Dr. Washington Burns is not resting on his laurels after 15 years as the executive director of the Prescott-Joseph Center for Community Enhancement. There's too much work to do.

“I'm excited about the fact that the West Oakland community is really coming together and is ready to work on a lot of new things,” he said from his office on Peralta Street. “We've got a lot of things we want to do.”

The Prescott-Joseph Center has been one of the major anchors in West Oakland. Formed in 1995, the center evolved out of the conceptual scheme for the adaptive re-use of the former Saint Joseph's Convent (St. Patrick Convent) as a center for community services, education and culture. The center offers a range of services from a food pantry for the community to education and job training programs.

“We've outlasted a lot of nonprofits that have come and gone,” he said. “We've proven in 15 years that we are very committed to serving the community.”

From its inception, the center's mission was to help uplift and support West Oakland. But, gaining local support took a lot of hard work, Burns said.

“There was a lot of mistrust down here in West Oakland,” he said. “The community didn't trust outsiders. Organizations and money were coming into the community, but there was not a lot to show for it.”

Burns knew one of his early tasks was bring more arts to the community.

“We started out with the idea that we wanted to bring in art and culture,” he said. “I grew up in Mississippi and I had been deprived of that, so I wanted to develop a program that was a strong arts resource.”

Today, the center not only has an artist in residency program it also has a program called, “Theater in the Yard.” Twice a year, the center presents a theater production by a person of color and an “urban adaptation” of one of the works of Shakespeare, called “Shakespeare in the Yard.”

Keeping with the arts and culture focus, the center recently took a bow at a swinging gala fundraiser at Yoshi’s in Jack London Square that included Grammy-award winning jazz artist, Patrice Rushen and Ndugu Chancler.

One important factor behind Prescott's success is the partnerships it has built throughout the community.

“A lot of what we've been able to do has been because of our collaboration with other agencies,” Burns said.

Oakland artist Tomye Neal-Madison, who has worked with the center since 2004, said West Oakland has much to be proud of.
“This is a wonderful space for art, a beautiful space for artistic expression,” Neal-Madison said. “And I think it's fantastic that it's located right in the heart of West Oakland.”

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