Acknowledging Black History and Celebrating Black Futures

In 1988, Michael Willis founded Michael Willis and Associates, Architects. MWA’s mission and values are shaped by our history as a minority-founded firm, and social equity remains a foundation of our work. This month, we discussed the history of some of the Black communities MWA has served in the past 35 years, walked through the forced changes these areas have endured, and envisioned ways to better serve our communities in the future.

As we discussed these projects, many of you joined us in this conversation by sharing your thoughts, new ideas, and related experiences. As promised, we compiled everything we’ve reflected on and learned to share with you in this blog.

Brief Overview of the History of Urban Renewal in Oakland

Intentional urban renewal in Oakland, CA, beginning with redlining in the 1940s, surged on by the construction of freeways and the Bart Line into the ’60s, and continuing still, has been displacing communities of color for decades. Yet, communities of color and allies of these communities in Oakland stood up against inequities, fighting for justice throughout the Civil Rights movement, and continue to advocate for equity and progress today.


In the 1980s, community organizations emerged that brought awareness and demanded change for communities of color in Oakland. As a mission-based firm, MWA has had the chance to work firsthand with some of these organizations, such as Oakland and the World Enterprises and the City of Oakland’s Department of Race and Equity. Working with these organizations, we take on projects that work to reclaim the space that was taken through displacement and give opportunities to people who have barriers to housing or income. This is one small step we are taking to bring back housing opportunities to a neighborhood that was targeted.

Michael Willis directing the design team at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland.

Pictured: MWA Founder, Michael Willis, leading the seismic upgrades of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland

The Black Panther Affordable Apartments

Located in West Oakland, on historic 7th Street, is The Black Panther, a groundbreaking affordable housing community that supports very low-income and formerly incarcerated individuals. Working to revitalize this once-thriving Black community severely impacted by the urban redevelopment, The Black Panther will add 79 affordable housing units to the area and create more opportunities for marginalized individuals.

The Black Panther is the culminated vision of Civil Rights activist and leader of Oakland and The World Enterprises (OAW), Elaine Brown, who, combined with McCormack Barron Salazar, has raised $80 million for this development. After serving as the first and only female chairperson of the Black Panther Party, Brown was inspired to start OAW as her civil rights organization focused on creating social and economic opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals. The Black Panther apartments bring this vision into reality.

A rendering of the entrance of the Black Panther with 10 to 15 people of color interacting outside.

Pictured: The entrance of The Black Panther Affordable Apartments

Eastmont Town Center

The Eastmont Town Center is in the heart of Alameda County in Oakland. A once prominent shopping center in the 1970s and 80s, The Eastmont Mall declined as the 1990s recession caused income levels to drop. Urban renewal in the Bay Area triggered disinvestment that targeted low-income communities and people of color, directly affecting the success of the Eastmont Mall.

A drastic revitalization effort in the early 2000s brought new life to the Center, transforming the mall into a thriving East Oakland Hub for community services. This revitalized resource now serves both retail shopping and provides a centralized location for government services and senior living.

Engaged early in the process by the developer, MWA designed several projects for Alameda County and City of Oakland agencies. Within the Center, MWA designed the Alameda County Self Sufficiency Center, Adult and Aging Services, Behavioral Health Care and Child Protective Services, the Nathan E. Miley Senior Housing Project, the City of Oakland Police Department Eastmont Substation, and most recently, the Total Infusion Center.

The success of the adaptive reuse of this once-failing mall demonstrates that with forward-thinking, a thriving community resource can emerge and serve in a new capacity for another generation.


Understanding the injustices that have persisted throughout Oakland, we celebrate the people who have influenced Oakland’s future for the better. Join this effort; there are many options to get involved, honor, or volunteer.

Getting Involved

  • The Black Joy Parade “exists to provide the Black community and allies a live experience that celebrates our influence on cultures past, present and future. We will unite a diverse community by creating a space to express each of our unique contributions to the Black experience. We invite you to be creative, be open, be present, be free.”
  • Volunteer opportunities that support the well-being of Oakland’s underserved communities.
  • The National Organization for Minority Architects (NOMA) holds events and volunteer opportunities. SF NOMA believes that “what binds us together and fuels our volunteer activism is a duty to social responsibility and to actively address relevant social and environmental issues, such as affordable housing, inclusiveness, and universal economic access.”


Until 1926, Oregon held an exclusionary clause that prohibited Black people from freely living in Oregon. Once the clause was lifted, and people of color could make a home in Oregon, urban renewal displaced families through the construction of the I-5 freeway cutting through primarily residential Black communities, single-family re-zoning, and raising property prices. In 2015, Portland was named the number one city for gentrification in the United States. Currently working to right some of its wrongs, Portland is rapidly building affordable housing and using a Preference Policy to find homes for people who were previously displaced.

Renaissance Commons

Renaissance Commons is located in Portland’s Kenton neighborhood, which resides in the historic site of Vanport. In its time, the second-largest city in Oregon, Vanport began as a housing project for industrial shipbuilders in World War II. However, after the 1948 flood left Vanport uninhabitable, 18,000 people were left without homes, thus starting the story of the mass displacement of Black people in Portland.

Giving priority to historically displaced families, Renaissance Commons uses Portland’s Preference Policy, bringing 189 units of multi-family affordable housing to Kenton.

Six adults and three children smiling at the Renaissance Commons playground.

Pictured: MWA Housing Studio volunteering at the REACH CDC Spring Break Camp at Renaissance Commons


“Black History Month has historically recognized the past achievements of Black and Brown people. However, there has been a more recent movement led by Black leaders and visionaries to also recognize February as Black Futures Month as a forward-looking celebration of Blackness that envisions a world where equality and liberation are a reality for all.”

– Multnomah County

As Portlanders continue to fight for policy change, there are several ways to contribute:


In 2017, MWA’s founder, Michael Willis, wrote an article titled “Mitigation Strategies – What my Practice has Taught me about Rebuilding Communities” that highlights the importance of rebuilding communities with access to transit, good schools, and desirable housing. Read the linked article to learn from Michael’s experiences.

Thank you to our audiences across our platforms for engaging with us as we discussed Black History and Futures Month. We hope to see you at one of the linked events throughout the year!

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