AmbitioUS On the ROAD: Oakland Edition

4 min readMar 27, 2023
Center for Cultural Innovation and East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative staff enjoy dinner with friends from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation and LIFT Economy, after touring Esther’s Orbit Room. (Pictured left, front to back: Ojan Mobedshahi, Erin Axelrod, Ted Russell, Annie McShiras, Althea Erickson. Pictured right, front to back: Noni Session, Angie Kim, Cate Fox, Norrell Thompson.) 06 March 2023.

On a recent visit to Oakland, our AmbitioUS team had opportunities to connect with grantees, investees, allies, and other funders who are dedicated to building new systems often on ancestral foundations that center a different set of values. It was an amazing trip!

Standing outside the shuttered and disheveled Esther’s Orbit Room on the 7th street corridor in Oakland it became clear to us that we were on hallowed ground, a place deeply connected to Black Oaklanders and their histories. We were in front of the historic building with East Bay Permanent Real Estate Cooperative’s Noni Session (Executive Director), Ojan Mobedshahi (Finance Director), and Annie McShiras (Investment and Fundraising Director). Passersby continually stopped our conversation to share their excitement about Esther’s reinvigoration, provide a personal story about the place, and to ask when it would open back up. We are working on it, shared Noni, and come and join us at an upcoming community event! We would love to have you.

Despite having been closed for more than a decade, the proverbial and literal tables at Esther’s remain set for a party. Once known as the Harlem of the West, 7th street was a thriving Black Business district with Esther’s Orbit Room at the center of its cultural and music scene. Like so many communities, the corridor was decimated by design through eminent domain and government-caused blight. But EB PREC has acquired property on this stretch and plans to reinvigorate Esther’s Orbit Room and some of the surrounding buildings in a way that fully represents a vibrant and resilient Black culture with its roots here though its branches reach far beyond.

EB PREC is at the vanguard of creating and developing community-controlled assets (launching one of the first Direct Public Offerings in the country). The organization is often mentioned as a source of inspiration by others interested in creating ownership and governance opportunities for cultural communities under threat of erasure. The nascent field (and investors) has its eyes on EB PREC’s work. While the saying that those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it is often offered up as a cautionary tale, here it feels more like an invitation to practice the principle of Sankofa, to look to the past in order to go forward. We can’t wait to see where this work goes.

Center for Cultural Innovation and RUNWAY staff pose for a picture inside Hella Nuts restaurant. (Pictured left to right, top row: Chef Kami, Nina Robinson, Cate Fox, Jessica Norwood, Angie Kim, Althea Erickson. Pictured left to right, bottom row: Norrell Thompson, Chef Mieko.) 06 March 2023.

We also met up with some of the RUNWAY team for lunch at Hella Nutz, one of the companies in which RUNWAY invests. In between bites of exquisite vegan food, Jessica Norwood, RUNWAY’s Founder & CEO and economic possibility visionary, let us know that she finished her book. We will definitely be ordering pre-sale copies next month (April 2023). More on that elsewhere in the newsletter.

As Jessica and Nina Robinson, the organization’s Fund Director, discussed the many ways in which they are helping capital move differently and lovingly towards Black and Brown entrepreneurs (check out its newest initiative ROOTED). The flourishing future comes into focus in a perfect slice of strawberry cake made by Chefs Kami and Mieko. We need these entrepreneurs to succeed.

Center for Cultural Innovation and Sustainable Economies Law Center staff enjoy dinner together. (Pictured left to right: Cate Fox, Dorian Payán, Itzel Nuño, Tobias Damm-Luhr, Norrell Thompson, Angie Kim, Althea Erickson.) 07 March 2023.

Oakland is full of friends, old and new. We were able to connect with some of our long-time AmbitioUS Allies Ingrid Jacobson and Alexis Frasz whose company is always warm and intellectually invigorating. We had an invigorating dinner with some of the SELC team. Last year we became members of Solidaire and on this trip, we were able to meet its Executive Director, Rajasvini Bhansali, for the first time and yet it felt like we have known her forever. It wasn’t possible to see everyone, and if we missed you — we are sorry! But don’t worry we will be back there — especially if strawberry cake is involved.

Where can you see us?

In April we will be in Austin, TX, at the Consensus Conference (April 26–28).

In May we will be in Wilmington, North Carolina for the Neighborhood Funders Group conference (May 8–11). Or check us out at PEAK, which is happening in Baltimore, May 7–11.

We are also working on a trip up the Eastern Seaboard in late May. Stay tuned!

Hope to see you soon.




We are building a network of allies, funders, and partners for enacting systems change. #CCIAmbitioUS | Hear from Angie Kim, President & CEO @CCI_Arts.