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Many collectives at Omni Commons found their momentum within the Occupy Movement and seek a radical transformation of society. But instead of the "event-based" activism witnessed at Occupy, collectives at the Omni seek to build infrastructure that poses alternatives to dominant cultural values. This is done by offering a safe space for community discourse, as well as the incubation of community outreach projects.
This month, Sudo Room began hosting a collaborative coding bootcamp called the Cyber Wizard Institute. It has been described as an "un-bootcamp" or "anti-bootcamp" because it is free, collaborative, and takes in students at all levels. "Programming is currently an area where there's a lot of demand in the Bay Area, and there are a lot of folks who haven't had access to any sort of collaborative environment related to programming," said Marina Kukso, a member of Sudo Room. "Most other options are expensive, and there isn't a whole lot of support for learning these skills." Indeed, many coding bootcamps in the Bay Area charge tens of thousands of dollars in fees, which can be seen as restricting access to what has become essential for finding a job in technology, let alone moving up in Silicon Valley's so-called "meritocracy." Kukso explained that Cyber Wizard Institute's mission is very much aligned with that of Sudo Room, which is to give everyday folks the opportunity to understand and create the technology in their lives. "For a lot people who consider themselves nontechnical," Kukso said, "a lot things relating to technology or coding seem mystical or secret, our perspective is ... everyone can learn these types of things."
And the Omni's diversity of disciplines allows it to come up with new and innovative methods for blending technology and arts with community outreach.
P.T. Akwerius (who goes by "Kwe") is a poet, musician, media producer, and programmer, who discovered the Omni a few months ago. A native of Cameroon, he came to the United States to study tech and economic management. After graduating, he traveled to many major US cities, learning about the needs of urban areas through work with numerous city youth programs, after school programs, and media camps. At the Omni, he's hoping to grow his existing media project Afro Roots Hop, a mixed community media project that he started in Chicago and is aimed at developing community media, arts, and education at community centers, art spaces, and schools in Oakland.
"One doesn't need to look far today to see the need for access to technology education, access to a free school, access to a hackerspace, access to digital literacy in an information society," he said. "When one is living in a place that is highly gentrified and that has enormous disparities in its educational opportunities [and] its economic opportunities ... the need is pretty obvious."
Akwerius explained that the use of technology in community-based work is becoming essential, which is why the Omni's blend of technology, cultural activity, and community outreach is important and unique. Describing the connection between these elements, he said, "literacy is really the component — media literacy, digital literacy — is the link, because we're living in a digital society; we're living in the Information Age," he said. "These are not just terms that are out there for people to be mesmerized by, but they're actually changing the way that we communicate, work, and relate, in our families, with our partners, with our jobs, with the environment. Any kind of community-based project ... has a community technology strategy."
Material Print Machine, another collective at Omni Commons, isn't necessarily high tech, but that's the beauty of it. The collective was recently formed by a group of formerly separate small press printers. They have built a workshop at the Omni equipped with an offset printer and a letterpress, both of which are ordinarily rare, inaccessible, and expensive to use. And they're not just using them for their own purposes. "Once you have the initial startup capital, it's really easy and inexpensive to print," said Emji Spero, a member of Material Print Machine and a co-founder of small press and Omni collective Timeless Infinite Light. "By making that a public resource, basically the propaganda arm is available to a wider range of people."
Spero also explained that this could be a good model for resisting economic gentrification. "You know how a lot of people have been organizing in San Francisco by forming cooperative housing? This is a similar project," Spero said.
In fact, many Omni Commons organizers I spoke with said that one of its most immediate missions is to "undo gentrification," citing collectivization, the sharing of resources, Rise Above's entry into the Omni, and their hopes to put the building into a land trust as key examples.
Sarah Pritchard is a member of the Omni Dance Collective and an active participant in an Omni Commons "working group" called Challenging Dominant Culture, which hosts weekly workshops focused on social justice projects as well as how the Omni can be more inclusive. "When I look at Temescal Alley," she said, referring to a small street in the district that has become home to a few high-end boutiques, "I definitely see a certain kind of culture that privileges wealth and the sort of like bougie fancy commodities that wealth wants, and I think the Omni is definitely trying to counter that." She continued, "in terms of art, within our dance collective we have a lot of discussions about how the arts have been implicated in gentrification and how they are frequently the vanguard."