Oakland students select top choice for mayor, school board director
on October 28, 2010
A wooden table sat outside the red double-door entrances to the Fremont Federation of High Schools auditorium, laden with an array of brightly colored markers, stickered nametags, and voter guides in English, Spanish and Chinese. It was the pit stop for nearly 100 high school students and members of local youth-based leadership programs before they shuffled along the grey carpet, filing into the dimly lit auditorium. This was their chance to cast a mock vote for Oakland’s next mayor and District 4 school board director—almost a week before the November 2 election.
The Youth Vote 2010 forum, hosted by All City Council high school student leaders, was designed to give local students an experience with voting and the chance to come face-to-face with Oakland’s candidates. The forum included audience-submitted questions, followed by a vote for the top candidates. Students’ questions focused on solutions for Oakland’s high dropout—also called “pushout”—rates, accessibility of after-school programs, unfair practices in gang injunctions, and changes to public safety.
The forum featured three mayoral frontrunners—Rebecca Kaplan, Jean Quan and Joe Tuman—as well as Ben Visnick and Gary Yee, the candidates in the only contested race for school board director. Mayoral candidate Don Perata was asked to participate, but couldn’t attend because of laryngitis, said Kimberlyn Williams, who co-hosted the forum.
Even though the students’ votes won’t count in the upcoming election, the goal of the forum was to emphasize the importance of learning about the political process, while also building relationships with some of the candidates—one of whom would likely be the next mayor of Oakland.
“The purpose and goal today was to let students have a voice,” said Jenny Nguyen, the president of All City Council and a senior at Oakland High School. “I believe that there are many students that are really dedicated about this political action. You don’t see students voting at this particular age and what we’re trying to do is try to give them the real situation and what they could do.”
Some of the students knew the candidates and their platforms very well; others were unfamiliar with how their chosen candidates would directly affect them and address their concerns, if elected. And some didn’t know anything about the election. “I don’t know anything about the candidates running for mayor, but… it’s important for me to know what they’re going to do to help me and my school,” said Taylor Simmons, a sophomore at Fremont Federation of High Schools.
Simmons was snacking on the complimentary buffet of food and drinks with two friends while waiting for the forum to begin. She said she wants the new mayor to be capable of addressing the issues of decreased enrollment and a shortage of teachers at Fremont. And then there’s the big problem: the lack of money. “We need funding—that’s the basic thing,” Simmons said.
Simmons also said that those who can vote often don’t take advantage of it. Even though her vote won’t count for about another three years, Simmons still thinks the mock vote makes a difference to her fellow classmates because they’re being shown the importance of voting and told that their voices count. “Most [voters] are concerned about other stuff in life other than the candidacy,” Simmons said. “And I think it’s important to let these people know that whoever we choose has a big impact on your life in general.”
Lashae Robinson, a junior at MetWest High School and media director for the All City Council, had concerns about schools funding as well. “Our classes are huge. For a while we were sharing textbooks,” said Robinson. “That needs to be addressed. I was basically in the class just getting a grade, I really wasn’t learning anything.” Robinson said she felt strongly opposed to Perata because of how negatively his campaign has been portrayed in the media—her main source of election coverage is from television—and was eager to listen to the other candidates’ answers to the student-submitted questions.
The forum started about 45 minutes late, with Williams and her co-host, Korey Gibson, a youth commissioner with the Oakland Youth Advisory Commission, asking the audience if anyone knew what roles the mayor and school board directors play. Although one person volunteered a vague “the mayor makes a lot of decisions for the city,” the crowd sat silent, with the exception of a few giggles and the subtle noise from the shifting of backpacks.
Students waited patiently in their seats for their turn to question the panel. They each made their way up the steps along the right side of the stage to face the candidates as they sat on folding chairs around two circular tables. The first question addressed the dropout rates and candidates were asked for viable solutions to keep students in school.
School board candidate Yee took the mic first. “When you’re in high school you get to make a lot of decisions for yourself,” he said. “But we also know that our public school systems don’t necessarily do everything they can to prevent bad decisions.” Yee said it’s vital for students to have access to teachers who will be their “support and safety net.” He wants students to meet with teachers, starting in the seventh grade, to discuss academic goals and how to successfully complete high school and go to college. “It’s making sure every kid has an effective teacher in every classroom, every day,” Yee said.
Mayoral candidate Rebecca Kaplan, dressed in a black suit and plum-colored blouse, said her solution would be to get the free bus passes back for students. “We have to talk about the root causes and we have to stop blaming the young people,” she said. “That means we have to recognize that some people are having getting to school because they don’t have a way to get there.”
Later in the forum, Kaplan also addressed the issue of racial profiling and stereotyping, telling the student to “never blame someone for someone else’s activities” just because of their race or affiliation with those have committed crimes. Among the predominantly black and Hispanic crowd, Kaplan’s response was well-received.
Throughout the night, Kaplan continued receiving the most praise from the students, often with breakouts of applause in the middle of her answers. “She answered the questions straightforward,” Nguyen said afterward. “And everything she said was what the students were looking for. It wasn’t a wraparound—she was at the core of what we were looking for.”
As the candidates stepped down from the stage after closing statements, students begin handing in their votes made on makeshift ballots. There was no official polling place anywhere in the stadium, so students remained seated on the blue auditorium seats as they scrawled an X or a check mark through the box next to their chosen candidate.
A majority of the crowd had left before the announcements of the winners, but enough of the crowd remained to make a wave of applause as the winners were announced: Kaplan received 35 of the 87 votes for mayor, and Yee received 21 of the 37 votes for school board director.
After the crowd dwindled, Nguyen sat on the edge of the stage as a group of students stayed behind to fiddle on the piano. She was excited about the turnout and seriousness of the participants despite the fact that everyone knew they were casting “rhetorical votes.” Nonetheless, she believes the students will encourage others who can vote to make an educated decision. Nguyen said the students who left contact information would be called and reminded to let their voices be heard, and that they should spread the knowledge they gained from the forum—to their neighbors, peers, parents, and anyone else who could vote.
“These students that came here took this opportunity to actually vote,” Nguyen said. “And those students really want to take action and really want to have their voice in this election. Our idea was to give them an open view of what’s there and have that ability to sway anyone they want.”
Check out all of our Oakland elections coverage on our Campaign 2010 page.
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