The vision for Sankofa Garden took shape only after several attempts to locate a suitable garden space in 2018 and 2019. Frustration at the effort motivated Free to “pause” her search and focus on establishing Sankofa Garden as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. A pivotal conversation with Carolyn Johnson, former Director of Commercial Real Estate at EBALDC (East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation), would lead to the first space for Sankofa Garden. Ms. Johnson immediately suggested that she visit the long-vacant garden space behind one of EBALDC’s Oakland properties, the California Hotel. As part of its mission, EBALDC emphasizes working “with and for all the diverse populations of the East Bay to build healthy, vibrant and safe neighborhoods through community development.”
Located in the San Pablo Avenue Corridor of West Oakland, the California Hotel was built in 1929 and for many years showcased well-known blues and jazz performers. A national historic landmark, EBALDC renovated the hotel in 2014, which now boasts 137 units of affordable housing for families and seniors, many of whom were formerly homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Sankofa Garden’s mission of catering to the needs of the California Hotel residents was very appealing to EBALDC. In January 2020, EBALDC formally granted 9,000 square feet of garden space to Sankofa Garden in exchange for establishing regular monthly programs for residents living at the California Hotel.
Although Sankofa Garden is in its infancy, the California Hotel residents are excited about it and look forward to “restoring the hotel to its former glory.” Sankofa Garden’s growing team of volunteers is passionate about their work and already includes a professional chef, a cooking instructor, and a carpenter. A community advisory board, which will provide crucial input on various community needs, is also in the process of expansion.
The Sankofa Garden Team envisions a fully functioning community garden that includes a horticulture therapy program for practicing therapists and an educational program with a wide range of age-appropriate curricula for children, high school students, college students, and professionals who want to learn basic horticulture. Collaboration with other local and national community gardens will also be a way to ensure the continual growth and prosperity of Sankofa Garden.
Charmin Roundtree Baaqee
Free Brown is a licensed psychotherapist in California and Texas with over 10 years of experience. Her populations of interest include the unhoused, veterans, reentry, those living with HIV/AIDS, youth and seniors. In 2019 she was made aware of a vacant garden space at the California Hotel. For 2 years she’d dreamed of and waited for a space reflecting a merger of her values of wellness, service, and a safe space for Black people. Her passion for mental health, her community, and the healing powers of nature inspired her to persistently pursue the garden at the California Hotel. Her goal is to restore this greenspace to its former glory as a community hub, to make the space accessible to residents of all mobility types, and create a welcoming environment to connect with nature.