.Weed Work: Oaksterdam University is still a driving force for equity in cannabis

During the last two years of Covid, as well as the tumultuous, oh let’s say four years, before that, there has been a great rethink in what is really worth doing with our time. Many of us have experienced significant changes in our lives, facilitated by the space provided by the pandemic to step back and think about what it is we care about and how we can live our lives in alignment with our passions and values.

Perhaps no industry is more ripe for this kind of realignment than cannabis. And nowhere is better situated than Oakland. It has long been so.

The pioneering industry institution, Oaksterdam University, has made it possible for budding-entrepreneurs and bud-enthusiasts to seize the opportunity to take their careers into an industry they have a chance to help build.

While originally physically located in downtown Oakland for 20 plus years, the university is (for now) only online, another pandemic pivot to save a vital institution. OU offers the option of either live class webinars or a prerecorded video-based curriculum, an option which opens up knowledge of the plant to a wider audience than was possible with only in-person classes.

Ray Esposto of San Mateo County took the online cultivation course to prepare himself for the job market when things start to open up. In response to my request for a review of the program, he acknowledged that while he was not ready to return to in-person work, he really valued the experience. “I can’t really review it in a traditional sense. I took the course on a 65 inch TV as opposed to driving to a campus and taking it in a classroom,” Esposto said. “My experience was basically watching a super informative, detailed 40 hour youtube video on growing cannabis with exams thrown in.” When asked if this was good enough, he said, “Would I have been better off had the pandemic not happened and I had the option of doing it in person and hands on? Certainly. At the same time, doing it virtually appealed to the introvert in me.”

Esposto provides an example of the expanding base of people who are able to learn from OU’s decades of experience in teaching people the skills necessary to participate in the flowering cannabis culture, whether certified graduates ready for work, or home growers looking to save thousands of dollars per year and become more self-sufficient. The flexibility of the programs means that some people can be a little of both while riding out the remaining uncertainty of the pandemic era.

Dale Sky Jones and Jeff Jones are the powerhouse change makers guiding Oaksterdam through this pivot, with an eye to the real benefits and challenges that face the industry and their students.

Co-founder and horticulture professor Jeff Jones believes this shift is a positive response to the challenges of the last couple of years. “[People] are doing a lot of home growing. One of the courses that was released this year is a whole Home Grow course,” said Jeff Jones in a Zoom interview with the married couple, after their baby was tucked in for a nap. “So instead of a career, people are leaning into gardening themselves, to save the thousands of dollars that they [have been] spending” on their own cannabis consumption.

And yet the real opportunities are in what might yet be the most exciting “new” industry of the 21st Century. Says Dale Sky Jones, chancellor and CEO of Oaksterdam, “The number one favorite compliment that I hear from people is like, ‘I knew I wanted in, but I didn’t know how or where, and then I took your class, and now I know what I want to do and how I’m gonna get there.’”

Students may come in with one idea of what a career in cannabis looks like and may come out ready to do something completely different. Access to people who really know the industry makes that growth possible. “We have a wraparound experience where when you’re in the classroom, you’ve got the facilitator managing the student experience, [a] subject matter expert who’s teaching [and another] subject matter expert in chat responding to [questions] and offering suggestions,” said Dale Sky Jones. 

To be honest, cannabis has always been an entrepreneurial field. It takes the same mix of gile and hustle to gain and retain customers on the black market as it does with an accelerated business plan. Yet in the current climate of outside investment firms, high cost of entry due to policy requirements, and the economic pressures on the industry over the last two years, employment in the industry is a great place to start on a journey that could lead to upward mobility or eventually spinning off one’s own business when the conditions are more favorable.

Many in the industry are focused on the positive impact the legal industry has on the exact people who suffered most under prohibition.

Anthony Alegrete, COO and co-founder of the self-proclaimed social enterprise 40 Tons, knows first-hand how important the swing from criminal enforcement to professional empowerment is. 

“I am a four time cannabis felon,” said Alegrete, keeping it real to open up our Zoom conversation. 40 Tons was designed to help the very people who paid the price for pioneering the cannabis industry with criminal convictions. Often with felonies still on their record, these disproportionately black and brown people may not have the opportunity to land quality jobs outside of cannabis. 

40 Tons provides job seekers resources and support to land jobs in the cannabis industry. This gives those who were here first a chance as employees at the equity-focused companies with which 40 Tons works. 

Alegrete said that the company quickly learned that “career conferences were the way to have the most impact.” The conferences offer practical activities like optimization of resumes, LinkedIn profile and headshots, and even felony expungement workshops.

“Equity is so important because a lot of us lost our freedom to this plant. And so the people that lost their freedom to this plant should be the ones that have a seat at the table when it comes to equity, when it comes to business,” said Alegrete. “[Not] everybody can afford to get into [business ownership], but 40 Tons provides [an] environment for them to start somewhere.”

Based in Los Angeles, the company organizes conferences held around the country, including this past weekend in the Bay Area. Jobseeker numbers at the conferences are often 300 or more, with dozens of hiring companies at the events. The experience of the events can be powerful.

Some of the prospective jobseekers have not had a fair chance for work or been given any support in 30 years because of the limitations that follow convicted felons. “We gave out a scholarship and someone cried,” recalled Alerete. “That was dope.” 

40 Tons is owned by a Black woman, Loriel Alegrete. Having businesses that are of the community and for the community with diverse ownership is one of the things that makes cannabis an industry worth pursuing to many job seekers.

Alphoso (Tucky) Blunt Jr. is the co-owner of the Blunts and Moore dispensary in Oakland. Having raised his family on the earnings of both the black market and now the legal market of cannabis, he understands the importance of valuing the contributions of employees. 

“The kind of people I’m looking for are people that are really just, you know, willing to work but also willing to know that they have a voice at where they work at,” said Blunt Jr. His focus on equity goes back to his earliest days in cannabis, and it found a real focus when he attended OU in the early 2000’s, earning his dispensary through Oakland’s cannabis equity program.

For a lot of the country, “you all can either be illegal or some [millionaire’s] employee. So we’re not there yet” on equity, Dale Sky Jones reminds me.

The power that comes with equity, that is what alumni like Blunt Jr. are working to develop. “Even if you have a union, you know what I mean? It’s [too often] just shut the fuck up. Do your job, go the fuck home. I don’t want to create that kind of environment,” says Blunt Jr. He makes a point to check in with his employees on a personal level. “I really want to see how they enjoy working there, and I don’t want them to ever feel like they don’t like working there.”

That is the key for these job creators. If you are looking for work in cannabis, you have the power to choose the work you want. Get trained, get supported and make this a move for YOU.

Check out Oaksterdam University’s course offerings at oaksterdamuniversity.com
Follow 40 Tons on Instagram @40tonsbrand or check out their career fairs at the website cannabishiringfairs.com
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