You could say that East Oakland native Shayla Jamerson is a popular figure in her community, but that would be an understatement. Like the name of her organization, Jamerson embodies the spirit of Oakland and has become one of its modern icons.
Back in 2015, she made her fourth failed attempt to leave the Town behind and, after a seven-month stint in Atlanta, returned home. It was a homecoming that drew 700 people to a backyard rager put on by her friends, cofounders of the house party institution known as Regulars Only. A stage was set up and friends were invited to perform. Sitting on the stage that day and struck by the crowd, she had her epiphany.
"I kept moving away because, growing up, I was told that my gifts would not get me far living in Oakland. In order to 'make it,' I had to leave," she said. "But no matter how many times I move away, I just keep coming home. I just need to understand the fact that I'm so Oakland."
Not long after that backyard party, she launched So Oakland, an events-based organization with a mission: to celebrate her hometown amid, and in spite of, the rolling tide of gentrification.
"I wanted to create something that takes pride in Oakland and the representation of the natives. I wanted to break the stereotype of Black and brown communities here being dangerous and violent," she said. "The people in my community are artists, professionals, all doing amazing things. I felt like it was my responsibility to change what you see in the news."
Her events quickly attracted attention. For So Oakland's debut—held at the now-shuttered Revolution Cafe, once a well-known meeting place for the Black Panthers—1,500 people showed up. But she hadn't wanted people to just come and turn up; she wanted the events to embody the spirit of the Town.
"I didn't want my events to just be a party. I wanted them to have substance," she said.So she began incorporating elements "that would be beneficial to our communities." So Oakland would host voter registrations as well as donation drives for Oakland's homeless communities. They also prioritized supporting local businesses by curating community vendors.
As Jamerson began to empower lesser-known artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs—giving them opportunity to get their names out in front of an audience—her reward has been watching them grow and develop followings of their own.
Eventually Jamerson began to build rapport with the City of Oakland itself. For reasons of security, the Oakland Police Department had long been a presence (paid for by Jamerson) at So Oakland events; "Now I feel like I can walk into OPD's office and work with them on my security needs—I've worked hard to build that trust between us." And on July 30, 2016, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff proclaimed it So Oakland Day.
Were it not for Covid-19, Jamerson would have been planning for So Oakland's annual festival on August 4th, where about 6,000 people were expected to attend. With that canceled, So Oakland Day will instead go virtual on July 30th.
But the organizer is also taking this moment as an opportunity not just to pivot but to explore new ways of contributing to her community. On June 1st, in response to the devastation suffered by local businesses in the wake of the George Floyd protests, she launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Black businesses that had been vandalized. By early July, her humble goal of $5,000 had been blown out of the water—the fundraiser has garnered more than $300,000 to date, and So Oakland is accepting applications for Black business grants.
Jamerson finds herself overwhelmed by the positive response. While many have asked her to share the secret behind her fundraising success, she claims there was no strategy, only the trust she has gained by fostering local relationships.
"With all the negativity, racism, and hatred going on, I want people to pay attention to the fact that people from all kinds of backgrounds have helped me raise money for the Black community," she says. "Before this, we would all hesitate to support any kind of business. Now, everyone is coming out to say Black businesses matter."
Jamerson and her small, all-woman team are still brainstorming new projects that they hope will feel meaningful to the neighbors—for instance, their ongoing partnership with Target features pop-up pantries where those in need can pick up free kits stocked with groceries, household essentials, baby diapers, and more.
"We are figuring out how we can move forward and meet the needs of the Black community," she said. "We have enough negative things circulating—it's our job now, as a platform, to highlight the beautiful things that are happening in our communities and figure out how we can actually change the narrative."