2016 Writing Finalist

Jordan Wilson

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
$1,500 Scholarship Award and Hearst Medallion


News Story from Interview | Personality/Profile | Spot News

News Story from Interview

Whenever Libby Schaaf reminds her people she grew up in Oakland, the usual response is: Which part?

While she classifies her background as middle class, she felt she grew up with a taste of both sides, among the richest students in public school and poorest in private school at Skyline High School.

A certain degree of skepticism comes with being a white female mayor of Oakland, a population that 2010 census data marked as 34.5 percent white and 28 percent black.

“It certainly has shaped some of my understandings and experiences of privilege and the dynamics of race and class,” Schaaf said.

But, by no means, is Schaaf looking to pump the breaks on making things better.

In a press conference Wednesday, Schaaf discussed her plans proactive efforts to create “a pipeline of opportunity” in Oakland for low-income kids of color through her coined concept of “techquity,” a digital bridge that narrows technological disparity among diverse groups of people.

Some of that comes in the form of job-training center that, despite Schaaf’s strong advocacy in their favor, city officials and residents alike have met with some resistance. After all, the tech industry seems synonymous with racial disparity when white workers made up 50 percent or more of staffs 21 of the 22 key technology companies in 2015.

“People have good reason to fear change, particular if you are part of the population that has not benefited in the past,” Schaaf said. “I very much understand the skepticism that things can be any better, any different.”

Schaaf quickly pointed to Red Bay Coffee, a worker cooperative that primarily employs the formerly incarcerated, and the strong ties it formed with Uber after she introduced the two. Not only did Uber agree to caffeinate its soon-to-open Oakland headquarters with Red Bay Coffee, but in February also signed a supply contract for all four of its San Francisco offices — creating 20 or so jobs.

She also added that Uber received no tax credits or discretionary decisions for moving to Oakland.

As studies find, though, people often find themselves wanting change in theory but meet actual change with opposition or “liberal conservatism,” as Jason Luger, an urban studies professor at San Francisco State, prefers to call the trend in the Bay Area

“People that generally support progressive politics and social justice tend not to support dramatic physical changes of the city,” Luger said, saying the trend especially applies to efforts to build more affordable housing, which goes hand-in-hand with Schaaf’s “techquity” plans.

These more publicized issues, including also the distrust between Oakland’s police force and its residents, all feed the bigger issue Schaaf considers to be one of her tallest tasks as mayor: to rebuild trust between the people and their government.

“We have a problem,” Schaaf said. “If people stop believing that government is serving them, what is the future of our democracy?”

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Libby Schaaf keeps her gaze wide and mind open.

Sometimes, she forgets to shut it off. Previous positions throughout her 17 years as a politican always focused her one or several key tasks designed to help support her bosses’ visions, whether as a top aide or senior policy advisor for former Oakland politicians. She enjoyed being the problem-solver; the one who could switch in another gear and lock into getting something accomplished on her own.

Even now as Oakland mayor, when Schaaf hears about a problem happening in her city, she wants to personally be the one to guide the way to a solution.

“I think for her it’s letting go a little bit, to let all of us do what we do and to know that she’s not going to be present for every decision,” said Erica Terry Derryck, Schaaf’s Director of Communications.

Schaaf was elected to office nearly 19 months ago after an endorsement from Governor Jerry Brown garnered her 63 percent of votes from 102,000 or so Oaklanders that cast votes. Since then, she has helped bring Uber, a multi-billion dollar tech colossus, to Oakland, demanded accountability from her police department following a sex-crime scandal and clashes with African-American residents and faced mobs of protesters demanding social justice for a wide array of issues.

On January morning of her 15th day in office, she awoke around 5 a.m. before the sun rose to the sounds about 40 Black Lives Matter protesters, chanting through a megaphone and drawing chalk outlines on the pavement outside her home to show disdain for her perceived lack of action in stopping police violence.

Her kids, Dominic and Lena Fahey, slept through most of the protests, but it didn’t keep Schaaf from fearing for the safety of them and her husband, Salvatore Fahey.

“Home has always been this kind of place where I recharge my batteries, so it really was quite a shock when the ultimate stress of my job actually came to my house,” Schaaf said. “And your first instinct is as a mother.”

The longer it went on, though, the more Schaaf said she saw how peaceful — and clever — the protest actually was, diminishing her fear and acknowledge the protest’s legitimacy. She understood the anger arose from a very real and justified place.

Tough skin comes with politics — for those who last, anyways — but Schaaf credits her city with giving her such resilience.

“Like many Oaklanders, I take tremendous pride in what I see as my identity as an Oaklander, and part of that is being a little tougher than the average person,” Schaaf said. “A little bit no-bullshit.”

Forget any previous efforts by media to highlight Schaaf’s days as head cheerleader at Skyline High School in the 1980s. Forced comparisons between her decades-old school spirit and the passion she employs to lead the city of Oakland are trivial and, frankly, no less sexist than constituents focusing on her hair style or choice in outfits. If she were a man, the narrative wouldn’t be as “fun.” How often are discussions focused on President Barack Obama’s high school basketball career in Hawaii or on Brown’s cheerleading stint at Cal Berkeley?

“Of course I’ve experience the double standard that exists for women in politics,” Schaaf said. “I cannot tell you how many people (a lot of women) told me it was very inappropriate for me to run for office when my children were so young, that I was a bad mother for making that decision.”

If there has to be an athletic comparison drawn to Schaaf’s enthusiasm for Oakland, she would prefer it be to the “scrappy pride” of former NFL running back Marshawn Lynch, another Oakland native.

Otherwise, Schaaf would rather not detract from her important objectives: mutualized sales tax, comprehensive city budgeting that avoids cutting city services, beginning a new housing inspective program that shifts the burden from the tenants to the landlords.

“I’m a policy wonk,” she said. “That is my happy place.”

Whether in her public debates for her mayoral campaign or in a small conference room with group of young reporters, Schaaf pauses on each questions asked to her, sometimes gazing up or down, and takes a few seconds to construct a thoughtful, genuine answer. The mark of a politician, perhaps; though, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s track record could dispute that.

In fact, Schaaf fired back at Trump on Twitter earlier in May after he labeled Oakland one of the “most dangerous” cities in the world in an interview, retaliating with a tweet that called the most dangerous place in America “Donald Trump’s mouth.”

She didn’t even know about Trump’s comments until she received a call from a local reporter asking for a comment while she was attending a national convening at Harvard for the By All Means initiative to help close the opportunity gap in education. She likes to be responsive with media — maybe too responsive, she jokes — but, after reading the comment, she again took pause and asked the reporter to give her a minute to think about her response.

“The last mayor would have just said something,” Schaaf said he told her, to which she answered. “Yeah, that’s why she wasn’t re-elected.”

Oakland kept no secrets about its disproval of Schaaf’s predecessor, Jean Quan, as residents once spent 10 months between October 2011 and July 2012 trying to collect signatures to remove her from her position as mayor. So, why should she?

Schaaf prefers to be upfront with her constituency — “committed to transparency,” Derryck says — particularly with the Oakland Raiders and Athletics. Yes, she would like them to stay long-term, but no, her city won’t pay it.

Some people resent that about her, or she said simply the fact that she’s “a woman in a position of influence.” But she isn’t anymore willing to budge on her convictions than she is capable of becoming someone other than the white female mayor of Oakland.

“Sometimes, it’s to your advantage when people underestimate you.”

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DeWayne Mabron answers using the same word all of his friends: “eventually.”

Eventually, Mabron — nicknamed “Dog” — believes he will stop living at his sidewalk spot near corner of Eddy and Larkin in the Tenderloin. Eventually, the 59-year-old will find a home off the streets. Eventually, things will get better.

His words aren’t far off from those of politicians trying to eradicate the homelessness problem afflicting San Francisco.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee told the Chronicle in April.

Spend any amount of time walking the streets of San Francisco, you won’t miss signs of the problem: the cocoons of blankets and sleeping bags wound tightly together near sprawled collections of trinkets, the tiny bottles of whiskey and vodka sucked dry and discarded along sidewalks, the crack pipes rarely kept hidden that waft an ephemeral odor like burnt plastic.

Then there are the people who, for one reason or another, call this dismal scene their home. But, as it is rarely a person’s choice to live homeless, the other side of the coin can also offer no alternative for where the homeless die.

Including unaccompanied children and transitional-age youths, the number of homeless people living on the streets and in shelters reached 7,539 in 2015, according the city’s point-in-time count and survey report.

Meanwhile, data collected over a decade by the San Francisco Examiner found that 32 homeless people died between Dec. 1, 2014 to and Dec. 1, 2015 — a sizeable decrease from the record-high 157 deaths in 1998 — of causes ranging from drugs and suicide to natural causes. Four were also killed in homicides.

Some church groups, like The San Francisco Interfaith Council and the Night Ministry, hold annual memorial services to commemorate all the homeless lives lost during the year, but seldom is an individual afforded his or her own private service.

“We show up and mourn them, but ain’t no one gives a shit,” Mabron said, though the few teeth left in his mouth make him difficult to understand at times.

Even fewer who die homeless are given proper burials with funerals nationally costing as much as $10,000. Without family to come claim them, their bodies can wait for months in the city’s medical examiner’s office before being cremated. Remains are then clumped together, unmarked, for a mass burial.

Ask Mabron or any number of the homeless people living around him if they know where those remains go, most will just laugh. Some shrug. Others have only share a few broad words.

“I hate the goddamn city,” said Vacedia “Cedi” Davis, who said she came to San Francisco from Marin County 13 years ago and longs to be elsewhere.

Sam Dodge, who Lee appointed as the Director of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement (HOPE), said San Francisco is looking to combat homelessness, as whole, through making housing more affordable. To do this, the city’s $24 million dedicated to subsidizing affordable housing is focused on both consolidating existing homeless-support programs and creating new ones to concentrate efforts.

“We target people that are most vulnerable to death and so that they need a lot of support services and health care,” Dodge said.

As of 2009, the average life expectancy for a homeless person living in the United States ranged from 42 and 52 years old compared with 78 for the general population.

At 63, Mike Dolezal has spent the majority of his life as a Bay Area resident since his family emigrated from Heidelberg, Germany when he was a boy. He claims to have served in the navy submarines Vietnam War, but he has nothing to his name that can prove it. Except, perhaps, the lump in his lower back he claims to have gotten “catching shrapnel.”

Having spent the latter half of his life living on the streets, Dolezal can’t be sure the number of homeless people he has heard of dying on the streets.

Late on a warm June night, he looks off above the rooftops and points, his hand twisted and scrunched together at the joints. “Also the war,” he says. Several blocks away, he continues, he remembers one homeless friend he claims died more than 20 years ago after drinking himself to sleep and freezing to death in his wheelchair.

“When you’re an alcoholic on the streets, one or two nights having too much, and you’re done,” Dolezal said, thinking back two months ago to the night when drank two bottles of Jack Daniels and passed out in the pouring ran. Waking up days later after that night is what he said made him quit drinking.

Then again, Dolezal’s memory is admittedly as deteriorated as his physical health from years of drug and alcohol abuse. Morphine, heroin, pills, whiskey; you name it, and Dolezal can tell you a time he abused it.

“My fault,” he muttered, shifting in the four-wheel, seated medical walker he uses to sit and ask for cigarettes outside the Next Door Shelter on Polk Street. He is extremely fond one of the women that works inside but refuses to stay overnight because the 9 p.m. curfew limits his ability to “come and go” as he pleases. Mabron and his friends hold similar reservations, that shelters take away one of the few freedoms they still have.

A 2009 report from the National Coalition for the Homeless estimated that more than a third of homeless people were dependent on alcohol with another 26 percent abusing some form of drugs.

A more recent report from the National Health Care for the Homeless Council also found that 29 percent of homeless deaths in 2014 were alcohol or drug induced. Another 23 percent were health-related while 17 percent of causes remain unknown.

“At least I’m getting out of here soon,” Dolezal said, looking south down Polk in toward where he says he has plans to get an apartment soon.

But for now, plans are all people like Dolezal and Mabron have, clinging to a promise of eventually. An eventually might never come.

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