Former Black Panther Creates Urban Farm for Ex-Prisoners, but it's Just the Beginning

Farmer and former prisoner Gaquayla Lagrone tends to the tomatoes at West Oakland Farms. ​Photo: Michael Short / San Francisco Chronicle

From 1974 to 1977, Elaine Brown chaired the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, where she worked to promote self-sufficiency, self-determination, and empowerment of the largely African-American community. One of the projects the Party started in Oakland was Gardens in the Ghetto. Forty-plus years later, Brown is still working to create stronger, healthier communities. Her latest project is West Oakland Farms, a for-profit that employs ex-prisoners to work an urban farm located on a former vacant lot.

The mission of the farm is to give the formerly-incarcerated a safe and healthy reentry into society and provide opportunities for them to become contributing community members. The farm currently pays workers $20 an hour but, as the San Francisco Chronicle reports, can't give them more than 12 hours every other week. Food grown on the farm is being sold to local restaurants, including Picán Restaurant, an upscale restaurant in Oakland's Uptown district.

But Brown isn’t stopping there. Under the umbrella of Oakland & the World Enterprises, a nonprofit organization she founded and leads as CEO, she plans to add a juice bar, fitness center, grocery store, tech incubator, and affordable housing on the city-owned property. As she told Civil Eats:

“I’m not in the farm business. I’m in the business of creating opportunities for Black men and women who are poor and lack the education, skills, and resources to return to a community that is rapidly gentrifying without economic avenues for them in mind.”

The farm, which is on a three-quarter acre plot leased from the city of Oakland, is the first phase of Brown’s ambitious project, which will take an estimated $30-$40 million. At this point, she’s raised $300,000 in grants and county funding. As she explained, this program is not a panacea, it’s a model.

“People come out of the joint with nothing to do and $200 in their pocket,” she says. “Once that money runs out … they’ll do anything to survive, including hitting somebody in the head for $20. We have to create positive opportunities for these people to return to the community.”

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