Improving Oakland's Downtown

  • May 12, 2021

Before finishing her morning coffee, Jessica Chen is already organizing paperwork in her Oakland office, replying to messages and scheduling meetings. As executive director of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, Chen is no stranger to juggling several extensive projects. She has only one coworker who assists her while she stays in regular contact with the 25 OCCC volunteer community members. And behind every phone call, meeting and e-mail, Chen has one consistent, main personal objective: Improve Oakland’s Chinatown.

One factor that’s uplifted Chen’s passion for upgrading the 170-year-old neighborhood is her involvement with Cal State East Bay’s Certificate in Nonprofit Management Program, she said. When she’s not immersed with work at her Oakland office, Chen is studying and finishing homework in her Union City home. She joined the certificate program in July 2020 to gain a better understanding of the nonprofit field, and so far, she said, it’s helped her in more ways than she thought. 

 “The program is really fun because a lot of classmates share things about what they work on and ask questions that I never thought about,” said Chen. “Sometimes they bring different ideas, and I look at my own projects differently. So it’s not just about learning, it’s about understanding each other’s ideas.”

 The Nonprofit Management Certificate Program provides students with insight into board development, financial management, fundraising, marketing, program evaluation and nonprofit law. The program is offered online and can be completed in six to nine months.

 “I have a better picture of nonprofits, and I feel I’ve gotten better ideas at work because of my classes,” said Chen. “Before taking the classes, I wanted to build the [OCCC’s] brand on social media, and now I know how to do it, and I think about strategies.”

 Originally from Taiwan, Chen studied journalism and was a Chinese newspaper reporter for several years. She attended Morehead University in Kentucky in her twenties and earned a master’s degree in communication. She enjoyed her experience in the United States so much she decided to move to the Bay Area after graduating. 

 “My bilingual background and job experience and personality helped me, but it was still a struggle,” said Chen. “I have a language barrier because I don’t know how to say the right things [in English]. But then I got really lucky being able to work with the city of Oakland because I learned how the government works and that prepared me for my current position.”

 Since 1985, the OCCC has focused on promoting and advocating policies, business, and trade for Oakland’s Asian community and business owners. The organization also hosts several annual events, conducts small business training seminars and community meetings and collaborates with other community groups and government entities. 

 Chen joined the organization in 2019 and frequently networks with potential partners, Alameda county officials, public agencies, stakeholders and the city of Oakland. It’s not unusual for her to have seven or eight online and in-person meetings on an average workday. 

“Working with a nonprofit is something that’s never completed,” said Chen. “It’s always ongoing and something that continues to improve. I try to make sure not to overload myself.” 

Some of the projects Chen is currently working on include increasing the frequency of power washing Chinatown’s sidewalks and surveying where new parking spaces and meters should be introduced. A larger project in the works is revamping and repaving 10th Street, a “mixed-use development” of residences, schools, and businesses that runs through the middle of the neighborhood for six blocks. 

In addition to improving businesses, renovating and cleaning up Chinatown, Chen concentrates her efforts on improving safety. She’s mapping low foot traffic areas of the neighborhood in order to install surveillance cameras within the following year. Chen says the new cameras will assist in reporting crime, acknowledging the nation’s recent wave of anti-Asian hate crimes across the country. 

“Educating people about what’s happening is important and about what actions to take. We all need to learn from this,” said Chen. “I’m really glad I can work in this position [with the OCCC] to help people.”

So far, Chen has completed all but one of her required courses to graduate from the certificate program. But she said that won’t stop her from taking more courses. She’s developed a friendship with the program’s professors and looks forward to learning more than what’s required. She expects to graduate this summer.  

“All the professors are super nice, and they try to make the online classes fun,” said Chen. “Some even offer me more time after class, and if I have a question or need help, I know who I can go to. I’ve learned a lot.”