For the past few months, the residents of an Oakland landmark have been both packing boxes and publicizing petitions. They decided to fight Citi Property Holding‘s efforts to evict them from the historic building known as Liberty Hall.
Ayori Selassie is the Executive Director of Pitch Mixer Entrepreneur Forum, and served as campaign manager for the fight to save Liberty Hall. According to Selassie, “The site is a National Historic Landmark due to the history of African-American change makers who operated in the building. The community activities that have taken place there since Marcus Garvey’s UNIA organization was housed there is nothing short of remarkable.”
The building has been home to Overcomers With Hope, a youth program run by Faye Oliver and Bishop J. E. Watkins. The program has successfully connected with local television stations, creating a two-way pipeline: the stations have a place to donate top-of-the-line equipment as it retires, while area teens connect to mentors and jobs at the stations.
When Selassie heard that the building was in foreclosure due to predatory lending back in October of last year, she began working with her business partner, Akiko Takashima, to rally support and resources. “We promised to do everything we could to save the building,” she says.
They started regular meetings and an online campaign that included a Facebook page with the full history of the building, a Twitter account and hashtag, a change.org campaign, email blasts and community outreach efforts. The diversity of people who joined in to help crossed lines of race, gender, and generation. Among others, Selassie and Takashima were able to connect with Occupy Oakland organizer Shake Anderson, who connected them with attorney Tim Fong.
Fong provided perspective — both on the foreclosure process and ways to work through existing channels of bureaucracy. Ultimately, Overcomers With Hope was able to join with several partners to get the bank to offer the property for sale to the tenants. Then the project organizers raised the necessary funds to purchase back the building. Instead of the bank seizing the property and selling it to developers, the building was sold and refinanced so that community control could continue.
Says Fong, “When we work together, we can fight and win. As a nation, we face the greatest consolidation of wealth and power that we’ve ever known. A comparatively few people and organizations are monopolizing our public life. A large portion of that consolidation is happening through foreclosures. If we want to turn that back, we have to organize. The process that we went through in saving Liberty Hall is something that other communities and organizations can replicate.”
Other key organizations are housed in the building, including the West Oakland Community Information/Resource Center. City of Oakland staff played a key part in the negotiations, too, as the building is still in need of structural repair.
Selassie also mentioned that she was inspired to see African-Americans working together to make this project a success. “When you walk inside the building, you can feel the history on the walls from the photos and stories that are posted there. You also see an amazing television production studio that in the hands of our youth will make a difference by giving young people the skills to participate in the new media economy. The experience of being in that building and working on the campaign was nothing short of inspiring.”