By Debrah Giles

Credit: Joyce Xi Photography

Art has always played a unique and foundational role in cultural and social movements. The Belonging in Oakland: A Just City Cultural Fund—a unique public-private partnership of the City of Oakland’s Cultural Affairs Division, Akonadi Foundation, and East Bay Community Foundation (EBCF)—seeks to build a more equitable and just future for all residents of Oakland by fostering partnerships and supporting community-rooted Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) visionaries, artist activists, and cultural practitioners. Two-year unrestricted grants were awarded to eight projects intended to spark radical imagination for racial justice and activate the creativity and agency of Oakland’s residents. A major goal of this fund is to galvanize artists and movement organizers to create cooperative relationships driven by narrative and social change. Civic Design Studio and founder Tommy Wong are an important testament to the fund’s purpose. 

In 2021, one of Wong’s initiatives, Civic Design Studio: Public Space Initiative, received funding during the fund’s second round of grantmaking. Civic Design Studio’s work aims to inspire community engagement and community-led solutions by highlighting how resources are not distributed equally and how those in power maintain inequity. 

Wong, founder and owner of Civic Design Studio, is an Oakland-based multidisciplinary artist, educator, and business district director.  He has been working and creating in the East Bay for more than two decades, including over 15 previous years with EastSide Arts Alliance and Cultural Center. His organization works with multigenerational and multi-ethnic communities and cross-sector partners to create impactful cultural design projects in neighborhoods across Oakland, such as public displays and large-scale design build projects. 

“Art and culture are the connective tissue that brings people together in Oakland and anchors boats in storms [during] times of change,” said Wong.  

The ground-level storytelling of artists and cultural practitioners is rich, multileveled, and comes from the community where these stories originate. When artists have the opportunity to share stories from their community, community members can start to see their community differently and challenge assumptions and misconceptions.  

Civic Design Studio: Public Space Initiative grew out of Wong’s frustration with the limitations of school campuses, which he felt acted as an invisible barrier to the rest of the neighborhood. “There was all this creativity, all this imagination and energy taking place on campus, in the classrooms, but with very little ripple outside of the campus borders,” said Wong. The project utilized its 20-year-old network of schools, district leaders, community organizations, creative industry partners, and City government agencies to create “evergreen curriculum” in schools and industry pathways for young creatives. 

Credit: Joyce Xi Photography

Wong’s team also focuses on public space activations and “place keeping” for different neighborhoods in Oakland. Place keeping refers to the idea of preserving and maintaining the unique cultural identity and history of a community. Civic Design Studio facilitates the use of art and culture as a means of anchoring and connecting people to their community and promoting a sense of belonging through visibility representation, and more importantly, public ownership of public spaces. 

“Art is the first thing to get cut on tight budgets, but it winds up becoming the most important thing for people to relate to movements, for people to feel something,” said Wong. “The work of many movement leaders needs art as their face, as their way to make community building and social change irresistible. The projects supported by this fund empower communities and display their realities visually. Through this fund’s initiatives, we can create a more just and equitable future.” 

By supporting artists and underfunded communities, the Belonging in Oakland fund allows for a new narrative to emerge to facilitate long-term change, which is crucial for shaping community perception and breathing power into social movements. Learn more about Belonging in Oakland: A Just City Cultural Fund, a partnership made possible by the Surdna Foundation, as well as the fund’s new program that was announced earlier this year.