In between bites from a chicken and veggie sandwich, Oakland resident Connor Hunter, 9, read aloud from a poster he had just signed at Lincoln Summer Nights, a community event hosted by a coalition of local organizations. The prompt: “If you were an elected official in Oakland, what would your first act be?”
“I wrote that if I was elected mayor, I would give $500,000 to businesses in Oakland because it would help communities and businesses grow, and I could just get more sandwiches more often… Maybe more food would help more people in Oakland that live in food droughts,” Connor said.
He was participating in an activity called “My Oakland Agenda,” an art-meets-journalism collaboration between the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s Oakland North news site and the Oakland Lowdown—a community studio for local news and art—to facilitate dialogue around voting prior to the November election.
Connor had just stepped off the event’s center stage after performing “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from the movie “Encanto” and encountered the pop-up installation, joining dozens of others who shared their priorities for Oakland’s elected officials.
In October, Oakland North and the Lowdown brought their pop-up “voting booth”—a desk situated in front of a colorful backdrop—to several community events including Lincoln Summer Nights, the Old Oakland Farmers Market, and Friday Nights at the Oakland Museum of California.
They asked community members to tell them about the biggest issues that Oaklanders face and what they would do if they were in charge. People wrote their responses on a silk-screened poster, touching upon housing and homelessness, education, public safety, and more. Then they took portraits of participants and later interviewed them to learn more about what they wrote and why.
Left: Participants screenprint with the Oakland Lowdown artist Chris Treggiari at the My Oakland Agenda celebration in November. Credit: Cole Goins. Right: Participants created screenprints at the Oakland Lowdown celebration of My Oakland Agenda in November. Credit: Amy Berk.
More than 150 responses were collected and later published on large wooden displays in Oakland Lowdown’s storefront studio at 300 14th Street. They also produced an audio reel of interviews, displayed portraits from the engagements, and hosted a free community event at the Lowdown to share what they heard and to invite conversation.
In January, the organizations will be bringing the responses to Oakland’s new mayor, Sheng Thao.
Here is an overview of what Oaklanders had to say.
Housing and Homelessness
More than a quarter of the responses that were collected mentioned housing, making it the single most popular issue. Of these 36 responses, nearly half mentioned housing people who are unhoused. Some suggested converting vacant office buildings into apartments. Others called for new shelters, hospitals, and supportive housing.
One respondent wrote, “Incorporate real housing solutions for the homeless. NOT TINY HOMES!!!” while another called for serious investment in any solution, tiny homes included.
The other half of the housing responses touched on zoning, development, and what kind of housing respondents want to see. Many emphasized that new housing should be affordable, with some calling for all new housing to be reserved for Bay Area natives or unhoused folks.
“We’re all having to move out of Oakland,” Jakeya Parker said at the Oakland Museum. “I’m a Bay Area native. I’m rare now. It’s nice we’re a melting pot, but it’s also unfortunate for those who grew up here. This is home. You always want to come back to home.”
As staffing shortages continue to affect the Oakland Unified School District, including after-school programs, almost all of the 25 respondents who mentioned education called for increasing the number of teachers and their pay. To English teacher Sarah Falls, it’s a question of priorities.
“We have billionaires who can afford to send rockets to the moon and yet we can’t even hire one Spanish teacher at my school,” she said.
In response to upticks in certain violent crimes, one Oaklander wrote, “I would make sure everyone felt safe in their beloved city.”
As of Dec. 18, reported homicides in Oakland were at 114, compared to the city’s three-year average of 109. The number of robberies and burglaries in the city has also risen in 2022, by 3% and 12%, respectively, compared to the three-year averages.
City leaders have attributed the rise in crime to the pandemic, police department attrition rates, an increase in gang violence, and an overabundance of ghost guns.
Of the 17 responses we received around public safety, roughly a third voiced a desire for harsher punishments, hiring more police officers, and having more safety patrols. Others suggested disbanding Oakland’s Police Department and creating a “public well-being force” instead.
These opposing views directly reflect the community’s grappling with how to best address violent crime.
Some got even more specific, calling for crime prevention programs, decriminalizing sex work, stricter gun laws, and installing license plate readers at high-crime intersections—a contentious issue that was revisited by councilmembers Treva Reid and Loren Taylor earlier this year.
Sixteen more responses dealt with infrastructure improvements: more trees and bike lanes, less dog waste, and trash.
The city set up surveillance cameras earlier this year to enforce anti-dumping laws and also enacted a program that rewards citizens who catch someone in the act. Still, volunteer groups like the Trash Falcons continue to pick up the slack.
And while tree planting and maintenance has largely been a grassroots effort for over a decade, the city’s recent Urban Forest Master Plan offers some hope. For bike enthusiasts, there’s been progress on Oakland’s 2018 Bike Plan—over 12.5 miles of bikeways were installed last year. But residents such as Scott Forman want more.
“I think that bikes are low-key one of the best solutions to all of our problems,” he said. “It’s currently way too dangerous to ride a bike in a lot of places. There’s no reason that needs to be the case.”
There were plenty of lone responses that resisted categorization—from a citywide day of rest to making minimum wage at least $30 to creating cultural preservation districts. Some people had a less policy-oriented approach — one Oaklander just wrote “Kindness.”
No matter the response, underlying every conversation was love for the town.
In January, you’ll hear Thao weigh in on some of the suggestions and discuss what her first act will be as she takes office.
This story was co-published with Oakland North.