Oakland Residents Speak Truth to Mayor Schaaf
“We are an oak tree with deep roots, we do not move with the breeze even when the earth quakes; we still stand strong with battle scars,” said James, a 14-year-old East Oakland resident leader to Mayor Libby Schaaf.
On May 19th in the old Eastmont Mall, resident leaders met with Mayor Libby Schaaf to express years of frustrations and negative impacts they have personally experienced while living in East Oakland. Each resident leader began their statements to Mayor Schaaf with “I am Oakland Community Neighborhood Voices.” They were in full force, donning black t-shirts with a hashtag on the front that read: #Health4all.
The purpose of the meeting was to demonstrate to our new city leader the critical importance of a tool called the Healthy Development Guidelines that is being created by East Oakland BHC’s Land Use Work Group in partnership with resident leaders, the City of Oakland Bureau of Planning, Alameda County Public Health Department Place Matters, developers, architects, and other technical experts.
What the Healthy Development Guidelines is meant to do is to help city planners ensure that new development projects mitigate negative health impacts (air pollution) and promote the positive impacts (good jobs), according to a set of standards for the environment, safety, economic opportunity, culture and community, food, transportation, housing, and open space and recreation.
Dante Lemons, a resident leader who participated in the meeting, explained to me that he would like to see better housing opportunities for his daughters. Lemons also expressed his concern regarding the new Walgreen’s recently approved by the city to be built on Foothill Boulevard and Seminary Avenue.
“How come they didn’t engage the community? That piece of land could have been used for other uses such as an urban garden! East Oakland is a food desert!”
“We are an oak tree with deep roots, we do not move with the breeze even when the earth quakes; we still stand strong with battle scars.”
But what mostly bothered Lemons was the fact that Walgreen’s has been attempting to find a loophole in Oakland’s minimum wage ordinance.
Many of the resident leaders participated for similar concerns around health disparities. Marina Muñoz joined because she is tired of all the garbage and pollution in her neighborhood. Mercedes De La Torre explained that her eyes are always itchy and red, and her son suffers from asthma, which she blames on the nearby freeway and pollution that plagues East Oakland.
In all, at least 10 community leaders were present and most addressed their concerns directly to Mayor Schaaf, who actively listened yet remained balanced and poised in posture.
Each resident leader went around and shared personal stories of their own struggle with Mayor Schaaf. The energy in the room was optimistic yet somber given the hardships told by the community leaders. The speakers were clear and definitely speaking from their hearts. Even Mayor Shaaf acknowledged, “East Oakland needs more love!”
When Ms. Sherry, one of East Oakland BHC’s longest participating resident leaders, asked Mayor Schaaf straight up if she would partner with them to pilot the implementation of the Healthy Development Guidelines, the request was met with hesitancy.
After a few rounds of clarifying questions that included input from the city’s Deputy Director of Planning, Darin Ranelletti, Mayor Schaaf did personally commit to work with the resident leaders. She didn’t, however, commit City of Oakland resources other than to allow Ranelletti and his staff to continue to work in finalizing the Healthy Development Guidelines.
Personally, as a public health practitioner and East Oakland resident myself, I was disappointed in the mayor’s initial response. After learning and reading the exact language in the Healthy Development Guideline draft, what the resident leaders are asking for are basic human rights around land use, food security and for the development of a future East Oakland community that is healthy and free of preventable illnesses.
The resident leaders are the people with whom Schaaf needs to be directly working with. Through their experiences, they are the experts. They have endured the results of previous policies which have created the inequities in East Oakland. If Mayor Schaaf is going to have a positive legacy, she needs to start genuinely collaborating with workgroups, resident leaders and other community-based organizations engaging in nonviolent social actions in East Oakland.