Saturday, January 2, 2010

Connecting the Dots: Merritt College Environmental Program Hosts Community Forum for Environmental Activists in Oakland CA.

Photo by Jennifer Jordan-Wong

Connecting the Dots: Merritt College Environmental Program Hosts Community Forum for Environmental Activists in Oakland CA.
Phoenix Smith Thu, 10 Dec at 5:44pm

Merritt College Ecology Center, home of this cool event
During a time in which Oakland was listed as the third most violent city in the United States, an eclectic blend of goodness gathered at Merritt College last month to create a community of possibilities in Oakland, filled with opportunities for solutions and co-creation. Nestled among the Oaks and Monterey Pine trees at the back of the Merritt College parking lot and overlooking the hills in Oakland, lies an inconspicuous house. As you walk along the path leading to the Self Reliant house you might forget that you are on a college campus. You’ve stepped into a project that is a work in progress. The Self Reliant House home to the David Brower, Ronald Dellums Institute for Sustainable Policy Studies and Environmental Management and Technology Program at Merritt College is the meeting place of students and community members and a living lab of green and ecologically sustainable building materials. Oakland is the home of dozens of organizations, non-profits, and governmental entities addressing environmental issues including food justice, climate action, gardening, and water justice. These concerns often compete for publicity, grants, and an audience, and rarely come together to share a big pot of soup, engage in arts and crafts and tell their stories. But on a beautiful day in November, Robin Freeman, Chair of Merritt College Environmental Management and Technology program, City Planner David Ralston and their students hosted a forum bringing some of these groups together to do just that. Connecting the Dots in Oakland was a conversation, between individuals, organizations and communities working to grow and preserve Oakland’s green heritage by sharing their stories and imagining how to initiate greater connection with others to create a community of renewed possibilities in Oakland. Luisah Teish, acclaimed author, griot, and ecospiritualist, set the stage by leading the group in a visualization that connected people to the depths of the earth and to the stars above. Her open visualization reminded us that we, as humans share a destiny with all that exists, the animals, the rocks, the water, the sky and the trees. The intergenerational, culturally diverse forum consisted of youth workers in the Oakland Green Jobs program, environmental students at Merritt College, and a representative from a local neighborhood creek organization, city planners, eco-spiritual activists of Ile Orunmila Oshun, DIG Cooperative, the East Oakland Boxing Association, East Bay Greenway members, and green entrepreneurs. This gathering not only sought to connect organizations and individuals but was also designed to honor the connection between one’s head and one’s heart through shared activities such as planting seeds, making paper and cooking and sharing a meal together. The panelists on the afternoon roundtable included Don Neuwrith of Urban Ecology, Ingrid Severson of DIG and members of East Oakland Boxing Association, Jane Wardani Community Green space planner and youth workers from Oakland Green Jobs, Oakland City Planner David Ralston, Luisah Teish, Eco-Spiritual activist, and Diony Gamoso of Friends of Peralta Creek Don Neuwrith of Urban Ecology shared how listening to the community when planning new projects can lead the work into unexpected directions. “We convened hundreds of community meetings to find out what the community needed in East Oakland to support open space. Parents told us that unlike other neighborhoods in the East Bay their children do not have safe places to be outside.” The lack of safe, green open space in the neighborhood prevented children and community members from spending quality time outdoors. To address the lack of open space, Urban Ecology targeted health issues such as childhood obesity and subsequently received funding to begin the East Bay Greenway. The East Bay Greenway will build multi-use trails connecting neighborhoods, schools and public transit among the region's diverse, low-income communities. These trails will create safe and accessible places to be active as well as address childhood obesity and asthma. DIG and East Oakland Boxing association shared how despite the recent murder of one of their youth workers; they were committed to serving youth from various neighborhoods in East Oakland through boxing, cooking, gardening and water harvesting. David Ralston, Oakland city planner, shared the successes and challenges to creating green and open space for youth in Oakland. Diony Gamoso of Friends of Peralta Creek offered his ten year vision of engaging Ohlone storytellers to illuminate the history of the creeks and the land in his Laurel neighborhood. The synergy of the day inspired many participants to comment that Oakland is such a gem and one participant even pointed out that “This was the first forum I’ve attended where everyone was on the same page of wanting to connect more with each other and to share resources and ideas ”. As folks mingled outside during breaks to create paper, gather herb pots and eat the collective soup of goodness a spark was created rooted in connection to each other and to a shared narrative of hope and new possibilities for Oakland. One flame born from the spark of this meeting and created by two Merritt College students and green entrepreneurs Leslie Cleaver and Nikki Woulk, is Oakland Commons a soon to be launched local online reference and resource guide for all of the great green happenings in Oakland.
The plan is to hold more forums designed in a similar fashion but to extend the invite to artists, spiritual organizations, more neighborhood groups and others interested in continuing the conversation. Freeman and Ralston will continue the discussion in the spring semester with Sustainable Urban and Regional Planning at Merritt’s Environmental program, About Phoenix Smith

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