Oakland City Council President Pro Tem Sheng Thao is one of the Bay Area’s boldest and most effective progressive leaders. The first Hmong-American woman City Councilmember in California history, Sheng is known for her creative, substantive, and effective leadership on tough problems from housing and homelessness to public safety. Sheng Thao’s life experiences and what she’s overcome drive her to make a difference for others. A daughter of refugees, Sheng grew up in poverty, one of 10 kids. To escape domestic violence in her early 20s, Sheng lived on strangers’ couches and in her car with her infant. Then, with help from welfare, she put herself through Merritt College, became valedictorian, and graduated from UC Berkeley, all while raising her son as a single mom. In her campaign for Mayor, Sheng is building one of the broadest and most diverse coalitions ever to unite behind a candidate in Oakland, including organized labor, elected officials from throughout the city, region, and state, public safety leaders, education leaders, and faith leaders. Her campaign for Mayor of Oakland has gained the sole endorsement of the Democratic Party, Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, Attorney General Rob Bonta, State Treasurer Fiona Ma and many others. Sheng believes that our time is now to build a safer, greener, more affordable, and more just Oakland for all.
ED REFORM PLANS: The state of public education in Oakland has been in crisis for generations, and with the pandemic, it has only gotten worse, with estimates being that half of high school students haven’t returned. What will you try differently to improve the outcomes for us students, and how will you measure your success?
Absolutely. As you know, the City of Oakland doesn’t have direct leadership over OUSD. However, we have seen the huge gaps that did already exist. The pandemic really brought it up to the surface, including our digital divide. Not just that, but how certain students will have more resources than others in order to succeed. For me, as Oakland’s next mayor, I want to ensure that our children are given the basic needs to have the foundation to be successful. What that means is it can be as basic as making sure they have a hot meal, for breakfast, lunch, and maybe even take home dinner. We cannot help what happens behind closed doors with every single family, but we know that we can nurture them and give them the best ability to succeed on the ground. Not just food, but also ensuring that they have internet access, computer access, every single student, no matter where you go.
Even students in the Oakland Hills, we have a choice system. Even people who are disadvantaged, who attend the Oakland Hills schools, they may need access to those resources too. How would I measure success? Measuring success is going to look a lot different, not just graduation rates, but also looking at how we are putting kids into pipelines for vocational training and how many are attending them. Encouraging students to go to a community college is also a measure. I went to a community college, and I’m always uplifting that a community college is still as good as a four year institution. It’s about everyone having a different track and how success looks different for everyone.
SCHOOL CLOSURES: What is your stance on school closures? How do you think Oakland should make sure that students don’t fall through the cracks as schools get larger with consolidation?
I am not supportive of how the school closures took place. Quite honestly, I can’t explain it other than disgusting, to be honest with you. I am a daughter of refugees. I grew up with not much at all. My parents had ten kids. My mom did not drive. My dad worked five jobs. If my local school was closed, it’s not as easy for me to just walk to the next school. I wouldn’t go to school because that walk for first grade or second grade or third grader or whatever grade you’re in, it’s too far. It could be hours at a time, one way, and then coming home in the evening, it’s dangerous. First of all, there needs to be a process, and if it’s determined that schools need to be closed, then we, as adults and as leaders, we must find the resources to give to the families whose schools are closing to ensure that they have proper transportation or a way to get to their new receiving school.
For receiving schools, it’s not fair for them because we have to ask the question, are they ready to receive more students? And when we say, are they ready? Do they have the resources? Do the teachers have the resources? It’s not fair that our classroom continues to grow to become 40 students a classroom or what have you, and it’s just not going to be conducive or effective in how we teach our kids. If we’re talking about making sure that they succeed, that’s not the best way to do it. We have to have a real conversation with just not the administration, but with teachers as well too.
TRUANCY: Truancy is a pressing issue for a lot of Oakland students who see their friends and classmates become a part of the juvenile justice system, essentially putting a young person through the school to prison pipeline. Do you think there should be an alternative solution for addressing truancy and what would that be?
Data shows us that when we put our kids into paid internships or summer jobs or just paid jobs in general where they’re being trained a different skill set outside of academics, we actually lower their interaction with law enforcement by 70%. By 70%. That’s something that the current administration is not doing. As Mayor, I want to work with the different corporations and businesses here in the city of Oakland and within the city of Oakland itself to create year-round paid internships, keeping our kids busy, allowing them to learn a new skill set, introducing them to a different world of social networking. Most importantly, we’re putting money into their pockets. I believe that’s going to be the very beginning of how we ensure that truancy is down. Not just that, but that we are making sure that our students and our young people have the money in their pocket. Of course, we’re making them tired because we’re keeping them busy.
DUMP THE D: Where do you stand on Dump the D, a campaign dedicated to making D a failing grade so that students can retake courses and get a C or higher so that they will be eligible for UCs, which consider D a failing grade? What are your plans on giving students more information about what it takes to be eligible for a UC before it’s too late?
Absolutely. Yes. We should totally dump the D. I think the D is not a good measurement of anything. It is a failing grade. Again, growing up, you only know what and as a daughter of refugees, I didn’t have the understanding that UCs have different criteria than CSUs. However, if you cover all of the requirements or prerequisites for UC, you are automatically covered under CSU. We need to take that stance, and we need to take that stance strongly. We need to ensure that we, at every single level, are preparing our students to ensure that they are UC-qualified again, because that’s the umbrella of the standard for how students are going to be 100% eligible for CSUs as well. So we should take that standard. How we would get the information out is that we would implement it into all of our programming connected the city that has to do with youth, including rec centers, making it so that taking these courses just becomes a normalized situation, that it’s not just depending on which family you come from and if they consider going into higher education as important for them or not. We have to ensure that our kids are being exposed to this and that taking these prerequisites to be UC-qualified, it just becomes a norm.
SAFE SCHOOLS: What do you think is the appropriate balance in making schools a safer place without criminalizing students? How do you think schools should address threats of shootings?
Yes, the threats of shootings are so scary. I was just actually at Thornhill Elementary. They’re going through some serious issues right now around our Black communities and the threat of shootings. It’s really distressful for me and for many families, I’m sure. In regards to what I think the correct balance is of making schools safer? We need to make sure that there are no guns on campus. For me, that also includes not having police officers with guns. What we already do and have already funded for this cycle, and we should expand to every single school is having mental health counselors. We need to ensure that our kids feel safe talking to someone about the real issues that are happening on the ground, on the playgrounds, outside where students gather or what have you because a lot of times, by the time adults find out what’s actually really happening within the world of our children, it’s too late.
We need to make sure that we have people who our young people can trust to convey communication around anything that is related to any abuse, and specifically shootings, and we need to take it seriously. More so than that, I’m very supportive of ethnic studies being held in every single classroom across the whole state. I do believe that if we have a better understanding of where we all come from and how each and every single one of us, no matter the skin color that we have, that how we’ve been oppressed in one way or another, that our young people will understand that we have way more in common than we have differences. Not just that, but I think that’s a way that we can start healing as well, just celebrating our different cultures here in the city of Oakland would be helpful. The main thing is we need to get our mental health specialist into each and every single school, not just certain ones.
MEASURE QQ: What will you do to make sure that Measure QQ is implemented next election, considering the let down that we cannot vote this November? What can you do to encourage youth civic engagement and involve youth in your role considering we cannot vote?
I was a champion of measure QQ. Our young people – our juniors and seniors – they do deserve to pick who it is that is representing them. We see at the school board level where, yes, they have “physical representation,” but do they have a vote? They don’t. For me, we’re teaching our young people through that way that they are not equivalent to make decisions for themselves. I think that’s just a huge mistake. For me, as your next Mayor, I will make it a point to work with the County and the Registrar of voters to ensure that we have a system in place for the next round of voting so that our young people feel like they do matter, because that’s exactly what it is: they do matter and their voices matter too. If we want to take civic engagement seriously, we have to start with our young people and we have to, again, normalize that all the way from elementary to high school and then effectuate that impact through the actual voting process with our juniors and seniors. I mean, that’s what the people voted for. It’s just shameful that they couldn’t get the system in place for people to be able to vote.
Yet when there is a tax system story, then all of a sudden there’s a system in place for that. I feel like it’s political will. Not just that, but for me, that will be my priority to ensure that our young people are able to vote, because they deserve to be able to vote for who represents them and who represents their voices.
Do you have any closing words or final statement that you want to make?
I think that school closures are absolutely appalling and any elected official who is in support in any way of how the school closures went down or just feels like, “Well, this is where we’re at, we have to move forward,” that’s disappointing in itself. That’s a failure to our kids and that’s a failure to the public safety of the residents of Oakland. That’s a failure for our next generations that are supposed to carry us forward. I just want to also let folks know that it’s further than just closing down schools.
I’ll just be straightforward. These are land grabs. These are land grabs by private luxury condo owners, and people who want to build luxury condos, not even market rate, not even moderate or affordable or deeply affordable. We know that because if you could just track how each politician is funded and by whom they’re funded by, it is just disheartening.
We know that our city, with the diversity that it has, is going to be diluted if these policies continue and if certain leaders are elected to lead the City of Oakland. I just would encourage all readers to really do their due diligence in following the money on who’s getting supported by whom and not to be tricked by what the status quo continues to tell the community, because we have to fight for Oakland’s soul.
I would finally just say for you all to join nurses, firefighters, grocery workers, and just everyday working families in support of my candidacy to be Oakland’s next Mayor.