The cultural sector is actively seeking alternatives to business-as-usual. This article concludes the series, “Remember the Future: Culture and Systems Change,” which is co-produced by Art.coop and NPQ. In this series, queer, trans, and BIPOC artists and cultural bearers reflect upon the unique role that culture has played and can play in activating and enacting structural change—and in building a solidarity economy.
Weaving small pieces into a serviceable whole is as old as the practice of quilting. It’s a philosophy that lies at the heart of the story behind BlacSpace Cooperative. Based in Oakland, CA, and launched in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cooperative is forging a table of Black women-led, community-based organizations so Black cultural production across the city can thrive. And, of course, providing for people’s artistic and cultural needs is a core part of building a thriving community economy as well.
Utilizing what is available and accessible to fashion “a way out of no way” is familiar in the Black experience in the United States. The ingredients at the BlacSpace table are slices of liberatory thought, radical wisdom, historic facts, and experiential knowledge gleaned from lived realities—staples for world making. Our world-making project, in short, is centered on creating community spaces in which Black arts and culture can flourish.
The ingredients at the BlacSpace table are slices of liberatory thought, radical wisdom, historic facts, and experiential knowledge gleaned from lived realities.
Our cooperative consists of a group of six women, including myself, who gather to discuss the day’s happenings and share resources, information, and recipes for Black cultural production. We are anchored by four organizations: the Black Cultural Zone, which supports artists in East Oakland; the Black Arts Movement Business District Community Development Corporation of Oakland, based in West Oakland; the East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, a group that supports community land ownership and is developing an arts and cultural center in West Oakland; and the Betti Ono Foundation, a social enterprise-foundation hybrid that operated an art gallery between 2011 and 2021. Four Blacspace members lead those organizations, while our other two members are also deeply connected to Oakland’s Black arts community.
We gather in need of a new world. While we were engaged in arts and cultural work long before COVID, we are uninterested in the restoration of a pre-pandemic normal. In fact, the interruption of “normal” has allowed us to create this new space in which we can cultivate relationships, weigh cultural assets, and plot a path toward cultural sovereignty in a non-extractive framework centered on cooperation rather than competition.
As a researcher at the Urban Institute, before she became chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, Maria Rosario Jackson noted that strategies to improve quality of life and opportunity in low-income and marginalized communities are incomplete without provisions for people’s cultural and artistic realization. She observes that colonization interferes with the development of Indigenous cultural forms—imposing the cultural norms of the colonizer onto the colonized. In so doing, it represses creative expression and the practice of organic art forms.
BlacSpace is about decolonizing and thereby making spaces in which to thrive. The process of building the BlacSpace community is itself a work of art in the tradition of the Black Arts Movement—a movement that arose in the spirit of Black cultural nationalism of the mid-1960s and helped give rise to numerous poets and artists, including now-familiar names such as Audre Lorde and Gil Scott-Heron.
We are weaving as we unweave—navigating the process of unwinding and disentangling from the transactional nature of capitalism as we strengthen relationships that generate the potential for communal thriving.
At BlacSpace, we employ a range of strategies, from collective ownership to the activation of new public gathering places for cultural expression, to build culture that portends economic sustainability, community wellbeing, social cohesion, opportunities for expression, and civic engagement. It begins with the reclamation of labor and time, reallocating them to world making while mutually attending to common needs by building collective sovereignty.
We are weaving as we unweave—navigating the process of unwinding and disentangling from the transactional nature of capitalism as we strengthen relationships that generate potential for communal thriving.
During the pandemic, economic inequity and social and environmental injustice became hypervisible. What marginalized communities already understood became topics of conversation in the public square. The world became interested in what marginalized people knew about their own survival and paused to consider the cost of racism and environmental destruction as those two forces intersect and conspire with extractive economic systems. There is an instructive view from the margin, where out of necessity we have made life in a nation-within-a-nation—separated, unequal, redlined, “sundowned” (by white communities that banned residents of color), and sub primed.
BlacSpace works in the ancestral ethos of “being in it—but not of it.” We build on our community’s rich history of collective efforts. The group convenes where the Harlem of the West flourished in Oakland and gave way to the Black Power Movement and its twin, the Black Arts Movement. We remember Black Wall Street and Rosewood, harvesting lessons from these historic moments and building on the legacy of those who came before us.
Honoring the memory of our ancestors, BlacSpace is cooking up a savory dish with the intention of feeding communities for generations. Our food is not scarcity-based stone soup but rather a rich, sumptuous, and nourishing gumbo for transforming struggle into an open, connected, and creative way of being—into livity.
You cannot cook up or serve solutions without the space, time, and resources with which to collectively create. We are building a full-service business development and economic ecosystem that uplifts Black arts, business, ownership, and culture in Oakland from within the Black community. BlacSpace’s anchor organizations own land and businesses. We have real estate and business development skills. We are community planners. We are, in fact, building an entire Black arts business district.
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But money must be joined to art to build the thriving Black cultural world that we desire. Creation, imagination, cultural practices, and art making are essential to movement building and change making. So too is collaboration. If we stay within the boundaries of the extractive paradigm in which we struggle to survive, chasing consumption while anchored in scarcity, even stone soup is unlikely.
Cooking Up New Recipes in Our Cultural Kitchens
New recipes require what Rosario Jackson calls cultural kitchens, that is, “spaces and organizations that allow for cultural self-determination.” BlacSpace is a cooperative that brings together expertise in real-estate ownership and development, cooperative structures, business systems, art making, activism, and cultural anchoring, stimulating conversations about cultural kitchens and a unique collaboration to cultivate them. It is a node in this work; the organizations at the table are themselves cultural kitchens.
Noni Session of EB PREC (and a member of our cooperative) nurtures a dream to revitalize historic Seventh Street in West Oakland. Once the heart of the Harlem of the West, the street in its heyday boasted Bob Geddins’ recording studio, retail and grocery stores, the offices of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and bars and restaurants, including legendary Black businesses like Slim Jenkins Cabaret, the Freedman’s Lincoln Theatre, Pearl’s Diner, and Esther Mabry’s Orbit Room. These spaces are now closed, and gentrification is encroaching upon the buildings that housed them. However, disruptions are being cooked up.
East Bay PREC purchased Esther’s for $1.5 million and plans to invest another $3.4 million in renovations to support a community-developed plan to reopen this legacy site as a collectively owned community asset. Anyka Barber Howard, another member of our cooperative, is an internationally acclaimed artist. She is also the curator and founder of Betti Ono Foundation. Howard is a cultural warrior who has aptly been described as “Bay Brilliant.”
Besides curating innovative programming that consists of a full-throated articulation of womanhood, Betti Ono has made over $2 million in neighborhood investments into the downtown area—supporting quality programming at her downtown Oakland gallery. When Covid shut the world down, Howard found the city a less than sympathetic landlord. While millions in recovery money came into Oakland, it did not trickle down to the street level, where many cultural anchors are found. Howard knows firsthand the extractive nature of landlord-tenant relationships, and after years of trying to make an inequitable relationship equitable, she walked away. Instead of engaging in endless battles, Howard invested her time in creating a more fecund environment for her brilliance.
The organization that I helped found, BAMBD CDC, was formed in 2016 when the city announced its first official cultural district in the wake of Assembly Bill 189, state legislation that authorized the creation of cultural arts districts. BAMBD CDC is an arts-based organization invested in community development writ large. Through a series of successfully negotiated community benefit agreements, BAMBD CDC has ensured the addition of low-income housing and below-market rate retail spaces to private developments.
As part of these agreements, BAMBD CDC supported the creation of a donor-advised anti-displacement fund into which private developers pay. The fund has regranted over $150,000 to support artists and small businesses in danger of displacement and to support community organizations through the height of the pandemic.
Currently, BAMBD CDC is stewarding an unprecedented partnership between the community, the city of Oakland, and a private developer in the multimillion-dollar rehabilitation of the publicly owned Henry J. Kaiser and the Calvin Simmons Theater.
Collectivity and Collaboration are Specials on Today’s Menu
Solidarity economics allows for collective sustainability outside of a capitalist winner-takes-all framework.
The work we are doing in Oakland is part of a broader movement. As our work has taught us, building deep and sustainable economic change for people of African descent in the United States and others marginalized by capitalism demands a unified and cooperative approach—one that centers humans and their reciprocal relationship with the environment. To inhabit a sustainable future requires we remember the shape of thrivability. It requires bold reassessments of form, new metrics or models of profitability, and concepts of growth that center thriving in our missions, values, and purpose.
Solidarity economics allows for collective sustainability outside of a capitalist winner-takes-all framework. The members of our cooperative remember how redlined spaces shaped and continue to shape our communities. Can we remember the possibilities that lie beyond the pale of capitalist economic models that hoard resources and compel large sectors of humanity to live as wage slaves or in abject poverty? As inequity grows, we stand on the brink of social disintegration, with wealth concentrated among a small percentage of people who accept little responsibility for stewarding the environment and exhibit no interest in more equitable distributions of wealth.
In “The Art Worlds We Want: Solidarity Art Economies,” Natalia Linares and Caroline Woolard posit that solidarity economics supports and values artists and creatives. This notion is a good instinct—someone must imagine new worlds and new ways of being.
John Law, in “What’s Wrong with a One-World World,” writes that “the potential of solidarity economy as theory, practice, and movement, to engender an ontological politics to create and sustain other worlds … can resolve the existential crises of ecological destruction and historic inequalities.” If, as Law imagines, we are to create a world that can “exceed the dictates of a dominant modernity—capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy that positions itself as the only singular reality,” we must find our mooring in the liminal—the in-between space of transformation—where change is slow cooked before serving.