A man dressed in a neon yellow and black polo shirt dumps trash into a blue garbage receptacle, which reads, "Uptown Downtown Community Benefit Districts."
Robert E. Lee, a community ambassador with Uptown and Downtown Oakland community benefit districts, cleans trash from the street on Sept. 14, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

If you’ve walked around certain commercial areas in Oakland, you might have noticed people clad in neon polos or vests patrolling the streets, picking up trash, or chatting with community members.

These community ambassadors—sometimes referred to as place managers—are tasked with improving public safety by fostering relationships with business owners and residents, connecting merchants and individuals to resources, offering support to people in crisis, and mitigating conflict. In addition to tackling safety concerns, ambassadors help keep commercial corridors clean by disposing of litter, painting over graffiti, and power-washing sidewalks and parklets.

Antonio Martinez—a program coordinator for the Uptown and Downtown Oakland Community Benefit Districts (CBDs) who helps oversee a team of more than two dozen community ambassadors, in addition to patrolling the area himself—said “radical hospitality” is at the heart of the job.

“For me, radical hospitality means we’re going above and beyond,” Martinez said. “We’re wanting to take that extra step to help that unhoused person, take that extra step to help that business, and improve the district for everybody in it.”

Robert E. Lee, a community ambassador with the Uptown and Downtown Oakland community benefit districts, cleans trash from the street on Sept. 14, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

Unlike Oakland police and most security personnel, community ambassadors are unarmed. In tense or potentially hostile situations, they are trained to use de-escalation and active listening strategies to reduce the chances that police are called to the scene.

“We really try to be the buffer between OPD and anything you can address on a quality of life level,” said Andrew Jones, program director for the Uptown and Downtown Oakland CBDs.

Many ambassador programs in Oakland were conceived in response to public safety concerns and chronic police understaffing, and their use has grown in recent years. At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, many residents across the Bay Area feared an upswing in hate crimes against Asian American seniors, with some advocating for more police presence in vulnerable neighborhoods like Chinatown and Little Saigon. Around the same time, many critics of law enforcement and proponents of the “defund the police” movement were calling for unarmed, community-based alternatives to policing, particularly after white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, a Black man, in May 2020.

Addressing these demands in 2021, for example, the nonprofit Family Bridges expanded on an ambassador program that had launched several years earlier in Chinatown, with support from a broader coalition of neighborhood organizations. (In Chinese, the term for ‘community ambassadors’ translates word-for-word to “angels of the street.”) Other organizations—namely, Streetplus in Koreatown/Northgate (KONO), Block by Block in Jack London, and District Works in Uptown and Downtown Oakland—had already established community ambassador programs years before the pandemic.

To better understand the impact of community ambassador programs, The Oaklandside interviewed people directly involved in the work, and took to the streets to speak with small business owners about their thoughts on the programs—and whether they feel the ambassadors are making a difference in their neighborhoods.

Where in Oakland do community ambassadors work? Who pays for their services?

Community ambassadors Neil Prudente, right, and Robert E. Lee, left, pick up a trash bag from a garbage receptacle on Sept. 14, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

Community ambassadors typically work through business improvement districts (BIDs) or CBDs, organizations that support businesses and property owners operating in a discrete neighborhood. These organizations are private nonprofit or for-profit entities but need city approval to operate and receive some public money through a special assessment tax, according to Jones, and the city’s budget.

Oakland’s $4.2 billion two-year budget for fiscal years 2023-2024 and 2024-2025, adopted in late June, includes an amendment of $1 million per year to support community ambassadors. The funds will be distributed to neighborhoods “based upon the professional assessments of staff and informed by the safety needs of each business corridor,” a document outlining the budget amendments stated.

In some cases, ambassador programs are supported by a combination of public and private dollars. According to a news release from Family Bridges, its community ambassador program in Chinatown receives financial support from the Port of Oakland, Asian Health Services, and a mix of individuals, agencies, and private entities.

Not all BIDs employ community ambassadors, though. The Rockridge District Association, Montclair Village Association, Lakeshore Avenue BID, and the Unity Council in Fruitvale do not currently contract for safety ambassadors. There are community ambassador teams in the Laurel, Temescal/Telegraph, KONO, Jack London, Lake Merritt/Uptown, and Downtown BID.

Robert E. Lee, a community ambassador with the Uptown and Downtown Oakland community benefit districts, responds to a call on a walkie-talkie on Sept. 14, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

With the exception of some volunteer ambassadors in Chinatown, community ambassadors in Oakland are paid.

“It likely just comes down to a question of budget,” Savlan Hauser, executive director of the Jack London Improvement District and chair of the Oakland BID Alliance, wrote in an email to The Oaklandside. “Ambassador Teams are so impactful and appreciated, but also represent a pretty significant investment.”

Overall, she said, the number of ambassadors in a given district depends on the size of the district, the needs of its merchants and residents, and its budget. For example, the cost of the community ambassador program in the Uptown and Downtown Oakland CBDs is $2.5 million annually, according to Jones, which pays for 32 full-time ambassadors in both districts.

Business owners say ambassadors are helping, but they can’t do it all

Robert E. Lee, a community ambassador with the Uptown and Downtown Oakland CBDs, cleans broken glass from the street following a vehicle break-in on Sept. 14, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

In conversations with over a dozen business owners throughout Oakland, most said community ambassadors help keep their districts cleaner and safer but acknowledged they’re not a panacea for longstanding systemic issues like poverty, homelessness, and gun violence.

“There’s this misconception that, because we can’t stop a violent crime, there’s this ineffectualness of the program when it is so much deeper,” Jones said.

Community ambassadors are directed not to intervene when a crime is taking place, said Jones. “We can’t go and stop a person who’s bipping (breaking into) a car,” he said, adding that doing so might unnecessarily put an ambassador in a compromised position.

But many small business owners told The Oaklandside that the mere presence of community ambassadors increases the sense of safety in their neighborhoods. Hee Rosenthal, owner of The Bento House on Washington Street in Old Oakland, said ambassadors add to the appearance of increased foot traffic, which helps deter crime because more people on the street often means more bystanders who can bear witness to and report crimes when they occur.

Other business owners voiced similar opinions. Des To, co-owner of Alice Street Bakery Café at the corner of 10th Street and Alice Street in Chinatown, said ambassadors are making a “big contribution” to the neighborhood. Over the past few months, she hasn’t witnessed any robberies near or at her business, which she said were more common in 2020 and 2021.

“We shouldn’t look down on them because they are very effective,” To said, referring to community ambassadors. “When they see something suspicious, instead of using weapons like police, they make calls [to police] right away.”

Neil Prudente, a community ambassador with the Uptown and Downtown Oakland community benefit districts, responds to a call on a walkie-talkie on Sept. 14, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

Community ambassador programs are not without their critics, however. The Oaklandside heard from two employees at businesses in Chinatown who had differing opinions on their efficacy in stopping crime, but both declined to be quoted on the record.

While the presence of ambassadors might indirectly thwart crime, some we interviewed said the ambassadors are not a cure-all, and shouldn’t be regarded as such. Porsche Washington, the program director for the Uptown and Downtown Oakland CBDs who also patrols the streets, said people who denigrate community ambassadors for being ineffective fail to understand this.

“I don’t think the naysayers [appreciate] all that face-to-face interaction” that ambassadors provide during their rounds, Washington said.

Silvia Hernandez-McCollow, who co-owns NIDO’s Backyard and Odin Mezcalería in the Jack London District with her husband, said community ambassadors have often stepped in when OPD and city officials couldn’t.

“Now, it’s to the point where it’s just like, why even bother? There’s no point in calling them,” Hernandez-McCollow said, referring to OPD. “So, we rely heavily on the community ambassadors to help us not just keep our surrounding property clean, but safe.”

Echoing that sentiment, Erin Coburn, co-owner of minimo wine shop and bar (name intentionally lowercase) in the Jack London District, said ambassadors are typically her first point of contact in non-emergency situations.

“One of the most important things about the ambassadors is, we know who they are,” she said. “It’s invaluable to have someone who you see almost every day, that you know by name, that is walking our streets in our district and can tell us what’s going on.”

Along with keeping merchants informed of recent developments in the community, ambassadors assist business owners by engaging with people who are experiencing homelessness or in crisis, when their presence may be deterring patrons.

“If an unhoused person is blocking the entrance to our restaurant, we will usually try to talk to them or we will call the ambassadors so that they can get help,” said Mayra Velazquez, one of the owners of Mexican restaurant Xingones in Old Oakland.

Community ambassadors Robert E. Lee, right, and Neil Prudente, left, pick up trash and patrol the streets of the Uptown and Downtown Oakland CBDs on Sept. 14, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

Community ambassadors receive these types of calls almost daily, according to Anthony Basica, an ambassador who picks up trash and drives around the Uptown and Downtown Oakland CBDs. He described a time when an owner of a restaurant on Broadway asked him to move an unhoused man lying down on the sidewalk outside of the restaurant. When Basica approached the man and introduced himself, he said the man could barely speak and appeared severely dehydrated.

“I gave him some water, I talked to him, and I told him, ‘You’re fine right where you are.’ But I was so concerned,” said Basica. “I checked on him every day because I thought he might die.”

This “removal of anonymity” between ambassadors and community members is vital to building trust and boosting public safety, said Tori Decker, operations director for the Uptown and Downtown Oakland CBDs.

“Just recognizing someone and seeing them, even if it’s a person who is unhoused, and knowing their name is huge,” she said. “It’s showing them that they’re seen, they matter, and their experience matters.”

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.