Terri Woodfolk-Nelson (right) with Dover Street neighbors at the HEAR/HERE community picnic she hosted in October. Credit: Gregory Collins #SMOOTHPIX

Terri Woodfolk-Nelson wants to give back to the neighborhood she grew up in. 

It’s why she’s hosting a picnic and story share at Dover Park on a Saturday in October, talking to 50 or so of her neighbors. A third-generation North Oaklander, she points to the nearby potluck table and says she’s brought figs from her tree because she always had them as a kid.

“The neighborhood was really connected. There was a strong sense of community and people really took care of one other,” she says. Old family photos rotate on the yellow HEAR/HERE digital billboard truck parked behind her. 

Woodfolk-Nelson does feel some connection with her immediate neighbors, who helped in meaningful ways after her husband had a stroke. But she misses a time when block parties were the norm and Mr. Pickett was the go-to handyman. 

The HEAR/HERE truck may help bridge the past and the present in North Oakland’s quickly changing neighborhoods. Launched in June, it connects neighbors through history and storytelling, prioritizing Black stories because they’re disappearing the fastest.

While North Oakland is the birthplace of the Black Panther Party, Woodfolk-Nelson’s family is one of the few African American families on Dover Street.

In 1980, Oakland’s population was 47% Black. By 2000, it had dropped by nine percentage points. And now it’s only 23%. An affordable-housing crisis continues to push people out, according to displacement data from the city of Oakland. And those who remain say they’re experiencing a loss of history and neighborhood connection. 

“How can longtime neighbors share their stories and how can new neighbors learn about where they’re living? These are the two ends of the spectrum where there’s incredible amounts of tension and misunderstanding,” said HEAR/HERE lead organizer Sue Mark. “The truck is a safe and friendly way to talk to people on your street.”

Any North Oakland resident can reserve the truck—to honor someone, come together around a local issue, or simply celebrate.

HEAR/HERE in front of the Golden Gate Branch library in North Oakland. Credit: Gregory Collings #SMOOTHPIX

Supported by a $140,000 grant from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, HEAR/HERE grew out of Commons Archive, a neighborhood memory project that Mark, an artist and cultural researcher who’s lived in Temescal for nearly three decades, founded in 2014. Mark interviewed a dozen longtime residents and compiled their stories in a reference collection now housed at the Golden Gate Branch library on San Pablo Avenue. 

HEAR/HERE is the next iteration. To ensure the truck remains accessible and equitable, an advisory council of leaders from the Black Panther Party Alumni Legacy Network, Neighbors for Racial Justice, West Oakland Cultural Action Network, and more engaged in a year-and-a-half-long planning process. It remains a collaborative effort.

Neighbors watch a video of longtime resident Damone Smith at a spontaneous get-together during one of the block drives. Credit: Sue Mark

On Fridays, hired community engagers with roots in North Oakland drive slowly through the neighborhoods, giving people an opportunity to watch short videos of longtime Black neighbors created by youth from Hidden GEM studio. In the videos, neighbors reflect on local places that have personal meaning, like It’s All Good Bakery or their childhood home.

Community engager Mashiki Mosley said most people are curious and think the truck is “cute.” If they show further interest, he’ll stop and talk.

Organizations and artists have invited the truck to various weekend events including Self Help Hunger Program’s Juneteenth celebration, the Life is Living Festival, and Mellana Cafe.

“We’re reattaching people,” said original Black Panther Saturu Ned, a mentor and adviser for HEAR/HERE.

Community engager and activist Ladasha Berry at the Life is Living Festival in October. People’s Kitchen Collective invited the truck and asked, “What survival program does your community need now?” Credit: Sue Mark

Community-focused questions are a big part of each event. At Mellana Cafe, for one, neighbors shared stories about Johnson’s Barber Shop, which previously had been in the space for over 60 years. Then everyone contemplated, “What change do you want to see in this neighborhood?” 

People wrote their answers on cards that were later digitally archived. Mark is currently in talks with the Oakland Public Library about how to more widely share the hundreds of cards collected from all the events so far.

The hope is to eventually expand HEAR/HERE to West and East Oakland neighborhoods. Funding is set to run out at the end of the year, but the group is exploring partnerships to get the $100,000 needed for the project to continue.

In August, Neighbors for Racial Justice hosted the truck for National Night Out for Safety and Liberation. Scott Owades, who bought a house in the Golden Gate neighborhood a couple of years ago, invited the truck to his block party. 

Owades said he has a responsibility as a new neighbor to learn about the history he’s benefitting from, and discovered Commons Archives at the library. 

“Not a lot of people are likely to show up at the library and poke around for history books,” he said. “But if a digital history book drives by your house and it’s bright yellow and it’s playing music, then you’re definitely going to go outside.”

HEAR/HERE stopped by three block parties in North Oakland that night, one majority Black and two majority white. When Mosley and others asked, “What makes you feel safe in your community?” overwhelmingly, everyone’s answer revolved around knowing their neighbors. 

“We all have the same things on our minds,” said Mosley. “It’s just that we often don’t get the chance to speak on it.”

This story was co-published with Oakland North.