A Life of Service: Getting to know Oakland Mayor Jean Quan

Jean Quan. photo by Lailan Sandra Huen

Jean Quan, elected by Oakland voters last November, was officially sworn in on Jan. 3, becoming the city’s first female and Asian American mayor. When she takes her seat at Oakland’s City Hall, it will be just eight blocks from where her great-grandfather took refuge after the 1906 Earthquake; six blocks from where her mother-in-law and sister worked in the garment industry; and four blocks from where her father worked as a hotel cook.

Quan developed a reputation for keeping long hours and being accessible to her constituents during the eight years she served as city council member for District 4, one the most diverse districts in Oakland, encompassing the affluent areas of Montclair and Crestmont as well as the flatland neighborhoods of Allendale, Brookdale, Dimond, Laurel, Maxwell Park and Melrose.

Reporter Clifford Williams recently caught up with Jean Quan to discuss her Oakland upbringing, political roots and agenda for Oakland.

New America Media: How did you become interested in the political arena?

Jean Quan: When I was a high school student, I thought I was going to be a special education teacher. I had been running a volunteer workshop for special education kids to give parents a break on the weekend. At the time, Ronald Reagan was California’s governor and he cut funding for mental health facilities and special education programs. Being the young Democrat, I circulated a petition against those cuts in education. That was my first political act. It was the first time I went door-to-door and it was for a cause I cared about. The next time I would go door-to-door is when I ran for school board 20 years later.

NAM: Did you continue with politics during college?

JQ: I was very much an activist in college. I helped to organize farm workers during the grape boycott. I was a leader in the Third World student strike at UC Berkeley and helped to write some of the first Asian American and women’s history classes. A lot of the social service agencies in San Francisco and in Oakland’s Chinatown were founded by the work we did as students. Some included the Asian Cultural Center, Asian Mental Health Services and the Oasis After-school Program at Lincoln School which all started out as student projects that we worked on as UC Berkeley students.

My husband, who was the first Asian American student-body president at UC Berkeley, helped to drive that passion for community organizing. Later on, I became part of a parent movement in Oakland called “Save Our Schools” to help maintain music, arts and other educational programs. We concluded that there were not enough parents on the school board, so I ran as a parent and became the first Asian American elected to the board as well as the first Democrat elected in my district for any office. That was the beginning of my politics in Oakland.

NAM: Family is very important to you. How influential were your family members in reaching your goals, including becoming mayor-elect of Oakland?

JQ: I really appreciate having a family that is as close as ours. We have dinner together most Sunday nights. Our dinners are like think-tanks. Most of my campaigns have involved my family one way or another. When I ran for school board, my son William worked precincts with me. He helped distribute invitations to house parties on his bike. Twenty years later, he walked all over the Fruitvale district on behalf of my mayoral campaign, while my daughter Lailan worked on the Website, coordinated my Facebook page and developed the rap and music video. And, of course, my husband, Dr. Floyd Huen, has always walked precincts with me. We are walking partners.

NAM: When you ran your mayoral campaign, where was your support base? And what groups or organizations will you focus on to help bring change to Oakland?

JQ: We had a really wide variety of people working on the campaign in all seven districts. I had about 300 volunteers when we started out and as the campaign grew, more and more volunteers came on board. One of my key bases of support came from people who were involved with the school district, including parents, teachers and administrators.

I also had the support of many community, civic, and cultural leaders that I had worked with over the years. When we started knocking on doors, we found people who wanted to join the campaign. And then there were women groups who became part of the campaign because they wanted to see a female in the office of mayor instead of just another politician coming back to Oakland.

We went through the city block by block to get people involved, and each block had its own issues. A lot of people don’t get out of their own neighborhoods. After I walked a neighborhood, I usually found that I knew more about the area than the people who lived there.

When President Obama said that “you are the change that you seek,” that really resonated with me as a community organizer. My campaign sent that same message out to the public. I wanted to be a catalyst for making a change in Oakland and I want to be a catalyst to introducing Oakland to itself.

NAM: When Mayor Dellums took office, he had high ideals, but no meaningful budget reserves. How will you deal with budget restrictions in implementing ideals for a better Oakland?

JQ: We don’t have a lot of money. First, we’re going to negotiate with the police. And we’re going to work statewide for other changes in the public safety pension plan. Some changes will be negotiated within the City, others in Sacramento. If we don’t reform our pensions, cities throughout the state will go bankrupt.

After over $200 million in cuts I don’t think there’s a lot of fat left, but there is some reorganization that I will do. I’m going to try and flatten our organization and bring more people to the front lines.

A lot of people don’t realize that most city employees have personally taken a 10 percent pay cut. In addition, the city took another 15 percent from various departments’ budgets. City employees have been incredibly generous to each other in order to get through these tough times. Public employees will trade their pay for better benefits.

I’m having discussions with city officials and outside agencies to encourage the renting of school space where enrollment is down, to share facilities. I think we have to do more with what we have because we’re pretty much down to the bone. We’re simply going to have to do things differently.

NAM: Who is Jean Quan — the personality and character? What are your passions?

JQ: I’m an extremely shy, immigrant daughter who had to become pretty feisty and tough because my family believed in standing up for social justice. I’m a very different person than who I was when I grew up.

As a child during the summer, I was shipped off to stay with relatives in San Francisco and Oakland so my mother could work and not worry about me. I was raised to be a very, very traditional Chinese daughter.

The problem with Asian women is that we have to fight to keep from being stereotyped. One of the consistent questions asked of me at house parties, mostly by women, was “are you tough enough to be mayor?” That question would never be asked of a man. I think some people were more concerned about me being a woman than being an Asian American. Asian American women are not expected to be aggressive or to take on powerful people. I grew up with an immigrant mother who became widowed after coming to this country when I was only five. She was illiterate because they didn’t educate girls in China and she had to work 18 hours a day.

I still have a hard time when giving speeches and maintaining eye contact because Chinese girls were taught not to look people directly in the eye. Sometimes, when I look down as I’m talking, it’s only because I was raised to believe that it’s rude to stare at people.

Now, because I have a strong sense of justice, I’ve learned to constantly reinvent myself. One of my old campaign stories when I ran for school board was: There was a very nice woman, the PTA president of my school, a Republican, who told me, “Jean, if you wore a little lipstick and some high heels sometimes, the guys around here won’t be so threatened.”

It was actually one of the best words of advice I had received at the time. I think of myself as someone who is pragmatic. So if I have to wear lipstick and boring business suits all the time, I’ll do it for the image. I’ll do whatever it takes to get the change I want.

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