When Carroll Fife joined the Oakland City Council in January 2021, it represented a new approach for the longtime community organizer, educator, and founding member of Moms for Housing. Her radically progressive positions on housing and public safety had resonated with voters in District 3, which includes West Oakland, the Port, parts of downtown, Jack London Square, Mosswood, Westlake, and Adams Point.
Fife sat down with The Oaklandside to go into detail about how she’s approached some of the major issues confronting her district and the city, from homeless encampments to spiking gun violence to the ongoing tensions surrounding OUSD amid school closures. In our April interview with the councilmember, you can also read what Fife has to say about the Oakland A’s ballpark and development proposal for Howard Terminal, which is in her district.
This is part of our series of Q&As with councilmembers. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
The last time you sat down with our newsroom, you worried that the A’s ballpark project was pulling attention away from more pressing issues. What are the most frequent concerns you’re hearing from residents in District 3, and have they changed in the year and a half since you came into office?
They haven’t changed at all. They’re the same issues around housing or lack thereof, homelessness, cleanliness of the district, and the city overall. And public safety. Those are the consistent emails and phone calls that I get.
Your district, downtown and West Oakland in particular, has experienced dramatic changes over the past 15 years or so in terms of who lives there. As someone who came to office as an activist, how do you balance your personal views on things like housing and public safety with representing disparate interests amongst your constituents?
I don’t believe they’re disparate interests. I believe everyone wants and deserves to be safe. I think everyone wants and deserves a clean city.
And when I say everyone, I understand that’s a broad generalization, and I’m sure not every single person feels that way. But I can generalize enough to say the majority of decent people want those things.
So it’s not about what we want; it’s how we get there. Some people think we get there by doing the same thing that we’ve been doing or doubling down on the same historical approach. I don’t believe that to be the case.
I think in order to address the radical changes that have happened over the last few years, especially when it comes to the needs of Black people, I think there needs to be a more intentional and aggressive approach to address those conditions because those conditions impact everybody.
That’s what I’m attempting to do while also fighting a system that wants to remain the same. It’s challenging because the people who want things to stay the same are like, “Look, she’s radical, she’s woke, and she’s applying these politics, her own personal politics, to governance, and that’s why things aren’t working.” And I argue that things aren’t working because we keep doing the same thing and ignoring the core issues and throwing money at problems with no real way to analyze or measure if those things work.
In the past, you’ve expressed feeling disillusionment about the political process’s effectiveness in bringing about transformational change.
But on the housing front, you’ve recently led on a couple of pieces of legislation that were successfully adopted by the city—most notably a 3% cap on rent increases, as well as a ballot measure that could pave the way for thousands of social housing units in the city. Have those wins at all impacted your feelings about or approach to the work?
Historically, from the local to the federal level, there have always been wins that people like myself can achieve. And I’ve got to learn how to better celebrate those moments when they happen because it’s always a struggle. Even when you win one thing, it’s usually like two or three steps backward in other places.
It’s difficult for me to really let the victories sink in because I’m fighting on so many different fronts. And I find that organizers often have that issue. We don’t have an opportunity to rest because, with any achievement, there’s always an effort to roll back those successes. So yeah, I do think those [recent housing resolutions] are big. And there’s so much more to do for me to feel like yeah, this is good, we’re moving in the right direction.
Do you find your relationships with activists in Oakland have changed now that you’re in a different position of power?
No. I feel like it’s changed in relation to how much access I have, just because so many fires are happening. Like literally, I have to attend to physical fires and just the figurative ones that I’m always attending to. It makes it difficult to be in regular conversation in ways that I used to [when I was] involved in direct actions. Because I’m not in that space every single day. It’s different. People still expect that same engagement, but it’s just harder. I do get a lot of support, though.
To answer your question concisely, I think just the proximity and access and the regularity of that access have changed, but the expectations haven’t. And I’m good with that.
Wood Street in your district is one of many homeless encampments in Oakland, but it has become a flashpoint and a proxy for the larger public debate happening right now around encampments and how the city should or shouldn’t be managing them.
Some people, including some unhoused residents, feel the camps should be allowed to stay and provided with services to make them safer and cleaner. Others have advocated for removal and relocation to traditional shelters or other forms of housing, but availability is not a given. Where do you stand on this issue of encampments?
Availability is not only not a given, it’s also not a reality. There is no place for people to go. There are no shelters that would address the capacity needs. And that’s just one encampment, a miles-long encampment. It overwhelms the system that we have in place, which is why I advocate for other systems.
I know some people are trying to put the responsibility on me to achieve some success in this area, specifically around Wood Street. But this is the accumulation of decades and decades of bad housing policy, not to mention all of the other areas that intersect with housing like health care, physical and mental health, job access, and the broken justice system.
There are so many ways that our existing system has failed folks and now we’re looking at each other and pointing fingers with all these different agencies. It is just a mess.
And sometimes I look at the mess that is just society right now and think that what we’re witnessing is the end of an empire, because it’s not just Oakland. It’s every major urban city in the country and every state, where working people earning a minimum wage can’t afford a two-bedroom apartment. But we’re experiencing some of the brunt of it because we’re one of the world’s most expensive places to live. And we’re realizing that impact—the cumulative effect of this defunding of our social safety net, quite frankly. People are scared and angry and frustrated. And now we’re at a place where it’s a crisis, and no one knows what to do.
So I stand on the fact that we need to make housing a human right constitutionally and utilize every single vacant space with deep investment from the state, county, and federal government to address the crisis that has been created.
Staying on Wood Street specifically, since it’s the largest camp in Oakland and it’s in your district, there is a strong sense of community there among residents, but there also have been dozens of fires at the location over the past year, some incredibly serious.
A federal judge is now allowing Caltrans to close a large portion of the encampment. But the judge has also criticized the city for failing to develop a housing plan for the camp’s residents. Do you think that’s a fair criticism? What has your office done to address that particular site’s housing needs and safety concerns?
I have to push back on criticizing the city because that’s such a general statement. I don’t know what is meant by that. Because we all serve different functions and have different perspectives on how to address homelessness and many other things.
We have a city administrator’s office that hosts the encampment management team meetings and all of the departments that address homelessness in the city. Councilmembers are not allowed into those meetings where decisions are made and action plans are set. We have no impact over that, so we end up getting told what is being planned and then have to react, you know, as a result. So I think that’s one of the challenges.
I will say that I’ve offered numerous solutions for addressing Wood Street and homelessness in general. My most recent attempt to address how people can be housed in the next few years, while we come up with more permanent solutions, was emergency sites. That was the impetus behind creating the emergency site at Third and Peralta, because a church in my district was constantly under siege from one or two individuals in their parking lot. There were maybe 40 to 60 individuals living behind this church, but one or two were constantly accessing the power, the electrical pole, and causing fires and things like that.
I set up an emergency intervention to bring the individuals from that space to a different location that had access to running water and a way to cook and had access to electricity. I also suggested bringing back the 2020 resolution that directed city staff to create an emergency intervention at the North Gateway Parcel location at the former Army base that could have housed up to 1,000 people—more than enough space for the people at Wood Street.
I had reached out to the county for assistance; I’ve been in conversation with the supervisor on what supporting Wood Street could look like. I did a tour of the district to find vacant lots that could be used [for emergency housing]. I’ve asked for a homelessness [funding] audit. I called in May for a report on the dollars spent by every single department working on homelessness to see where we could reroute dollars and see if there was waste. And it’s not nearly enough to move the dial on some of these issues.
So there’s a lot of work to do. And I just reject the assertion that the city is not doing anything. Or maybe that’s true; I just know that I am. And even I don’t feel like things are moving fast enough or like we’re in a crisis.
Parker K-8 school isn’t in your district, but you’ve been a vocal supporter of the families and other community members who’ve been fighting to keep that school open. At what moment did you realize it was important for you to become involved? And what role do you feel the City Council can or should play in issues involving OUSD?
I always realized it was an issue. It’s part of who I am, and what I advocate is clear. I believe a lot of systemic root causes that we experience are based on how we work with families, particularly young people early on in their lives.
I was a preschool teacher at after-school programs in Oakland. I homeschooled my own children for a while and had my own education center. I believe that how we treat children says a lot about our society. To me, defunding schools is what leads to the need for increased policing later on in life. So how we’re supporting families, especially families who are struggling to just exist here in Oakland, at one of the most challenging times in Oakland’s history, to me says a lot.
I’ve been involved at Parker, just not as publicly as I am now, because people at the table have asked me to be involved. When I heard the recent news about the police potentially coming to the school, I used my position as a councilmember to intervene and find out more details about what was going on. I believe this is a peaceful demonstration from people who feel powerless in their own communities who are pushing back and saying, “Look, you are impacting our lives.” And we’re in this position right now because we don’t listen to those voices and find solutions that address what they’re crying out to let us know.
So yes, I’m there at the table because of my history and organizing with some of the people who called me to be at the table. How do I say this and not sound like an asshole? [laughs] I have relationships that allow me to be an asset in situations like these, and I hope that we can get to a solution that works for everybody because closing schools has an impact. I just want the community to be heard in this instance.
MACRO, the city’s non-police emergency response pilot program, began rolling out a few months ago, and you’ve also been a key supporter of that work. What are you hearing in the early going? Where do you anticipate challenges? And if the pilot proves successful, how would you like to see it evolve?
I have high hopes for MACRO. I know I’ve received calls and emails about people being really happy to be served by the program, and it needs the robust investment that we’ve seen in other departments.
When it was first coming to council, I suggested that it be a publicly run program versus being housed in a private nonprofit organization, which was a suggestion of our city staff. And I was nearly beheaded in the meetings around not having the program be housed with the Bay Area Community Services Organization.
When I look back on those recordings, I’m like, wow, no one’s [currently] saying, “Yeah, Carol, you pushed for this not to be privatized and for it to be in the fire department.” I think that was one of the decisions that led to its early success and credibility.
Why did you feel that it was so important that that program be housed with the Oakland Fire Department and not with a community-based nonprofit?
I think that one of the reasons why we have such poor service delivery, and no real accountability for some of the big issues that residents care most about, is because we are acting in service of a neoliberal way of engaging in public service that removes accountability and oversight from elected officials and governments who are responsible to the people. We outsource to private, non-governmental, and nonprofit organizations. We just hope things are going to get better and we keep doing that over and over again. I think that’s destabilizing.
Even though [government] might not have the best systems, we will get better if we keep those dollars in-house. Then the public can say how they want to address some of those issues. You’re going to have a harder time having oversight of a private security company than the Oakland Police Department.
We give out hundreds of millions of dollars to community-based organizations, and we do not have a mechanism to analyze the outcomes for many of them. I’m speaking mostly about the areas I’ve seen, homelessness. I don’t want to continue to do that. So that’s what I’m concerned about: the continual neoliberal approach that privatizes this stuff with no oversight.
Incidents of gun violence are again spiking in Oakland, including downtown. Meanwhile, there continues to be a divide in our town between those who feel more or better policing is needed and others who say that policing is not the solution. You’ve been vocal in your support for police reform and reducing police budgets. How do you feel the city should respond to the immediate gun violence crisis in our communities?
In terms of a city response, the City Council moved in the direction they think is appropriate for the moment. Sheng Thao, the council president pro tem, moved several pieces of policy that gave more resources to the police department. What I want to understand is what their plan is to address gun violence.
We have very specific, various backgrounds on the city council. One of those things that we are tasked to do is pass budgets and policies to support our departments. I’m not the individual in the streets every single day who has the intel and knows what to do. I’m doing research. I’m talking to people from other places and talking to former police chiefs and different individuals in law enforcement and prevention.
I think what the community should be asking is, with these increased resources, Chief Armstrong, what can you do to keep Oaklanders safe? Because the council passed a budget that allows for four police academies. The police got $38 million more in this budget than they did in the previous one.
I’m not saying what is right or what is wrong, and I’m not going to micro-manage the police department to say what will end this particular strain of violence in the community. I want to know, what are you planning to do about it so that we can react and we can decide what other steps need to be taken? Right now, I haven’t seen that.
What I’ve pushed back on is this continued assertion that the Oakland Police Department was defunded and that [increased crime] is somehow a progressive council’s fault when these conditions are happening all over the nation, even in places with highly conservative city councils and local governments.
The one factor we are not considering [is how] community organizations, public schools, job training programs, and reentry programs are consistently defunded. Our communities are consistently being disinvested in, and people wonder why the conditions are what they are.
I’m really tired of pointing fingers. I want everybody to come together and create a plan based on real data, honesty, and transparency so that we can bring peace to our cities.
Since joining the council, much has been written about your activist background and policy positions. But not as much about your life prior to becoming a public figure. Can you share a bit about your upbringing? Who do you feel have been the most influential people in your life and in shaping your worldview?
My parents and the life they created for me are the foundation of everything I became as a young adult.
And then there are my experiences as a young adult growing up in a very impoverished neighborhood in Oakland. I came to California two months after my 21st birthday. The wealth inequality, the disparity, and the pain and trauma of the people that I was consistently around shaped my worldview. I just was always hurt by the fact that so many people live in challenging conditions and that there are so few that have so much.
Doing the study and research to figure out how to impact those conditions has shaped me more than anything. Working at a school, where many of the children were removed from their households because of severe abuse, and working with people coming home from incarceration. And I lived in public housing.
The things that have shaped my life the most are the experiences that I’ve had with the people with the least agency and decision-making [power]. I believe the world would be better if they did have that. It’s probably ideological and naive and maybe pollyannish to think that addressing the issues that create those conditions is possible. But I think that way of thinking opens up a creative mind to actually manifest something that is transformative and desperately needed in the world.
You spend your days thinking about how to solve some of Oakland’s most entrenched problems. What do you turn to when you need to recharge your batteries? What do you do for self-care, for fun even?
I don’t. I find fun in the work because I just don’t have time. Sometimes if I get really stressed and I need to unwind, I paint. I enjoy doing that.
For the most part, when I decided to go into a life of service, I decided to make that service my fun, if that makes sense. Solving problems, and coming up with solutions, and alternatives—that’s my joy. And it’s tough sometimes, but that’s the way I’ve found to be able to continue in this work. I love to have a good 15-minute catnap when possible, or paint or draw, but the work is what’s sustaining.