With a population of nearly 500,000, there’s no one story that can describe the Oakland experience. Nine Mills alums offer their takes.
By Rachel Leibrock, MFA ’05
IN SOME CIRCLES, THE CITY OF OAKLAND is a punch line, mentioned in the same breath as places like Chicago and Portland as supposed proof of America’s “failing” cities. In others, it’s an example of the hyper-gentrification that’s already laid claim to San Francisco, its glitzier neighbor across the Bay Bridge.
We wanted to cut through the noise to get to the more complex and nuanced truth behind life in The Town. These alums spend their professional and/or personal lives in Oakland and spoke with the Quarterly to share the paths that brought them here—and to offer their thoughts on what’s really happening.
Cathy Keyes ’72 came to Oakland in 1968 and never left. Born and raised in Connecticut, she found Mills College and the city to be a welcome change. “It was such a discovery for me… to find a place that valued so many different people from different walks of life,” she says. “It grabbed onto me, and I wanted to stay in that environment.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in creative writing, Keyes went on to teach elementary school, including the third grade and special education classes.
Then, in 1998, she made a big midlife career change, joining the Oakland Zoo as a zookeeper. Keyes had volunteered there, admired its stature as a progressive zoo, and decided it was time for something new. She worked at what she calls “a real gem in the City of Oakland” until her retirement in 2015.
Keyes, who lives in the Oakland Hills, says she’s seen a lot of changes over the 50-plus years she’s lived in the city. Not all of them are for the best, she admits.
“When you go uptown, you can see that it’s changed dramatically; that’s where the Sears store used to be, and now it’s every café and restaurant possible—upscale places,” she says. “You see a lot of people who are being displaced from the city where they’ve lived their whole lives.”
Those upscale businesses attract wealthy people—usually white— creating a reverse migration of sorts from suburbs to the urban center. “All of a sudden the people with money want to live in the city,” Keyes says. “And the people of color are getting pushed out.”
Nonetheless, she still sees the same city she fell in love with all those years ago. Despite the encroaching creep of gentrification, it remains largely diverse, politically progressive, and welcoming.
“It’s hard for me to imagine living anywhere else that doesn’t have the same diversity that Oakland does,” she says. “When I visit other places, it’s clear to me that I wouldn’t be comfortable living there.”
It was the summer of 2020, and the nation was entrenched in a bitter divide. George Floyd’s death at the hands of police had sparked hard conversations about police brutality and race. At the same time, the pandemic, which had been linked to an outbreak in China, had incited waves of violence against the country’s Asian American population.
Jill Kunishima ’03, who is Japanese American, remembers it at as an uncertain time, but looking back she also sees it as a pivotal moment of transformation for her community.
“Incidences of anti-Asian sentiment and hate crimes began skyrocketing,” says Kunishima, who then worked as senior vice president of development and communication with the East Bay Local Development Corporation. “While we were talking about how to be better allies to our Black brothers and sisters in such a volatile time, suddenly—for the first time in my life—people were also talking about how to be better allies to the Asian and Asian American population. It was an extremely painful but powerful time for Oakland.”
The shift, says Kunishima, who now runs her own consulting firm, is emblematic of Oakland’s culture and a reason that she loves the city she’s called home for the last 20+ years.
She grew up in the Los Angeles area and wanted to attend a liberal arts college, in part because she wanted a more intimate educational experience. Kunishima toured several options before arriving in Oakland.
“I visited Mills and, like so many people, I stepped on campus and thought, ‘Wow, what is this magical place?” she says. As she studied psychology and communications, Kunishima enjoyed the scenic campus and small class sizes. After college, she moved around a bit, including stints in Washington, DC, and the Dominican Republic.
Her love for the Bay Area, however, drew her back. As a “career non-profiter,” Kunishima says she and her husband chose Oakland’s Laurel District because it was central, peaceful, and diverse.
“I like that it is not only is it ethnically diverse, but also socioeconomically diverse,” she says. “I could walk down my street and see every shade of person, every configuration of family. It felt good, it felt like Oakland.”
Gentrification is “clearly happening,” she adds, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing to watch Oakland get the attention it deserves as a “beacon” in the Bay.
Moreover, Kunishima says she’s glad to live in a city that isn’t afraid to ask hard questions and put in the work to find the answers. What happens in Oakland, she says, often sets the stage for a national conversation.
“Oakland’s struggles are a microcosm of the country,” she says. She points to its activist history, from the Black Panthers to more modern movements, such as The Town’s official designation in 2022 as a “sanctuary city” for abortion rights, a first in California and one of just a handful nationwide. “We see the effect of what [happens in Oakland] across the country,” she says.
And she’s happy she and her husband can raise their 7-year-old son here. “Oakland is not a place for those who are apathetic or complacent,” she says. “People here are always having a dialogue, always debating, and always diving into issues that need to be dealt with.”
To help a community, one must first listen to it.
This ethos is a guiding principle for Darcelle Lahr, MA ’17, EDD ’18, and the work she does as the founder and executive director of the Women’s Social Entrepreneurship Center (WESC), an Oakland-based organization that aims to dismantle the barriers to self-sufficiency and economic mobility for women, including non-cisgender women and non-binary individuals.
Lahr, who is also a professor of business practice at the Lorry I. Lokey School of Business and Public Policy, came to the College a decade ago, where—in addition to teaching—she received her master’s and doctorate in education.
Although she’d grown up in the Bay Area, Lahr says she wasn’t familiar with Mills until a colleague invited her to talk about a teaching opportunity there. As she explored the option, she quickly grew to appreciate the school.
“The more I found out about Mills, the more I really felt at home, and I’ve been there ever since,” she says. In the ensuing years, Lahr has worked to invest in the community from an entrepreneurship perspective. In addition to the WESC, she is also the president and chief executive officer for Integral Consulting Group, a woman/ minority-owned management consulting practice supporting BIPOC social entrepreneurs in East Oakland.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of disinvestment [here],” Lahr says. “There have been groups that have come in to ‘save’ Oakland without really understanding the lives of the people who live here.”
Some see disparities in the community and want to implement changes without trying to understand the people they serve, she says. “If anyone is going to serve populations in Oakland, they need to listen deeply to their stories,” she says.
Lahr does just that, working with marginalized groups—including the formerly incarcerated—to help them succeed on career paths that have long eluded them. The work includes pairing small BIPOC-owned businesses with local suppliers and distributors. The result creates a ripple effect through what Lahr refers to as a “multi-stakeholder value chain.”
“We bring them together to work collaboratively with the idea of not only lifting up themselves and their families, but those around them,” she says. “Connecting that collaboration with the purchasing community and the [residents] around it gives residents the opportunity to keep control of their local economy—and the trajectory of the community itself.”
The work is vital for the city’s health, she says, particularly in Black communities that have been “decimated” by what she describes as “white supremacist regimes.”
“This is one way for Oakland to build its own economic success,” she says. “This is a community investing in itself.”
Tiffany Rose Naputi Lacsado
When she sits on the front porch of her house on a quiet day, Tiffany Rose Naputi Lacsado ’02 can hear the El Campanil clock tower at her alma mater. In 2022, she bought the house in the Millsmont neighborhood, just a few blocks from the Mills College campus. It was cute, affordable, and big enough for her family, which includes three kids, ranging in age from 6 to 11. The house also kept her in her adopted hometown.
“I’ve lived all over Oakland, and now I’m raising a family here,” she says.
Lacsado, born in Guam, relocated with her family as a child: first, to Hawai’i, and then Washington State before arriving in Oakland. As a teen, she attended Castlemont High School where a relationship with a boy prompted her father to send her to Nevada to finish school. Lacsado applied to Mills so she could return to Oakland. There, she participated in Summer Academic Workshop and studied political, legal, and economic analysis—while also working in the campus bookstore and as part of the Expanding Your Horizons organization, a group that promoted women in math and science fields. After college, she watched friends and peers scatter to far-flung locales such as New York and Chicago in search of new experiences. Lacsado, however, says she knew the Bay Area would afford her that option, too.
“Oakland has allowed me to reinvent myself over and over,” she says.
For the last four years, Lacsado has worked as the director of economic development with The Unity Council in Fruitvale, an organization that provides “cradle-to-grave” services to more than 8,000 people and families in the Oakland neighborhood, including youth mentorship, career training, housing and financial stability, and neighborhood development.
The work, as well as her long history with the city, has put her front and center with some of Oakland’s biggest challenges, including the affordable housing crisis and the threat of a post-pandemic recession. The Town, Lacsado says, is resilient and diverse, evolving as its citizens and leadership evolve.
“The economics that I work with on a daily basis [as part of The Unity Council] are more about the economics of marginalized cultures and communities,” she says. Often, she adds, this means helping people and businesses in the neighborhood’s informal economy transition move into the formal economy through a variety of services.
“It’s complex and requires a different type of leadership,” she says.
She’s hopeful for Oakland’s future. “There’s a new crop of people stepping up,” she says. “As someone who has been here a very long time, I feel like it’s a changing of the guard.”
She’d lived all over the country, from Orlando to Indianapolis to Seattle, and traveled the world as a professional figure skater. When Carrie Maultsby-Lute, MBA ’11, moved to Oakland, however, she finally felt at home.
“As a young Black woman in a sport where you don’t really find a lot of African Americans, I felt like I was an outsider in most places,” Maultsby-Lute says. “Coming to Oakland, I found my sense of self and found a place that saw me and appreciated the uniqueness I bring to the world.”
Maultsby-Lute arrived in Oakland in 2001, following her mother who had remarried and relocated to the area. She’d retired from figure skating, and after completing a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from UC Berkeley, she earned her MBA at Mills.
Post-graduation, Maultsby-Lute stayed connected to Mills. She taught marketing classes at the Lorry I. Lokey School for Business and Public Policy, and, in 2020, was hired as the director of the Center for Transformative Action, an organization that brings together students, business leaders, and policymakers to collaborate on building profitable, sustainable organizations and nonprofits that address social, environmental, and policy issues. In April, Maultsby-Lute stepped into a new role: head of partnerships for Northeastern’s Oakland campus.
In the last 15 years, Maultsby-Lute has witnessed tremendous growth in her community. Whereas people used to regularly cross the bridge into San Francisco in search of fun, they’re now staying closer to home.
“Things started shifting, and top-notch restaurants and art galleries opened up,” she says. “We felt as though were having this renaissance. You got this feeling that development was happening, and we got to participate in witnessing our city give birth to something beautiful.”
With growth, though, comes pain, too. Over the years Maultsby- Lute says she’s watched as the cost of living and housing has outpaced salaries, leading to a smaller Black population. In 2021, the CTA addressed the issue via a “Keep Oakland BIPOC” panel discussion featuring several local Black leaders.
Although Maultsby-Lute stresses that the population change represents a more “complex narrative” than one of deprivation and gentrification—some families have left for reasons other than economics, for example—she wants to see the city preserve its roots.
“There has been a shrinking [in numbers] of different racial groups, but ours is the most pronounced given the history of Oakland,” Maultsby-Lute says. “I hope we continue to have a large cultural and physical presence here.”
Born and raised in the Bay Area, Barbie Penn ’10, MBA ’11, considers Oakland an integral part of her life. She was born in San Francisco but attended school in the 510 from pre-school through middle school. “Oakland is half my heart and San Francisco is the other half,” she says.
So much so that even though Penn now lives in San Leandro, she still makes a point of visiting nearly every day with her boyfriend. “We usually go on walks in downtown Oakland and Chinatown; sometimes, if we want to go further, we go around the lake,” she says.
Penn, whose bachelor’s degree is in business economics, is senior program manager at the Inneract Project, a non-profit that works with Black, Brown, and underserved youth, offering them training and resources in design education. Inneract was based in San Francisco pre-COVID but now Penn works remotely, spending much of her time in Oakland. She previously worked for the TRIO Programs on the Mills campus.
Too often, she acknowledges, outsiders view the city through a negative lens. Recently, for example, Penn came across a list of the top 10 most dangerous cities in the United States. There was Oakland, listed at No. 3.
There’s crime here, but there’s crime anywhere, she says. It’s frustrating to see her beloved city subject to misconceptions. “I don’t think a [list] is representative of the city as a whole,” she says. “Oakland gets a bad rep when you only focus on the bad things and never highlight the good things.”
And there are a lot of good things, she adds. Over time, Oakland has grown into a culturally rich destination. “They didn’t have events like First Fridays when I was a kid,” she says of the monthly event that draws upward of 30,000 folks to Telegraph Avenue to enjoy arts, culture, food, and community.
Despite its myriad cultures, she continues, it’s not just a “melting pot” where customs and ideas become diluted into a homogeneous blend. The city still has historic neighborhoods home to distinct ethnicities. Visit Chinatown for authentic Chinese food, for example, or head over to the Fruitvale neighborhood for tacos.
“We have so much diversity in terms of people from different places, backgrounds, languages, and foods,” Penn says. “We’re not all trying to be the same here.”
When Kate Phillips ’81 started college in the ’70s, she initially thought she’d stay close to her family—her father was then the head of the art department at Bard College. After two years studying art and music, however, Phillips decided Bard wasn’t a good fit and changed coasts altogether. She chose Mills, following sister Miriam who studied dance at the College, and never looked back.
“I fell in love with the area,” she says. “It was beautiful with so many wonderful neighborhoods. You’re an hour away from the ocean, wine country, the mountains—it just felt more like me than the East Coast.”
Decades later, Phillips is a real-estate agent who specializes in her own neighborhood: Maxwell Park, located across MacArthur Boulevard from the entrance to the Mills campus. Phillips, who bought her house there 27 years ago, says she loves introducing it to first-time buyers.
“This is a desirable city; people come here from San Francisco because they want the better weather and they want more house for their money,” she says.
Phillips acknowledges that, too often, Oakland has a national reputation for being unsafe and crime-ridden, but she dismisses those concerns. “Even the most expensive neighborhoods have crime,” she says. “I’ve traveled all over the world and it’s great here.”
For Phillips, Oakland has “only gotten better” with an influx of restaurants, boutiques, art galleries and other attractions. “Some people don’t like it—they call it gentrification,” she says. “But all kinds of wonderful people live in Oakland. It’s still culturally diverse.”
Natalee Kēhaulani Bauer
Initially, Natalee Kēhaulani Bauer ’97, MA ’07, hadn’t even heard of Mills. It wasn’t for a lack of chance: The Hawai’i native moved to the East Bay in elementary school and even attended high school just 10 minutes away from the Mills campus.
Then, although Bauer had already been accepted to UC Berkeley, a friend suggested she check out the school. Bauer agreed and, from the moment she stepped on campus, she was in love. “The leaves were beautiful colors, the bell tower was ringing, and the architecture was beautiful,” she says. “Berkeley felt like my grandparents’ goal; Mills felt just right.”
Nearly 20 years later, she’s still there. She lives in Faculty Village on the Mills campus with her two children and works as an associate adjunct professor of Indigenous studies. Bauer is also the program chair of ethnic studies, and department chair of race, gender, and sexuality studies.
Her love for the school extends to the Oakland community as well. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English and studio art, Bauer taught elementary school in the Oakland Unified School District. It was during this period, she says, that she became rooted in the region.
“I was working and living in Fruitvale, and that’s when I really got to know Oakland,” she says. “I had my Oakland community and my Mills alum community, and I felt like there wasn’t anywhere else I would want to live unless I moved back to Hawai’i.”
After a subsequent stint teaching in San Francisco, Bauer returned to Mills for her master’s degree in English. She dreamed of a job teaching higher education at a college just like Mills, so when Bauer heard about the associate professor position, she was excited to apply.
Now, living and working in Oakland, Bauer says she’s glad to raise her children in an open-minded, diverse city comprising people of myriad ethnicities, gender and sexual identities, and socioeconomic statuses.
“That’s what keeps me here, even more than my decades-old friendships and community connections,” she says. “This is where I want my kids to grow up.”
Still, Oakland faces serious challenges, she says. The public schools are underfunded, and gentrification has led to a ballooning unhoused population and the crime and blight that come with it.
She remains optimistic, however. Oakland’s rich history of political activism and community organization continues to serve it well, she says, pointing to organizers who gathered to hand out masks and check in on the elderly during the pandemic or a particularly bad season of smoke brought upon by nearby fires.
“The people give me hope,” she says. “It’s the people who take care of their own.”
When Tracey Chin ’95 graduated from Mills with a bachelor’s degree in economics, she thought she’d eventually land a job in academia.
Instead, Chin spent a few years painting houses, and then worked at a gym near Lake Merritt where she met some people studying to become firefighters. Interested, Chin took some related community-college courses, and in 2008, was hired by the Oakland Fire Department.
“I told myself, ‘The academic institutions will always be there, you can always go back to get your master’s degree,” she says.
Chin, who grew up in Orange County, eventually received a master’s in emergency services administration from Cal State Long Beach, but instead of pursuing academics, she’s spent her career as a first responder in Oakland; in 2016, she was promoted to battalion chief.
The job has given her a long view of a city that she loves. “Oakland’s got a lot of grit, a lot of determination, it’s very much a can-do city,” says Chin, who now lives in Martinez. “One of the best things about it are the people. They’re open and friendly, which is very different than other communities that I’ve been in.”
As a firefighter, she’s witnessed many of Oakland’s problems up close. “There’s homelessness, there’s crime,” she says. “There’s also infrastructure issues in regard to city funding and budgets.”
While such issues are not easily solvable, she adds, Oakland remains a wonderful place to work or live. “It’s culturally rich,” she says. “We have so many folks here who have so much to contribute to our society.”
Civic pride runs deep, she says, adding that she’s watched Oakland grow and thrive in the 30-plus years that she’s lived or worked here. And it’s still changing for the better.
“There’s a tremendous amount of hope and potential here,” she says.