2016 Writing Finalist

Kaelynn Knoernschild

Oklahoma State University
$1,500 Scholarship Award and Hearst Medallion


News Story from Interview | Personality/Profile | Spot News

News Story from Interview

More than a year has passed since the protest outside the Oakland mayor’s home, and the mayor believes there is more that needs to be done to mend the relationship between the community and the police.

On Jan. 15, 2015, mayor Libby Schaaf and her husband awakened to the sound of a public address system outside their home at 5 a.m.

About 40 Black Lives Matter supporters assembled in protest of racial inequality between police officers and members of the community as well as within the justice system.

In a press conference Wednesday, Schaaf revisited the issue and said she believes trust between a community and the police is ultimately driven by police behavior.

“I think that’s why we are having so many issues with the police right now because damage has been done and it’s been done in Oakland, California by our police department that is why we are under court supervision,” Schaaf said. “I think it’s very important as a leader to acknowledge that.”

In March, an investigator appointed by federal Judge Thelton Henderson released a report surmising more needs to be done within the Oakland Police Department and the Oakland City Attorney’s Office to ensure policies and procedures are being accurately followed.

Investigator Edward Swanson pointed out areas where each department could improve but ultimately said the city attorney’s office could do more to support the police department overall.

Schaaf said she tries to encourage the guardian mindset over the lawyer mindset when it comes to the department.

“People distrust and are angry with government officials for very good reasons,” Schaaf said.

Schaaf acknowledges the city doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to positive change.

“I very much understand skepticism that things can be any better, any different.”
Swanson’s report concluded that once the outlined issues are addressed, “the City of Oakland will have a much stronger police discipline system.”

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Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf might have won the 2014 mayoral election by a landslide, but almost two years later she hasn’t completely won the hearts of the people who elected her.

Since Schaaf took office, her mayoral career has been marred by protests and disputes regarding the home of the Oakland Raiders, gentrification and affordable housing.

Just days after she took office, Schaaf and her husband, Salvatore Fahey, awakened to find a group of protestors outside their home in the Dimond District.

About 40 Black Lives Matter supporters congregated to display their unhappiness about the perceived prioritization of the police.

“It was actually pretty clever what they had done in front of her home,” said Erika Terry Derryck, director of communications for the City of Oakland. “As the mayor, this is the job you sign up for.”

Schaaf said her first instinct was to maintain the safety of her children, who slept through most of the event.

“I would be lying if I didn’t say that was a very fearful moment,” Schaaf said.

In the days following, the mayor received criticism for not coming outside and speaking to the protestors.

Fahey said he and his wife didn’t want to encourage the behavior outside their home because it wasn’t fair to their neighbors.

“We felt like it’s not really fair to our neighbors to sort of give the message, ‘Hey, if you show up at Libby’s house at 5 a.m., she’ll come out and have a meeting with you,’” Fahey said. “There’s a time and a place for that and city hall is the place.”

Despite a rocky start, Schaaf said she is a big proponent for transparency and listening to the public’s concerns. She often takes a matter-of-fact attitude with the media and has a visible enthusiasm for bettering her constituent’s lives.

Schaaf’s multi-dimensional personality and unquenchable passion for the city she serves puts her in a great position to implement the change Oakland needs, Pat Kernighan said.

“You need a lot of different kind of personality traits and skills to be successful as a mayor,” Kernighan said.

Kernighan, a former District 2 city council member, has known Schaaf since 1999.

“Making changes to longstanding problems is slow going and you cannot be faint of heart or fickle,” Kernighan said. “You just gotta hang in there, which she does.”

A great deal of resistance toward Schaaf has typically come from disadvantaged people who don’t have faith in change.

“Most people of color here would not see a leader who is a woman as necessarily representing their interests,” Kernighan said.

Schaaf said her high school experience shaped her understanding of privilege, but she doesn’t consider herself to have had a middle-class upbringing, not an affluent one.

“When I say I grew up in Oakland, people always ask me what part,” Schaaf said.
“I felt like one of the poorest kids at the private school and one of the richest kids at the public school.”

In a community where there is no racial majority, Kernighan said most people view the city’s diversity as a strength; however, she said there is also underlying resentment between classes creating a severe divide.

She said she believes the lower classes don’t have confidence that Schaaf will be their advocate.

“I think that Libby is doing her damnedest to do that,” Kernighan said. “I think she understands it’s her job to advocate for everybody, especially people who have not had middle class opportunities.”

Along with wealth disparity, a gap between geographical education opportunities in Oakland evident, said Michael Hunt, special assistant to the mayor.

To break those barriers, Schaaf supports Oakland Promise, a program put in place to give underprivileged children an opportunity to see the inside of a college classroom.

She’s also introduced the idea of “techquity” in an effort to bridge the gap between the city’s have’s and have-nots as well as create opportunity.

“The tech sector is not diverse,” Schaaf said. “It doesn’t represent America.”

She said tech companies need to recognize the economic reality of the area they occupy, which is increasingly more of the bay area, and said they should want to be a part of the change.

Recently, Uber, a company planning to open a 3,000-person office in Oakland, was introduced to Red Bay Coffee, a start-up that almost exclusively only hires those formerly incarcerated.

A contract between the coffee roasters and Uber is going to create about 20 jobs at Red Bay Coffee, Schaaf said.

When she makes crucial decisions, Schaaf said she is always thinking about what is best for the city in the long term.

Overall, she said she wants to be perceived as a mayor who makes people feel heard when they come to her with their concerns and as though their frustrations matter.

“My brain generally goes to problem-solving mode,” Schaaf said. “So I’m often trying to diagnose what the issue is and how to fix it.”

She said she recognizes people have good reasons for being angry and untrustworthy toward government officials and tries to understand the community’s frustrations when she feels personally attacked.

While she has faced many obstacles and resistance from residents, she’s trying extremely hard to invoke change in a place where the word hasn’t always come with positive connotations.

Schaaf said people within the community have a good reason to be fearful of change especially those a part of “the population who have not benefited in the past.”

“We don’t have a great track record,” Schaaf said. “I very much understand skepticism that things can be any better, any different.”

Schaaf said her job is to try to establish trust and fairness between the people and government. She said the ramifications of losing the public’s confidence could be significant.

“If people stop believing that government is serving them, what is the future of our democracy?”

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Prayer and the smiles of her four children get her through the tough days.

Sometimes it’s a joke that keeps the mood light or a walk in the brisk San Francisco air that helps Tichelle Edwards cope with the turmoil and aftereffects of the past three years.

The chaos began when Edwards awoke to an open window and no sign of her 14-year-old daughter.

Edwards, a single mother, spent the majority of the next three years combing the streets of California in search of her daughter, Deveona Lepierro.

Lepierro had a habit of running away from home.

After spending too much of her time relentlessly searching for her daughter, Edwards, 33, said she was fired from her job and became homeless.

“At first I thought I was a failure,” Edwards said. “I had been working since I was 16. I graduated high school at 15, so it’s kind of like all the hard work that I put in to get degrees and get certificates — it was nothing, it meant nothing.”

Edwards moved her family to San Francisco to live with her sister, but the solution was only temporary and the family members found soon found themselves at the Hamilton Family Center Shelter.

Edwards and her family were deemed perfect candidates for the Hamilton Family Center because Lepierro was pregnant and Edwards’ mother, Damita, was struggling with stage 5 kidney failure.

After six weeks, Edwards’ family was transferred to the Hamilton Family Center, 1631 Hayes St., the complex they’ve called home since September.

Edwards said the Hamilton Family Center staff has been instrumental in helping her search for housing, improve her credit and find her family clothing.

“If they don’t have it, you just ask them and they’ll try their best to help you out,” she said.

The Hamilton Family Center’s mission is to help end homelessness in the San Francisco Bay area, according to its website. The nonprofit also offers services for children and teenagers in an effort to break the cycle of generational poverty and homelessness.

The Hamilton Family Center has multiple programs for families experiencing homelessness, said Rachel Kenemore, the Hamilton Family Center senior development associate.

The Hamilton Family Center Shelter is for families who are looking for a temporary place to stay, Kenemore said. She said families don’t typically stay at the shelter for more than 6 months. Families at the Hamilton Family Center are welcome to stay for 12-16 months, she said.

The Housing Solutions program helps families find new homes and also partners with the San Francisco United School District to work with children and families who are at risk of being homeless.

“We have a really amazing team of real estate folks who are building relationships with landlords in the city and outside of the city as well,” Kenemore said.

She said landlords prefer to work with the nonprofit because they have already completed background checks and vetted the families who will become their tenants.

“We basically act as a stabilizing broker for these families,” Kenemore said.

In 2015, 627 people in families reported being homeless, according to the 2015 San Francisco Homeless Point-In-Time Count and Survey conducted by Applied Survey Research.

Of the 1,046 homeless individuals surveyed, 35 percent of the respondents reported having a psychiatric or emotional condition.

After her final return home, Lepierro was in and out of mental health facilities recovering from the trauma she experienced. While she was away from home, Lepierro said she was kidnapped four times and a victim of human trafficking.

“I always thought every time I got kidnapped, I would just end up getting killed and not (be) able to see my family again,” Lepierro said.

Lepierro said she knew her mother was persistent in her search and would find her daughter any way she could. One time, Edwards “cat fished” her daughter, pretending to be an attractive Hispanic male online to get information about Lepierro’s whereabouts, she said.

“I knew my mom was looking for me,” she said. “She wouldn’t stop. I never really lost hope of my mom finding me.”

Edwards said her greatest challenge has been ensuring that her children have a stable environment to call home.

While the children find comfort in the Hamilton Family Center by night, by day three of her children attend San Francisco public schools.

Since August, Lepierro has been a student at Hilltop Pregnant Minors Program while Edwards’ younger children, ages 13 and 11, attend Martin Luther King, Jr. Academic Middle School.

Through the Families and Youth In Transition program, the school district provides services to families and children who request them, said Jan Walker, FYIT program administrator, in an email.

Edwards said the school district has assisted her in finding clothing drives, food and after-school programs. Her children were even given the opportunity to run track this school year, she said.

“I really appreciate their assistance,” she said. “It’s more than I’ve ever had dealing with any other school district.”

Lepierro said she blames herself for the family’s situation and has secured a job at Safeway to help the family get back on its feet. She said she is now focused on graduating high school and learning how to be a good mother for her daughter, Lanessa, who is seven months old.

Edwards said handling Lepierro’s recovery, such as ensuring she makes it to therapy appointments, has kept her from being hired at most jobs.

She is working for In-Home Support Services, taking care of her mother. Edwards underwent weight loss surgery last fall in an effort to lose 97 pounds and is hopeful she will soon be able to donate a kidney to her mother.

She said she looks forward to finishing her bachelor’s degree and going back to work.

“I never thought that I would be in this situation,” Edwards said. “But things happen. Your train derails and you have to just pick up and move on.”

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