On a Sunday in September, a sun-kissed corner of 73rd & MacArthur bustled with East Oakland community members. They were filling tents that showcased local Black businesses, children were painting, and families were roller-skating in a community-sponsored rink enclosed by a gate with a sign of large letters spelling “LIBERATION’.
The September 19th event was the first annual celebration of Black Cultural Zone’s Akoma Market, which provides resources, artistic expression, and a space for community events for deep east Oakland residents.
The Eastmont Mall legend James ‘Jim’ Copes has been a firm supporter of Liberation Park, which sits in the parking lot of a once bubbling Black mall his store was once a staple in.
“You see many generations out here, people have come to me today from 30 years ago,” Copes said. “They grew up coming to me and sharing with me, and all I can say is thank you for what this is and what they’re doing.”
The Black Cultural Zone Community Development Corporation licensed the 53,160 square foot parcel and named the space Liberation Park.
Nidhi Love, the Economic Development Manager, has been with the BCZCDC under “many different hats” since 2015 and says the market started as a labor of love.
“We got access to the site I believe in 2019, right at the start of the pandemic, originally doing whatever the community needed,” Love said.
They provided PPE, passed out meals, and provided space for COVID-19 testing. As the pandemic spread and the need for outdoor access increased, the space blossomed into an opportunity for licensed operations that were going out of business in East Oakland to have a space to vend. The first market was September 6, 2020.
“We found that we just needed a space where we can just exist and be comfortable in our space,” Love explains. “Our security looks like the demographics of East Oakland, so you don’t have a person that doesn’t even look like you approaching you so they’re gonna take really good care of you. [East Oakland] wanted safe space to be available and free to get in.”
Love said some of her favorite events included drive-In movie night with free food and popcorn, a 90’s party by the organizers of BBQ’n While Black, and the historic East Bay Dragons Day.
The Akoma Market added daily mindfulness exercises such as “Spirit Work” with Rodney Issac from Barbershop yoga, a Black Cultural Zone partner.
“Resources were very much needed in our community and access stopped on Friday at 5pm in one of the last places in the Bay Area that actually has children,” Love said. As we walked the path encircling the scaffolded rink, Love explained that the children of East Oakland had gotten used to visiting the market to engage interactively with the activity of the day.
“They [the children] know to go to the yellow tent,” Love said.
Under a bright yellow tent, groups of smiling children were mixing colors and painting on small canvases next to a “R’Joy” banner. Reuben Roberts, from Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, aka “R’Joy”, along with Nyjahl, his assistant coordinator, were engaging with the young children creating art projects.
“I really appreciate this space. Honestly, I don’t see no where else in Oakland that’s doing this,” Roberts said.
Roberts also said R’Joy, which was started about 13 years ago, has served the Black Cultural Zone community since the market’s inception last year. The organization focuses on training community leaders, and holds healing circles for children as well as grief circles for families of victims of violent crime.
“My first day [at the Akoma Market] we hosted a wellness center and partnered with EOYDC as well as with Destiny Arts, teaching a dance class,” Roberts said.
The shocking-yet-awesome vendor-encircled rollerskating rink which Love described as “smack dab in the middle” of the Akoma Market is another site one may not expect to see.
She mentioned that the idea came from Carolyn “CJ” Johnson, Black Cultural Zone’s CEO.
Love said the Church of Eight Wheels helped to make the rink happen and that the community also raised money through crowd and community funding.
“If you had a dollar to put in here, it was put in here, and it’s become a reciprocal relationship,” Love said.
The rink is open for family skating during the Akoma Market but also as a commercial enterprise with a small $10 fee for skating. During the morning yoga sessions, the market also has skilled skaters that perform tricks like back skating and offers skate lessons.
Akoma Market also extended an invitation to local entrepreneurs to apply for a small grant to help their business. The winner, Kennedy Parson, standing with a large printed check for $2,400, spoke about the t-shirt business she started in November. She recently got a big order from East Bay Dragons and didn’t have the equipment to produce it.
“My mom and Nicole Felix came to me and told me about the scholarship they had going on,” Parson explained. “I plan on upping my equipment and once I do that whatever’s left goes to inventory, maybe better quality t-shirts and hoodies.”
Another resource booth focused on redistricting in Oakland led by Tejal Shaw and Stephanie Goode of the City of Oakland’s Independent Redistricting Commission.
“Redistricting happens every 10 years, it’s basically looking at the city council lines and also the Oakland Unified School District boundaries. This is the first time that it’s a community-led process, not led by politicians,” Shaw said.
Goode said she was really into farmers markets, and there aren’t many in East Oakland, so when she first heard about Akoma Market she thought it was an important chance to reach community members in District 6 & 7.
“We feel really strongly about reaching Oaklanders that have been under-represented, undercounted, and not listened to, so it’s important that we do outreach,” Goode said.
Tyrah, from Lunar Remedy, said she started her business after losing her job due to the pandemic. She started vending at the market right after and boosted about the sense of community with vendors that eliminates the sense of competition. “It’s nice having a regular schedule at the Akoma Market because it allows you to have regular customers,” Tyrah said.
Daria, from Ibeji Oils and Candles, was inspired to create her business by the Akoma Market. Daria was amazed by seeing a space “just for us” and thought to herself that there must be something they could do. Her new idea sprouted a very high-end display that projected luxury and cultural relevance. When asked if there was anything she would say to the Akoma Market, she merely repeated, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Loren Taylor, City Council representative for District 6, attended the event with his family and explained how this empty lot flourished into a thriving, safe community space. “I give our community an A+. This is truly a product of everybody throwing in and putting it down to make sure that it’s realized as much as possible,” Taylor explained.
Taylor also spoke about the future of Liberation park. “We have a big skating rink with scaffolding but we’re about to have lights so you can skate at night,” Taylor said.
“We’re going to build out more than this. Black Cultural Zone and other partners are working on a way to build physical structures, actually build housing development, commercial space for our vendors, and community space so we can maintain an Akoma Market right here.”
He also suggested the residents stay vigilant about what changes they want in their communities.
“We have a few key votes that are coming up to move this project forward and other projects as well,” Taylor said.
“Black Love is Black people doing for Black people. This is the first time, that I know of, that we’ve had a certified farmers market and a skating rink outside in this part of East Oakland,” Nehanda Imara, an original Black Cultural Zone team member, said, “we made it happen because of Black love and love for ourselves.”