2016 First Place Writing Winner

Alden Woods

First Place
Indiana University
$5,000 Scholarship Award and Hearst Medallion

Winning Stories

News Story from Interview | Personality/Profile | Spot News

News Story from Interview

Schaaf says residency outside city lines not an issue for Oakland police

Calling it a “false proxy” that distracts from deeper issues, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf dismissed the growing sentiment that her city’s residents might be better served by police officers who actually live in Oakland.

“I don’t care where you live if you misbehave,” Schaaf said at a press conference Wednesday morning. “I don’t think that requiring residency guarantees that good behavior.”

Of the Oakland Police Department’s 745 sworn officers, just 9 percent live in the city, according to a February staffing report, and 67 percent don’t live in Alameda County.

Across the country’s 75 largest police forces, 40 percent of officers live within their city’s limits, data reporting website FiveThirtyEight reported in 2014. Oakland had the fourth-lowest percentage of resident officers.

But that’s not the problem, Schaaf said. She sees what she said are bigger issues: a history of tension between Oakland police and the city’s historically black community, misbehavior that landed the department under federal monitoring and a system of mass incarceration that many people associate with the police.

“Damage has been done, and it’s been done in Oakland, California,” Schaaf said, punctuating each word with a rap of her fist. “That is part of my job, to try and rebuild trust. Police are the most extreme example of it.”

But Schaaf campaigned on strengthening the police force and restoring community policing, and right now, most Oakland officers simply aren’t members of the communities they patrol.

Adding to that tension is a demographic disparity between rank-and-file officers and the population they’re pledged with protecting.

Just 19 percent of OPD officers are black, 24 percent are Hispanic and 12 percent are Asian, according to the staffing report. Those numbers have remained relatively constant over the past year.

By contrast, the 2010 Bay Area Census reported that 28 percent of Oakland residents were black, 25 percent were Hispanic and 17 percent were Asian.

Starting under former Mayor Jean Quan, Oakland has tried to diversify and strengthen its police force by altering and speeding the way it recruits cadets. Proposals included eliminating or lowering the minimum score for the written entrance exam. Both ideas were rendered impossible by the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, which requires a written exam and sets the recommended passing score.

“The policy was to try really hard to get more officers of color and officers who grew up in Oakland,” former city councilwoman Pat Kernighan said. “It’s not for lack of trying.”

That policy may have backfired. An underage sex scandal allegedly involving at least four Oakland officers led the department to again review its recruitment process.

Last month, OPD swore in graduates of the 174th Oakland Police Basic Academy.

“The diversity of Oakland is reflected in the 44-member class,” the department said in a press release. “The ethnic makeup is fairly balanced between African-American, Asian, Caucasian, Latino and Native American.”

Just 10 of the new officers live in Oakland.

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Schaaf still navigating Oakland’s contentious division

The protesters filled the new Oakland mayor’s driveway before dawn.

“Good morning, Libby Schaaf,” they chanted. “No sleeping on the job.”

Schaaf had been in office just two weeks. Cheers filled the room at her inauguration.

She was a daughter of Oakland, born and raised, and she rode that persona to City Hall, vowing “transformative change” while flashing her cheerleader’s smile.

After the ceremony, she rode off in a fire-breathing, snail-shaped car – made in Oakland, of course. More cheers followed.

Then she spent her first day as mayor with the police department, rousing fears of coordinated oppression among Oakland’s black activists.

So they gave her a people’s inauguration, gathering before 5 a.m. on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2015. Videos of the morning show Schaaf’s garage door lit up with photos of King as the people held up a makeshift sign: “DREAM.”

The mayor stayed in the house. An onlooker noticed a cat watching from a front window. Her husband opened the front door and was handed a list of demands.

Libby Schaaf had campaigned on optimism, on rebuilding Oakland through growth and safety, on raw belief in the potential of her city.

But, from where the protesters were standing, enthusiasm couldn’t cover the city’s problems: rising tensions between police and black residents, an unraveling housing crisis and a reputation as one of America’s most dangerous cities. And now those frustrations were being hurled at her home.

“Wake up, Libby!” the people yelled into the darkness. “Wake up!”


Libby Schaaf wasn’t sure she was ready. But nobody loved – or understood – Oakland like she did.

The city was tired of then-Mayor Jean Quan, who seemed a lock to lose her reelection bid. Schaaf, a Democrat, had thought about running for mayor, but certainly not so soon.
It was 2013. She was still in her first term on the City Council.

“I think she thought it was something she might want to do someday,” said former councilmember Pat Kernighan, one of Schaaf’s closest political allies.

Schaaf had spent 15 years in local government, most of those in the City Council. There, she worked her way from aide to councilmember, and the work suited her. She buried herself in city policy, breaking down budgets and staying at her desk until 11 p.m. most nights.

“I am a policy wonk,” Schaaf said. “That is my happy place.”

But mayor? Not yet. Still too soon. And anyway, running for office had never been the plan.

At Rollins College – a small liberal arts school in Orlando where “the campus is pretty, and the students are attractive,” as one professor described it – Schaaf studied political science, but didn’t talk about a political future.

After Rollins came law school and a job at a firm in Oakland. That didn’t last long, and she flipped to public service.

But when the city looked for new leadership, Schaaf looked for someone else.

She interviewed the declared candidates, digging into policy, asking for specifics, prying for details. None impressed, Kernighan remembered.

“She was driven crazy that some of the candidates didn’t understand Oakland like she did,” Kernighan said.

Finally, Schaaf relented. If somebody was going to lead her city, it might as well be her. It was, as a campaign catchphrase later proclaimed, “hella time for leadership in Oakland.”

“If you want to try to talk me out of it,” she told Kernighan, “do it now.”


“The have-it-all Mayor of Oakland,” one magazine called her. Cheerleader-in-Chief. The city’s most fervent believer.

Schaaf loves Oakland, that much is clear. She wears Oakland-themed earrings and danced in a parade with MC Hammer. When Stephen Curry was given the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award, Schaaf proudly tweeted a photo from the press conference.

Usually, the city has loved her back. But underneath that zeal, the city’s problems have festered. For years, Oakland’s mayors have struggled to unite the city’s new, upper-class residents with the historically poor black community. Schaaf has, too.

“I can definitely say that some folks are frustrated,” said Maeve Brown, executive director of Housing and Economic Rights Advocates. “It is a tale of at least two cities here in Oakland.”

Rental prices in Oakland are still spiking. The relationship between Oakland’s police and citizens is still frayed. The city has spent the past eight months in an economic boom, but those benefits haven’t been shared evenly among the city’s rich and poor.

It seems Schaaf can’t actually have it all.

After she convinced tech giant Uber to open a major office downtown, bringing 3,000 jobs to the city, she was accused of speeding – or worse, ignoring – gentrification. When peaceful protests turned violent last May, Schaaf banned such gatherings at night, a policy that was challenged within weeks.

Oakland’s two halves are in constant friction, and Schaaf is caught at the vertex.

“I don’t have the time, anymore, to personally be the problem-solver,” she said.


When Schaaf heard the chants ring through her neighborhood, shock set in. Home was supposed to be insulation from the pressures of her job — now those problems had arrived at her door.

Then she thought of her children, sleeping in their beds.

“Oh, my God,” she thought. “Someone’s going to attack my children.”

She found a video feed on Twitter and watched as the protests stretched into their second hour. When she realized the people were peaceful, chanting rather than rioting, she saw the protests for what they were: the people’s most effective display of their frustration. She felt responsibility replace fear.

“People distrust and are angry with governmental authority for very good reasons,” she said. “That’s the place that I try and go when I’m feeling personally attacked, just to recognize the legitimacy of the damage that’s been done.”

As morning broke, the protesters dispersed. Schaaf got her people’s inauguration, and she had a full schedule of community appearances.
So she got in her car, dropped her kids off with her mother, and went to work.

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Illiteracy leaves wide gaps for San Francisco’s homeless

The words started to look the same, so Edward rubbed his eyes and stared at the classroom ceiling.

“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said, ruffling his gray ponytail before looking down at the desk. Eight words stared back at him.

Food. Table. Soup. Fruit. Head. Cook. Serve. Need.

The tutor repeated the question. “Can you hand me ‘fruit?’” she asked.

Edward, 57, ran a thick finger over each card, sounding out each word by the letter. He reached for one, but decided against it. Another drew a closer look, but was slid aside. A moment later, he had it.

“F-R-U-I-T,” he mouthed. “Fruit.”

He handed the card to the tutor, who added it to a stack of already-learned words.

“These are kind of hard today, right?” she offered. “These aren’t simple.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Edward replied. “They’re all new to me.”


Edward, who requested to be identified with only his first name, is illiterate. He’s one of an estimated 30 million American adults who can’t read or write above a basic level, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

He’s also been homeless, on-and-off, for the past 10 years.

There’s a chasm in the timeline of Edward’s life. He remembered being 6 years old, wishing somebody would come teach him to read. But he grew up in an abusive home, he said, and school didn’t seem nearly as important when he was trying to make it through each day.

“I didn’t want to be taught,” Edward said. “I didn’t trust anybody. I didn’t listen.”

He dropped out of school at 16 and never went back.

Episcopal Community Services’ Adult Education Center is designed to bridge gaps like the one in Edward’s life. The Center, created in 1994, helps more than 200 homeless San Franciscans each year learn professional skills, earn high school diplomas and learn how to read and write.

Together, homelessness and illiteracy form a disastrous vortex that can keep people unemployed, uneducated and on the streets.

When a person can’t read or write, most jobs are out of the question, and the precious few jobs that remain within reach are barricaded behind a stack of paperwork. Opening a bank account is all but impossible. Applications for housing can seem insurmountable.

So in San Francisco, where a housing crisis and rapid gentrification are constantly widening the gap between the city’s rich and poor, the Center provides a critical service — people come here to learn to read.

“Any kind of job depends on reading and writing to make it,” Edward said. “A lot of the time, I just hid it.”

Edward became an expert guesser. He kept his illiteracy secret, faking his way through each day and avoiding paperwork whenever possible. His kids don’t know their dad can’t read. He hopes he can read to his granddaughter one day – she’s 13.

These days, a receptionist greets Edward by name when he walks into the Center. Teachers and students shake his hand as he walks to the classroom. He likes to offer visitors a mug of black tea.

“The clincher, the thing that really gets people to improve their lives, is the community that they find here,” Education Manager Kathryn Benton said. “Adults who are coming back to get their education, that’s exactly what they didn’t have before.”


Edward insisted he’s not homeless. He had somewhere to stay that night, he said, so how could he be homeless?

He’s rarely on the streets anymore, but he stays with family or floats between shelters. A month ago, he was living at the Sanctuary, a shelter just down the street from the classroom.

But he’s been in San Francisco since 1991, and he’s never stayed in one place for long. After he sent his kids to Dallas, drugs took over his life, he said. Post-traumatic stress disorder, buried deep in childhood abuse, ravaged his nerves. He spent 10 years without a steady place to stay.

He’s taking his education seriously, he said, but sometimes life is too tumultuous. He’s been sporadically attending classes at the Center for five years, sometimes disappearing for months at a time.

“That’s the MO of many of our students,” Benton said. She’s known Edward eight years, and couldn’t remember him ever living in his own place. “Education kind of takes a backseat.”

When students make it to class, it’s a slow process. Edward tends to forget words he learned weeks ago. “Right, right, I knew that one,” he mutters to himself when he gets one wrong.

“Even Edward gets mixed up, and he’s one of our higher students,” instructor Roselyn Mena said. The Center offers literacy programs in three levels: basic, adult basic and adult secondary. Edward is still at the first level.

When he finishes school, he said, he wants to become a social worker. He’s ready for desk work because decades of manual labor have wrecked his body. He limps slowly and clutches a cane, his knees popping their disagreement at each step.

He’s nearing old age, but the classroom brings him back to childhood, to that place he missed out on when life came too quickly.
“I’m back to life,” he said. “I’m living again.”


The last few minutes of each class are Edward’s favorite.

“Here we go,” Edward said, tapping his hands on the desk. “Time to read.”

The tutor passed out copies of “Soup Kitchen,” a made-for-learners book with a single sentence on each page. Before reading, Edward practiced a few sentences, saying each one out loud until it felt natural.

He helps feed people in need.

He puts the food on the table.

Finally, Omar has time to eat.

It took 25 minutes and a few do-overs, but Edward finished the book. Twenty-four pages, twenty-four sentences.

“That’s enough for this week,” he said, tucking the paperback inside a binder. He had spelling homework to do, and he wanted to get a head start.

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