Culture Makers Q&A: What is it like covering Oakland? Local journos weigh in

a dark theater with a screen that says "Oaklandside Culture Makers" and a panel in front
Our recent panelists Pendarvis Harshaw, Momo Chang, and Liam O'Donoghue during our latest Culture Makers event at The New Parkway Theater. Photo by Amir Aziz

A couple of weeks ago, Oakland Voices Co-Director Momo Chang participated in an event at The New Parkway Theater, hosted by Oaklandside. The sold-out event included a panel discussion with Chang, KQED show host and correspondent Pendarvis Harshaw, and Liam O’Donoghue of the podcast East Bay Yesterday.

Musical guest Orchestra Gold provided sounds in between sets of questions by moderator and Oaklandside staff member Azucena Rasilla. Many questions were asked and answered, and audience members submitted more questions that the panelists answered in an article after the event.

Below is an excerpt from the audience-submitted Q&As. Read the full set of the answers here.

Questions for all three panelists

From left to right: arts & community reporter Azucena Rasilla, Pendarvis Harshaw, and Liam O’Donoghue. Photo by Brandy Collins.

How does Oakland differentiate itself culturally from its Bay neighbors, and how can we promote and support those differences?

Pen: Starting with microclimates and geography, each pocket of the Bay is different. And even within those localities, each neighborhood and block has its unique twist. The most important thing is to recognize the stories of these places—the history of them, their current state, and the future.   

Momo: Oakland is a little bit of town, a little bit of country, to me. There are rich cultural hubs, arts, food, flatlands and hills, and a lot of diversity in general. There’s a country style to Oakland, meaning it’s not as fast-paced as a big city–although I feel it’s changed in recent years, where people are struggling more than ever to keep up in the face of gentrification. Historically, a lot of African Americans from the South migrated here during WWII, people who have contributed a lot to the culture of Oakland.

Oakland has an activist history different from the rest of the Bay Area. The Black Panther Party was founded here, Fred Korematsu was born here, and so on. And that legacy definitely continues today in many ways.

One way to support the uniqueness of Oakland is to support Oakland-specific programs, arts, journalism, and storytelling. 

Liam: I’ve heard Oakland referred to as “the heart of the Bay” many times. It’s true not only because of our central location but also because Oakland still offers the best reflection of this region’s diversity. As far as supporting this unique mix of cultures, we need policies like rent control and more education funding to ensure that longtime residents can stay here and raise the next generation.

What is your favorite historic place in Oakland?

Pen: Dimond Park

Momo: I don’t have a specific favorite place, but generally, I’d say that Lake Merritt has a fascinating history, as well as Chinatown. 

One of my favorite history-related stories we published at Oakland Voices is about a church in East Oakland designed by Julia Morgan. The piece is written by our alumna Marabet Morales Sikahall. It’s lovely, and it delves into some history. 

Liam: I can’t imagine Oakland without Lake Merritt. I’ve walked around the lake countless times, enjoyed so many picnics with friends there, and it really feels like the place where everybody comes together. I’m currently reading a local history book called Deep Oakland by Andrew Alden, which describes the transformations Lake Merritt has gone through over the millennia. His vivid descriptions are helping me visualize what it would have looked like when Ohlone people gathered near its shores to catch the abundance of fish and waterfowl that thrived in its marshy waters.

What’s a story you wish would get covered, but you don’t want to be the one to write it?

Pen: Good question… There are some unsolved homicides out there that I think are solvable, but it would take some uneasy conversations. And in that same vein, the fact that so many homicides go “unsolved” is a story in itself. And that says a lot about people’s relationship with cops in Oakland and beyond.  

Momo: There are so many stories that go untold, and they are usually stories that take a lot of time, patience, and other resources. There should be a whole series about sex trafficking in Oakland—which is a national story, really, because it takes place across the country. Another story is about talking to people who are unhoused. For both, I’d like to see solutions-driven storytelling and ideas. There is some good coverage of unhoused populations by local journalists, so I’m not saying these issues never get coverage, but they deserve more coverage. Another one is interviewing people behind bars—what led them to prison and what can be done differently. Last but not least, interviewing a bipper (auto burglar).

Liam: I’ve always been curious about the filming of “Space is the Place,” Sun Ra’s trippy sci-fi movie that was filmed in Oakland in the early 1970s. I’ve seen a few behind-the-scenes photos and heard some anecdotes about the making of this influential Afrofuturist film, but there’s got to be memories out there that haven’t been shared publicly yet. Sun Ra departed this planet back in 1993, but I saw his band, The Arkestra, perform the “Space is the Place” soundtrack a few years ago, and the experience was mind-blowing. I’d love to hear more about the origins of this project.

What about Oakland makes you feel alive?

Pen: The weather—specifically, the sunsets. Watching the sun go down from the hillside or from a park near the Bay, or even while biking down E.12th at the right time of day. Sometimes, when it’s clear, you can see Mt. Tam from 14th and Broadway. Or you can see Alcatraz from the top of Alcatraz St. (I know, that’s technically Berkeley, but whatever). I love that, the weather. And no matter how much the town changes, the weather will still be the same—totally unpredictable.

Momo: The youth, their outlook, their futures. Our youths lived through some really dire times during the pandemic. We need to support and uplift them and give them opportunities to build community and a sense of belonging, purpose, and hope.

Despite all of this, they really bring hope and joy. An example I mentioned at the event last week was attending the high school basketball championship games in Sacramento. Seeing the discipline and top-notch playing by the Oakland Tech girls and Oakland High boys basketball teams was stunning. The level of confidence to walk in as defending champions (for the girls) and continue that legacy is admirable. 

Another thing that makes me feel alive is the arts and culture, and food scene. There are certainly issues, but it’s an exciting place for art, history, and activism.

I also love being able to hike in the hills, swim in the public pools, and learn about the biodiversity of Lake Merritt—even though the fish die-off from last year was really sad.

Last but not least is the fact that Oakland is a place where you will encounter people from all different backgrounds, and I believe that brings people together. 

Liam: Dodging potholes on my bike!

Questions for Momo Chang

Momo Chang talked about her work with Oakland Voices during the Culture Makers event in March. Photo by Brandy Collins.

Are you working on a book?

I’ve had several book ideas on the back burner, for over a decade. But yes, I’d love to write a book one day!

Author Profile

Please see the links in the byline above the story for more information about the authors of this articles.

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