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Feature Story: Oakland Church Steps Up for Sustainable Community Transformation

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Post-modernism has a new look in East Oakland, where Allen Temple Baptist Church (ATBC) is stepping up with an array of social programs to address the community’s needs for redirection. Oakland was named because of its agrarian origins; it used to thrive off the presence of manufacturing and food production plants which anchored the region’s economy and job market. ATBC has been a part of the economic transition since 1919. As agriculture diminished and the producers left Oakland, residents were out of work and the community began to struggle. Ironically, the area is now colloquially known as the “kill zone,” and ATBC is responding to the current influx of violence and crime among young black and brown residents with programs that holistically address family health and wellness.

“We’re getting out of the rocking chair of lazy religion and implementing programs that are beneficial to what we see are needs in the community,” says ATBC’s Director of Development Gloria Crowell. Crowell has spent the past 25 years deeply connected to the Oakland community. She is helping build on ATBC’s history of loyalty and leadership by developing programs in the church’s own governance structure. With after-school music and dance programs, sports leagues, HIV/AIDS screening and treatment, anger management, fitness and financial literacy classes, food pantries, elderly homes, boy and girl scout troops, and more, ATBC pulls from the resources of the East Oakland community and partners beyond. They know the importance of collaboration and community; they’re working with the American Red Cross, AARP, Sparkpoint and United Way, Oakland’s Pivotal Point Youth Service, Alameda County, and the California Department of Social Services to serve the community directly.

“Our at-risk communities needed a social program to support basic needs, and ATBC vigorously took on this role. We’re providing holistic services to improve family health and encompass the whole family; alongside our anger management, domestic violence, and parenting classes, we are transforming lives in the East Oakland community and taking critical steps to improve the environment, increase people’s employable skills, and reduce violence,” says Reverend Daniel Buford, ATBC’s Presiding Minister of Prophetic Justice.

Part of Rev. Buford’s responsibility is to address civic and policy engagement, which involves “organizing and empowering people who would not be spoken up for regarding matters most relevant to them.” During an assessment last year, he realized eight years ago the church campus had undergone an energy audit but the recommended energy efficiency upgrades were never completed, and the church missed out on a potential savings of $80,000 over that period. He picked the effort back up, and worked with the Oakland council of Emerald Cities Collaborative (ECC), a national network of organizations working to promote high road sustainable development that links energy, economy, and equity. Together they targeted the new audits, finally completed the lighting upgrades, and are now defining a large solar installation with potential job outcomes.

“ECC and ATBC have a vision to green the church campus,” says Crowell. “ATBC is a community icon and we wanted to take it to the next level by reducing waste and energy use and costs. We want to create a model so other congregations across the country could take a look at what we're doing as a faith-based organization and begin to do it too. We’re excited about the opportunity to potentially employ people right from our neighborhood and community and get them trained in the maintenance and upkeep of some of the solar equipment and waste management equipment were going to install on our campus. It is very important to ATBC to not just have the ability to put it in place, but to do so with a purpose; in a way that’s beneficial to the community and beneficial to the environment.”

ATBC will continue to leverage the campus work and expand into a whole-system community approach with a program called ‘Greening the Ghetto.’ “It’s time to bring life and greenery to a place that is bleak and hopeless,” he declared. The program includes an education program for permaculture farming in urban farms and a recycling program run by boy and girl scouts who earn the money from the recycling. The church campus and greater East Oakland are earning credits and rebates for reducing their carbon footprint, waste output, landfill contribution and energy dependence, and targeting solar energy and Leed certification in the near future.

ATBC knows that as the environment improves, so does the economic vitality of the community. The church and its leadership are committed to getting more capital flowing into the community by saving money on energy, building locally-owned social enterprises, and linking residents to training and more-than living wage employment opportunities around energy work. This is especially pertinent in ATBC’s efforts to identify job training and re-entry employment opportunities for ex-offender and formerly incarcerated residents. “It is a high priority for the community to realize more meaningful jobs and employ people in a way that benefits their families and can take them into the next century,” says Crowell. “I want to see more job training and employment for ex-offenders, with policy shifts that can provide it in spite of the barriers and baggage of their pasts. It’s hard for them to find jobs because of their backgrounds, and we’re trying to be a change agent and shine the light for employment in the green sector.”

ATBC joins ECC’s work with unions, training providers, green organizations, community colleges, and technical experts to learn from and think through ways in which community development can happen across environmental and economic change. “We have to collaborate to think through barriers of employment and figure out the best way to get projects up and running. We’re connecting players who all have experience in a piece of the process. It’s important to learn from and share information with each other to get this done,” says Crowell.

ATBC recognizes that its leadership and its ability to collaborate with local stakeholders will assist the community’s ability to heal and thrive as new economic opportunities present themselves. “We want to show others how easy it is to make small changes and connect the dots so it all creates one big vision,” says Crowell.  

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