Amplify Oakland is an Oakalndside series featuring first-person stories by community members.

When we began The Oaklandside close to three years ago, we did so equipped with a set of core values—guiding principles shaped by community feedback we’d gotten from residents about what a local newsroom for Oakland should strive to be. One of the things that came through loud and clear was that people wanted a news outlet that reflected the experiences of Oakland’s diverse communities, and was willing to share the stage—so that residents would have opportunities to tell their personal stories themselves, and not just have them reported by others.

We heard the message and responded in the fall of 2020 by launching “Amplify Oakland,” a first-person series of stories written by community members with support from The Oaklandside’s editors. In the ensuing months, we published a dozen of these stories, each one deeply personal but touching on important issues affecting communities in Oakland, and shedding light on how people experience life—for better and for worse—in The Town.

Among the first Amplify stories we published in 2020 was one by José Martín Aguilar, a Fruitvale father of two and indigenous Mam immigrant from Guatemala, who shared his story of survival during the early days of the pandemic, when he lost his restaurant job and faced the fear of not being able to pay his rent or purchase food for his wife and kids, with little hope of a government safety net. His story was produced and translated in partnership with El Tímpano, a Spanish-language community media outlet serving Latino immigrants in East Oakland.

In early 2021 we published a story that was painstakingly written over many weeks by John Jones III, an Oakland community advocate, and father. He shared his memories of growing up amidst a cycle of violence in East Oakland, which culminated with his own involvement in a tragic shooting. Jones weaved local history throughout his personal tale to contextualize and help explain the surge in gun violence and homicides that began to occur in Oakland and some other American cities during the pandemic.

Later that year, we ran a story written by Mavin Carter Griffin, a resident and community leader at Wood Street, one of Oakland’s largest homeless settlements located in West Oakland. In her thought-provoking and provocative first-person account, Griffin explained why she can’t stand the word “encampment” and prefers to describe her experience as “curbsteading”—something more aligned with the ethos of self-sufficiency embodied by early settlers who came west with nothing but wagons and tents to build a new society. Her story challenges the reader to reimagine the future of our urban landscape—one where outdoor living, necessitated by unaffordable and scarce traditional housing, is allowed to evolve creatively and perhaps even thrive.

Other Amplify stories, written and told by a diverse mix of Oaklanders, have touched on themes ranging from illegal dumping and mental health to food justice and supporting a teen with a disability, and more. We’re incredibly proud to have worked with all of these community members to share their stories. But we know there is much more we can and still want to do; we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this important series that’s so central to our organization’s mission. 

How we’ll be working to share more of your stories

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

Over the course of the year, we’ll be aiming to publish Amplify stories that collectively reflect the diversity of our city along lines of race, culture, gender, geography, and age. We’re interested in hearing from people across different communities who’ve been impacted by public policies and systems. But not every story needs to or should be about a problem or a challenge; Oakland is filled with people making beautiful and courageous contributions to their communities and our city, and we want our Amplify series to reflect their stories and experiences too. 

Our newsroom staff has already begun generating ideas for the types of stories and lived experiences we’d love to see shared in the series, that touch on important issues pertaining to our news beats. What can we learn from the experiences of an emergency shelter worker? A nonprofit worker in East Oakland who dedicates their weekends and evenings to outreach to young men at the highest risk for gun violence? A student-athlete or coach at one of Oakland’s public high schools? An OUSD special education teacher? An immigrant in-home care provider? A working artist trying to sustain their practice in the city? 

Unlike before, we won’t be starting with an expectation that individuals write their own stories—not unless they want to. While we feel this worked well in some cases, we also know that writing can present a barrier and stories are often better told. A simple interview will do, which we’ll transcribe and share back with the storyteller to ensure it’s accurate.

More than we have in the past, we’ll also seek help from community-based organizations doing frontline work with residents who have important stories to share. And we’ll continue to work with partners already serving communities we want to hear from—as we have in the past with organizations like El Tímpano and Youth Beat—to create opportunities for residents we might not otherwise reach. 

We’re asking our readers to participate, too. If you have a personal story to tell that you think is important for other people in Oakland to hear and relates to a larger public issue of importance, we invite you to let us know by filling out the form below. We promise to read every submission and get back in touch if it’s a story we feel is a good fit for the series.

Jacob Simas is the Community Journalism Director at Cityside and 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.