The Oakland Sisterhood
Women hold every top leadership job in the city’s bureaucracy. Plus, Libby Schaaf’s mayoral staff has six women in senior roles.
Left to right: Shereda Nosakhare, Venus D. Johnson, Yvonna Cazares, Libby Schaaf, Kelley Kahn, Erica Terry Derryck, and Joanne Karchmer.
Photo by D. Ross Cameron
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Oakland has long been a liberal bastion, but it took 159 years for the city to swear in its first-ever female mayor. And now, just six years after that precedent-setting event, Oakland is making up for lost time. Not only did the city’s second female mayor take office in 2015, but women currently dominate nearly every corner of City Hall.
When Mayor Libby Schaaf swore in the city’s first-ever female police chief, Anne Kirkpatrick, on Feb. 27, women for the first time held all the major leadership roles in the city’s bureaucracy: the mayor, the city administrator, the city administrator’s three top deputies, the police chief, and the fire chief. Schaaf’s mayoral office staff also has six women in senior management jobs, plus 10 more women in supporting roles. And that’s not counting the four female city councilmembers and the city attorney.
Call it the Oakland Sisterhood.
In a recent interview with Schaaf and her top six female staffers, the mayor said she “didn’t set out to hire women,” but that female candidates ended up being the most qualified people for many of the jobs in City Hall. “These are the most competent, accomplished, hard-working professionals that I could have put into these positions,” she said, pointing to all the women sitting around her conference table.
“We just happen to all be women,” added Venus D. Johnson, the mayor’s director of public safety.
Photo by D. Ross Cameron
Schaaf was also a little miffed that, in 2017, it’s newsworthy when women hold the top positions in a city. “Would you be doing this story if we were all men?” she asked.
The mayor is right, of course: It shouldn’t be news when women take charge. But there’s no denying the fact that the makeup of Oakland’s government offers a stark contrast to rest of the state and the nation. According to data collected by the women’s political advocacy group Emerge America, women comprise just 24.8 percent of state legislatures and 19.4 percent of the U.S. Congress. In addition, only 37 women have ever served as governor of a state. Plus, President Trump’s cabinet includes just two women.
But the Oakland Sisterhood is not a total anomaly. Alameda and San Leandro also have women mayors, female city councilmembers, and women in top city jobs. Until 2014, Richmond’s mayor was a woman. And Berkeley elected its first female mayor 24 years before Oakland did.
Still, Oakland’s nearly all-female leadership team is extraordinary. And even in this progressive city, some people aren’t comfortable with that fact. Schaaf said that when she was running for mayor in 2014, she heard criticism “making me out to be a bad mother” for seeking the city’s top post when she had two elementary school-age kids at home. “People were telling me that my children are too young,” she said, “that I would regret it.”
Many of Schaaf’s staffers said they were drawn to work for her in part because of her determination and love of the city. “She wants to make local government less intimidating to residents,” said Joanne Karchmer, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff.
Along with Johnson and Karchmer, Schaaf’s female team includes Chief of Staff Shereda Nosakhare; Kelley Kahn, policy director for arts retention; Yvonna Cazares, director of community engagement; and Erica Terry Derryck, director of communications.
The group is also diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Derryck said the mayor’s office is one of the most progressive places for which she has worked. When she joined Schaaf’s senior team in early 2015, it consisted of four African-American women, two of whom are gay. “There is something incredible about being able to come to work and be your whole self,” she said.
Schaaf’s team may enjoy working together, but the job is anything but easy. During the past 10 months, Oakland has been rocked by two major scandals: the Oakland Police Department sex abuse case and the deadly Ghost Ship fire. “It’s like every day you come to work with the Sword of Damocles over your head,” Schaaf said.
Two words that kept coming up during the interview were “passion” and “compassion”: passion for Oakland and compassion for city residents, especially those displaced by the city’s housing crisis. The mayor’s staffers said Schaaf shares those traits. “She has so much passion and is so optimistic,” Nosakhare said.
And while the mayor may not have intended to hire so many women, it seems clear that their shared feelings for The Town bring them closer together. “I’m definitely down with having leaders who have high compassion and low egos and have clear values, and are in this for the long-time benefit of Oakland,” Schaaf said. “We live here. We work here. Our families are here. Our children are here.”
To be fair, Schaaf has also hired a few men in top jobs. But Oakland’s female-dominated management team is noteworthy—and may have lasting impacts. “My daughter,” Derryck said, “thinks that women should be in charge.”