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Dozens of people get into groups in black folding chairs in a school auditorium.

More than 100 residents join city officials to tackle Oakland’s biggest problems

on September 25, 2023

An event on Saturday that was intended to build community in East Oakland started with discord. 

“You don’t live here!” yelled Johnny Williams, interrupting Mayor Sheng Thao’s introduction to her second “Talking Transition” event. She was in the middle of discussing city investments in deep East Oakland. 

“You keep saying deep East Oakland,” continued Williams, “but we’re one Oakland.” Williams was referencing Thao’s slideshow, which projected her social media slogan “#OneOakland.”

According to Sean Maher, Oakland’s acting communications and engagement director, the goal of the day was to elevate Oaklanders’ solutions to the city’s most pressing issues: the housing crisis, economic opportunity, and public safety. Over 100 people came to the event at Castlemont High School to participate in the city’s policy-making process. 

About a dozen people sit with their backs to the camera in folding chair looking at a screen with budget numbers.
Dozens of Oaklanders participate in “Talking Transition” session at Castlemont High School. (John Klopotowski)

After Thao, City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, councilmember Treva Reid and City Administrator Jestin Johnson spoke about their hopes for the day, Reid, whose district includes Castlemont, admitted that generally, “the city’s structure of governance does not allow you to participate” in policy making.

Attendees sat in groups in Castlemont’s cafeteria to discuss access to the issues. A facilitator led each group’s discussion, asking for comments about current city policies, along with suggestions for new strategies. For 90 minutes, the participants remained engaged and respectful. 

Isaiah Toney, who emceed the event, said group discussions are risky, as often only two or three people per group are engage. But on Saturday, almost everyone participated in the conversations.

Many were pleased that the event allowed them to interact with their representatives and meet their neighbors. 

JoAnn Watson, whose mother lives in East Oakland, came to ask for help cleaning up illegally dumped trash and stripped cars in the neighborhood. Watson said she has filed dozens of 311 requests in the past few months and that the situation has become “overbearing.” But, Watson did not expect city officials to take care of everything for her. 

“We’ve got to work together,” she said in an interview. “And I’ll work for free.”  

As an Uber driver, Watson has seen several areas throughout the neighborhood that need to be cleaned up. She appreciated the mayor coming to her neighborhood to hold a public meeting. 

Other attendees echoed that willingness to help the community. Jerry Law, comedian and executive director of the nonprofit From The Cage To The Stage, spent 15 years in prison and now looks for ways to get East Oakland’s youth involved in city projects that give them both purpose and money. The goal, he said, is to build the community from the ground up, while using city support to facilitate events and receive grants such as the 40×40 plan, a multimillion dollar project to increase public services in East Oakland.

Dozens of people stand around picnic tables topped with green paper tablecloths outside a school.
Attendees take a lunch break at the Talking Transition event at Castlemont High School. (John Klopotowski)

Most groups had similar proposals. They asked for more services for those suffering from addiction and stronger renter protections. Many of the younger participants said they need more opportunities for paid internships. Everyone demanded more accountability — from their neighbors, police officers, and city officials. One suggestion was funding violence prevention programs. Attendees also asked for more organized family events and the creation of on-call community ambassadors. Oaklanders can still participate in these discussions by taking an online survey.

After the event, Williams said the conversations eased tensions from the morning, when he had interrupted the mayor. “These problems are not too big for us,” he said with confidence.

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