Aimee Sueko Eng begins career as Oakland school board member

Aimee Sueko Eng

Aimee Sueko Eng

Aimee Sueko Eng, one of three new Oakland Unified School District board members, decided to pursue public service following her interest in educational issues and her family’s legacy of political service. Starting this month, she assumes the role of board member representing District 2 of the school district, formerly represented by David Kakishiba.

Eng works as a senior program officer for the Thomas J. Long Foundation, a philanthropic organization that funds nonprofits in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. She oversees grantmaking and has been overseeing educational programs for the past year and-a-half there. Prior to that, she worked for two and-a-half years at On Lok, a San Francisco-based health care nonprofit and was a fellow for the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. When Kakishiba said he would not seek re-election, Eng said she saw the opportunity to run.

“As a funder I have been involved with the school districts for a number of years and had the opportunity to support a variety of programs,” she said. “But it’s exciting to step into a governance role.” Eng, who has a master’s degree in education policy from Stanford University, said she has always been passionate about education and said the new role was a “really great opportunity to leverage my background and serve my community.”

Eng, a Yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese American) and fifth-generation Chinese American, was born in Oakland. Her grandfather, Raymond Eng, became the first Chinese American to serve on Oakland’s city council in 1967. Her mother, a former high school math teacher for Mount Diablo Unified School District, is a Japanese American from Hawai‘i. Additionally, Eng served as the 2004 Northern California Cherry Blossom Queen.

Eng said her experience as queen helped her career. “I think it was not only a wonderful exposure to the Japanese American community, but a really rich leadership development experience because you’re meeting with elected officials and I’m doing a lot of public speaking,” she said. “I think it helped shape my professional trajectory.”

In reflecting upon her Japanese American heritage, Eng said the culture has influenced the type of leader she would like to be. “I think about humility, respect, loyalty. I had the opportunity to take the seat of David Kakishiba, he was an outstanding leader and mentor,” she said. “I met David last year. There’s essentially three new school board members out of seven. He’s been so generous with his time and resources to get the new school board members up to speed. He is, what I see as, a true leader and a very influential board member in the school board. Carrying forward his work is part of my role as well.”

Eng and her fellow board members, however, inherit tough challenges. Oakland has been plagued by financial and achievement related issues this past decade, with budget shortfalls in 2008 and coming under federal monitoring in 2012 regarding its disciplining of black students. For Eng, her biggest priority is improving the high dropout rate. 

Kakishiba, who was first elected to the school board in 2002 and served as board president from 2006 through 2008 and 2013 through 2014, said the dropout rate is a perennial issue. “Too many young people are not graduating high school. Too many are not prepared for college if they do graduate,” he said. “There’s not always a clear focus or a clear strategy about how to turn things around. But that’s the day to day, long term, as well as in-your-face challenge the school district has.” Kakishiba said the board must, in the short term, focus on allocating $13 million a year over the next 10 years from a recently passed parcel tax and turn around floundering schools, as well as teacher’s contracts.

Eng said she was excited to take on that challenge. “One of the reasons I’m so excited to be able to live and serve in Oakland is because it was identified as the most diverse city in the country,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “The board and new superintendent is very focused on equity.” Eng said the school district is working on various initiatives to improve graduation rates and to better prepare students for careers and college.

“We also need to make sure we support our teachers,” she said. “In Oakland, we have a pretty high teacher turnover rate for a variety of reasons. We need to find ways to support our teachers.”

Kakishiba said the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement was a top priority. “It’s not just the political spat, it’s not just about wages. It’s also about working conditions and the degree to which schools are able to determine who works in those schools and under what conditions,” he said. “That’s a fundamental position that is needed to improve overall condition of our schools.”

Kakishiba said he welcomed Eng’s service. “We have in Aimee a new generation of civic leadership in the City of Oakland,” he said. “I think she’s going to bring a fresh perspective and interpretation, fresh energy to the Board of Education and district leadership.”

Eng said the significance of her position as an Asian American goes beyond her policies. As a former member of the U.S.-Japan Council’s Emerging Leaders program in 2010, Eng said she felt confident to run for political office with the mentorship of fellow Asian American politicians, such as the late Sen. Daniel Inouye and former U.S. Sectary of Transportation Norman Mineta. “It’s been very inspiring to see Asian American elected leaders and just their willingness to support and mentor,” she said. “Programs like the emerging leaders program … played a role in me feeling confident to running for political office.”

“I’d like to see more Japanese American (elected officials) come through the pipeline in the future,” she said. “While San Francisco has more Asian American (elected officials), we still have more work to do in the East Bay.”

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