2016 Writing Finalist

Will Drabold

Ohio University
$1,500 Scholarship Award and Hearst Medallion


News Story from Interview | Personality/Profile | Spot News

News Story from Interview

Steps away from city hall, Betti Ono art gallery brings work from artists of color to the doorstep of Oakland’s powerful.

Anyka Barber, the gallery’s founder, strives to feature work from local artists of color. The gallery’s website advertises Betti Ono’s space as a valuable part of “Oakland art and culture.” But last year, the gallery faced extinction.

The City of Oakland notified Barber her rent in the city-owned building would increase 60 percent — or $22,000 a year. “Betti Ono is fighting displacement,” Barber said in an online video about the proposed rent increase.

But after a taskforce formed by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf recommended the city protect the arts through city-owned spaces, Oakland retracted its rent increase. The city is negotiating a below-market rent for the gallery, said Kelley Kahn, special projects director for Oakland’s Economic and Workforce Development Department.

As rents rise rapidly in Oakland, the Betti Ono story shows Oakland fighting a loss of black culture “with the limited tools the city has available,” Kahn said.

The birthplace of the Black Panther Party and African-American cultural movements, Oakland now has the nation’s fourth most expensive housing market, according to Zumper, a real estate analysis website. The number of black residents is shrinking: between 2000 and 2010, Oakland lost nearly a quarter of its black population.

As companies and residents move to Oakland from San Francisco, space becomes a premium. In turn, a place to live, work or display art for those without high incomes disappears from a city that has historically been majority-minority and working class.

On Wednesday, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf discussed the city’s future and her efforts to balance its legacy with modern opportunities. Her approach focuses on “techquity,” a term she coined to describe policies to increase prosperity for traditional Oaklanders and new tenants of the city.

“(We need to) hold this new sector accountable for shared prosperity, for supporting the local economy and not displacing it and proactively creating a pipeline of opportunity,” Schaaf told journalists at her downtown office a quarter mile from the Betti Ono gallery.

The challenges are great. In a 2016 report entitled “Oakland at Home,” a taskforce of housing experts reported 17,000 affordable homes must be built and another 17,000 must be protected “to preserve Oakland’s economic and racial diversity.”

The report also found nearly half of “severely-rent burdened” residents were African-American and “the face of the housing crisis.”

“You’re seeing a mass exodus of people who can no longer afford to live here,” said Zac Wald, chief of staff to Oakland’s city council president. “It feels like the soul of Oakland is threatened.”

But Oakland’s diversity represents an opportunity for companies eyeing the city across the bay from San Francisco, Schaaf said. “The technology sector is not diverse,” Schaaf said.

In March, Betti Ono launched the #PowerLoveResistance campaign to raise money to help it stay downtown. In two months, the gallery raised more than $17,000, according to its page on Generosity.com.

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Libby Schaaf’s supporters and opponents agree on very little, except for this: When Schaaf beat 14 mayoral opponents and said she would implement her vision for Oakland, California “with a tenacity like you’ve never seen,” she meant it.

Schaaf is “disconnected from the reality on the ground,” said Cat Brooks, a resident of West Oakland who runs the Anti-Police Terror Project, a group connected to Oakland’s history as a birthplace of black activism. Brooks feeds the narrative that Schaaf is a privileged, white, (choose your expletive) from the “Hill,” Oakland’s wealthier district, who does not understand how rapid gentrification and rising rents affect Oakland’s black community.

Michelle Byrd knows Schaaf differently. When Byrd’s daughter died, Schaaf cared deeply, says Byrd, a top housing official at the City of Oakland. The mayor attended her daughter’s funeral. “I don’t know many mayors that would do that,” she says. Byrd believes Schaaf is a genuine, kind-hearted warrior for Oakland’s future. At 50-years-old, Schaaf, the city’s second female mayor, says she practices Oakland’s brand of “scrappy pride.” Her supporters say she will preserve Oakland’s activist heritage while building a more prosperous future.

A year-and-a-half into Schaaf’s mayoral tenure, the two narratives about her could not be more different.

What cannot be argued is Elizabeth Beckman Schaaf grew up in Oakland. But how she is perceived, and whether her policies are supported, has much to do with the background of the observer.

Even her “middle class” upbringing is relative.

“I felt like the poorest kid at the private school and one of the richest kids at the public school,” recalls Schaaf, the city’s second female mayor. Her father sold shoes.

She went to high school in Oakland Hills, a series of neighborhoods where homes now sell for $1 million. In the early 1980s, she said she mixed with white and black, poor and rich peers from across Oakland.

Schaaf left Oakland for college, graduating from Rollins College in 1987. Years later, Richard Foglesong still recalls Schaaf as “serious, hardworking and aspirational.”

“That’s a statement in itself — it’s been 30 years,” the political science professor says. Foglesong advised Schaaf during her junior and senior year at the Florida university. Her maturity impressed him. “I’m not surprised that she ended up becoming a mayor,” Foglesong said.

When Schaaf left for college in the early 1980s, Oakland’s population was nearly half African-American. By 2010, the black population in the birthplace of the Black Panther Party had declined to 28 percent.

One reason many cite for the decline: gentrification. In 2015, real estate analysis website Zumper said Oakland had the fourth most expensive rental market in the country. Annual rent for Oakland’s average one-bedroom apartment costs about half the city’s average household income. The city’s unemployment rate was more than 16 percent in 2009. Now, it’s 5.5 percent. The working class and lower-income residents are fleeing as higher earners move in.

Given her 17 years in city government, including as an aide to Jerry Brown, the former Oakland mayor and four-term California governor, Schaaf has closely watched this mixed bag of massive change. She believes she has innovative solutions.

“Techquity” — a term Schaaf coined — sums up policies she says will hold Silicon Valley firms accountable. For example, Uber is moving its headquarters to Oakland, Schaaf says proudly. But she expects the company to hire Oakland residents and respect the city’s heritage.

The strategy focuses on Oakland not becoming San Francisco, where, in the past decade, rent prices exploded as technology companies grew in the greater Bay Area. By creating policies that create growth for all, Schaaf’s argument goes, Oakland can avoid San Francisco’s increased exclusion of middle- and lower-income residents.

But not everyone buys this. In late April, eight Bay Area housing leaders told the mayor her new rent policies would hurt poorer Oaklanders. And some believe gentrification only benefits developers and the mayor’s political fortunes. Carroll Fife met with Schaaf on Tuesday to discuss changes to how Oakland funds job training centers.

Fife said tension between the mayor and Oaklanders boiled into yelling as they disagreed on how to fund the training of Oakland’s unemployed.

Fife runs the Black Power Network, a group that draws its roots from Oakland’s Black Panthers, and campaigned for a candidate opposing Schaaf in the 2014 mayoral election. Schaaf said government can be more transparent, but she will not back down when criticized. “I get frustrated and don’t feel like it is right for me to tolerate people who are knowingly spreading lies,” Schaaf says. The mayor’s biography notes time she spent volunteering in various Oakland organizations, including with low-income and minority children.

Schaaf’s stern response feels characteristic for a woman who attracted national attention for tweeting “… the most dangerous place in America is Donald Trump’s mouth” after Trump called Oakland one of the world’s most dangerous cities.

Schaaf has fought Trump’s claim from day one, controversially spending her first day as mayor with the Oakland Police Department. She’s added dozens of officers to the department. She has pushed policies that crack down on protests, keeping demonstrators on sidewalks.

Violent crime is down and Sgt. Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, praises Schaaf’s decisions, a turnaround for someone who was a major critic of the previous Oakland mayor.

But the perception Schaaf is pro-police has attracted Black Lives Matter activists who called for the mayor’s resignation in January while they stopped traffic on the Bay Bridge. Other protests from black residents have targeted her home in East Oakland, on the Hill, early in the morning.

For now, the narrative of Schaaf as a hard-working change agent seems to be prevailing: 68 percent of Oakland voters approved of her last November.

But nothing about Schaaf suggests she is coasting or done taking on her biggest skeptics.

“If someone is having a hardship or not experiencing their government in a positive light … I have compassion and empathy for that,” she says.

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Society gives us idols: authors, politicians, musicians, American idols. We find other idols: parents, friends, mentors. We all have an idol. And our idols define us.

Idols shape our values. They fuel our ambitions. They are what we hope to become. We dream someone will look up to us.

But Eric Hennell is different. He is homeless, so people do not look up to him. They look down on him.

A 52-year-old San Franciscan, Hennell is from Chicago. He tells stories. He shivers as the bay throws a cold wind. At the corners of his eyes, crescent creases in his skin show age.

“Can you spare a cigarette?” his hoarse voice asks. Hennell stands in the glow of a streetlight as he asks a man wearing headphones for a smoke. The man ignores him. Hennell asks again. The man shoots him a glare. “Sorry,” he says.

Already turning away, Hennell replies softly: “Oh.” He shuffles back to his perch three steps above the Market Street sidewalk in downtown San Francisco.

Another person comes into view. Hennell repeats his question. No reaction. This happens repeatedly. This man stops. He does not acknowledge Hennell. He pulls out a cigarette. Hennell grabs the Marlboro Light as the man briefly looks at his face. Then, the man walks away.

Hennell pulls a lighter from his jacket. He flicks the Bic and watches the glow down his nose. Smoke flows from his nostrils through his brown beard, blending with the occasional gray hair.

Hennell is no idol. He is a man society stigmatizes.

The homeless, their advocates and researchers say the same thing: people who are homeless are survivors. Among San Francisco’s 6,686 homeless, at last count, survival requires being noticed. Hennell demonstrated mild-mannered persistence, but there are other ways to survive. Cardboard signs draw our eyes. A silent plea — “No job. Three kids. Need money to pay rent.” — tugs at our emotions. Other signs — “In need of a good deed.” — draw a smile. In BART stations, our eyes follow our ears to the strumming of a guitar.

These methods share a common thread: they make people look down. Down to give a dollar, hand over a BART ticket or contribute a candy bar. Down to bestow society’s sympathy on a homeless San Franciscan. Down to make a snap judgement. Down to see someone else look up. Down to be someone’s idol.

People don’t always look down. Some do it rarely. Others says to avoid it. But stereotypes pressure those with homes to look down on people who are homeless, experts say.

“The average person is probably too quick to judge,” said Jessica Jenks, executive director of Hospitality House. “When you see somebody sitting on the street, in a tent or carrying around all their belongings, you don’t know what’s underneath, who the person is and what their story is.”

In the words of Sam Dodge, director of public policy at the San Francisco mayor’s Office of Housing Opportunity, homeless people are not “other people.” But Dodge says to be homeless is to be stereotyped. Addicted. Mentally ill. Violent. Some of those stereotypes are based in reality: more than a third of homeless people report abuse of alcohol or drugs and more than a third say they are mentally ill.

The San Francisco homeless are known not as people, but as the “shame of the city,” to quote the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Sometimes when we ball it all together, we forget what we’ve collected into one group,” said Dodge.

Only 25 percent of homeless people in San Francisco are “chronically homeless,” people who have experienced homelessness for more than a year or at least four times in the last year and have a disability, according to the city. And more than 70 percent of the homeless are from San Francisco.

Nearly half are on the street because they say they cannot afford rent.

That means a majority of the homeless may have recently been your neighbor. Would you look down on your neighbor? Not everyone does.

The homeless “have great power when they get involved, when they get going. People want to work with folks like that,” says Jeff Buckley, a housing policy advisor in the Mayor’s office.

At Jenks’ Hospitality House, they want to work with folks like that. Most days, Eddie Sanchez can be found in the program’s Market Street art studio creating posters. His lips barely move when he speaks. His voice is quiet.

The 59-year-old San Franciscan amplifies his soft tone and represents the street through his art — posters of corporate greed, street mischief, sex, politics and endless other themes. His creativity is demonstrated by his shopping cart full of posters.

But he never puts his work on the street, because he thinks it will not sell. It will be looked down on.

For Dean Lake, being looked down on is degrading. A 47-year-old homeless man, Lake says he will not beg for money — the sting of a pity contribution is too much. He’s from Phoenix, but used to work in San Francisco. He stays in city shelters.

“If you’re homeless, all the interaction you get is negative,” Lake says as he scouts for cigarettes on Knob Hill. Unlike Hennell, Lake does not ask for smokes. He finds “snipes,” as he calls them, on the ground.

The homeless man smokes cigarettes discarded by people who can afford them. Lake admits he fits a stereotype, and believes he is looked down on for doing it.

“People come up with excuses to not help,” Lake says of people who ignore pleas from the homeless. Why should they help? “Because they should have compassion! Along the line, somebody was kind to you. They gave you a job … But you’re not homeless.

“You don’t want to make yourself feel that way.” In other words, people don’t want to admit someone may have looked down on them.

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