By Pendarvis Harshaw
The Independent Lens documentary Charm City brings to mind the long list of urban American cities that fall into the same category as the Baltimore seen in that film: Detroit, Newark, Compton, and Oakland, to name a few. They’re all post-industrial towns, where the closure of factories, underfunding of public education and over-policing of people of color decimated whole communities.
Here in Oakland, the issues are well documented: the police department has been under a federal monitor for the better part of the past two decades, the public school district has had financial woes for years—which led to a teacher strike earlier this year. And two of the three professional sports teams that call the city home will be leaving in the next two years.
There’s no shortage of problems to tackle in a town that’s seemingly always featured on the ‘Most Dangerous City in America’ list. But as in Charm City, there are people in the community stepping up to try to make a difference. People like Blake Simons and Delency Parham, the leaders of The People’s Breakfast Oakland, have a method to the madness: provide for people’s basic needs and a city will be a better place for all.
Well, it’s not that simple. It’s not just a matter of serving hot breakfast to a few hundred unsheltered people once a month—but their efforts are a step in the right direction.
“You can’t do anything else if the basic necessities aren’t taken care of; food and shelter are the basic things people need for survival out here,” says Parham over the phone. And then he used himself as an example, saying that he couldn’t do any of the work he does without having meals and a place to call home. “Before we talk about large scale things, we need to take care of the basics first,” says Parham.
Simons adds, “You can’t expect to have a revolution on an empty stomach.”
— Brotha B (@BlakeDontCrack) April 14, 2019
Over a recent weekend, the two organized a crew, used donations to buy supplies for food and sanitary kits, and fed over 200 folks in West Oakland. None of this would be possible without the support of their fan base, many of whom follow them on social media, tune into their podcast (The Hella Black Podcast), and donate to their Patreon.
“Twitter has been a way to raise money,” says Simons, whose own twitter has over 25 thousand followers. “Using Twitter and the podcast as a tool for liberation plays a big role in spreading the model. It allows us to get the message out about our politics. In the Civil Rights Movement, it was the radio. In this new wave, it’s the podcast and Twitter.”
In October of 2018, right before the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense—the internationally known Civil Rights organization which first started the idea of a free breakfast program in Oakland—celebrated 52 years since its founding, an article came out in Playboy magazine highlighting Simons and Parham, who are keeping the Panthers’ legacy alive.
Like the Black Panther Party, Simons and Parham’s efforts are community funded and focused. Not only do they feed people, they advocate for social justice and push for abolition of the prison system—all in effort to show people alternatives to being dependent on a government that has oppressed low income people and people of color.
According to this Forbes article covering HUD’s 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, “African Americans, who make up about 13% of the general population, were 39.8% of homeless people… or triple their percentage of the population.” The same article notes that 30% of all unsheltered people in the US are in California.
That drastically disproportionate number of unsheltered African Americans to the total African American population is no different in Oakland, where this 2018 East Bay Express article noted that roughly 68% of unsheltered people in Oakland are African American. And at the same time, African Americans only account for 28% of the population in Oakland—and that number, from a 2010 Census, is likely now a generous estimate.
When asked why it’s important for Simons and Parham—two African American men with Oakland roots, and who have day jobs in the world of education—to serve this population, Parham says, “If we don’t take care ourselves, no one will. Look at the history of this country, we can’t expect anyone to take care of Black folks, except Black folks.”
Simons adds that the group prides itself on “being in the field” with their politics, and “engaging with those who’ve been the most impacted by the white supremacist capitalist state.” He notes that the majority of people they serve are African American; and most are elders.
So Simons sees the work as a survival program, and asks the rhetorical question, “If we can’t feed our people and provide, how can we talk about revolution?”
Word of their work is spreading. They’ve held live podcast shows at Loyola Marymount University, UC Santa Barbara and in their hometown of Oakland. (In fact, they’re scheduled to do another live recording at The New Parish in Oakland on June 9th, 2019.)
When asked about an overall goal for Oakland, Parham says, “It’s hard to not get into utopian stuff, I’m trying to be real,” with a laugh. And then Parham gets serious and says, “I would like to see Oakland get into a place where [the] Black population is increasing and thriving. A lot of Black folks are struggling and people come to the Bay Area for Black culture.”
Simons added to Parham’s thread by saying, “I want to see Oakland ‘hella Black,’ and I want to make this a model for revolution. Oakland has always been a radical hub for Black folks, I want to carry on that tradition.”
Simons concludes, “People have a classist view of revolution. Revolution really comes from the bottom up, centering Black poor folks, Black queer folks, etc. [It] comes from the people, not from the institutions. That’s why we pride ourselves in being with the people.”
Pendarvis Harshaw is a journalist from Oakland, California. He’s a graduate of Howard University’s School of Communications and UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. He is the director of the documentary film, TDK: The Dream Kontinues. And the author of OG Told Me, a coming of age memoir about Harshaw’s upbringing in Oakland. He currently works as a freelance writer for a number of outlets, and contributes weekly columns to KQED Arts and hosts the radio show Rightnowish on KQED-FM.