Just before Thanksgiving in 2019, a group of homeless mothers and their children took over a vacant investor-owned home in West Oakland in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience. The group, Moms 4 Housing, drew international media attention. By the time they were violently evicted by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office in January, hundreds of supporters showed up in front of the house to show their support.
“Our goal is to reclaim vacant properties owned by speculators [and put them] back into the hands of the community,” Walker explained back in December. “Housing is a human right. Everybody deserves the right to shelter.”
Walker grew up in Oakland, then moved to Mississippi. After moving back, she was priced out of her home town, which drove her to houselessness. Street Spirit sat down with Walker to talk about her history as an organizer, and the future of the Moms 4 Housing movement. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Alastair Boone: Do you have a personal history of organizing prior to Moms4Housing?
Dominique Walker: I’ve been an organizer since the age of 14. I actually co-founded the high school I graduated from: the School of Social Justice and Community Development. It was founded in 2001. I was in a youth group out of Castlemont High School in Oakland. We saw the injustices going on there: when you walked through the doors there were metal detectors. There was a police substation on campus. So when you come into a learning environment and you’re treated as a criminal, how can you learn? We weren’t learning, we were being criminalized. So we got together and we were like can we make our own high school? And our advisor was like “yeah you can do anything as long as you organize” and that’s what we did. I graduated in ‘04, and our whole entire graduating class graduated and got college acceptance, 100 percent. Also, when I was in Mississippi after college I was doing lactation support, organizing black women to breastfeed in Mississippi, before I got back here.
AB: What were the biggest changes you noticed after moving back to Oakland from Mississippi?
DW: It changed so much. It changed my whole career. When I got here I planned on going to the University of San Francisco to get my masters and PH.D to become a nurse practitioner. I wanted to study why black women are dying in birth, I wanted to deliver babies. But when I got home I was like wait, what’s going on? 4,000-6,000 folks on the street, 7 out of 10 look just like me. That’s alarming to me and it’s not equitable and there’s something going on. And I did a little bit of research and realized oh, it was the foreclosure crisis. Folks were victims. Folks are victims of crimes and they’re out on the street and they’re dying.
If we organize, we win. And we will win, because we’re going to organize.’
I went back to the block where I grew up on, my community in East Oakland, thinking hey I’m going to see neighbors, I’m going to see friends. You think about coming home, you think about all of that. Seeing people. All my friends have kids now, maybe our kids could play. No, they’re in Stockton, Vallejo, Richmond, Fresno, Madera, Modesto, all of those places I have folks who are from Oakland in all of those places. Or on the street. So a whole sense of community was gone when I returned.
AB: How does that lack of community impact the sense of security within the black community in Oakland?
DW: I know on my block, sometimes things were hard and somebody would come down for sugar or eggs. We had a system where we all took care of each other. And now the folks that are coming in, they build fences up. You can’t even come and say hi, you can’t come and ask them for nothing. They’re going to call the police on you if you come to their door. So that’s the sense of community that I lost. Being a single mom for the first time—I was with my partner for 10 years and we broke up—in a new place with my children, I didn’t have support. It was all on me to provide. And then I was staying with one of my aunts in Stock- ton. So I’m commuting from Stockton to Oakland every single day. It’s an hour and a half drive and with traffic it’s way more, with a 6-month-old and a 4-year-old, it was ridiculous.
This is not unique. Folks are still working here, and they’re having to commute. My aunt she’s like 70 and she lives in Stockton and she has to drive to Hayward to work. It’s ridiculous.
AB: If you had to summarize Moms 4 Housing, how would you do that?
DW: The movement shows the power of the people. That’s where
the real power lies. I think folks are starting to realize their own powers of organizing. And it’s catching fire. Folks are on rent strike in Oakland, folks are organizing against these corporations and speculators in our community. Folks here in Berkeley are organizing and getting their property, the movement is happening.
AB: What do you think about May- or Libby Schaaf becoming involved only after you had to move out of the house? And Governor Gavin Newsom becoming involved?
DW: Pressure busts pipes. We, the people, Moms 4 Housing, the organizing efforts, the folks, put so much pressure that they could no longer be silent. But they were silent until they could no longer be silent. But that just shows the power of the people. We are willing to work with whoever is committed and dedicated to ending homelessness but we are very sceptical of folks like that who are coming out now.
AB: Can you give a brief update on the status of the sale of the house on Magnolia Street?
DW: We are still in negotiation. I think that there’s some pressure to be put on Wedgewood [the house-flip- ping company that owns the home] and the mayor to push this process along but we’re still in negotiation.
AB: What would you say to the critics who say that Moms 4 Housing only advocates for a certain type of homelessness?
DW: Moms 4 Housing is supporting all homeless. We want housing for all, and that’s what we’re dedicated to doing. Housing should be a human right. We want the U.S. Constitution to recognize it. The United Nations recognizes it as a human right and we need our Constitution to do the same. So we’re not going to stop fighting until that is recognized. I think the reason we were able to get so much attention is because of the direct action aspect. Yes you can see homeless encampments and you see squatters too. People were calling us squatters but we’re not squatters. We wanted to bring attention. We didn’t go in there and try to hide or we would have been in there. But we got in there and we wanted to bring awareness to the bigger issue, and bring a face to it. I was homeless, I went through 211, we went through every agency. I went to college, I got a degree, I was working part time, I was working full time. All of the moms have jobs. Homelessness is affecting everybody. Our teachers, our professionals, our nurses, and our working class folks. The wage you have to make to be able to afford a basic one-bedroom in Oakland you have to make $40.88/hour. Where are those jobs outside of tech? Everybody isn’t in tech. So I think we’re fighting for everybody.
AB: What are some common things people get wrong about Moms 4 Housing?
DW: The criminality part. They always say oh, well that’s illegal. Well, a lot of things were illegal in this country until people broke the law. That’s how things change. Things are not going to change if we don’t break the law, history has shown us. There was counters where I couldn’t eat. Folks did sit ins.
During the Civil Rights movement there was a lot of civil disobedience, that’s how things change. So we’re just honoring that legacy and doing the same thing. And we see that it’s working.
AB: What projects are you currently working on that are intended to push this movement forward? Do you have plans for future organizing?
DW: Yeah we’re working on introducing TOPA in Oakland with Leah Simon-Weisberg and Nikki Fortunata Bas and her office on this bill. We also want to be a resource for homeless mothers. We have a lot of things that we’re in the beginning and works of. But this movement is continuing. If we organize, we win. And we will win, because we’re going to organize.
AB: How are the spirits within the Moms 4 Housing movement?
DW: Physically I get tired sometimes because I’m a single mom with two small children and an organizer plus a lot of other things. But spiritually and movement-wise, I’m not tired at all. I’m ready to keep going. I hear folks who say oh you all have inspired me, I felt alone. We’re giving folks a voice that didn’t have a voice. A face to folks who didn’t have a face out there. And not afraid to say “I am homeless,” and “we are homeless.” As long as we’re inspiring folks to do things we’re going to continue moving.
Moms 4 Housing has inspired the world and we’re going to continue to uphold housing as a human right in whatever space we’re allowed to speak.
In Dialogue is a column in which Street Spirit speaks with community leaders.
Alastair Boone is the Editor in Chief of Street Spirit.