Last Saturday afternoon at the East Oakland Youth Development Center, Oaklanders of various ages and walks of life lined up to have their portraits taken for Nia Imara’s photography project, Generation of Oakland: The People’s Portrait. Over the course of five hours, Imara photographed and interviewed dozens of families and individuals, most of them Black Oakland natives who have in some way been affected by the city’s housing crisis.
“It’s this feeling of not belonging even though I was born and raised here,” one woman said when Imara asked her to define the word “gentrification” as she photographed her and her teenage son. The woman told Imara about how she and her husband bought a house in the Dimond district more than twenty years ago, before it was a “desirable” place to live, and raised two children there. Now, she and her family feel increasingly alienated as the neighborhood’s demographics shift and property values rise. She and her husband fear that her children might not be able to afford to raise families there when they get older. “Our neighborhood is now this place to have dogs and strollers, which is nice, but at what cost?”
Imara’s next subject was a middle-aged woman who came alone. She shared that her family is gathering funds to buy back her father’s West Oakland house, which is under foreclosure. They are among the three Black families left on their block. Meanwhile, their new, white neighbors are paying more than $2,000 a month for one-bedroom apartments.
While many of Imara’s subjects shared heartrending accounts, there were uplifting ones, as well: An elderly woman fondly described helping raise more than a dozen grandkids and great-grandkids, as well as countless other children from her neighborhood. Two teenage girls in Girl Scout vests rolled their eyes as their mother proudly told Imara about their scholastic accomplishments.
Imara plans to use the photos, videos, and interviews she gathered for Generation of Oakland to build an online archive and interactive multimedia platform. The goal of the project, which doesn’t yet have a publication date, is to document Oakland natives’ reactions to the city’s growing income inequality and resulting displacement, which has hit communities of color the hardest.
“Unfortunately, many of these changes [in Oakland] are happening without the input of people who have been here for so long,” said Imara, whose family has been in the city for three generations. “So that was why I wanted to do this project: To be able to tell our stories about what’s happening in our own terms. … No one is going to tell it for us. You hear things in the news from time to time about gentrification in Oakland, but it’s rarely by and about the people who are dealing with the biggest impacts of it.”
Generation of Oakland is a passion project that departs from Imara’s other work. In addition to being an accomplished oil painter, she is the first Black woman to have received a PhD in astrophysics from UC Berkeley, and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While she said that she typically views her work as an artist and scientist as separate, her background as a researcher informed her approach to collecting photos and interviews for Generation of Oakland because the project required her to take on the role of a sociologist more so than an artist.
Imara received funding for the project through The California Endowment and the Akonadi Foundation. She executed the photo shoot and interviews with the help of a team of volunteers who came from several East Bay organizations, including East Oakland Youth Development Center, Communities for a Better Environment, and the African American studies department at Merritt College. The volunteers from these organizations involved people from their communities, which helped Imara find a wide range of subjects to photograph — especially working-class people without immediate connections to activist circles or the art world.
While Imara said that the primary focus of Generation of Oakland is for folks to tell their stories, she also hopes that highlighting the human element of Oakland’s housing crisis will create empathy from more privileged groups. In turn, that awareness could spur concrete policy change and mitigate the impacts of widespread displacement.
“On one hand it’s for the people who showed up today,” she said. “But if we’re lucky, maybe it will get to other people in Oakland who have the power to make some of the decisions about what’s happening — whether that’s city government or people with money who are running businesses.”
While Generation of Oakland deals with heavy themes grounded in the present, Imara’s oil paintings — which were on display at the East Oakland Youth Development Center for her temporary exhibition, Lumiphilia — presented a different vision. Each canvas featured a figure — usually a Black woman — luxuriating in a lush, dreamlike setting filled with light and color. The idyllic scenes in her paintings, Imara explained, represent her hopes for marginalized communities to transcend oppressive circumstances and achieve freedom and prosperity.
“The great tragedy of many poor communities, many communities of color, or people who have been marginalized is that we haven’t been allowed to achieve our full potential,” said Imara. “So my dream for Oakland, and this world that we live in, is that all the barriers that are preventing people from reaching their full potential are going to be broken down. And to do that, we’re going to struggle.”