October 21, 2015

Featured Organization: Omni Oakland Commons

Several times a season, we feature an arts (or arts-related) organization in the Bay Area, ask them about their goals, the challenges they face, and how people can get involved with what they do.

La Commune

From an event at the (now closed) La Commune Bookstore, part of the Omni Oakland Commons.

When was The Omni founded, and why?

This project is firmly grounded in the belief that real alternatives to capitalist social life must be born through practical experimentation. The Omni is where this theory meets the real world, and our beginnings also reflect this.

Emerging out of the Occupy Oakland movement, the Bay Area Public School (a free, collaborative university) and the Sudo Room (a social-justice-oriented hackerspace) shared a collectively run space in downtown Oakland for two years, which was made freely available for other local groups sharing their vision of a more equitable commoning of resources and meeting of human needs over private interest or corporate profit. The opportunity to move to the Omni building in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland arose in late 2013, and we held open meetings for seven months, seeking others interested in the ongoing experiment of building a Commons in Oakland.

It’s important to state up front that this project is political: The Omni is not a Social Services provider or a Community Space in the traditional sense. As we seek to rebuild the sense of individual responsibility towards the stewardship of common spaces, we also wish to challenge assumptions embedded within the dominant culture and within ourselves. We want those who are interested in participating in this space to understand these aims and engage in these efforts in ways they find meaningful. Instead of deepening the divide between those-in-need and those-who-provide, we rely on one another, we help one another and we encourage participation from everyone who is a part of our community to identify and enact problems and solutions. This means taking the time to develop relationships and trust amongst members of our community. Sometimes, this process can be difficult and time-consuming, but we’re not interested in efficiency – we’re seeking to develop a new way of being together in the world.

There’s much more to the story. To learn more, visit our wiki.

Who is your audience, who are you trying to serve, and who do you hope to reach?

The Omni seeks to be inclusive — an aim which is not without significant challenges. We do not always share the same experiences and views, but we seek to engender open collaboration between individuals committed to working across and in appreciation of difference in order to dismantle oppressive systems so that we may all participate in the creation of new social forms that prioritize actual human needs over corporate profits.

To this end, we honor & respect the experiences, center the perspectives, and prioritize the needs of marginalized and oppressed people. See our Statement of Solidarity for more information.

Tell us how The Omni is structured. How many people work there? Staff or volunteers or both?

All of us who participate in the Omni are volunteers with different skills, life experiences and capacities for involvement. The Omni has no staff. We ask that everyone who makes use of this space and its resources participate in some way, however small.

The main decision-making body of the Omni is comprised of delegates from each of the active member collectives. This group engages in a consensus process at open bi-monthly meetings on issues that affect all participants of the Omni, and are always open to future revision.

We also have several working groups that are empowered to oversee certain aspects of the ongoing maintenance of the Omni. From “Finances” to “Commons” to “Challenging Dominant Culture”, the working groups are where most of the work of the Omni happens. Anyone is welcome to participate!

Renny Pritikin’s “Prescription for a Healthy Arts Scene” lists 23 requirements for a robust cultural scene in any city.  How do you think the Bay Area is doing, and how does your organization fit in?

The Omni exists as an incubator space for many forms of communal healing and creative expression but doesn’t presume to know the means through which that expression should manifest itself, or what material outcome will result. Many dance performances and gallery showings have taken place at the Omni, but the organization doesn’t dedicate itself exclusively to art as an end goal. In a region where opportunities to create and share arts and creative programming are increasingly limited, we seek to offer a counterbalance to our current technology-obsessed society by providing accessible space and material resources for creative collaboration and experimentation.

Do you have a favorite story about The Omni (a memorable event, exhibition, conversation, anecdote) you’d like to share?

Attempting to synthesize the views of a vastly diverse community in order to respond to this questionnaire is difficult but choosing a single event or anecdote that represents what’s exciting or inspiring about this project for those involved is impossible. Our community responded with stories about giant Tesla coils, Haitian dance performances, Bohmian dialogue, Tarot classes, moments of mutual aid, impromptu piano recitals, and existential exchanges stretching late into the night.

We’ve created a page on our wiki to collect these moments here.

What is the greatest challenge facing your organization currently?


How can someone join/participate/donate/help out at The Omni?

Collaboration with new people is fundamental to this project and we encourage anyone who’s interested to get involved. There are currently several avenues for engagement — from becoming a member collective to participating in a working group to attending one of the many events hosted at the Omni.

What has become clear to us over the last year is that community is grounded in fostering trusting relationships between individuals. This way of working runs counter to the values of dominant culture we’ve internalized. We’re still working on how to orient new people to the project and how to communicate with and care for one another, as well as continuing to develop our organizational structure so that we can provide support to others from a solid foundation built on principles of self-determination and mutual aid.

That said, this project involves a significant amount of work that’s not always particularly fun and we feel it’s important to be up front about that. The road from theory to praxis is paved with dirty dishes, moldering trash, miscommunications, and an endless stream of conflicts.

See http://omnicommons.org/volunteer for info on ways to get involved!

We’re of the opinion that more is merrier, and there’s always room for another rose in the garden: Any words of advice for others interested in starting an organization like The Omni?

Go slow. Break bread together. Care for and be responsible to one another. Raise up the voices of those who are most often silenced and dismissed. Engage in conflict constructively.

Don’t afraid, go ahead.


What should we be asking you?

We don’t pretend to have answers to the uncertain challenges we face in the immediate and future shape of this planet. It’s an ongoing dialogue we all need to participate in, and we are always interested in conversations with other organizers and other groups about how they are confronting the same challenges. How do we cultivate a more inclusive conversation? How do we live collectively and in accordance with our shared values?

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