OAKLAND, Calif. — Liam Chinn has dedicated his life to dismantling systems that harm low-income communities and people of color. But even after 20 years, it hasn’t been enough.
Chinn currently serves as executive director of Restore Oakland, which will open in early 2019. The new advocacy and training center in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood aims to tackle a range of issues related to race and poverty, all under one roof.
Chinn described a new vision for community safety that’s grounded in restorative justice and economic opportunity.
“For far too long, the public perception has been that safety comes from punishment and prison, but that worsens cycles of violence and poverty,” he said. “We need to break that cycle.”
Restore Oakland – a joint initiative between the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) – will serve a neighborhood with few economic opportunities for youth and one of the highest incarceration rates in the San Francisco Bay Area. Funding came, in part, from a $1 million gift from an unnamed donor, who gave a total of $34 million in 2015 to community-focused efforts in the city.
The nonprofit’s partners, which include Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, Causa Justa :: Just Cause, Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, Community Works West and La Cocina, have long struggled against questionable government policies and bureaucracy. Zachary Norris, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, said Restore Oakland was born out of frustration with government officials who spend taxpayer money on punishment and prisons instead of solutions that community activists say will lead to progress.
“Local officials too often either continue to fund the sheriff’s department or rely on nonprofit providers who are doing job training but aren’t placing people in jobs,” he said.
A number of studies show that restorative justice promotes healing and reduces recidivism rates. Restorative justice is a theory and approach that emphasizes repairing harm caused by criminal behavior, according to the Center for Justice & Reconciliation, and it’s best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all people involved.
But that work only goes so far if not paired with economic and employment opportunities, especially in communities devastated by the government’s War on Drugs strategy and mass incarceration.
Restore Oakland will make economic opportunities a priority by offering a tenants’ rights clinic, a small-food business incubator and job training.
The new nonprofit will house COLORS, a cooperative restaurant that will sell high-quality, affordable food while also providing job training, livable wages and opportunities for advancement to community members. COLORS in Oakland will be ROC United’s largest venture yet; the organization already runs similar restaurants in New York City and Detroit.
The restaurant industry employs 14 million workers and is one of the fastest growing sectors of the nation’s economy. Despite its growth, restaurant workers experience poverty at nearly three times the rate of workers overall, and workers of color experience poverty at nearly twice the rate of White restaurant workers, according to ROC United’s report, “Ending Jim Crow in America’s Restaurants: Racial and Gender Occupational Segregation in the Restaurant Industry.”
Livable-wage positions like bartenders and poverty-wage positions like dishwashers tend to be sharply divided by race. Chinn says the study shows the farther back you go in the kitchen, the darker the skin gets. At COLORS, ROC United’s Hospitality for Workers program will train people with no restaurant experience to become bartenders and servers.
“I’ve been doing this kind of organizing work for 15 years,” said Evelyn Rangle-Medina, director of ROC United of California. “Our program provides people who have been incarcerated with career pathways and opportunities for healing. This will create alternatives to the deep displacement we’re seeing in Oakland and the Bay Area.”
Many longtime residents, activists and nonprofits with deep ties to Oakland have been forced out of the city by high-housing costs and other symptoms of gentrification. That’s why Restore Oakland plans to provide below-market office space for local nonprofits and community organizations. Space for public meetings and co-working will also be available at reduced costs.
“We’re drawing a line in the sand to say we’re going to fight for the community,” Chinn said. “The key mandate is to bring together different partners to dream about how we can synergize, collaborate and evolve into something that will provide a holistic approach to helping individuals transform their lives.”
Restore Oakland and its partners are hosting listening sessions with community members to find out more about their needs. So far, they’ve heard that the economic boom in the San Francisco Bay Area isn’t being felt in East Oakland. And young people say they would benefit from after-school programs.
“We’re developing Restore Oakland to spark imagination,” Norris said. “We see it as a place where people will come together, dream, organize and act.”
Rose Aguilar is a San Francisco-based journalist and host of “Your Call,” a show about politics and culture on public radio station KALW. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included. The top image is courtesy of Restore Oakland. This story has been updated since it was originally published March 9.
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