Effie Tesfahun, lead organizer, Oakland In the Black. Photo credit: Michael Orange.
This is the first in our RealOakFolks multi-media project. Each month, we’re bringing you one to two profiles of Oaktown’s black culturemakers – a diverse group of folks who are leaving an indelible mark on the city we call home.
On a recent, rainy Saturday, Effie Tesfahun spent hours going in and out of retail stores in the Uptown, Downtown and Old Oakland areas. She wasn’t shopping; she was on a mission, meeting with store owners to coordinate Oakland In the Black, a holiday shopping and street fair beginning at 11 a.m. on November 23.
Designed to encourage people to support independent, local businesses with their dollars, Oakland In the Black includes new and popular ventures like OwlNWood at 45 Grand, Nneka at 1427 Broadway and Runway Style House at 1615 Broadway. But also on the list are less visible Oakland stalwarts, such as Funky Soul Stop at 1811 Jefferson, A Diva’s Closet at 383 17th and Makin Endz Meet at 398 17th.
“People pass by all the time, saying, ‘Oh, we never knew this was here,'” one store owner told Tesfahun.
“It’s a beautiful store, and more people need to know it’s here,” Tesfahun said.
For Tesfahun, that’s what In the Black is all about – shining a spotlight on both the new establishments and the longtime enterprises that have contributed to the city’s economy for years, often to little fanfare. She sees these stores, and their owners, as Oakland’s hidden gems.
Some “are completely off the beaten path, and nobody gets to know that they are there,” she says. “If you walk in there and meet the people that have these stores, what you get to learn about the city you live in is probably the best part of In the Black for me.”
In the Black began in 2011, the idea sparked by the energy of the Occupy Oakland movement, in which Tesfahun participated. “We were marching for a lot of causes that I felt strongly about,” she says. After a while, she wanted to do more than march. “I didn’t need to go smash a window at Macy’s,” she says. “But we could show people what’s here. We had this momentum, and I thought we could do something for Black Friday.”
She approached a group of collaborators, such as Rachel Konte and Penelope Adibe, two entrepreneurs who at the time helmed the successful pop-up shop, Oakollectiv. With mere days of planning, the group launched Oakland In the Black as an alternative for shoppers on the biggest shopping day of the year, Black Friday. An estimated 1,000 people, including Mayor Jean Quan, came out for the inaugural street fair, which had vendors and live performances.
“It was an incredible, incredible ride,” Tesfahun says.
In the Black became part of the burgeoning “shop local” movement that includes Oakland Grown and Plaid Friday. This year’s festival again will be centered at 14th and Broadway. Thirty-six businesses are listed on maps that attendees will receive to guide them through Oakland’s shopping scene. Runway Style House at the Cathedral Building is hosting a fashion show, and also in the mix are live performances and a lengthy lineup of local DJs. The city is offering free parking.
Tesfahun, an Ethiopian American who lived in the Bay Area on and off since 1997 before officially moving to Oakland four years ago, hesitates to call herself an organizer. “I like to do things in the community and support where I am living,” she says. But she clearly has the talent for galvanizing people to address needs that she sees in the community. That’s why In the Black has a particular, although not singular, focus on the city’s African American businesses.
“Oakland has changed a lot even in the short time I have been here,” she says. “One of the issues I had, there are a lot of black business owners that are kind of getting pushed out. There is just so much new ideas and innovation that we are forgetting those that were there way before we even got here. We are not saying let’s not be diverse in Oakland, but we need to be included and we need to be inclusive. It goes both ways.”
Beyond the holiday shopping event and festival, Tesfahun and her partners already are brainstorming plans to expand Oakland In the Black as a platform to help build sustainable and thriving local, independent businesses.
“This event is like the big hurrah,” she says, “but it’s not just only about a party or only about an event. We want to help take the businesses, be it vendors, or brick and mortar, to the next level, whatever that means for each store.”
The feedback that Tesfahun is receiving from business owners strengthens her resolve.
“We need it down here,” Gert Hayes, owner of A Diva’s Closet, told Tesfahun when she stopped by on Saturday. “Thank you.”
“If we do this together as a community, everybody benefits,” Tesfahun replied. “You will grow, and people will get jobs. We’ve got more coming for you next year.”
Find out more: Oaklandintheblack.com
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