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Community Insights: A Healing Village for Oakland’s Young People


There is a growing awareness about the connection between time spent in nature and our mental health. At the same time, there is a growing concern about the mental health of teens, who spend less and less time outdoors, and more and more time in front of screens. In many historically marginalized communities, a lack of access to nature also amplifies other stressors such as poverty, systemic racism and pervasive pollution.


Black to the Land, a BIPOC-led ecological organization in Oakland, California that encourages community participation in meaningful outdoor adventures, is working to change that situation. Their latest project is a healing village where young people can escape from contemporary chaos – and historical marginalization – and forge a deep and sustainable connection with nature.


The healing village is an immersive internship to give Black youth opportunities to engage with nature through activities like gardening, hiking and camping; learning survival skills and species identification; and community service. With support from mentors, participants also cultivate self-reflection and gratitude, using techniques like journaling to create space for an appreciation of nature, holistic mental healing, and a strengthened connection to their local community and the planet.


We spoke with Community Leads Zappa Montag, an ecological activist with Black to the Land, and Koren Clark, a liberatory curriculum designer at KnowThyselfInc., about their vision for the project. (Responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.)


How would you describe Oakland to someone who has never been there?


ZM: It is definitely a city of complexities, and competing truths. Oakland is a cosmopolitan city, with people from all over the world. There are still a lot of Black people here, despite our declining numbers. But the incredibly rapid pace of our housing crisis and the growth of street encampments has been shocking. Gentrification rolls on, and the contrast between the affluent and the desperate is stark.


It is a tough town in some ways, but also filled with natural beauty and vibrant culture. The crown jewel of Oakland is sometimes said to be Lake Merritt, a 4-mile body of water that sits in the center of the city. It is a great spot to hang out, people watch and get some sun and exercise. It also doubles as a bird sanctuary, but the water is not clean, an unfortunate testament to the lack of protection of our treasured waterways and the many forms of life that inhabit them. There is a low-level social battle being waged between gentrifiers, working-class folks and marginalized people for control of the space around Lake Merritt that spans many decades.


KC: Oakland is a 167-year-old city of hope and beauty, with beautiful lakes, pristine forest reserves and strong hillsides. The long history of this city matches its size and volume. It is the largest city in the East Bay and home to approximately 400,000 people. Each part of Oakland feels like a different city. Oakland’s history tells a story that matches its landscape. [It’s] a story of hope – the hope my parents and others felt when they fled the Jim Crow south to seek healing, refuge and opportunity on the port of Oakland in the west of the city.


That port, now known as Jack London Square, sits on the water between downtown and West Oakland, and is filled with Victorian-style homes. During the Great Migration, it became a center of Black culture, home to artists and activists such as Alice Walker, B.B. King and Sarah Vaugh. A booming Black professional class grew – including my parents – and in the 1970s the streets of West Oakland filled my young body with the beauty of art, joy and cultural pride. Oakland became majority Black, home to political resistance, activism, the Black Civil Rights movement, and the Black Panthers political group, who advocated for free, state-sanctioned community services such as free school lunches, which set a precedent for our nation. As the Black middle class grew, some wealthier Black folks moved into the Oakland hills or closer to Lake Merritt.


After the post-war expansion, a wave of economic policies flew in the face of 1960s and 70s Black activism and many Black folks lost their jobs and were pushed into poverty. Poorer Black folks stayed in West Oakland or went to East Oakland, with a high Latinx and Asian population. East Oakland borders the Oakland hills’ beautiful redwood trees and nature preserves. However, many East Oaklanders’ experience with redlining, discrimination and segregation means they never see past their block. I have lived in every part of Oakland, and though I left in the 70s, I came back in the 90s and attended UC Berkeley. I purchased a home here in Oakland in 2012 and couldn’t be happier with my choice. I love the rich culture, the supreme landscape and the opportunity to lay roots in a place with such a profound history.


What do you see as the unique strengths of Oakland and its community members?


ZM: I think that the Oakland communities that I am part of are tough-minded, radical and hopeful. We really want a better world, see change as possible and employ many paths towards helping us achieve it. I know there will always be people ready to help shake things up when called to action. While sometimes laying seemingly dormant, there is always a volcano of “People Power” lying under the surface in Oakland, ready to explode in a breathtaking display of righteous resistance. This is a powerful place, and we are empowered by being part of this community.


KC: Oakland’s major strength is its history of resistance. Its racial, ethnic and gender diversity give the city a beautiful layer of humanity – a window into each other’s reality to create deep empathy with others. This makes teaching a liberatory curriculum very rewarding and impactful. It also is home to four biomes: Mediterranean, forests, woodlands, and scrub, and over 200 species of birds. Oakland is also an artistic hub, a center for activism, and a nature sanctuary.


What do you see as its unique challenges?


ZM: Gentrification, poverty, and the tricky political landscape. After many years of Oakland being publicly maligned as a terrible place, the tides have turned, and Oakland is now seen as desirable – a fruit ripe for the picking for the well off and the super-rich. Rents have skyrocketed, many people have been pushed out and the community isn’t as tight as it was. Because of these changes, the forces of development and gentrification have successfully sold the public on plans that pay lip service to community concerns, but actually are designed to completely uproot and cast out those who don’t fit in with their plans, socially and politically. It has become harder to figure out how to be effective in creating the change we need, and many can’t even afford to stay here.


KC: The unique challenges of Oakland are the increasing poverty, crime, gentrification and cultural erasure without cultural humility. There is a diminishing capacity for cross-cultural dialogue about critical political issues and a growing marginalization of BIPOC. The school district in Oakland is also failing its children, who are not only traumatized and robbed of an education but also divorced from the essential knowledge of self that they need to thrive.


What advice would you give other groups seeking to solve a community problem?


ZM: I think it is really important to ensure inclusivity from the beginning. Make sure that kids, single parents, elders, differently-abled folks, and any groups that are often overlooked are welcomed and heard from the start. “The community” is everyone, and solutions come from our collective Wisdom, and only when we include all voices can we really get to the root of the problems we face.


KC: If there is a group of folks hoping to solve the problem, join them. Black to the Land and Knowthyself are working to solve the same problem from different angles. There is so much intersectionality – look to the margins and see not only who to reach out to but also who may be impacted by our advocacy and what groups it would be advantageous to partner with. There are many folks on the sidelines who would love to advocate for solutions to these problems. Host teach-ins because education is valued by everyone, even those who have been burned by the system. Host events in nature! It is healing, restoring and rejuvenating, and the weather allows you to host outdoor meetings almost around the clock.


What kind of impact can Black to the Land have on Oakland, 20 years from now?


ZM: Black to the Land plans to be part of the transition to a just, sustainable future, and we see the people of Oakland as a key voice in helping shape this global shift that needs to take place. We would love to have been a group that tapped into the vast creative imagination of our community and helped birth some ideas and institutions that will continue to serve humanity.


If I could dream of big success I would say that Black to the Land could have an impact in helping green this city, and helping to promote a local culture that gives all citizens their natural birthright of clean air, water, and healthy ecosystems, and the joy of a true connection to the land.


KC: Black to the Land will allow Black folks like myself to restore our balance with the earth. Historically, people seek to shape nature through technology and machinery but fail to recognize how nature shapes us and the fabric of who we are. A reunion with nature will not only bring up ancestral memories that are in alignment with our cerebral rhythm, it will also allow us to move on Earth with a sense of stewardship that comes from the depths of our humanity’ a humanity that has been sculpted by nature but threatened by adverse political forces and involuntary participation that slavery and sharecropping introduced. Black to the Land offers a space for ecological and social justice to meet, a place where we can heal, build our skills and restore our divine right to a restorative relationship with nature.

Liz Crocker editor

1 Comment

Julia Y.Feb 8, 2023 at 12:45 PM

This is so inspiring! The future is in strong hands with leaders like this!

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