“It’s a beautiful time to grow,” proclaims the mission statement of Blk Girls Green House. For Kalkidan “Kalu” Gebreyohannes and J’Maica Roxanne—the founders of the new Oakland plant nursery, retail concept, and community space—growth comes in many forms. The multi-hyphenate business is the answer to what has been, according to Gebreyohannes, “a double pandemic” for people of color nationwide. Located in a city that has been both a symbol of Bay Area gentrification and the heart of California’s Black Lives Matter protests over the past few months, their joint venture offers a welcoming space of pause, joy, and calm for Black people (that’s also the perfect COVID-19-friendly outdoor hangout).
“I was sick recently and J’Maica was taking care of me,” Gebreyohannes says. “As I was feeling better, I wanted to go to a plant nursery. We went together and it just was such a healing, therapeutic feeling. And then we just talked about what it could feel like if we had our own space—inclusive, open, and inviting in particular for Black people—during these times.”
Affordable retail space is notoriously hard to come by in the Bay Area, but Axé (pronounced “a-sh-eh”), a gym and wellness space Gebreyohannes belonged to, offered its adjacent lot for rent. Open on Friday–Sunday, it features houseplants from tiny cacti to supersized palm trees (some displayed in a custom rose-gold greenhouse), a coffee cart by Black-owned Blythe Coffee, and merchandise made exclusively by Black-owned businesses, such as candles by BLK by Amina and coffee mugs by Reflektion Design. The community response was more than welcoming with plenty of foot traffic and requests to book the space for photo shoots. Outside of the Bay Area, they’ve already been approached about potential pop-ups in D.C., L.A., and Atlanta.
Below, the two share their thoughts on breaking wellness stereotypes, the power of plants, and creating a truly accessible space in turbulent times.
On buying plants while Black
Gebreyohannes: There are Black people who own nurseries, gardens, and farms; we want to be clear about that. Anybody who understands history knows that we’re very much connected to plants—medicinally, nutritionally. But there’s been a stereotype that it’s an almost privileged, elitist experience to be able to go to a nursery and buy a plant, specifically the indoor plants and home goods type of store. It’s been an experience that has really alienated a lot of like Black people and minorities in general. I know that I’ve gone to plenty of these places and have not felt at home.
Roxanne: It was mandatory for us to open in Oakland, where there are people who want to take advantage of the space. Oakland for a long time has been, and still is, synonymous with some very key parts of Black history. The Black Panthers and other activist and social movements have come through Oakland or originated here. I think we’d be doing a disservice if we said that we wanted to be inclusive but opened [the business] somewhere else, where we know Black people don’t have access.
Gebreyohannes: We are on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. We are in the heart of a part of Oakland that people don’t want to invest in, that people are not thinking about twice.
On bringing a community space to life
Gebreyohannes: We both felt super affected by the protests, and it’s what I consider to be an ongoing trauma. Just thinking about Breonna Taylor’s killers still not being arrested is super triggering for me. We realize the importance of prioritizing our space and making sure that people, especially Black people, are taking the time to take inventory. Fighting for our rights, our causes, securing some peace for ourselves—it’s exhausting. But it’s not all in vain. A lot of beautiful things have come from those unfortunate situations and it proves to me that Black people are very, very resilient.