Amid a pandemic, two women entrepreneurs create space of respite and greenery in Oakland

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Shelter in place has unlocked a whole new sense of creative potential in terms of enhancing the spaces we occupy. From redecorating to deep cleaning to DIY projects, many quarantined individuals are investing in their living spaces. The plant industry in particular has experienced a surge in demand since the start of the pandemic thanks to more people spending time inside, as well as a renewed focus on personal health and wellness. 

Nearly eight weeks ago Kalkidan (Kalu) Gebreyohannes and J'Maica Roxanne walked into a plant nursery in Oakland in search of some relief and rejuvenation.

"It was during a time that was feeling really heavy both as far as the COVID pandemic and the racial pandemic," Gebreyohannes recalled of the duo's visit. 

Surrounded by the lush greenery, the pair suddenly envisioned a plant nursery of their own. They imagined a space that was not only aesthetically pleasing - featuring a coffee barista in one corner and a sweet seating area in another - but more importantly a place that felt safe. Thus sparked the idea for BLK Girls Green House, an outdoor gathering space created to not only purchase houseplants, but to support other local, Black-owned businesses in an attempt to promote a more conscious shopping experience.

"We want people to feel a sense of joy, peace and pride when they're in our space," explained Gebreyohannes. "How Black people feel means a lot to us and we want to celebrate each other doing things that make us feel better." And if feeling better means adding a new leafy friend to your home, then so be it.

In fact, Teresia Hazen, a registered horticultural therapist, says human beings generally feel happier and more optimistic in surroundings with plenty of plants and nature. 

"It encourages living in the present moment and engages the senses," Hazen said.

Born in Ethiopia and raised in Toronto, Gebreyohannes recalls watching her mother sing to and entertain her family's plants. And as an adult, the nursery owner found herself developing an even deeper love and appreciation for her verdant friends. And as for co-owner Roxanne, she realized the aesthetic appeal of plants nearly a decade ago after she moved into her own place in Oakland. 

The joy of cultivating a living thing coupled with a desire to be part of an established lineage of successful Black, female entrepreneurs led Gebreyohannes and Roxanne to launch BLK Girls Green House. 

"It means economic wealth for our communities and it allows us to control our narratives," Gebreyohannes said of the decision to start a business. "Let's be clear we are not new to this. While there are very few of us in the industry of plants it's not because we are new to plants, but because it has become a very privileged and white experience. Black people are literally of the plants; it is in our blood."

Located in a 1,500-square-foot outdoor space next to Axé Oakland fitness center, Gebreyohannes and Roxanne meticulously built their "greenhouse" and took every detail into account, including a prominent black and white photo of Roxanne's grandmother - a constant source of inspiration. 

The nursery not only sells a curated selection of plants, but ceramic and clay pots, home goods and locally produced apparel, too (The space also hosts various pop ups).

In the short period of time that the business has been running, there has been an outpouring of community support with customers calling the business "revolutionary." 

"Everyday that we have been open," Roxanne said, "we have stopped and looked at each other, like: Is this really happening? Are we about to sell out again?"