On the eve of Make Oakland Better Now!’s kick-off meeting, we are starting to run across much curiosity about who we are and what we are up to. There’s apparently been speculation that V.Smoothe of A Better Oakland is behind the group. And there was a comment at SFGate yesterday that “this smells like a faux grassroots organizing campaign for some Oakland mayoral candidate.”
So, since none of us involved in this fledgling movement is presently interested in either “organizing for some mayoral candidate” or in remaining anonymous, this seems like a good time to provide more information.
We started as an un-named group of about twenty Oakland residents invited to meet in my living room two months ago. As a group, we decided we wanted to try to form a large, city-wide, grass-roots, issues-based organization empowering its members and all Oakland voters by assembling, publishing and advocating for well-researched and informed positions on a variety of issues in three core areas: public safety, infrastructure (broadly defined as streets, lighting, parks and libraries) and government transparency and accountability.
My wife and I have lived in the Oakland hills for twenty-nine years; since the primary requirements for attending that meeting in June were (a) we had to know you, and (b) you had to be willing to give up a couple of hours to come to our house when we weren’t serving anything interesting to eat or drink, most of the people who attended that first meeting were likewise hill residents. But our issues are not hill-based. We are committed to public safety city-wide. And our membership is not intended to be hill-based. We are determined to recruit committed members from all parts of Oakland. One of the things we’ll be looking for Thursday night will be ideas on expanding our reach.
At least when it comes to city political matters, most of us are newbie activists; we have made, and will no doubt continue to make rookie mistakes. The most recent, obvious and embarrassing one was scheduling our kick-off meeting at St. Theresa’s Church in the upper Rockridge, a location that is scarcely encouraging for people who take public transportation. Generally speaking, we will learn from our mistakes, and specifically we will find more accessible locations for future meetings.
Our initial publicity efforts have been modest, but have resulted in an enormous amount of excitement. About eight of us put on “Ask Me How to Make Oakland Better Now!” t-shirts and took a stack of cards promoting our event to the Art & Soul Festival. We handed out about 1,500 of them. But more significantly, we had some great dialogue and learned from the Oaklanders we met how hungry people are for this sort of thing. We notified the NCPCs and a number of neighborhood groups. We invited people to join our e-mail list, which is rapidly approaching 100, and, about a week ago, started a Facebook Group, which seems to be adding members by the hour and as of 12:30 p.m. today stands at 122 members. We’ve had great mentions from V. Smoothe at both A Better Oakland and SF Gate’s “In Oakland” blog, from Chip Johnson at the Chron, and most recently from We Fight Blight.
One of the things we are doing that seems to resonate is prioritizing. This group cannot be about every problem that ails Oakland, and certainly there are plenty of them. Our thinking is this: a city that cannot keep its citizens reasonably safe, that cannot build a sense of trust between its law enforcement department and those citizens, that cannot adequately meet its fire safety and other public safety obligations, and that cannot maintain its streets, parks and libraries is failing in its most crucial functions. And if the voters feel nobody is responsible, that they have no idea how to get a response from the city, then an essential critical bond between local government and citizens is missing. If the issues within these areas aren’t being addressed, just about everything else pales by comparison.
So now what do we do? Here’s what we have in mind for Thursday: As a group, we want to identify the specific issues within each subject area that we believe are most important. In public safety, is 800+ the right number of officers? Is the number higher than that? What is do be done about the relationship between the department and much of the city? What are the effects of the Negotiated Settlement Agreement? There are lots more, and similar issues and questions in each of our areas of interest. The group as a whole starts by identifying them. We will also address issues of outreach processes to make sure that all of Oakland is represented by Make Oakland Better Now!
Then we break up into sub-groups for each of the areas. These will, effectively, be think tanks in each area. To make sure we have some initial facilitation, we’ve appointed some temporary leadership for each group, who will work with the sub-groups to put together a plan to research and present positions on each identified issue. The sub-groups will ultimately select their own leaders, and will go out into the world to talk to people, read documents, and do whatever else they think is necessary to reach informed, recommended positions. And the idea is to have enough people to break this job up into small pieces. Sub-groups will elect their own permanent leadership.
When that process is done – probably a couple of months – we reassemble for presentations by the sub-groups on proposed positions on issues within their areas. The group as a whole adopts positions, we publish those in some format and publicize them, then begin screening mayoral and, perhaps, other candidates for how they measure up against the Make Oakland Better Now! issue positions. And after the election, we hold candidates accountable.
As I said, many of us are novices when it comes to city politics, and we’re making up a lot of this as we go along. Things will undoubtedly change as we learn. But some things, I hope, will be constant: the focus on our three core areas and the certainty that with large numbers and educated positions, we can become a force to be reckoned with in the City of Oakland.
Please join us Thursday night, August 27, 2009 at 7:00 p.m. at St. Theresa’s Church, 30 Mandalay Drive, Oakland. If you need transportation help from Rockridge BART, want to join our e-mail list or need further information please e-mail us at Oaklanders@MakeOaklandBetterNow.org.