The Real City

No comments

By Pamela Jensen ’89

“The City.” We all hear that term. Our families, friends, even the newspapers use it. But when I use “the City,” I’m not referring to the home of the ’49ers. The only true city for me is our city—Oakland.

I have been a resident of Oakland’s political world for four years now. My attraction to the City was in part heredi­tary—my mother’s family immigrated to Oakland from Greece—and in part quite accidental.

The accident began with an informal interview in October 1988, with then-­assemblyman Elihu Harris. I had hoped that his office might help me in my planned career in catering. I was looking for a “politically correct” catering com­pany in Oakland that might hire an almost-graduate with some experience in the field.

The assemblyman met with me. Within five minutes Elihu Harris had pointed out two misspellings in my resume. At the end of our talk he asked me if I wanted to work for him, in the political world. Politics!? I thought I was going to talk food. But I was interested in politics. My father had been in that field for some twenty years. But could I assist this impressive, intelligent assembly­man?

Elihu Harris was to become one of the most important people in my life as I finished my senior year at Mills and began my work in the world outside the campus. I worked for him while he was an assemblyman, representing his office to the people of Alameda. Then I worked with him during his political campaign for mayor, and then in his office in City Hall. I admit to some bias about Oak­land’s current leader. To me he personi­fies some of Oakland’s greatest qualities: He is a caring person who values educa­tion, is concerned about his neighbors and his neighborhood, has a sense of belonging to his community and being a member of a wider region.

My experience at the center of Oak­land politics taught me two major aspects of the city that surrounds Mills.

First, as the sixth largest city in our state, Oakland still feels like a small town, a town of neighborhoods.

No matter which community you walk in—the Rockridge, Fruitvale, Hiller Highlands, Grand Lake, Diamond Dis­trict, Montclair, or the Laurel—you feel the sense of neighborhood. The people who live there know the shop owners, the children, the gas station attendants, the grocery clerks.

On the night of the primary election, I went with Elihu Harris to the local Lucky store. We were buying lettuce and noodles for dinner. We stood there for quite a few minutes while the mayor-to-­be sorted through a pile of coupons for his noodles. Of course, he had more name-recognition than most of us, but in the store four or five people called him by name, teased him and hassled him. They had been in the checkout line with him before. This was their grocery store, and they’d witnessed this scenario before.

There is a sense of community at every level of public office, from the mayor’s office, to the school board, to the council, through the Chamber of Com­merce. Most citizens feel that sense, too.

I’ve been in the political world of Oakland through two major disasters for the city and its citizens. In October, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked Oak­land. Many buildings were damaged beyond repair. Some still wait for recon­struction, including City Hall. We lost our offices on that day, and some staff members could not return to their homes. In fact, I and two others from the office stayed at the Harris/Neal home as “refugees” for a week after the earth­quake. That first night we went down to the Cypress structure to find out how we could help. When I am down there even now I can smell that disaster. At the time it was a mixture of concrete dust, electri­cal discharges, and, in the heat, the bodies trapped between the highway slabs. Our only question then was, “What do you need?” The first request was for a refrigerated container to hold food for the hundreds of workers, many of them volunteers. I called Sealand Stor­age and we had a refrigerated container within hours.

Two years later, disaster struck again. I had left the mayor’s office two months before the fire storm swept Oakland and Berkeley in October, 1991. On the day of the fire I had gone to Sacramento. I and two other former members of the staff returned to Oakland. The feeling was, “We need to get to the family.” We did basic volunteer work, answered phones and got food for people who were work­ing non-stop through long days. The tele­phones rang continually. As soon as a line was free, the telephone rang again. Many people called for information; many called to ask, “How do we volunteer?”

Later I surveyed the area in a heli­copter with Mayor Harris. You expect a fire to be, well, limited—one house, one small area. This one was immense. We saw only cement foundations and tall chimneys rising out of the ruins. Trucks in the devastated area looked huge on the barren landscape. We were silent in the helicopter.

In August, 1991, I left the mayor’s office to go into political fundraising. I am now running the twenty-year-old organization of Judith Briggs Marsh and Associates. Our offices are in the beauti­ful Preservation Park area of Oakland, on 13th Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.

Pamela and colleagues: Sherri Harris of the major’s staff; Pamela; Toni Cook, school board members; Alton Jelks of the mayor’s staff; Judith Briggs Marsh, founder of the fundraising company Pamela runs; and Mari Lee, accountant for the mayor.

My business raises money not only for the mayor, but for a council member, a supervisor, two members of the state legislature, a congresswoman, and the local Democratic committee to elect the president. I work in and focus on the Oakland community.

This work has added to my aware­ness of the second major aspect of the city: The diversity of Oakland. Each of my clients represents a different area and a different capacity within the political scene. Their experiences have influenced my view of Oakland, but it is the city itself that is a composite of the diversity they represent.

In this city you can, in the morning, join a Cinco de Mayo celebration in one neighborhood and, in the afternoon, attend a Chinese street fair in another neighborhood just a few blocks away. Walking down some streets of downtown I sometimes imagine I am in another country. No one is speaking English, the signs and magazines are in a language I cannot read, and the food is unfamiliar.

In this city you can find yourself totally immersed in a culture that is dif­ferent from your own. This past year I attended the Gospel Academy Awards at the Paramount Theater. My best girlfriend and I got dressed up for the black tie affair and made it to the theater just after the first choir took the stage. We had gotten our tickets early and were seated within the first rows. I had never experienced gospel music like this before. We could feel it in our bones as we stood most of the night. The audience was on its feet, clapping to the music of a hundred beautiful voices. When the lights came up at intermission, my girlfriend pointed out that we were the only European Americans within view.

Working in Oakland, I often experi­ence being a minority representative in a room, meeting hall, or theater. Oakland is a compilation of so many different peo­ple from so many different countries and cultures that a European American is often in the minority at gatherings.

I notice when I visit other cities, most recently Sacramento and Boston, how homogeneous these communities are. Do the members of their communi­ties notice how plain they are? I attended a meeting in Sacramento recently in which I was the only woman among five men, all of European American descent. One of the men assumed I was a secre­tary and asked where the coffee was. I had no problem in letting him know that I was the person he had come to hear on fundraising strategies.

It is not unusual for Americans to take for granted sexual and racial stereo­typical roles. But Oakland has taught me to take notice of such inaccurate generali­ties. Every day I work toward noticing more and more of my environmental conditioning. Being aware is one of the most important steps in supporting my neighbors. We cannot expect to live in Oakland, nor in California, nor any­where, without being aware and without providing support to those who live around us and with us.

Pamela Jensen ’89 was an English major at Mills. After graduation she worked on Mayor Elihu Harris’ staff until joining the fundraising firm of Judith Briggs Marsh and Associates, which she now runs.