Black and white photo of a woman with curly, shoulder-length hair against a light green backdrop of a city

Community, Compassion, and Care: A Conversation with EcoBlock’s Cathy Leonard

Eunice Chung

Cathy Leonard is the Community Liaison for the Oakland EcoBlock project. Born and raised in Oakland, CA, Cathy is actively involved with the city: She is the founder and executive director of Oakland Neighborhoods for Equity (ONE) and a board member of the Golden Gate Community Association, Coalition for Police Accountability (CPA), and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. Cathy regularly attends Oakland’s City Council and committee meetings and was previously part of the Community Policing Advisory Board (CPAB). In her interview, Cathy reflects on her family’s long-standing roots in Oakland and shares how a respect for local history and culture shapes her own approach to community activism. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

EC: Tell me about your history with the City of Oakland. What was it like growing up? 

CL: I was born in West Oakland and lived in an apartment managed by my paternal grandmother. My family later moved to the Santa Fe neighborhood in North Oakland, where I lived eight blocks from my maternal grandparents, 20 blocks from my dad’s mother and stepfather, and around the corner from my grandmother’s brother and his wife. I had a very rich childhood in North Oakland, where we stayed until I was in the third grade. 

My family and I briefly moved to Santa Barbara before coming back to North Oakland. To give you some context, the majority of Black people who settled in Oakland came from Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas during the Great Migration. If you look at San Francisco, Richmond, and Oakland during that time, that’s where people lived. We knew everyone on our block—there was a lot of commonality and culture. 

We then moved to Telegraph Avenue in North Oakland. My grandmother had an antique shop at the time called Gill’s Antiques. She was the first woman I knew who had her own business and was the first Black antique dealer in the Bay Area. You can imagine her struggles as a dark-complexioned woman in a white man’s industry. 

At some point, we moved to East Oakland, where there was even more of a sense of community. That’s where my teen years were spent—I really loved living there. After moving to Pacifica for a short time, my family returned to our home in Santa Fe, where we are now. 

A group of people smiling
Cathy and local leaders attend a community meeting at Santa Fe Elementary School in North Oakland. Photo courtesy of Cathy Leonard

How did you first get involved in community activism? 

The mayor at the time, Elihu Harris, had a summer program where they would get local businesses to hire youth. At 18, I was too old to qualify, but there was a woman involved in the program who said, “Hey, my husband is an attorney and he’s looking for a secretary. Would you like to work with him?”

So I went to this office. At some point, one of the guys I was working for was going to move to a firm in North Oakland. He said, “You could either stay here with these attorneys—who were all very nice and welcoming—or you can come with me to North Oakland.” He gave me the location and I said, “Hey, that’s two blocks from my house. Yes, I’m coming!” 

So I worked for him and another attorney. Our first Black mayor, Lionel Wilson, and one of the first Black judges for Alameda County, Judge Wilmot Sweeney, came out of that office—in fact, Judge Sweeney left for the judgeship a year before I started working with this firm. That’s where the activism comes in: There was one case where the city planned to close a fire station in West Oakland, which is an old community. This caused an uproar because the majority of buildings in West Oakland are flammable, wooden structures. Part of the neighborhood is also zoned for industrial use, which requires access to a nearby fire station.

A huge community meeting was called by the fire department, which I attended with one of the attorneys. I remember Henry Gardner, the City Manager at the time, trying to point out why the city needed to close this station—they hadn’t expected outrage from the community. I had a front-row seat and saw the community rise up and say, “No, you’re not going to take this fire station from us,” and actually win that argument. It was empowering!  

What did you do next?

I worked for a while then ended up going to college at UC Berkeley, where I was active on campus. I was one of the student representatives for the Ethnic Studies department and Student Grievance Committee, and was also the treasurer for the Black Student Union. I was in the African American Studies department, which, at the time, had broken away from Ethnic Studies and joined the College of Letters and Science. The remaining Ethnic Studies departments were Asian American, Chicano, and Native American Studies. 

Exciting things were happening on campus. One of my classmates, Ronald Stevenson, got a group of us involved to accomplish two things: rename the ASUC Student Union to the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union and rename Grove Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Both were accomplished.  

My activism continued with the apartheid march against South Africa. Eventually, my classmates, many others, and I persuaded UC Berkeley to divest its massive holdings from South Africa. We were all there when Nelson Mandela came to the Oakland Coliseum. It was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had, seeing a man who had been fighting against apartheid his entire life be released from jail and visit my hometown. 

By then, I had graduated from Cal and started working. I co-founded a nonprofit in my neighborhood of Santa Fe and worked with city leaders and staff on local improvements, including a number of successful repaving projects and the adoption of two neighborhood plazas. I spent about four years with that organization and at some point, left to form Oakland Neighborhoods for Equity (ONE). I also asked to be on the board of a partner nonprofit organization, the Golden Gate Community Association (GGCA), where we’re doing work around transportation, safety, and rezoning. Currently, ONE and GGCA are partnering on several community projects as well as on a neighborhood pilot plan. 

A multi-story academic building in the center of a campus plaza
The Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union is a central hub for student activity at UC Berkeley. Credit: Bruce Damonte

What are some memorable initiatives you’ve engaged with? 

I was heavily involved in a dispute with AC Transit. Before AC Transit, there was a railroad system called the Key Route, which serviced Oakland and Berkeley. The Key Route system had a Transbay F bus line, which serviced UC Berkeley and North Oakland to San Francisco via West Oakland. When the Key Route system was dissolved, the F Transbay bus came into service, and Emeryville was added to the route. 

In 2015, I learned that AC Transit had proposed to reroute the F bus, remove it from North Oakland, and substitute it with a bus with shorter service hours. In disbelief, I immediately organized residents from three neighborhoods in North Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley. 

Over 700 people signed my petition to keep the F bus line. We attended the Emeryville and Oakland City Council meetings and received support from two Oakland council members. We ended up prevailing, and to this day, we still have our neighborhood F bus.

I’m also a board member of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which funds housing, economic development, and public service projects for low- and moderate-income residents in urban communities. One of my proudest moments was persuading my fellow board members, most of whom were unfamiliar with Oakland, to vote to allot funds to the Bushrod Recreation Center

Many famous athletes raised in Oakland played at Bushrod during their youth. They included Bill Russell, five-time NBA MVP winner, and Curt Flood, three-time All-Star and the man responsible for the demise of Major League Baseball’s reserve clause. It was great to keep the center and the athletes’ legacies alive. 

A white bus in front of a bus stop
AC Transit’s F bus runs from the UC Berkeley campus to the Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco. Credit: The E’ville Eye

As the Community Liaison for the Oakland EcoBlock, you serve as a mediator between the research team, who leads the project, and the neighborhood residents, who drive it. How do you navigate these different stakeholders and balance the academic motivations of the project with advocacy for the residents’ needs and concerns? 

Well, I have to look to my past. Growing up in a family of 13, everyone had different personalities—you have to navigate that arena successfully to be heard. Working for two attorneys prepared me for engaging in public service and business. Going to UC Berkeley also broadened my horizons because I met students from all over the world, which helped me understand people’s backgrounds, motivations, and desires.

I’m also an extrovert, which helps tremendously. When we were children, my dad took my siblings and me all over San Francisco and Oakland to explore new places. My family, friends, and I also went to different cultural events in Oakland to learn about what other people were doing. I think all of that—just living in the Bay Area—prepared me for the community outreach I do now. I love talking to people, I like to know what motivates them, and I want to hear their stories. 

With respect to the EcoBlock participants, you have to be transparent about the advantages and disadvantages of the project. I think I’ve done that and the EcoBlock team has shown that they share the same values. The minute we aren’t honest is the minute we lose the residents’ trust and maybe the project. Gaining trust is ongoing: It begins by really listening to the residents, enabling them to make decisions, and providing clear communication. 

I believe in robust community outreach, which means going door-to-door, talking with people, and getting their opinions on how things are going without judgment. For instance, what are good days to meet? When should I call you? Do you want me to communicate by email, telephone, or text? Establishing that basic level of trust and communication works wonders.

Having a team that really understands community engagement helps too. A lot of cities and companies feel that community engagement means checking a box: “Oh, yes, I talked to the community. We sent out some flyers and posted on our website—we’re done.” That’s inadequate. You have to get down deep and dirty in the community you’re trying to serve in order to get people on board with your project. 

A woman with curly, shoulder-length black hair dressed in a long black winter coat, blue jeans, and black, knee-high boots speaks into a microphone
Cathy emcees an in-person block meeting with the EcoBlock community. Credit: Christine Scott Thomson

Building and preserving trust with the community has been a critical part of EcoBlock. In some ways, the events of the past two years—local, national, and international—have highlighted the importance of cultivating resilient relationships. 

You need strong community engagement. You can’t show up as a stranger in someone’s community and think they’re going to go along with your proposal. You also have to understand the background of that community and its neighbors. That highlights one problem with gentrification: some people move to new neighborhoods and make changes without seeking input from those who were born or have lived there for decades. You have to take stock of the people who have been there before. We are all stakeholders, and working together makes for a great neighborhood and a great project.

What have been your proudest moments with the block? The biggest challenges? 

Well, the block was already organized to some extent. That’s a strong reason why they were selected for the EcoBlock project. In Oakland, you’ll usually have segregated blocks with maybe one or two people of another race. This block—which represents five nationalities and three languages—managed to come together despite racial, cultural, age, and language differences.

My question was: These neighbors had a couple of block parties, but will they be able to work together? Once the research project officially ends, the block will have to overcome their differences to maintain and operate the community microgrid. Whether it means hiring interpreters for our in-person block meetings or having translators convert key documents, I think we have tried to strengthen the residents’ bonds and make them feel valued. Laying the collaborative groundwork with the block enables them to become close and work with one another to make EcoBlock a reality.

An Urban Neighborhood Block
The EcoBlock solar microgrid and energy storage will be co-owned through a democratic organization managed by the community participants. Credit: Oakland EcoBlock

You previously described the EcoBlock neighborhood as a microcosm of the city of Oakland. That really resonated with me. You have a group of people from diverse backgrounds who inhabit different building types and interact with one another to varying degrees. The idea of the collective remains the same—it just operates at different scales: the scale of the neighborhood versus that of the city. 

If we had operated at a larger scale, we probably could have gathered more people, but it might have been challenging to get everyone to work together. Going block-by-block is more intuitive for me because it’s an opportunity for robust community engagement at a more intimate level. We’re working with people who are already familiar with each other and exchange ideas in a way that is just so wholesome and natural. 

What kind of impact would you like to have on the Oakland EcoBlock, and what does success in that look like to you?

The different cultures and racial identities on the block give residents the opportunity to spread the word about EcoBlock to their specific communities. We may not have had that reach if we had a more homogenous block. I think that’s one of the great things about the Oakland EcoBlock. If we replicate the EcoBlock model in other neighborhoods, maybe people will have already heard about it. 

Who do you look up to, and how have they shaped you and your work? In terms of community activism and in general.

I would say my parents. My father was a successful salesman and a very outgoing and engaging person—he was the one who went out and met our neighbors on the block. I’d like to think I inherited that skill from him. My mom, who was the mother of 11 children—three of whom have special needs—taught me to be compassionate, as did my dad and grandparents. My parents didn’t have a lot when they were raising their family, but they had love, compassion, and understanding. They taught my siblings and me to value education and people who were different from us. That sense of compassion has always guided me and shaped who I am today. 

It goes back to meeting others where they are. 

It ties into all of that. That’s why I’m so inspired by EcoBlock. If we’re going to address climate change, we need to do it at the block level with existing housing and for those who will benefit most from the energy savings. Combating climate change with new construction isn’t going to save us because we can’t build houses fast enough. 

You know, UC Berkeley chose Oakland for the EcoBlock project. As someone who was born and raised in Oakland, I’m proud to be associated with this effort. I give many thanks to the EcoBlock team and participants; no one in the world is addressing climate change like we are—we’re making our place in history.

Cover image credit: Oakland EcoBlock

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