Elaine Brown is no stranger to radical ideas. The 72-year-old former chairwoman of the Black Panther Party has long advocated on behalf of prisoners. Now she is determined to transform a once-blighted vacant lot in West Oakland, California into a thriving urban farm business that employs former offenders.
And the produce they cultivate is destined for a fine dining restaurant in a city fast gaining a reputation as an eating destination.
Brown’s project, announced last October, is ambitious. The first step has been establishing a for-profit West Oakland Farms, whose 40 raised beds are already overflowing with tomatoes, peppers, kale, squash, corn, and other produce. Down the road, Brown wants to add a juice bar, fitness center, grocery store, and tech design space, along with affordable housing on the city-owned property under the umbrella of the nonprofit organization she founded last year, Oakland & the World Enterprises.
“I’m not in the farm business,” she told Civil Eats recently. “I’m in the business of creating opportunities for Black men and women who are poor and lack the education, skills, and resources to return to a community that is rapidly gentrifying without economic avenues for them in mind.”
Think of it as part prisoner re-entry program, part small business startup incubator, and part community hub. Brown chaired the Black Panthers from 1974 to 1977 and, after more than a 30-year absence, moved back to Oakland in 2010. The project marks her return to activism in the city. Since 2013, Brown has been working closely with Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson on youth and employment re-entry projects in West Oakland.
Time may have passed but Brown’s message remains the same: self-sufficiency, self-determination, and empowerment for her people. Only these days, they’re armed with shovels, wheelbarrows, and other farm tools.
Read more at Civil Eats.