helping us with things like setup at the market—we run a big shop, and it takes a lot of hands and a lot of hearts to make it happen. Our volunteers are amazing. Our volunteers have really come through for us throughout COVID, making sure that people are safe and secure. We were giving out thousands of meals just on volunteer power. If you have a talent, if you have a gift, come through and let us know. Folks are welcome to play whatever role that fits them at the BCZ. So it’s been a wonderful ride. We hope to see you there.

Amir Aziz is a photographer and videographer from Oakland, California. Using photography as his primary medium, Amir documents life and times in his community and the rapid changes in his environment. He's covered music events and social justice movements in the U.S. and abroad for local and international publications. Before shelter-in-place, he traveled to over 10 countries producing multimedia projects juxtaposing the experiences of locals elsewhere to those in his hometown of Oakland. Amir hopes to continue to bridge the gap between African diaspora communities and oppressed groups in the world through multimedia storytelling.