Ella Baker Center open house

I’ve long admired the work of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, after having the opportunity to see co-founder Van Jones speak at Berkeley some years ago, and my current pursuits are bringing me more into contact with their work. Executive Director Zachary Norris sits on the Oakland BPAC and on the subcommittee on policing which I’m contributing to, and the Center also supported last week’s Bike4Justice ride.

Over the past 20 years they have moved all over Oakland, but recently managed to participate in purchasing a building in Fruitvale which will provide them housing security. Rising prices put community organizations are under at least as much pressure as residents, so having a forever home is a huge thing for Ella Baker, and they had an open house event to celebrate.

Ella Baker Center open house

It was an energetic mix of activists, supporters, and community members.

Ella Baker Center open house

Ella Baker Center open house

Ella Baker Center open house

Ella Baker Center open house

Ella Baker Center open house

I was glad to get the opportunity to hear Norris talk about his work. Cycling is only a tangential concern for Ella Baker, but there were a number of places where Zachary’s remarks intersected with the Bike Lab. He started at the Center as an intern almost 20 years ago, working on their youth-led campaign to stop Proposition 21 (one of the many contributors to our system of mass incarceration). He showed us a notebook with a sketch he’d done during a street protest during that campaign, of a traffic light with a “NO ON 21” sign.

Ella Baker Center open house

He said that it was really an important moment for him; that growing up in East Oakland, and even going away to school at Harvard, no one had really taught him how to be an activist; that he could take one of his skills, drawing, and use it as a tool of social activism. Cycling (and geeking) is that tool for me. It’s great to see the youth of the Urban Peace Movement also taking the streets on two wheels.

This past weekend I happened to run into two Scraper Bike Team members (Rodney and Elijah), and while I was helping them fix a flat (another way that the bicycle can connect communities), we talked about the importance of putting youth in leadership positions. It’s hard to keep an operation like the Scraper Bike Team running. RB and Champ are both in the process of making the kind of transition that Zachary did, from member to leader, and they’re both very good at what they do. I’d challenge them to use their leadership skills to inspire and empower the next generation of leaders from their community. Will today’s bike riding kids be taught how they can use their skills to advocate for themselves? Will they understand that change is possible and that they can participate in it?

Norris wrapped up his remarks by relating that in that protest 20 years ago, the Ella Baker Center activists were pushed out of the intersection, and Prop 21 passed in almost all California counties. But it failed in the East Bay and in San Francisco. Since that time, the Center has led successful efforts to stop private prisons, defeat Prop 6, and generally raise awareness about the impact of mass incarceration on Black and brown communities. Now that Ella Baker has its own has its own building, they can’t be pushed out anymore.

We ended with a rousing chant of “Whose streets? Our streets!”

Ella Baker Center open house

Congratulations to Zachary and the Ella Baker Center; I’ll look forward to continuing to work with you.

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