Recapping Neighbor Day At Rainbow Rec Center in East Oakland
On Saturday, August 1st, I went to Neighbor Day at the Rainbow Recreation Center. The block party featured local artists displaying their crafts, nonprofits doing great work, local musicians, and delicious fried chicken. Over 150 community members from East Oakland were there.
I met people like Saul Daniel Silva who described himself as “Oakland-raised with Mexican roots.” Saul is an artist, entrepreneur, and organizer in East Oakland. He showed me some original Oakland t-shirts with the emblematic Oakland tree logo made of Mexican motifs like Nopales (cacti) and Aztec symbols. He also talked to me about several community-changing activities he’s involved in, like the production of a documentary with local hip-hop artist Young Chop that seeks to show a different, more positive side of Oakland. Saul has also organized a back-to-school drive for kids in the community and plans to host another one this upcoming month. The funds are all fronted by him and a group of his friends. “Being positive is contagious,” he told me, “we want our positivity to be a trend.” As I left Saul’s booth he mentioned that feeling safe on Seminary Ave. at an event like this was a good change, a feeling I found was shared by many.
You see, Seminary Avenue borders an area known as the”Kill Zone“. The area is a 10-mile perimeter bordered by MacArthur Boulevard, 105th Avenue, and San Leandro Street. Statistically it has one of the highest crime rates in Oakland and it’s not the most welcoming environment. Kimblyn Bryant, Resident Coordinator for East Oakland Building Healthy Communities and an organizer of Neighbor Day, saw that when speaking to people in the neighborhood about the event. She said it took a lot of work to get people excited about going to an event like this in their community due to the area’s reputation. But since March, Kimblyn had been knocking on doors, pulling resources, and bringing people together because “this is what it takes to change the narrative in East Oakland. This is one of the highest-need areas that needs these kinds of events” she told me. Kimblyn worked with East Side Arts Alliance, who provided a lot of the funding for the event and the connections to the artists that performed. Overall she said “the event was really representative of our community. The partnerships, resident leaders, the art component, all worked really well.” She was extremely happy with the outcome and said she would do these events more if there was more funding and resources.
When I went around asking people what they thought about the event that’s exactly what they said— we need more of these! Sharon Bershell, who lives a couple blocks away from the event, brought some of her kids to Neighbor Day and echoed the need for these events to happen with more frequency. “I came here to see the community,” she told me. She also said she wished these events happened more often because she really enjoys seeing all the cultures getting along and having the opportunity to meet her neighbors.
Finally, I spoke to an elderly woman that wanted to be known as “Betsy”. Betsy lives at the senior center near the Rainbow Recreation Center. “The chicken was my favorite part!” she told me as she checked her ticket to see if she had won the raffle. She was in her wheelchair near a group of friends. When I asked her why she came to the event Betsy said: “We have limited incomes and can’t take vacations. These events allow us to enjoy our lives without having to leave our community.” Her honesty really brought home the importance of the work East Oakland Building Healthy Communties does.
Events like Neighbor Day really allow the community to come together in a way that doesn’t happen very often. When you live in a senior facility, live stipend to stipend, are raising a family of six, or just hustling to get by, you don’t have all the time or energy to get to know your neighbors or really enjoy your community. Someone pointed out to me last week that often, areas like East Oakland are referred to as “the hood,” leaving out “neighbor” from the original neighborhood. This person noted that referring to our community as “the hood” shows the way we are disengaged from each other. Be it out of fear, lack of time, or other circumstances, the reference to “the hood” might point to a community of people that don’t know each other as they should. Sharon herself said the event was her opportunity to see her neighbors getting along. The need for these events became more evident to me as I talked to the folks who attended. This was also Kimblyn’s reason for taking on the challenge of organizing Neighbor Day and planning it months in advance. “People came out of their homes and came to Rainbow rec center, a place that is symbolic of blood and violence in the community, because people are thirsty, need this and want this.”