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Qilombo fights gentrification in community amidst own battles

In West Oakland there is one radical group that is fighting gentrification through empowering the community: Qilombo.

To help build an empowered community, Qilombo has created various programs and meetings like community brunches, language learning workshops in KiSwahili (an African language mainly spoken by the people of eastern and central Africa), and garden working days in the Afrika Town community garden.

Qilombo has made its claim as a community center and a radical group on the intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Brush Street for the past few years. Deriving from the Kimbuntu word kilombo, meaning a 19th century Brazilian settlement that provided food and shelter for escaped slaves, Qilombo takes its namesake to a modern level and works to benefit its neighborhood and all of Oakland in different ways.

Qilombo’s roots began in 2011, formerly under the name The Holdout. The group was composed of mainly white anarchists that created a social space, events space, bookstore and bike workshop. However, the Holdout was not successful in creating a social space, due to its failure in addressing gentrification and displacement for black and brown communities. The community center re-opened its doors in Feb. 2014; this time, along with its new name, it has worked to address issues for people of color.

Mills MFA student, Van Dell, works as an organizer at Qilombo. Dell has worked with the community center for a year after she started as a volunteer.

“We have been a part of the conversation to frame what gentrification is,” Dell said. “We make sure that we keep the dialogue going, from that ‘amnesia’ that America has, so that it does get replicated.”

Qilombo and the Afrika Town garden have also experienced its issues with gentrification. For instance, in Apr. 2015, Noel Yi, the owner of the Qilombo property, wanted to sell the lot for undisclosed reasons. Qilombo responded with the all-day event “Liberation Day” on April 3, to spread awareness about Afrika Town’s potential demise.

Organizer China Marchae shared her thoughts on the importance of Qilombo in West Oakland and the community. Originally from Long Beach, California, she began working with Qilombo in Jan. 2015 after attending Sistar Cypher, a bi-monthly open mic held on Fridays at the center. While attending her first meeting with fellow organizers in March, she recalled a bulldozer coming to tear down the garden.

After police decided not to raid and construction workers did not appear to bulldoze the garden on Apr. 3, a victory was claimed for Qilombo and Afrika Town.

However, in the past few months Neill Sullivan, landlord and founder of Sullivan Management Company (SMC) in Oakland, bought Qilombo’s headquarters to create it as a storage center for SMC Rentals. According to an article in the East Bay Express, Sullivan’s actions are an expansion of the hundreds of homes he owns in West Oakland.

There has been a lack of communication between the group and Sullivan after his company gave Qilombo an eviction notice to vacate the building within 30 days. When asked for a statement, Sullivan has not made a response.

“We don’t know what that is going to look like,” Marchae said. “Because of gentrification, we are in a constant battle to stay here.”

Marchae also expressed hope for Qilombo even with its own fight with gentrification and displacement for its volunteers and organizers. According to Marchae, Qilombo plans to spread awareness about the eviction through several ideas, such as taking the issue to court and hosting a block party on Nov. 8 to spread awareness.

“As a space, this [Qilombo] has the potential to start combatting it,” Marchae said. “I really do believe that Qilombo is a battleground for what’s going on right now, and I think it could be useful to folks around here.”