Urban Furniture clothing

Much more than a thrift store

By Debra Chaplan

When you see Urban Furniture & Boutique on Grand Avenue, it would be reasonable to think, “Oh, that’s a Thrift Store,” but you’d be wrong. Well, it is a thrift store, but it’s also more. “Actually, the shop is a social enterprise that enables us to provide jobs, training, housing and so much more to young, single mothers in Oakland,” says Tracey Williams, founder of Urban University, a program with a huge impact in a small retail space on Grand Avenue, now going into its 15th year of service.

Tracey’s story leads a straight path to today’s Urban University program. Originally from Harlem and the South Bronx, she came to California as a young woman of 19, married to a man in the Air Force with whom she’d grown up. They had two kids together, but by the time she reached 30, she was on her own. Attracted by the high salaries, she got a corporate job in San Francisco, and quickly moved from a data entry position up to Human Resources. This experience offered her powerful lessons in what it means to work in corporate America.

From corporate to serving the community

A painting of Tracey that’s in the shop

But when an economic downturn ended that position, Tracey began a new career—working with unhoused men and women and those with other barriers to employment, helping them secure and keep jobs.

In the mid-1990s, the buzzword was “welfare to work,” and Tracey got a new position designing a program for single mothers. “Suddenly I saw myself with 20 women around the table, all colors, all faiths, all backgrounds. We put together a welfare-to-work program with the Bar Association of San Francisco and over 100 law firms, opening up entry-level positions for women transitioning from public assistance. I became the life skills instructor and case manager and did all that for 11 years.”

Soon, other organizations started coming to Tracey to help them get low-income individuals ready to work in specific fields, like medical or STEM. “I realized I could charge a fee-for-service and put that money into the non-profit we wanted to build.” As a result of her consulting work, she was able to get her first office space, hire her first administrative assistant, and then start professionalizing her materials, building a board, and developing the mission.

As welfare-to-work funds started drying up, Tracey and her board realized that they’d need new revenue sources and they came up with the idea of opening a social enterprise to help them earn their own revenue. “We could utilize the enterprise for job training; it would become a real-life classroom.” So, she started looking for a site. San Francisco was unaffordable. As Tracey had been working with the Oakland Job Corps and the Oakland Clean Energy Project at Laney, she thought, ‘Why not Oakland?’ In 2009, she found a space on Grand Avenue. “Oakland felt good to me. The people who needed help felt good to me. It felt earthy on Grand Avenue. The community showed up for us automatically, and we were able to negotiate with a beautiful landlord over here.”

One day, after being in the Oakland shop for about nine years, the landlord’s office administrator invited Tracey out for a walk. “She showed me a house around the corner and told us they were donating the lease to us. That changed everything!” Tracey says. “Now our ecosystem is housing, employment, and supportive services.” For employment, Urban University now offers four skills tracks: customer service, retail, and ecommerce, and with support from the Alameda Education Advisory Board, they’ve recently added sewing. “We can now make our own products from recycled denim. It’s really cool. And our sewing instructor is Meaza Haile, the owner of 8 AM Fashion, just down the block.”

Tracey (standing/left) looks on as Meaza gives a sewing lesson.
Tracey Williams (standing/left) looks on as Meaza Haile gives a sewing lesson.

Tracey underscores what great neighbors she has on Grand Avenue. “All of the small businesses are our friends. Meaza is teaching the moms to sew, and Alice on Grand donates to us. So many restaurants on the block have donated food. It’s been a really good experience working in partnership with the businesses on the street.”

Serving 2,000+ individuals

In the 26 years since the Urban University began, the program has served well over 2,000 individuals. “We used to teach cohorts of 25 women at a time, but now, because the program is so comprehensive, we serve fewer women—six to eight a year plus their kids—but we provide much deeper services. We do our work in collaboration with the City of Oakland Family Homeless Challenge Grant and with two partners that are part of the Oakland Transitional Housing Alliance: the Oakland Elizabeth House and Diamond in the Rough.”

The single moms in the program have six months to become housing and job-ready. “We provide case management, housing navigation support, and workshops on the housing side, and on the job side, we provide coaching and help them attain employment. It’s a quick program and a heavy lift, but we help them through it every step of the way,” she adds.

“Most of the women on our staff have been through the program themselves, so they know what our participants are going through,” Tracey says with great pride. “I really believe in the value of your community members being able to be their own solution.”

While proud of her successes, Tracey is very aware that everything is not always rosy. “We are working in an interestingly tough time in Oakland. The city is under-resourced and has tough budget issues. That will affect the marginalized residents of Oakland. There’s still a lot of opportunity in Oakland, but there are a lot of gaps and generational barriers. We are working with a very high level of trauma and few resources available for behavioral health. But if you walk in our store, you do see the power of helping individuals to get on a pathway to a better life.”

Join the Community

May 5 event leaflet

If you want to support Urban University, the opportunities are endless. You can volunteer — with resume writing, teaching how to use Excel spreadsheets, supporting professional development, working in the house, and more. You can make donations of money and goods that can be sold in the store or used to keep the house fresh and bright. Corporate donations are also welcome and are tax-deductible, as are entry-level job opportunities. See the Urban University website for information on all donations (what they take and what they don’t).

And finally, their annual event is coming up on May 5. Support it!

By debra chaplan

Debra Chaplan became the publisher of the Splashpad News in February 2024. She’s lived in the Grand Lake neighborhood for 30 years. With a career doing communications and educational programming for several unions, she’s pleased to use those skills for the neighborhood and city that she loves.



7 responses to “Much more than a thrift store”

  1. […] A mission-driven social enterprise featuring resale merchandise and items handmade by local artists.  Music by Frankie G & The Conviction playing high-energy blues and grooves. P.S. urban university was just the subject of this Splash Pad article. […]

  2. Lucy Glover Avatar
    Lucy Glover

    Thanks so much for changing the font! It’s much easier to read.

  3. Betty Gaye Avatar
    Betty Gaye

    Tracey inspires me. The world needs more people like her.
    Betty Gaye

  4. Teresa Avatar

    Thank you for the beautiful newsletter. urban university is a really special place, we are so lucky to have a social enterprise helping our community in this way right in our neighborhood!

  5. Tracey deserves these accolades! I hope this article will spark a deeper interest and understanding into the wonderful and compassionate work she does. Thank you Tracey!

  6. orla kristensen Avatar
    orla kristensen

    Great article. It is fantastic the work they do. Tracey has such a great heart

  7. Ken katz Avatar
    Ken katz

    Debra. Great article about Tracy and Urban University. Only thing I would have added is to note that Tracy is also the driving force behind the Grand avenue art Walk.

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