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Oakland was like a bolt of lightning. It split open my mind with a beautiful, powerful energy. It was magnetic. I was drawn to the energy pulsing through the streets of Oakland and intimidated by it at the same time. It is so real and so raw. But people walk around as if the energy harnessed there, running beneath the hot pavement and saturating the mural-covered walls, is something every city could easily have; something not so hard to attain. Maybe the rest of the cities in America do hold the capacity to open your mind like lightning cracks open the sky, but if so, we have a lot to learn from Oakland.

Our plane touched down in the bay area just one day after the largest march our country has seen in decades took place there. Tens of thousands of people marched on the ports of West Oakland in support of the General Strike organized by Occupy Oakland. A sister next to us at the car rental counter in the airport was glowing with love as she told us about marching across the bridge with what she guessed were 30,000 others. “The energy was incredible,” she said. But our car rental agent wasn’t feelin’ it. He raised his eyebrows and warned us about taking the car into Oakland, especially the protest areas; he was clearly unaware that Occupy Oakland was pretty much our exact destination. (I was tempted to ask about their policies on camping in the car or painting f*ck the police across the windows, but I decided against it.)

We – my partner Jalal and I – had come to Oakland for the 15th Annual Community Food Security Coalition’s conference, but we mainly wanted to build with our fellow food justice fighters and urban growers of color in the area and show solidarity with Occupy Oakland after the raid and police brutality that went down just a week before.

Our first few days there, we did just that. We stayed with a mentor of mine Dr. Gail Myers of Farms to Grow, who is an Anthropologist of African-American Agriculture and a long-time resident of Oakland. We toured around the food and farm scene, stopping in at Mandela Marketplace, a cooperative health food store in West Oakland that also delivers food to communities and holds street corner markets and nutrition workshops taught by a retired black farmer. (It’s also where you can find some Besto Pesto made by my new friend Toussaint!) We strolled through one of Phat Beets’ gardens, checked out Mo’ Better Food and stopped in to talk with some of the local volunteers at City Slicker Farms, all of these spots are small garden sites tucked into empty corners or backyards in neighborhoods throughout Oakland. We also met with Nikki Henderson from Peoples’ Grocery and heard about her new adventures of teaching alongside Michael Pollan at Berkeley.

It seemed like every restaurant in Oakland (and Berkeley and El Mission, the Mission district of San Fran) was serving up some fusion of vegan, raw and deliciously healthy grub. On top of that they were either powering their place with solar, composting all their food waste or touting mission statements that combined serving food with a positive message or social justice and cooperative business efforts. Even the food trucks blew our minds. Every one we saw was fitted out with solar panels on the roof and the dopest murals I’ve ever seen painted on the side.  We spent a full hour in the grocery store (Berkeley Bowl), just staring at all the fresh produce and the endless rows of bulk food bins. I was in foodie heaven.

Downtown we soaked in the energy at the Occupy Oakland site.  The vibe among the rows of tents and circles of people sitting on the ground was mellow but weary, like skating on thin ice. There was a feeling of peace and triumph for having re-claimed the site, but it was as if the possibility of another raid hung prickling in the air around us. I had a brief moment of surreality standing there in the middle of downtown Oakland, surrounded by vigils and banners painted in revolutionary graffiti. It made me think of the people that came before us, of the Black Panther Party and of protestors burning flags so many years ago in this city.

The next day we joined Richmond Spokes on a free bike tour of West Oakland, where we gathered in Little Bobby Hutton Park, one of the great sites of the Black Panther Party, and discussed “food deserts” and the level of toxicity the food and water shed in West Oakland endures. (for a visual, basically pour diesel from 300 cargo ships into your backyard, poke around in the soil and see what you find). We ended our tour at the ports where thousands of people held their ground in defiance just a few days earlier.

Oakland by day, however, has nothing on Oakland by night. After the sparkling orange sun slips into the Pacific, the streets come alive. We saw an amazing street performance by a group of sisters who sang about food and tradition while passing out the best black eyed pea soup I’ve ever had. An auto shop by day became an amazing venue at night where we saw Angela Davis speak about the Prison Industrial Complex and our dear friends from Climbing PoeTree perform.

I was so pumped full of energy from within the community of Oakland that when the CFSC Conference started on Monday, it didn’t hold a candle to the movements I’d witnessed outside of the Marriot’s doors. It was definitely the largest food conference I had ever been to, but it also felt a bit corporate and way too academic. By that I mean there was too much talk about the problems in the food system coming from folks that sat at desks too far from the streets they spoke of. Or maybe I was a little hard on them after coming from conferences this year like Growing Food and Justice for All’s gathering and the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference, where most of the participants were on the ground growing food in empty corner lots or organizing youth in their community to take food into their own hands.

There were a few of those familiar faces there too, like Rooted in Community and Live Real from Oakland, but for the most part I walked away feeling like the conference was too big, trying to bring together too many people and cram in so many topics that we were all spread too thin. I felt that we couldn’t really connect, absorb or contribute much.

I did attend some interesting panels despite my complaints.  In one of them, hosted by Nina Fallenbaum of Hyphen Magazine, we heard from tea farmers and food justice organizers in Japan via Skype about the effect the tsunami, resulting nuclear disaster and the government’s lack of support for farmers in the aftermath has had on their food system. It was incredible and disgusting to hear about the Japanese government’s policy to test only exported crops for radiation, while all crops grown for the Japanese is left untested. Not to mention the lack of financial support getting into the hands of the farmers who lost everything, though plenty of money is being sent to the government for aid and support. The message I took away from that panel: Sustainable farming can never be possible as long as nuclear power is in existence.

Though we had been spread thin during the conference, I’m happy to say that with the help of a vegan soul food restaurant called Souley Vegan, The Color of Food was responsible for helping bring some of us together at the week’s end. Jalal and I managed to pull together a last minute fundraiser for my photo documentary project (where $300 was raised!), but more importantly we all got to bask together in that special Oakland light before leaving town.

I got on the plane back to New York feeling a bit speechless,  like I was left standing in awe after a lightning storm.

But I will be back Oakland, you can count on that.

Since October I’ve fallen pretty behind in posts due to the Color of Food fundraising campaign and the mad dash to raise $10,000 in 60 days…But I did it! I will be playing catch up this winter and will be busy planning for the photo documentary trip next year and sharing my experiences along the way…so stay tuned 😉

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