Years after serving as education director for then-Mayor Ron Dellums, professor Kitty Kelly Epstein aims to recast the controversial mayorship in a new book. “Organizing to Change a City,” released at the end of August, tells the story from a supporter’s view. It describes the community effort that secured Dellums’ victory and defends his tenure – all part of advancing Epstein’s contention that grass roots change is possible, even in a city as complicated as Oakland.
“I was mad,” said Epstein, associate professor of education at Holy Names University, at her Aug. 27 book launch at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle in downtown Oakland. She was mad because from her perspective the media neglected to report the many important successes of the Dellums years, she said. “I think because a lot of Oakland’s story is counter to the corporate narrative, it doesn’t get reflected in news reports or the traditional mainstream reporting of what’s happening,” Epstein said in an interview last week. “And that’s bad for everybody.”
Dellums left office in 2011, after one term as the city’s mayor, under a cloud of personal financial troubles and public attacks. The esteemed former congressman was widely viewed as an absentee leader, whose administration was accused of mismanaging federal funds and generally described as opaque and dysfunctional. He declined to a run for a second term, and many who initially supported him characterized his tenure a disappointment.
This is the narrative Epstein set out to rebut in her book, which also contains chapters written by from contributing authors Kimberly Mayfield Lynch and J. Douglas Allen-Taylor. The 2006 mayoral contest that brought Dellums to the mayorship was a defining moment for the city, in Epstein’s account. As she tells it, Oakland was on the verge of succumbing to a “political machine” — a powerful alliance of profit-driven politicians and developers, in her lexicon — and Dellums’ election symbolized the defeat of this “machine” and victory of the interests of the community over the political elite.
“The news doesn’t report these things,” Epstein said in the interview. “I’m not just trying to write history, I’m trying to rectify the social history that people hear or are told. This is a really exceptional story.”
But the precedent set by such community action is of little worth if nobody knows it exists, she said.
For Epstein, the task force process developed under Dellums was an “elegant” example of community organizing in action and a key success of the administration. She describes in her book how 800 residents were divided into 41 unpaid task forces to explore the challenges facing the city through questions like, “How can Oakland ensure that there are enough effective, permanent, diverse teachers for all Oakland youngsters?” Each group produced a set of policy recommendations, and the mayor read them all, according to Epstein.
“The mayor read all the hundreds of proposals,” she writes. “He sat around the big oval table in the mayor’s conference room with the groups of workers and unemployed and teenagers and elderly and renowned physicians and computer geeks who made up the task force leaders so that he could hear their recommendations and the logic of their approaches.”
According to Epstein, the recommendations were implemented in various ways, some more meaningful than others. And some weren’t implemented at all because the city council did not take action, or because “a four-year mayoral term is a short time,” she argues.
But certain proposals resulted in important policy victories, Epstein writes. The housing and land use task forces pushed for a strong industrial land use policy, and Dellums supported the recommendation. After some political haggling, the city council approved a land use policy that prevented residential development in industrially zoned land – a coup for the community, Epstein argues, because it curtailed gentrification and reserved the land for job-producing businesses.
“This action indicates the difference that the participatory planning and action process of the task forces made at critical junctures,” she writes.
Epstein, who is married to former Oakland Unified School District spokesperson Ken Epstein, also outlines what she considers other task force victories, among them the push to create a diverse teaching force. The effort included a teacher recruitment fair hosted by the mayor at city hall and the creation of Teach Tomorrow in Oakland, a program devoted solely to increasing diversity in the teaching force, and that is in existence today.
These accounts of the Dellums years have not been widely shared, Epstein said, because the media has not reported on them. “That type of story is not told,” she said at her book launch.
She went on to talk about the pervasive belief that egalitarian efforts fail, a notion she thinks is “disarming and disabling” for anyone working towards equity. In her experience, the reality is different. The examples of successful community organizing that she puts forward in her book are meant to provide an alternative view. “My experience is that people struggling for some kind of social justice do win all the time,” she said in the interview.
Epstein uses her experience to support the thesis that even large, diverse cities can implement changes that benefit “the 99%,” as she puts it. Her account traces a path through key moments in Oakland’s political development and education history, and positions the city in a landscape shaped by racial wealth disparity and deference to federal policy.
Epstein’s foundation in academia comes through in the book, but it is meant as an activist’s manual, she said, not a scholarly exercise. “I don’t want to write just for academics,” she said in the interview. Both the account of Dellums’ election and the model of participatory action exemplified in the task force model she describes are intended to provide guidance for activists in Oakland and at large.
Her advice to community organizers and interested citizens is to take a proactive approach to city governance: Pick future leaders when possible, and ask incisive questions of those who seek office, and talk to fellow citizens about the future of the city.
“Start or join organizations that do work on jobs, foreclosures, etc.,” she said. “We need stuff that’s good for Oakland people.”