Ms. Cecilia Cunningham

Community Leader, Regional Community Organizing Project

Ms. Cecilia Cunningham is a community leader and organizer with EBHO’s Regional Community Organizing Project (RCOP) and a recipient of EBHO’s 2024 Affordable Housing Hero award.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, Ms. Cecilia first moved to Oakland for her job at the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs. Over the years Ms. Cecilia has seen Oakland change, but her drive to give back to the community has remained the same. Today she is involved in more than a dozen community organizations including EBHO, Communities for a Better Environment, and her congregation at the United Lutheran Church.

In April 2024, Ms. Cecilia sat down with EBHO staff members Sasha and Damion to share lessons learned from her years of community organizing.

Sasha: So when did you first get involved in EBHO? 

Ms. Cecilia: Matter of fact, I got involved with EBHO about five years ago now. Dolores was at Allen Temple Arms with some people from [the Residents United Network (RUN)] and they were showing some films to us about what they were doing and what not. And I told Dolores I wanted to get involved with EBHO. 

Ever humble, Ms. Cecilia isn’t one to brag about her accomplishments. Damion, who convenes EBHO’s RCOP, the local chapter of Housing California’s Residents United Network, shares an anecdote.

Damion: At the annual RUN conference last year, one of the translators came to Ms. Cecilia on one knee, holding her hand, and said, “What you just said was so inspiring to me.”

I have never seen a translator literally take off their headset to tell someone that it’s an honor to translate their words. Ms. Cecilia has an effect on people.

Ms. Cecilia: Well, you know, that’s something that comes automatically for me. Growing up, when anybody in the neighborhood needed anything, they knew where to come. And that’s the way I am today.

If you don’t try to help people, something is wrong with you, baby. You’ve got to encourage each other to keep on going, because it’s not easy right now. Everybody’s having a difficult time, just trying to survive.

Sasha: How have you seen things change since you first moved to Oakland?

Ms. Cecilia: When I first came here, we had a lot of Black businesses.  Everything’s gone now compared to what it was back in the day. 

You didn’t see nobody sleeping in the doorways, on the concrete, in their cars, RVs, everywhere. I would never believe I would live to witness people sleeping on the concrete.

Sasha: Based on your experience, what would you say is the cause of the homeless crisis?

Ms. Cecilia: I would say the cause of it is rent. People have to choose between rent and food because the rent is too expensive for them to pay. And they choose to eat. I don’t blame them because you’ve got to have fuel to keep your body going. 

Sasha: Have you or anyone you know struggled to pay rent before?

Ms. Cecilia: Oh yes, I knew people who struggled — who were kicked out.

It’s not easy; It’s really not easy. It’s a touching situation. It goes to your heart when you see your neighbor being displaced or being evicted out of their homes.

Sasha: How have you seen people’s lives affected when they finally do get affordable housing?

Ms. Cecilia: Well, life is less stressful. They’re much happier, and they’re really able to sleep at night. 

You’re able to be more sociable, you know what I mean? Once you find a place to stay, you’re more content in mind. And you’re able to really be more social with people and express how you feel about the fact that you’re housed now.

Sasha: I know housing justice isn’t the only issue you work on in the community. Do you see the various causes you are involved in as related?

Ms. Cecilia: Yes, it all works together. We have a lot of health issues due to environmental issues and then if you have health issues, that costs money and makes it harder to pay rent.

You’ve got to make the rich pay their share. Right now the poor man is the one trying to do it all. They’re getting richer and richer, and we’re getting poorer and poorer. 

Sasha: Why does housing justice matter to you?

Ms. Cecilia: All human beings have a right to be housed. I don’t want to see people out on the street there, because I wouldn’t want to be on the street there. You always put yourself in other people’s positions, because you never know what may happen. We are all one paycheck from being unhoused out there. That’s all it takes, just one paycheck and you’re out the door.

We as a community have to do all we can to see that people are housed. We need to have more affordable housing for people so that they’ll be able to live comfortably and also be safe.

Sasha: How do you keep going when things are hard?

Ms. Cecilia: I’m determined to get those people off the streets. I don’t care if I have to go out there and protest at the city hall, the county, go to Sacramento, wherever.

Without my faith, I couldn’t make it all. God is so good. He really is good. You know, because honey, one thing about the Lord, there is nothing impossible for him to do. Nothing at all. You got to keep the faith and just keep on, keep on pushing.