In the Grand Lake neighborhood near the Oakland Public Library’s Lakeview branch, you might spot a group of community members putting the finishing touches on a storefront nestled between Coach Sushi and Gregg’s Grand Salon. One of those community members is Danielle Benjamin—a mother, herbalist, healing artist, and the founder and executive director of Temple of Earth Apothecary.

Located across the street from Lake Merritt, Temple of Earth Apothecary is more than a brick-and-mortar shop selling medicinal herbs and metaphysical goods; it’s also a co-op, “freedom school,” and community healing space. Patrons can stop by for a wide range of services, including individual healing consultations, tarot and birth chart readings, and bodywork. According to the store’s website, Temple of Earth Apothecary celebrates and “centers Indigenous and Africana land and plant stewardship, teachers, practitioners, elders, children, and medicine folk.”

The apothecary’s soft opening took place on Aug. 1, with a grand opening date to be determined.

The location may be familiar to some residents; the storefront used to house The Raven’s Wing, a self-described “witch shop” offering readings, crystals, and ritual tools. It closed its doors in late May due to financial hardship, opening the space for Temple of Earth. Benjamin worked as a co-owner and herbalist at The Raven’s Wing for about a year prior to its closure. The Raven’s Wing currently has a shop in Portland, OR, and also sells products online.

Benjamin refers to the chain of events leading up to her apothecary’s opening as “a whirlwind of miracles.”

“After years of dreaming of this, being in spaces that are not really designed for us and our medicine, and desiring our own physical spaces, everything just came together,” she said.

Born in Oakland and raised in Richmond, Benjamin earned a master’s degree in special education from CUNY Hunter College while working as a high school special education teacher in New York. After living on the East Coast for five years, she returned to the Bay Area in 2016.

The story behind the store

Products for sale and decorative wares are displayed around the shop. Credit: Amir Aziz

Benjamin’s journey to becoming an herbalist started when she was little. In her early childhood, she found refuge in the creeks and woods of the East Bay. Her family, whom she describes as “teachers, cultural archivists, and organic scholars,” instilled in her the importance of reclaiming her ancestral roots through prayer, ceremony, and connecting with nature.

“That was a big deal to little me,” said Benjamin, “and it’s part of the work I do now: calling ancestors, historicizing things, looking at things within the context of how we got there, and creating spaces where Black people feel at home.”

Then, shortly before giving birth to her son, two of her grandparents died. The loss, she felt, was an opportunity to restart.

“That threw me for a loop,” she said. “After feeling like I had a strong relationship with my ancestors, when they passed away, it was like a reset for me.”

After giving birth to her son, Benjamin said, she discovered a plant called yarrow. The scientific name for yarrow is Achillea millefolium, named after the legendary hero Achilles. According to ancient Greek mythology, Achilles used the plant to help heal his soldiers’ wounds during the Trojan War. Today, many Afro-Indigenous herbalists believe yarrow symbolizes boundaries, which Benjamin said she desperately needed at the time.

“Having just become a new parent and having to live with the person I made a child with, I really needed to learn boundaries in a new way,” she said. “That began my curiosity around my ancestral connection to plants—which plants my body knows and which plants my body remembers.”

Her spiritual connection with plants deepened during the postpartum period when she used herbs—specifically, cotton root bark—in a self-managed abortion.

“It still makes me emotional because it’s a plant our ancestors have an intimate relationship with, having tended that plant by force on these lands while being enslaved,” she said. “That was the first time I had witnessed the potency and the effectiveness of plants to create that level of physical change.”

Opening Temple of Earth Apothecary

Danielle Benjamin inside her shop, Temple of Earth Apothecary, on Grand Avenue in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

While working toward her master’s degree at CUNY, Benjamin frequented several herb shops throughout New York City and found a vibrant community of herbalists and healers. But she noticed none of those stores were Black-owned. Since then, she dreamed of owning her own herbal medicine co-op that centers Afro-Indigenous ancestral healing modalities.

In the years leading up to Temple of Earth’s opening, Benjamin met fellow herbalists in the Bay Area who shared her vision and would eventually become volunteers at the apothecary. One of those volunteers is Fatima Nasiyr, another Afro-Indigenous healer who met Benjamin in 2018 at Ancestral Apothecary, a former Oakland school and resource hub for herbal medicine practitioners. When the idea for Temple of Earth was still in its infancy, Nasiyr reconnected with Benjamin to discuss ways to merge their medicinal practices into one.

“It was really beautiful to have that experience of laying out a vision of what it would look like for us to work together,” said Nasiyr.

Another helper, Ryan Thurston, is a longtime family friend of Benjamin. After experiencing depression and feeling directionless during the COVID-19 pandemic, he now sees his efforts at Temple of Earth Apothecary as an act of tribalism.

“From a collectivism standpoint, since [Benjamin] is doing something that aligns with what I believe in, what else is there to do besides put all my energy into this?” said Thurston. “When you get the call, you just show up.”

When The Oaklandside went to Temple of Earth Apothecary at the beginning of August, the shop was still a work in progress. Benjamin, along with other volunteers, had finished repainting the previously rust-colored walls light green and bringing in plants and herbs from local community gardens. Near the entrance stood a bookshelf lined with notable works from Black writers like Octavia Butler, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks. The inside of the shop smelled of palo santo incense, which is often used in Indigenous smudging rituals to cleanse a space of negative energy.

While the American health-care system provides critical and life-saving procedures, part of what Benjamin hopes to accomplish through her apothecary is to offer an alternative pathway for healing when Western medicine falls short.

“We’re conditioned to have faith in the medical industrial complex, even when its limitations are glaring,” she said. “Pharmaceuticals and certain medical interventions are not designed to actually heal at the source. Indigenous people—and all of us—have ancestors who understood this.”

With modern technologies making health-care services more accessible to the public, Nasiyr further emphasized the need for holistic and preventative healing through herbal medicine.

“It’s the most ancient way that people all around the world have taken care of themselves,” Nasiyr added. “Because we’re a part of nature, nature holds ways for us to keep balance and harmony in our bodies.”

Gathering community support

Danielle, owner of Temple of Earth Apothecary, checks out customers Kumi (left) and Miyuki during the shop’s soft opening on Aug. 16, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

Benjamin is inviting the community to donate to the shop’s opening fund on GoFundMe. Her goal is to raise $75,000 to establish a strong foothold for the apothecary and its stewards. At the time of publication, the fundraising effort had amassed nearly 150 donations totaling more than $40,000.

Beyond donating via GoFundMe and spreading the word, Benjamin, Nasiyr, and Thurston hope community members will see Temple of Earth Apothecary as a welcoming space for everyone, regardless of race or creed.

“I think Black and Indigenous healing is not necessarily just for Black and Indigenous people,” said Thurston. “I think the Black and Indigenous experience overlaps with the Asian experience, the South American experience, the European experience, and even the rural Southern white American experience. We all have things to give and share.

“When Black people use our voices, when we shine, when we root ourselves, when we gather together, when we are audaciously free together, everyone benefits,” Benjamin added.

Temple of Earth Apothecary, 536 Grand Ave.
Tuesday through Friday, 12-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 12-7 p.m. Closed on Monday.

Roselyn Romero covers small businesses for The Oaklandside as a 2023-24 Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellow. Previously, she was an investigative intern at NBC Bay Area and the inaugural intern for the global investigations team of The Associated Press through a partnership with the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. Roselyn graduated from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo in 2022 with a bachelor's degree in journalism and minors in Spanish, ethnic studies, and women's and gender studies. She is a proud daughter of Filipino immigrants and was born and raised in Oxnard, California.