When Kim Webber used to look out the window of her house in West Oakland, she’d mostly see people of color going about their lives in what had long been a majority Black neighborhood. Now, she sees a Black Lives Matter sign on the lawn of a house recently sold to a white couple for over $1 million.
“You simultaneously displace us, and you want me to be your friend?” Webber, 36, recalled thinking.
The gentrification of Webber’s street is a familiar story in Oakland, where rising housing costs and other economic pressures have displaced Black families and left many in dire situations. So a few years ago, Webber decided to help fight for and celebrate people of color in the city in a specific way: by capturing their stories on film.
In 2015, Webber founded TalkOakland, a digital storytelling platform aimed at “healing generational trauma” by documenting injustices in Oakland and sharing powerful stories about Black and brown residents working to combat them. She taught herself the ins and outs of street photography and eventually filmmaking.
Out in Oakland with her cameras in hand, Webber captures the deleterious effects of systemic racism by interviewing locals and sharing their stories on her website and social media. Her videos highlight inspiring figures throughout the Town, from street photographers like Allen Walker, to artist-activists such as Favianna Rodriguez, and graffiti artists like Amend TDK.
Webber believes Black people should have a platform to tell their own stories, and hopes that in providing that space, she will help shed light on cycles of oppression, and ultimately spur healing. For her, community storytelling is an essential tool in this work.
“My main goal is to be in a place where I can tell meaningful stories in a way that sustains myself and also uplifts the narratives that would not be told otherwise,” said Webber.
In one video, titled “Toxic Whiteness,” Webber emphasizes how white transplants often deny their complicity in Oakland’s housing crisis. A homeless Black man is shown pushing a shopping cart laden with cans and bottles, as Webber narrates: “Throughout American history, and continuing today, white people are still afforded more while people of color exist to get less.”
Webber’s recent work also sheds light on how the pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color in Oakland. La Clínica, a community based clinic that provides health care services to Spanish-speaking residents in Oakland and other communities in California, commissioned her to do a video about their work in Fruitvale, home to the largest Latinx population in the city and an area with some of the highest rates of positive COVID-19 cases in Alameda County.
The video was meant to not only document the impact of the pandemic, but showcase the neighborhood’s vibrant community and rich history of Black and brown unity. “It felt really good to highlight a community that everyone knows is very special, raw, and has a lot of culture,” said Webber. “To spotlight that through our lens was an honor.”
A journey that began with self-healing
In 2018, Webber landed her first commissioned video. Now paid projects comprise the majority of her work, and Webber is no longer living paycheck to paycheck. But it wasn’t an easy path to get to where she is.
With a measured openness, Webber shared how her struggle with alcoholism was an integral part of her journey to TalkOakland.
“I was experiencing oppression, but didn’t have the words to articulate it. I didn’t really recognize what it was,” she said. “I think that oppression created a lot of difficult emotions in me [like] anxiety and depression, and the way that I would cope with that was alcohol.”
At the height of her alcoholism, Webber fell behind on her rent and moved into a derelict, rat-infested house to save money. One day, a friend of hers stopped by to lend her a camera—a black Olympus OM-D E-M5. “His intention was to give me that camera to literally just get me off the couch drinking and doing something a little more productive,” she said.
Little did she know that the camera would be a gateway to healing.
“The alcoholism was definitely me trying to process powerlessness, but I think, I know, that learning camera gave me my own power—both financially and the ability to control my own narrative, which has been incredibly healing for me.”
Webber recognizes she’s come a long way in her personal journey. “You know that quote, ‘You are your ancestors’ wildest dreams?’ I’m my wildest dreams,” Webber said with a slight ripple of laughter, “there’s no way you could have told me three years or four years ago that I’d be where I’m at today.”
Still, there is work to do—for herself, and her community of Oakland. “If I generate a certain level of success for myself and other Black people around me are still suffering, that means nothing,” she said. “You know what I mean? Like no one is free until we’re all free. So it’s imperative that I leverage my privilege.”
For Webber, that means continuing to lean into storytelling as a means to rectify the history of her community.
“We can disconnect from being a continuation of this script that we inherited from generations that didn’t have the same resources and agency to confront the generational trauma that they were suffering from,” Webber said. “We have the power to write our own story.”