I had the opportunity to connect with entrepreneur and community organizer Trevor Parham, who is also founder and CEO of Oakstop, an Oakland gallery, event, and coworking space that we’re proud to have selected as our new Presidio classroom location. In Trevor’s words, Oakstop is a “Black-owned and -operated business that uses commercial real estate as a platform for community empowerment by providing workspace, meeting/event space, and creative space for entrepreneurs and communities of color.” As Presidio joins Oakstop’s network of creatives, we discussed the origins of Oakstop, the unique challenges that Covid presented, and our mutual commitment to help build more resilient communities—starting here in Oakland.
Jaq: Welcome Trevor! We’re so excited to be partnering with you. We were seeking a local organization that could provide beautiful, welcoming spaces for our community, but also one that could truly align with and further Presidio’s mission. In Oakstop, we are thrilled to have found an organization built on a commitment to sustainability, social justice, and community-centric design.
Trevor: We definitely share in the excitement! It’s wonderful to be partnered with a school that embodies our values so fully and is so committed to creating positive change. We’re looking forward to welcoming Presidio students to our space and to doing great things together.
Jaq: When you meet someone and they’re not familiar with your work, how do you describe it?
Trevor: I let people know that we’re at the intersection of commercial real estate and social enterprise. We rent space on a short-term basis for entrepreneurs, small businesses, events, and meetings.
Jaq: Was that the vision when you started Oakstop?
Trevor: When I started Oakstop, I had the understanding that there was a major social-impact implication to the ability to control real estate, especially in an area like downtown Oakland, where rents and rates of displacement are both rapidly rising. And in particular, there was a social and political implication to a Black person from Oakland being the one to focus on controlling that real estate.
Jaq: Definitely. What were you doing before you founded Oakstop, and how did your vision for it originate? Were you focused on real estate leading up to this?
Trevor: Yes, actually. At the very beginning of 2013, I was doing a few key things:
- I was managing an arts market space in downtown Oakland—sort of a pop-up space, very informal. I was already focused on supporting the artists, and came into managing the space as a platform for supporting those artists.
- I had started working in earnest with a commercial real estate developer here in Oakland, a Black-owned real estate development company that was very focused on the idea of development without displacement and socially equitable real estate development.
- I got my first art consulting gig providing artwork for a coworking space in Berkeley. So through that, I started to understand the coworking business model much more intimately.
So, there were really three threads: supporting artists, working in commercial real estate development, and consulting with a coworking space. The three merged nicely!
JK: Agreed! Those three threads braided together so well and certainly equipped you with the tools to launch Oakstop. Beyond those technical building blocks, what was your vision when you founded the organization?
Trevor: The way we talk about it these days is that we are a social enterprise that uses commercial real estate as a platform to support economic development and community development. At its core, that is the idea.
“When we talk about this idea of a platform for economic development and community development, what we want to distinguish ourselves from is the idea of our mission being focused on supporting the people inside the buildings. Instead, it’s sort of the inverse of that—the buildings themselves are here to serve everything that’s happening surrounding the buildings.”
We understand there is an ecosystem dynamic at play, where we’re able to support many different activities and missions and efforts—and by supporting those things, we see that we are adding to economic development overall in downtown Oakland by creating space for new companies to grow and thereby create new jobs. By having those new companies here, we then attract people to the city to look for jobs, creating more foot traffic, creating safer streets around the neighborhood, and so on. That’s what we’re focused on: how we can use this model and these resources to spur that economic growth, while fusing an intentionality into who we bring into the space, how we structure the offerings, and how we cultivate the culture of the space.
JK: It’s wonderful to hear you talk about Oakstop’s role in Oakland—and finding an elegant way to contribute beyond the folks you immediately serve to consider those in the larger ecosystem. How did growing up in Oakland guide that intention and the work that you’ve done with Oakstop?
Trevor: In building our brand, I realized that Oakland was changing a whole lot. And not just Oakland—society was changing, and things were becoming a lot more homogenized, more globalized. Really cool places were starting to lose their identity to a more universal, generic template. In creating Oakstop, what I wanted to do was create a Place that would be resonant with a traditional Oakland community as I understood it as someone who grew up in Oakland in the 80s. I just wanted a space where, amidst all this changing real estate landscape, if you were from Oakland, you could walk in there and feel comfortable.
Jaq: To that point—so much of what Oakstop does is grounded in physical space, and of all the shifts in the past year, one of the most obvious was physical/social distancing and isolation. How did Oakstop manage through this period? What do you feel you learned about the needs of our Bay Area community?
Trevor: For me it wasn’t really a question as to whether or not we would close down—it was never even a thought in my mind. I just thought, we’ll find a way through this. With that came the question: what do you do with all this space? Two things.
We leaned more heavily into our social impact programs, which were originally conceived of a couple of years ago. The initial intent of these programs was to use Oakstop spaces as a platform to give the community access to free informational and educational resources—workshops and training around economic empowerment and business support services, and access to arts and culture, programming and events, health and wellness training, and even youth development programs.
When the pandemic hit, we realized that we could actually focus our programs to provide Covid relief. We thought: what could we do to lend our spaces for food security programs, or PPE production? And we did all of those things actually, but the biggest thing we landed on was the economic empowerment track, providing funding to businesses that had been impacted by the pandemic.
We started the Oakland Black Business Fund as part of our programming, which is now a new organization that has grown out of our program offering. We’ve funded over 100 Black businesses in the area, providing them with technical assistance, funding, and growth strategy, and also connecting them with other Black businesses in our neighborhood, in Oakland, that could serve as ongoing support resources. It has taken on a life of its own, essentially. It was a way for us to activate and engage our network that we already had in place as a result of being in business for so long, and a way to use that and redirect the network resources toward a specific and timely need in the community that was very much on-brand for Oakstop since we are a Black-owned and -operated business.
We felt more relevant than ever before—less because of our physical walls, but because we’re a community-based organization that’s geared toward supporting Black businesses and other entrepreneurs of color in Oakland.
Jaq: It’s incredible that amidst the tumult of the past year and a half, you’ve managed to evolve and even expand the work Oakstop is doing for the community. You’ve recently opened up a fifth location. What do you see as the key reasons for your success?
“At the end of the day, we’re all about the work, and the work is all about the community. We just don’t deviate from that, and that’s a key distinction. By virtue of that we’re successful—but it’s not necessarily that we’re making the most money in the industry, it’s that our orientation toward being about the work, and the work being about the community, means that other resources that are in orbit of the community end up gravitating toward us.”
People can lift up the hood and see that we’re working as hard as we can to make all of this work and make it sustainable, and so part of what attracts people to us is how much we are invested in what we do. The heart that we have for this has forced us to amass the skill. On the technical side, we’re so serious about this work that we’ve found ways to make this business model sustainable.
We have been committed to have all the numbers come together so that we are able to sustain our spaces. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about—making sure that we stay present and persistent in this community.
Jaq: It’s so clear that Oakstop and Presidio overlap in our systems-thinking approach to community-building and management—after all, it’s one of the many reasons we knew that Oakstop was the right space to root our community. What does our new partnership mean to you, and to Oakstop?
Trevor: I’ve always had an intention toward education and building platforms to create a place for education. Even in creating Oakstop, my background and experience as an educator was baked into how I designed certain rooms, knowing that they would be the perfect place for people to use as classroom space. That’s the first thing—I have always seen Oakstop as a place for learning and for education.
The other piece of it is that we have five locations and are looking at establishing a model where we will have multiple locations within close proximity of one another within central business districts, such that we establish a community campus. We envision people being able to walk back and forth between the different buildings that we have, in order to access different resources that are spread across this campus which is ultimately close-knit enough that it feels cohesive. When we think about Presidio now being at Oakstop, it’s a perfect overlay on this campus concept.
There are other aspects of the relationship that are more mission-oriented. Presidio is focused on social enterprise, sustainability, and business overall, and one of our main charters in running and sustaining Oakstop itself is to help sustain other businesses. We’re focused on being economically sustainable ourselves, but at the same time there are elements of our business model—like having all of our locations on the BART line and accessible to major transit stops—that look at environmental sustainability as well. In this case, we’re asking: how can we encourage people to drive less, or provide them with infrastructure that doesn’t compel them to drive as much?
“The way that coworking functions is that you’re able to supply a growing group of people with a finite set of resources. By virtue of this model, we end up feeding into a sustainability approach.”
Jaq: As I hear you speaking about community impact, you talk about it like it’s a dialogue. How does that manifest in Oakland, and in turn within the groups that exist as part of Oakstop?
Trevor: One of the biggest tenets of community impact is ensuring that the community is at the forefront to the impact. Oftentimes when we look at community impact, we’re thinking about something unidirectional from a philanthropist to a recipient community. Part of what we look at and what I bring to it is that I personally represent the constituency of the target service community that a lot of philanthropic efforts describe at a high level: a Black male living in Oakland who is also an artist and a small business owner, and both my artistic pursuits and business pursuits are constantly at risk. However, based on a lot of exposure, and resources, and upbringing, and even privilege—I don’t consider myself to be a victim or powerless. I actually feel that because of that identity I have a greater, vested interest in creating the impact in the community that represents my demographic—but I also have better insights as to how to do so. In understanding that, I understand that I’m not the only one. There are people like myself who represent this generalized target constituency, but actually have the skills, insights, ability, and drive to create the impact in the community that are being discussed at governmental and philanthropic levels.
Often, there’s a disconnect—those people aren’t really the ones in a position to drive the impact. With Oakstop, we’re aggregating that talent from within the community to (1) have a place to use as a platform and a showcase of their abilities and talents and (2) mobilize those abilities and talents so those people can work together to actually drive the community impact that we want to see here.
Jaq: This is all so impressive, timely, and very much needed. Where do you—and Oakstop—go from here?
Trevor: As the Bay Area continues to reopen, I think what we’d like to do is be of service to what I would describe, in an ecological sense, as “new growth.” There’s a whole lot of new growth we’re going to see in the next couple of years: community organizations, new businesses, new real estate development. What we want to do is be a steward of that new growth through our community campus model in downtown Oakland. We will be a resource for anyone who is here, wanting to engage with this area.
Jaq: That is so exciting! We look forward to playing some small part in that work.
Trevor: Definitely. Meanwhile, we’ll see you around campus. Welcome, Presidians!