Omni Commons Opens Collaborative Space for Collectives in Oakland

Common physical spaces where people can meet in person and connect with the public are more important than ever in an increasingly disconnected digital age. As urban property becomes more unaffordable and commercialized and the commons disappear, some groups are pooling their resources for shared space, shared resources, and creative collaboration. Shareable has done profiles on several of these rare community spaces: the Share Exchange in Santa Rosa, CA; Civic Lab in Chicago;  Community Supported Everything in Portland, OR; FreeSpace in San Francisco and Cass Corridor Commons (which has hosted several Shareable projects) in Detroit. Shareable recently caught up with collective members of a new space opening in Oakland, California, called Omni Commons, to get the inside scoop on model, challenges, and vision for the space.

Omni Oakland Commons, formed by a collective of collectives, is an inclusive, community-run center with open access to shared resources and a venue for creative projects and activities. The Omni aims to be a replicable model for resilient community-building in our cities. The vision is a gathering space that fosters an ethic of radical collaboration across disciplines and between individual collectives. They just launched an ambitious crowdfunding campaign to raise the funds to open their doors to the public.

The Omni Commons is active resistance from the grassroots. The forces of gentrification, slashed budgets for social services, and corporate takeover are threatening Oakland's diverse landscape of independent art, learning, culture, and activism. In creative response, a team of volunteers is developing a public commons in an historic 22,000 square foot building, which was originally a union hall and then a rock club before its current incarnation. Their large ballroom, stage, dance studio and small rooms are available for rent on a sliding-scale basis to values aligned groups that are not yet official members.

Virtual tour of the Omni Commons

Why do you think shared space is so crucial, especially in Oakland?

Too often, creative problem-solving initiatives that aim beyond profit and private interests lack the common space and resources to start and sustain themselves. Shared space or “common” space is becoming increasingly rare as land has transformed from a means for basic human food and shelter to a primary means of investment and revenue generation. When public space is taken away or made inaccessible to most, the public voice of the majority is also diminished. A physical commons for public gathering fosters face-to-face interaction with people whom you might not otherwise meet, sparking creative ideas and solutions to community problems in a way that cannot be supplanted by the next killer app on the internets. In the commons, we are more free. Shared space is for everyone and should be preserved for current and future generations.

How do the organizations and members collaborate in addition to sharing space?

Our various working groups are open to all, and it’s in these groups that a great deal of work and organizing happens between and beyond the different collectives. From organizing the critical mass needed to haul out over 13 tons of debris and old law books left in the basement, to scheduling our common spaces, staffing the welcome desk, and building communications tools and documentation, the amount of work we can accomplish is only possible through collaboratively and harmoniously “playing house” together. And we do so in tandem with the joys of shared meals, song and dance - celebrating our commons!

La Commune Cafe and Bookstore at Omni Commons

What's the wild vision for Omni Commons? Is it a community space? Something else?

Some of our goals are ‘wild’ but most are just beautifully human. Purely profit-driven entities, such as mass media and monolithic corporations, play a powerful and usually negative role in shaping and distorting our personal beliefs and interpersonal behaviour. Simply by being able to gather in-person and connect with others regularly in a self-organized manner, we begin to demystify our own notions of who we are as socially-situated individuals. We begin to overcome the legacy of separation we have inherited with the commodification of our environment, labor, and bodies. Counterbalancing our unbalanced society in the direction of something collectively owned and shared for the greater public good should not be considered extraordinary, but in this day and age, it often is.

Our grand vision is enacted daily as we work collectively to equitably share resources, space, food, knowledge, and healing. We stand in solidarity with the needs and perspectives of marginalized and oppressed people everywhere, and work alongside those solving real problems in the pursuit of building a better world.

What's your business plan or how do you make ends meet?

There are three ways we cover costs to grow and sustain our efforts: member collectives make a monthly, sliding-scale contribution toward shared expenses; non-member groups pay a sliding-scale fee to host events in our common spaces (such as the ballroom or dance studio); and we accept both donations – like our “Help Open Our Doors” crowdfunding campaign - as well as long-term, no-interest loans. We have no investors - until now the effort has been overwhelmingly small loans and donations from our community - and we have already paid back over $25,000 in interest-free loans!

RIght now, it’s a shoestring operation, since most of the groups involved are volunteer-run and funded from donations themselves. As such, we choose to share what we have and invite others to join us in pooling resources for the greater use of those who need them most. 

We dream of eventually raising the funds to buy the building and assign it to a community land trust, ensuring its historical continuation as a space for communities to converge, collaborate, create and recreate together. Once we are open to the public, we will be able to cover our monthly expenses through a limited number of full-price rentals of our largest spaces.

How did you all decide to work together?

For many of the core organizers, the notion of sharing this new space was quite natural. The Bay Area Public School and Sudo Room were already sharing a common space in downtown Oakland, which provided meeting and event space for groups such as the Bay Area Community Exchange Timebank, the Oakland Privacy Working Group, Occupy Oakland, the Community Democracy Project, and many more. Counter Culture Labs was already hosting their open meetings and classes in Sudo Room, and many in the community were regularly volunteering with Food Not Bombs. Several members of the Public School are poets and independent publishers, inspiring a natural partnership with Timeless, Infinite Light and the formation of the Material Print Machine. Many other individuals, groups and projects have gravitated to the space with complementary visions and projects, and the community continues to grow organically.

Sudo Room Makerspace at Omni Commons

What challenges have you had so far and how did you work through them?

Inviting and including member groups that act as active stewards of our commons, beyond simply using it in exchange for money, is an endless learning opportunity and challenge, and we embrace the flux of changing and evolving membership. A few major aspects stand out:

Communication and infrastructure: Dialogue is always a challenge in an all-volunteer collective, and time and experience in tackling shared challenges together continues to generate communal trust. Genuine ability to give one another the benefit of the doubt makes a huge difference in our group as we find ourselves in uncharted territories, from event scheduling systems to city permit to-do’s.

Workload: Omni is in many ways a do-ocracy, where people do what they want to while being excellent to each other when doing so. When work becomes complex and high-stakes for a long time - for example, planning and preparing to open to the public with all permits in place - we work extra hard to coordinate and cooperate with one another. Sometimes, individuals overburden themselves and forget to ask for and accept peer support. The good news is, because we do have so many amazing people actively making Omni awesome, newcomers often find themselves inspired to bring their new perspectives and energy making it all happen.

Funding: Omni is committed to being a space that is accessible and inclusive for all of Oakland. When we initially organized to sign our lease, we were able to pool enough funds from our community to get the keys and renovate sufficiently to host some events. However, our beautiful building is 80 years old! Complying with modern building codes for fire, health safety, and accessibility that will allow us to open to the public will require a lot of money. Raising enough money and coordinating enough volunteer labor to open soon enough is a major challenge. If we can raise $80,000 by early January, we can speed through building improvements necessary to open our doors and grow a commons for all of Oakland.

Theatre and Ballroom at Omni Commons

Are there any particular models you were inspired by?

Coming together around campfires to share food, song, and dance has always been a part of being human. We love and appreciate libraries and religious centers as some of the longest-standing forms of institutional commons, because many provide incredible access to knowledge, food, shelter, and simple human connection. We’re inspired by comrades around the world self-organizing to reclaim the commons and heal the planet.

Who is allowed join as a member and how do they get started?

We’re committed to creating a commons that addresses the needs of Oakland, and encourage aligned groups and individuals to join us in that effort. With that said, the Omni Commons is not defined by its membership, but rather the spirit that animates it - one of welcoming, cooperative and do-ocratic participation. Introduce yourself at our monthly ‘Omni Gathers’ every second Sunday or join a weekly general meeting to learn more about getting involved!

Our shared values include the radical commoning of space and resources, liberation of knowledge, transformative justice, and solidarity with struggles against capitalism, racism, misogyny, and other forms of violence. If you’re working toward similar goals, we encourage your involvement! Our proposal process involves answering a few simple questions on our wiki and hashing out the details with the community in a spirit of mutual aid and good faith.

Individuals are always welcome to use the space, attend events, and participate in building our commons. From free yoga classes and writers’ groups to shared tools and meals, we endeavor to create a space for anyone and everyone to share.

Are you hoping to one day buy the building? Do you have a plan for making that happen? What would be the ownership structure?

We fully intend to buy the building and convert it to a community land trust that grows with Oakland. Our lease is three years long with two three-year extensions, but during the first three years we have the option to buy for $1,950,000. We’re weighing options with community land trusts to ensure ownership and stewardship of the property is done right. For now, we need to build our capacity to sustain our effort and fundraise. In order to generate enough income to meet our expenses, we need to open our doors!

The outside of the Omni Commons Building

What tools do you use for communication and what kind of decision-making process do you use for engaging your wide range of participating organizations?

We’re always hacking on our communications infrastructure, which is composed of in-person meetings, digital tools, and is basically embedded in every interaction.

Each week, our open delegates meeting is facilitated by two people - ideally one who hasn’t facilitated before - and others help out by keeping time, taking stack (keeping track of who indicated they would like to speak), taking notes and checking the vibe. Minutes are recorded on shared document editing software (https://pad.riseup.net) so that anyone with a laptop participating in the meeting can help take notes, and others who can’t make it can participate remotely. The notepad contains proposals from the various collectives and working groups over the previous week, which are discussed and passed, amended or blocked through consensus of the delegate representatives of each member group.

Our meeting notes and many other aspects of the project are located on our wiki. We’re dedicated to transparency and documenting everything we do for ourselves and others to learn from our successes and failures. While in-person meetings and work parties are essential to our daily functioning, we also have over a dozen mailing lists for anyone interested in particular projects and working groups to communicate and stay updated on progress.

Who's part of Omni Commons currently?

The Omni Commons community is already composed of an ever-growing ensemble of collectives and projects:

  • Food Not Bombs: Reclaiming food to ensure all are fed, since the 1970s,
  • Counter Culture Labs: A self-sustaining biotech laboratory that makes science accessible outside of academia
  • Sudo Room: A hackerspace where anyone can come make things and work on projects, such as a community wireless network that provides free public Wi-Fi,
  • The Bay Area Public School: A horizontally-organized all-volunteer university
  • Backspace Wellness Collective: Providing affordable access to health practitioners and bodyworkers
  • Omni Media Project: Providing education and resources for making independent media to those without access
  • Material Print Machine: A community print shop for self-publishing
  • La Commune: A worker-owned cafe and bookstore that serves as the entrance to Omni Commons
  • Timeless, Infinite Light: An Oakland small press focused on contemporary poetry and critical theory
  • Black Hole Cinema: A space and celluloid film lab far outside of commercial industry
  • Contemporary Art Museum of Oakland: A visual art gallery utilizing the walls of the Omni Commons
  • Peak Agency: A collective running campaigns with grassroots causes and ventures
  • Omni Music Project: A music performance and recording project at the Omni
  • Rise Above Graphics: A print shop producing art, posters, shirts, and revolution
  • Optik Allusions: A radical film collective dedicated to social change

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Share their campaign and press release to open their doors to all of Oakland

Find more info at www.omnicommons.org

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