Originally from East Los Angeles, Vanessa Camarena-Arredondo was raised by a single mother who is a native of Mexicali, México. She credits her hometown with forming the base of her creative interests. East Los Angeles was a hub for Punk Rock music and it definitely carried its own brand and sound with many Latino and Black musicians deeply involved in the scene. Prior to that it was her grandmother’s porch that cemented her love for Mexican music.
Vanessa has worked as a consultant for the arts and served as the Arts & Culture Fellow at The San Francisco Foundation under the leadership of John Killacky. While at The San Francisco Foundation, Vanessa made over 200 grants and helped to raise $1.5 million to support Bay Area artists and arts non-profits. She spoke on the need for inclusion and diversity in the arts and helped to direct funding and support to artists and communities of color. She is now the Beloved Community Fund Program Officer at the Akonadi Foundation.
Vanessa shares her reflections on her work in the Bay Area.
What drew you to wanting to work with the Akonadi Foundation?
I have followed Akonadi’s work for many years. It was founded in 2000 by Quinn Delaney, and her husband, Wayne Jordan as an extension of their commitment to racial justice. They have been great advocates within philanthropy and have pushed the field toward thinking more critically about how race is central in determining social outcomes in this country.
I’ve also found inspiration in the contributions of Melanie Cervantes from her time as Akonadi Foundation’s Senior Program Officer. In 2016, after 11 years, Melanie left the foundation to pursue her dream of art-making full time with Dignidad Rebelde. During her time at Akonadi Foundation, Melanie spearheaded prioritization of funding strategies to support cultural work in Oakland for people of color, and received support from Akonadi’s leadership to pursue this work institutionally. This was transformational for Oakland’s art and cultural communities, and, personally, for the small art space I was running at the time, Studio Grand. Akonadi’s Beloved Community Fund met a huge need in Oakland, through supporting public art and cultural events rooted in communities of color in Oakland that advance racial justice.
I admired the incredible team at the foundation, including Gina Acebo, Lateefah Simon, and an active and supportive Board. When the opportunity arose to apply for the Program Officer position, I knew that this was an incredible opportunity to do deep, meaningful work in Oakland.
What were you doing before joining the staff at Akonadi (what’s your background)?
I was running Studio Grand, a beautiful performing and visual arts space located in the Grand Lake area of Oakland, founded by my dear friend Holly Schneider, who we lost shortly after she opened the space. In addition to Studio Grand, I was working with individuals and organizations as a coach and consultant, both within the arts and culture sector as well as other sectors.
Tell us about your artistic practice.
I was a vocalist with a Bay Area group called Las Bomberas de la Bahia for eight years. We were a nine-piece, all women group with dancers, vocalists, and drummers. We practiced the Afro-Puerto Rican tradition of Bomba, which is a cultural and musical tradition that originated on the plantations of the Island and was created by the African prisoners of war or enslaved peoples and the native Taino peoples. It is both a spiritual and a liberatory tradition that is very much alive today. Although I am not Puerto Rican nor am I of African descent, I came into Bomba through the work of some local practitioners who were encouraging women to sit at the drum and be part of a resurgence of the form here in California.
What’s rewarding about your work?
I tremendously enjoy working with a team of amazing people who are committed to racial equity and building power in communities of color in Oakland. I also love working with our grantee partners. I was very recently one of them, so I know what it’s like to hustle while also staying inspired and having hope. I love being able to support the really incredible and powerful cultural workers and artists in Oakland. It’s the dream, really. There is a lot of work to do, but for all the right reasons.
How would you describe what it’s like to live and work in the Bay Area right now?
I love the Bay. My commute is 15 minutes max on foot. There are so many artists, culture builders and small businesses who are doing great things in our communities. Alyah Baker is the owner of Show & Tell, a sweet boutique on Broadway, next door to Anyka Barber’s Betti Ono Gallery. We have Town Biz, which uplifts Oakland born entrepreneurs through their business incubator. Those are just a few examples. There’s so much beauty and life here in Oakland, and at the same time a lot of struggle and heartache. The economic pressures, housing issues and displacement have deeply affected our communities. It’s a very hard situation. I know that the Bay Area we’ve all come to love was created by a multitude of communities, many of whom now need our support to stay in their neighborhoods.
What’s your neighborhood/community? Where do you spend your time?
I’ve lived in West Oakland for about eight years. I can’t claim West Oakland as my neighborhood but I do love it and I love the people who established the cultural legacy of the neighborhood. West Oakland has a rich cultural history rooted in the Black community. There were and are many Black musicians, artists, and community members who created what, today, we think of as a Black Oakland legacy. My job is to make sure I don’t take up too much space in West Oakland and claim it as my neighborhood but rather support and uplift the Black community that has been here for a very long time.
What event(s) will we find you at this fall?
Through the Beloved Community fund, we have the privilege of financially supporting and attending very dynamic and impactful community events in Oakland. I am very excited to attend as many events as I can. One of the events I plan to attend includes Lower Bottom Playaz’ production of Behind and Beyond. Led by Ayodele Nzainga, this project begun by engaging formerly incarcerated men and Black youth in healing circles, and collecting stories and creating and presenting staged readings of that work. The production will be a culmination of this work and will be occurring in venues throughout Oakland.
What’s an early dance memory?
Definitely trying to learn Michael Jackson moves during the moonwalk era. Followed by a curiosity of how to freak, which was planted by my older sister’s parties in East LA backyards.
Do you have a dance idol?
So many and everyday there are new ones. I love old school grandma moves that recall different genres and periods of time. I love the constant inventing of contemporary dancers creating new styles in West and East Oakland, such as turf dancing and ghost riding. I love the gestures and movements of Samoan siva dancers. I love Alonzo King’s dancers and his choreography. I love the drama and intensity of great drag shows. I love how Alyah Baker is bringing ballet into people’s lives here in Oakland at her Ballet for Black and Brown Bodies class at Studio Grand. I love all the dance that Nkei Oruche is creating space for and how it affirms Black and brown bodies through The Afro Urban Society. I love how Carmen Roman of Cunamacue is blending modern dance with traditional Afro-Peruvian rhythms and movements. I love the vigor of Son Jarocho practitioner Lolis Garcia who is bringing along a whole cadre of young people in the tradition out in Richmond at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. I love the communication across genres. I love to see the babies and little ones dancing. I love to see people moving and free.
Shortlist of inspiring people, books, moments, classes, etc.?
Jean Melesaine, Frank Ocean, Kamaiyah, Young Women’s Freedom Center, Silicon Valley DeBug, Nekeya’s Flava’s class at Studio Grand, La Santa Cecilia, Bobi Cespedes, Sarah Lewis, Ani Rivera (Galería de la Raza), Ruthie Dineen (East Bay Center for the Performing Arts), Tyese Wortham, Kamaiyah (The Queen of Oakland)
What’s a hope that you have for the arts ecosystem of Oakland?
My hope is that, by supporting art and culture, we can continue to build voice, power and self determination for communities of color in Oakland. My goal is to deepen investments by the philanthropic sector so that people of color have the space and agency to thrive in strong communities free from violence and punitive policies. Within this, I hope that artists of color have the support and the resources to continue to inspire and push our ability to imagine the political and social transformation of our world.
What advice have you been given that you still hold on to today?
Listen before you speak.