Before little Elisha Greenwell was allowed to open presents, she first had to complete community service work with her family every Christmas morning. This was a part of family tradition started well before she was born that taught her the value of civic engagement, even if there wasn’t much else to give.
“My parents, like a lot of our parents, grew up much poorer than I did,” Greenwell told ESSENCE, explaining that her family worked hard to provide a great life for her. “And that’s a testament to building generational wealth over time and the ability for Black families to actually do that because the odds are stacked against us. And so when I was young, even my grandparents, I remember, even outside the church, civic service was something we did as a family. Every holiday season to this day, we would all pile in the car and go downtown to give out gloves and socks and soup before we can exchange gifts.”
This spirit of giving stayed with her through adulthood and inspired one of the biggest undertakings she spearheaded after noticing a deep void in Oakland, California, a town she’d moved to in her twenties and fell in love with.
“I left the Bay for a few years and moved back in 2017,” Greenwell said, explaining she’d left the city after being offered a job in LA. “When I came back home, I was just sad. The demographic had changed. Gentrification had taken hold, but there wasn’t support for any of the organizations and parties that centered on Black patrons. I just kept asking where had all the ‘Black people gone’?”
She explained that at that time, there was huge unrest in the city due to Trump’s entrance into the White House, triggering the women’s rights demonstrations.
“There were marches happening all the time and I realized, ‘oh, here are the Black people.’ We’re always out here fighting the good fight. Why aren’t we out here when we need to celebrate ourselves?”
This question was the impetus for Black Joy Parade.
The idea was to have a large-scale event that wasn’t about a protest, but instead, just pure joy.
“I was adamant about making it just about us,” she said, sharing that she wanted to pattern it after San Francisco’s Pride parade which draws in thousands for a day of unadulterated happiness and unity.
Greenwell quickly tapped her network of corporate heavy hitters and community organizers that she’d amassed over time through her social impact and advertising work and launched the first parade that same year. It was an instant hit. Now six years later, the latest event, which took place on February 26, drew more than 10,000 people that lined the streets of Downtown Oakland. The parade took place on February 26, an uncharacteristically rainy day, but that didn’t stop the party.
“People didn’t leave and it was really pouring down,” Greenwell shared, explaining that this was a testament of how much value the event holds. Even in the downpour, she said the crowd enjoyed live music, sponsor activations, games, and so much more.
She also adamantly pointed out that those key elements will remain unchanged despite suggestions that she implement a stronger social justice component to the event series.
“In the summer of 2020, I was approached to do some programming in response to the uprising but it didn’t feel right to lean into that because there are plenty of experts out there already doing type of work,” she said. “What I’m doing is something very different but just as necessary. Having fun as Black folks is just as important fighting for justice, you know? It’s just as radical. We need to be more intentional about platforming joy. That’s my lane and I’m sticking to it.”
More information about the Black Joy Parade annual event and nonprofit can be found here.