Mobilizing for Street Safety in Oakland: Senior and Disability Action

"The action was specifically designed not only to win on one issue but to build the senior and disability movement in the East Bay. The energy of the rally carries on, here we come!"

Jessica Lehman, Senior and Disability Action

Activists hold a Senior and Disability Action banner and handmade posters as the cross the street.

Activists cross 55th Street at Martin Luther King Jr. Way (Photo credit: Jesse Rosenberg)

For this installment of Stories from You, we're excited to feature a story from Jessica Lehman, Executive Director at Senior and Disability Action. With expansion into the East Bay, Senior and Disability Action launched and won a successful street safety campaign on a particularly tough portion of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Oakland for people of all ages and abilities. 

What does a community coming together for street safety look like?

On a sunny afternoon this past August, it looked like six people making posters in a North Oakland coffee shop. I made block letters, while another person filled them in to make them easily visible. We shared talking points, snacks, and nervous energy. As the scheduled start time grew closer, people began appearing on the sidewalk outside – older people, people using walkers and canes, parents with young children, blind people, people in wheelchairs, and people with bicycles. Soon there were more people than there was space on the sidewalk!

We set up the speaker, handed out posters, and the rally began! People talked about the problem: that crossing at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr Blvd and 55th Street in North Oakland was scary and unsafe because the signal did not give people enough time to cross – especially disabled people, older people, and kids. We called on the City of Oakland and Oakland City Councilmember Dan Kalb, who was at the rally with us, to provide a simple solution: allow people more time to cross.

The action was one of the first rallies held by Senior and Disability Action (SDA) in the East Bay. SDA has been organizing seniors and people with disabilities in San Francisco for 30 years, fighting for affordable housing, home care, health care, safe streets, quality transit, and other issues. In response to a demand from community members, SDA expanded to the East Bay in 2020.

A child holds a poster that reads "Hey City of Oakland! Prioritize people over cars!" They have short brown hair, a blue mask, white shirt, and blue shorts.

An activist holds a sign that reads "Hey City of Oakland! Prioritize PEOPLE over cars!" (Photo credit: Jessica Lehman)

A group of people with disabilities and older people living in Oakland and other nearby areas had been meeting over Zoom, talking about issues and needs, building connections with other community groups, and strategizing on how to build a stronger senior and disability movement. The group of SDA members and allies spoke about a myriad of transit issues: people being hit and killed by cars, inaccessible sidewalks, and unreliable and infrequent buses – especially in East Oakland and other predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods. When we heard that an Oakland coffee shop owner had been advocating for more crossing time at the intersection near his shop, as he was constantly seeing people barely make it across the street, we decided to join forces. It turned out residents of a nearby senior housing facility were concerned about safe street crossings as well. The Black Panthers had organized and marched for safer streets in the same neighborhood 50 years ago. SDA had done a campaign in San Francisco, calling for the SF transit agency to increase crossing time at all intersections, and we had won. We knew we could win this fight too.

Within three weeks, our group had reached out to community partners, talked to neighbors, publicized our action, worked out logistics, and invited the press. More than thirty people showed up at the action. We proudly marched around the intersection, chanting about street safety. Members of our group provided security to keep everyone safe. We built each other up and let our voices be heard. Our rally was the focus of two newspaper articles, and we posted pictures on social media. Councilmember Dan Kalb followed up with the City of Oakland, and within one month, the intersection had more time for people to cross safely! We were thrilled. Just as significant, the action mobilized and connected community members, raised awareness about pedestrian safety, and strengthened the senior and disability movement in the East Bay.

A protestor speaks to the crowd, they have short curly black hair and are wearing a black mask, red and white long sleeve shirt, and blue jeans. They're holding a microphone as they speak to the crowd.

An activist speaks to the crowd at the action (Photo credit: Jessica Lehman)

The action highlights several lessons about community organizing:

1. You don’t have to work out every detail or put in a lot of time to carry out a powerful public action.

SDA in the East Bay was a small group, without a lot of time or money. We made a petition and the coffee shop owner collected dozens of signatures and phone numbers. We invited all those people to the rally. We set a date and time, decided upon a handful of people to speak about their experiences, brought posterboard and markers, and invited people to come! At the rally, I realized I had forgotten a sign-in sheet, so we handwrote one. Our sound system wasn’t loud enough, so a fellow business owner brought his out. To make sure people stayed safe in the intersection, we asked in the moment for people to keep each other safe, and several people immediately took on the role. It was important for us to jump on the opportunity to take action on a critical issue, and the details worked themselves out.

2. Transit actions can bring together people from different communities and perspectives.

SDA in the East Bay is made up of people with different disabilities and older people. We realized that street crossing affected many of us deeply. Older people may walk more slowly. Blind people wanted better audible signals to cross. For me, I am aware of being less visible as a person in a wheelchair and don’t want to be caught in the street when the light turns. Once we started publicizing the action, parents talked about worrying for their children. Neighbors from the senior housing building said they had worked on this issue in front of their home a few years ago and wanted more to be done. A teacher from a school for adults with disabilities nearby said this intersection was a source of frustration for her students. The rally was a powerful demonstration of people coming together on common ground.

3. Remember to honor your history.

The Black Panther Party is known for being deeply committed to community safety, and that extended to fighting for pedestrian safety, right here in North Oakland. In the 1960s and 70s, they held actions to win stoplights so children could get to school safely and wheelchair-accessible sidewalks with curb cuts so disabled Panthers and other residents could get around. In the years since, North Oakland has gentrified tremendously, with many white people moving in, house prices and rents increasing dramatically, and Black people being foreclosed on and pushed out. Our action was organized primarily by white people, and we needed to honor the foundations of pedestrian safety laid by the Black Panthers and recognize the ongoing impact of racism and white supremacy on government policies and neighborhood changes. We reached out to Black neighbors who have been involved in neighborhood activism for decades, invited former Black Panthers to attend, and were fortunate to have a community member speak about this history.

4. Small, specific issues can draw attention to bigger community needs.

Making one intersection safer can have a big impact on the people who live and work in that area. And there are dozens of other intersections that need similar improvements. By inviting our city councilmember and notifying the press, we brought the issue directly to city decision-makers and brought awareness to thousands of Bay Area residents. The action was specifically designed not only to win on one issue but to build the senior and disability movement in the East Bay. The energy of the rally carries on, with new people involved and community members excited for the next action. Here we come!

This Stories From You was coordinated in collaboration with UC Berkeley SafeTREC. The opinions and perspectives expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of SafeTREC.

Jessica in a blue power wheelchair with brown hair, holding a microphone in one hand as she speaks.

Jessica speaks to the crowd at the action (Photo credit: Jesse Rosenberg)

An activist holds a sign "Seniors & kids & disabled people need more time to cross the street."

An activist holds a sign that reads "Seniors & kids & disabled people need MORE TIME to cross the street." (Photo credit: Jesse Rosenberg)

An activist holds a sign that reads "More time to cross!! Senior and Disability Action."

An activist holds a sign that reads "More time to cross!!" (Photo credit: Jesse Rosenberg)