Our Humans of ArtPlace series takes its cue from the famed Humans of New York project. This month, as our blog tells stories of “the people behind creative placemaking,” we asked the driving forces behind three ingenious ArtPlace-funded projects to give us some personal insights on work, life, art, and place.


Elena Serrano is Program Director of the EastSide Arts Alliance & Cultural Center (ESAA) “an organization of Third World artists, cultural workers, and community organizers of color committed to working in the San Antonio and other Oakland neighborhoods to support a creative environment that improves the quality of life for our communities and advocates for progressive, systemic social change.”


ArtPlace: It’s been four years since ESAA received ArtPlace funding for Oakland is Proud. In that time—from your perspective—what have been some of the project’s most surprising moments, events, or outcomes been?

Elena: “Oakland is Proud” was a three-year initiative to activate public spaces. We created one-day pop-up cultural plazas as a demonstration to the communities of East Oakland of the benefits of coming together, sharing news and information, and lifting up and celebrating culture. We presented great music, dance, street theater, and poetry that represented the Black, Brown, and Asian communities of this district. The result has been that neighborhood groups have continued these traditions. The most significant result is the formation of the Black Cultural Zone (BCZ) in deep East Oakland. This is the community of Oakland currently hardest hit by the results of development and gentrification. There has been over a 30 percent—some say as high as 50 percent—loss of Black people from Oakland; deep East Oakland represents pretty much the last stand and with a huge public transportation development underway, the community was threatened.

Because of the work ESAA had done, folks understood and believed in the power of culture. They saw it as a way to build resilience, to come together and build power. Black culture has become the driving force behind a coalition of community groups, city and county government, investors, and philanthropy that is working to prioritize the needs of deep East Oakland and work to help folks stay in their homes, get good jobs, and have places to connect and build relationships. Two groups have stepped forward to lead these efforts: the East Oakland Collective and the Dellums Institute for Social Justice. Our organization remains a partner and has taken on the role of sharing how we have made both the ESAA as a whole and our Malcolm X Jazz Festival lasting community institutions.

Surprising moment: Community groups have been working for decades to address some of the huge inequities of resources in deep East Oakland. There were tables around housing, health care, policing, education, and jobs where very serious issues were being discussed. ESAA would always try and participate in these meeting because we have always been active members in the life of our neighborhood, but cultural strategies were never really considered. It was not until we came to the meeting with $450,000 from ArtPlace and NEA Our Town that finally we had a forum. Money talks! We were able to introduce the idea of activating public spaces and using culture as the glue, or the honey—still looking for the metaphor!—that makes it all work. Community groups embraced the idea and the development of a Black Cultural Zone was prioritized as the number one focus for the final year of the Oakland Sustainable Neighborhood Initiative (OSNI), a three-year project that came together as a result of the bus rapid transit development. OSNI’s mandate was “development without displacement.”


ArtPlace: Have you seen the cultural climate around racial justice work in Oakland change in the time you’ve been involved with ESAA? What do you attribute any changes to? How is your work with ESAA adapting?

Elena: Equity is now the focus of most everyone’s work. We have also seen the idea of cultural preservation being embraced as an anti-displacement strategy—culture being seen as integral to what defines a community. At the same time that folks are looking at more equitable distribution of resources, we are confronted with a huge and horrible houselessness crisis. In neighborhoods that were already suffering, we now have tent encampments with families and working parents not being able to afford to live in their homes. We have not seen the urgency needed to address this crisis. Someone said that we should be treating this as if it were a natural disaster and immediately getting people in homes. To add to the pain, folks are seeing cranes all over downtown building condo towers. In the era of equity and racial justice, Oakland is a divided city—now more than ever before—and this will have dire results for everyone if not addressed in a real and timely way.

Our work at ESAA has changed. We now discuss land, property ownership, and eviction controls at our staff meetings more than ever. We want to talk about how to lift up and support artists, how to give time and space to create visions for the future. Communities like East Oakland need artists to imagine the creation of a better world. But we cannot just do that anymore. Artists, ESAA staff, our community is being pushed out.


ArtPlace: What do you think are the most common misperceptions about Oakland that are held by people who don’t live in the area? How about by people who do live in the area?

Elena: We love Oakland. EastSide’s staff all live in Oakland, many for generations. The idea that prosperity has come to downtown and again is not being shared with neighborhoods that have been under-resourced for decades is hurtful. We run into folks new to Oakland, and they love it, too. They talk about the cool bars and restaurants, the views of the lake, the tech community... Very few know the other Oakland. Deep East Oakland shows up as grey space on tourist maps. It’s important to love all of Oakland.

Through the work of the Black Cultural Zone, we are establishing a Racial Justice Innovation Fund where resources can be collected and the East Oakland community can make decisions on what is needed now in their neighborhoods. There have been years of planning behind this work. There is a community governance structure developed and there are paper commitments from funders and investors for over $850 million. And there is the talk of equity and racial justice.

It’s time now to stop planning, talking, hoping—and implement. Again, through the OSNI and the BCZ work there is a list of catalyst sites for the development of affordable housing, cultural centers, shared workspaces, grocery stores, and a renewable energy work campus. It has to happen now.