One weekend night in mid-September, Gabrielle Pearce was chatting with her partner James Vaughan about the upcoming Oakland mayoral race. Pearce lamented that she hadn’t found concise information about each candidate in video form—how Pearce and Vaughan often like to consume news. Then she had a thought: What if I produced them myself?
“I told James that,” said Pearce, “and he said, ‘Yeah, you should do it.’”
That weekend, Pearce cold-emailed every mayoral candidate and, to her surprise, began hearing back from them almost immediately. But what kind of questions would she ask? Pearce had no experience as a journalist—she works for an architectural firm on affordable housing projects—but she had attended numerous planning commission meetings, where she’d gained some insight into how local government works.
Sourcing questions from other Oakland residents, Pearce decided, would be the best approach. “The idea of getting a finger on the pulse of the community was top of mind,” she said. But how?
Pearce decided on a plan: to meet people where they’re at. Just days after her initial conversation with Vaughan, equipped with only a plastic table and a handwritten sign, she set up shop at Lake Merritt and began chatting with as many passersby as would talk to her.
“It felt strange” at first, said Pearce—she anticipated people might be hesitant to tell a stranger what their priorities were for Oakland’s next mayor—but she quickly discovered that people were more than eager to share their views.
“People were really supportive and excited about the project,” she said. “One guy was driving by, pulled over, parked, and came and talked to me. Another person was running and out of breath, and they wanted to talk. People were excited to have their voices heard.”
After hearing a range of opinions from people visiting the lake, Pearce decided to broaden her effort to other parts of the city. “It was interesting to see how the responses changed by where I was,” she said. “Even tabling around different parts of the lake, people were coming back with a different response.”
Using the city’s district map as a guide, Pearce identified other areas where she could talk to more residents. For a week, she visited different neighborhoods and chatted with people across Oakland.
“I tabled at the West Oakland, Lake Merritt, and Temescal farmer’s markets. I walked around and talked to people at Fruitvale Transit Village and in and around Verdese Park,” she said. She talked to a business owner on Bancroft Avenue and another in Laurel.
Venturing out around Oakland was also a good way for Pearce, who is originally from New Orleans and moved here five years ago, to get to know the city better.
Pearce’s family had lost their home after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, forcing them to move around the city of New Orleans as a result. Without her childhood house, she said, the city of New Orleans itself became her home. After graduating college, she moved back home and began attending City Council meetings, which deepened her connection with her hometown. “I wanted to see what the issues were going on in the city,” she said.
Her love of Oakland has grown similarly over the past five years, and Pearce said she sees cultural similarities between her adopted city and New Orleans. “Oakland and New Orleans are very much sister cities in that way. The rich culture that the Black community pours into the city in such a beautiful way,” she said.
Showing up for public meetings in both cities, and surveying Oaklanders for her candidate interviews, said Pearce, have provided her with an education in civics and a deeper appreciation for the complex needs of communities.
“One of the things it pushed me to learn about was schools. I didn’t know that in different cities, sometimes the school board has control, while in other places, the mayor has control,” she said. “It pushed me to think more complexly about policing. People have such varied experiences of police and comfort with police. It is a more complex issue than I understood.”
Once Pearce was finished collecting input from the community, she created a spreadsheet and ranked the issues by which were the most pressing among the residents she talked to.
From there, she crafted seven questions to ask each candidate on topics like public safety and policing homelessness, and the A’s ballpark plan for Howard Terminal, among others. The candidates all received the questions ahead of their interviews, which were filmed at specific locations of each candidate’s choosing around Oakland.
After filming, the couple would head back to Pearce’s apartment in East Oakland, where Vaughan would edit and upload the videos to a YouTube account called “Town Interviews.” In addition to the one week that Pearce spent doing community outreach, the couple has put in around 30 hours on logistics, filming, and editing all of the videos.
The couple is currently down to just a handful of candidates left to interview, and they hope to be done with the project within the next week or so, well prior to Election Day on Nov. 8. “I didn’t anticipate how quickly it would all come together,” said Vaughan.
Along the way, the mayoral candidates have also had questions for the couple. “Why are you doing this?” many asked.
“It just felt like the right thing to do and a fun thing to do,” Pearce said. “And something that could be helpful to people. And at this point, so many people have talked to me that I want to do right by them.”