LEADING BY EXAMPLE: Gaining Ground sparks support for CLTs in Oakland, California

Greenhouse (Travis)

In the midst of a turbulent housing crisis, the Oakland Community Land Trust (Oakland CLT) was created in 2010 by Urban Strategies Council as a way to help Oakland residents fight back against community deterioration. Since its inception, Oakland CLT has been slowly but steadily acquiring and selling homes. But the Community Land Trust (CLT) model is unfamiliar to most people, and the benefits of its unusual structure are not immediately apparent. Steve King, an Oakland CLT board member, knew they needed to do more to get widespread interest and involvement from residents and organizations across the city. But they didn’t quite know how.

This changed in spring 2012 when Active Voice came to them with a copy of Gaining Ground.

As a team of communications strategists who tackle social issues through the creative use of film, Active Voice had recently launched a pilot effort to examine the long-term impact a story can have on a particular community. With Gaining Ground just wrapping up production, and our knowledge of the recently established Oakland CLT, we saw an opportunity.

We worked closely with Oakland CLT to help them use the film as the centerpiece of a “braintrust” meeting of local stakeholders. The goal was to prompt discussion about ways the story could support Oakland residents to revitalize their communities. Some attendees at the braintrust had met or worked together before. For others it was the first time diving into a cross-sector, collaborative conversation about land trusts as a means for community control over development.

The event was held at the Urban Strategies offices in downtown Oakland. Attendees included representatives from community-based organizations like the East Oakland Building Healthy Communities Initiative and the Youth Employment Partnership, city and county offices such as the Public Health Department, as well as finance and education organizations like The Greenlining Institute. Even Gus Newport, former Director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) was there!

The meeting prompted thoughtful and honest reflection about the limits and possibilities of ongoing community building efforts in Oakland. “The film left me wondering, though,” asked one Oakland leader, “how did so many people come around a collective vision? How did they get people to work together?” And as the group discussed collaborating on a community screening of Gaining Ground, the question stuck with King and Urban Strategies CEO, Junious Williams.

“As demonstrated by the film, change takes time,” explained King.

So, taking a page from the film and recognizing the importance of community and youth programs as an essential complement to the CLT model, they took an unusual leap of faith: to co-present Gaining Ground with the East Oakland Building Healthy Communities Initiative (EOBHC), a well-established local organization with strong youth programs. This meant sharing some of the interest and attention garnered by a public screening of the film. They also worried about overpromising at such a nascent stage, but knew EOBHC had the capacity to take on some of the interest and community engagement. They hoped this would be the beginning of a more robust and long-standing partnership with EOBHC.

Together, EOBHC and Oakland CLT co-presented Gaining Ground later that summer at the 81st Avenue Branch Public Library in Oakland. They invited The California Endowment and their local grantees to attend because of their interest in promoting the health and well-being of underserved communities in California. The screening led to a lively large group discussion and more focused break-out conversations that were focused on specific themes raised by the film, such as youth development and resident engagement. Audience members asked questions and familiarized themselves with the CLT model in a new and deeply engaged way.

As one organizer in Gaining Ground explains, while buying into the CLT means residents in Boston cannot resell at market rates, “that’s not the intent of what these houses were for. It’s for people who want to live in a community.” The comments in the room of the Oakland community screening affirmed this sentiment as their own hopes for Oakland.

There are some very promising preliminary results from Oakland CLT’s work with Gaining Ground, even as their strategy is focused on goals that take time, such as educating communities about the CLT model and building partnerships that can strengthen its impact in Oakland. The community screening prompted a request by The California Endowment to show Gaining Ground at their annual Building Healthy Communities convening of 140 leaders from 14 communities across California, each of which got an opportunity to consider this unique CLT model. Urban Strategies has since recruited several members from the original braintrust meeting to be a part of the Oakland CLT’s advisory committee to help plan for its future. And Oakland CLT has gained several seats in EOBHC’s working groups, planting seeds for this model among other efforts in the community.

Gaining Ground offered a perspective few films can; it helped to present an innovative model that protected one community from predatory lending and other practices that tend to fragment communities, and helped them to reorganize based on shared stakes and a shared vision for the future. And doubly, this documentary inspires a belief in the power of change over time, the courage to trust, to be humble about one’s role in an Ecosystem of Change, and to collaborate with others who share the same vision. Sometimes, the seed of sustainable change is just a bit of inspiration among the right combination of people. For this growing new effort in Oakland, Gaining Ground has been just that.


Sahar Driver is Program Manager at Active Voice, a nonprofit nationally recognized leader in the use of film, television, and digital media to put a human face on public policy. Her work to date has focused on T.V. production, the use of story-based film and media to support justice, critical media literacy, cross-cultural alliance building, and policy research that employs practices in power analysis. Sahar is currently working towards a PhD in Anthropology and Social Change.