Putting Kids First: A Lesson in Political Power
Just a few short years ago, youth-bashing was a popular pastime in Oakland. The multi-ethnic community, where one in three children live in poverty, had been suffering through a surge in violence and years of record-breaking homicide rates. Local policy shapers were pointing to the usual suspects — violent teens — and pushing the usual solutions — harsher penalties for gangs, strict enforcement of three strikes laws, youth curfews, closed campuses, and zero tolerance school policies.
“In all the major policy discussions, no one was raising the issue of coordinated youth development as a serious, more effective response,” says David Kakishiba, director of Oakland’s East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC), an independent community organization serving 200 middle, high and out-of-school Asian and Pacific Islander youth. “There were plenty of task forces. We were being ‘task-forced’ and ‘focus-grouped’ to death! But no one was coming up with anything that really shook things up and challenged the status quo.”
In frustration, Kakishiba and several other youth workers went to the kids in their organizations and asked, “Hey guys, you have any interest in finding new solutions?”
That was the first step in mobilizing hundreds of young people, staff from youth-serving organizations, parents, teachers, community organizers and the media to trying to change how things are done for youth in Oakland.
The result was Measure K, the Kids First! ballot initiative. In November 1996, Oakland voters approved the measure that theoretically guarantees money for kids’ programs, protecting the funds from budget fluctuations and volatile political climates. What the Oakland organizers have learned about the initiative process — their successes and stumbling blocks — can serve as a model for others around the country.
“We are getting calls from community groups around the country. People have flown out to see what we did here,” says Amos White, policy advocate for the Kids First! Coalition. “What they have to realize is that there’s no one way of doing this, that each experience is going to be different because each community is different. The problems are different.”
The Piñata Problem
The Kids First! city charter amendment has several basic mandates: It increases the amount of money going to children and youth services without raising taxes, by setting aside 2.5 percent of the city’s unrestricted general fund revenues. (This is in addition to the existing appropriations for direct youth services, based on the previous fiscal year). In 1997-98, this means approximately $5.2 million in new money. (The Fund itself is larger. Five percent goes for administrative costs and 3 percent for evaluation).
It sets up a 19-member planning and oversight committee (POC), appointed by the mayor and city council to make funding recommendations. At least nine of the members must be under 21 years old.
Kids First! was designed to get rid of what one long-time youth worker calls “the piñata effect” — you break the funding balloon and “everyone goes scrambling.” A key provision calls for the development of a “strategic plan,” a guiding framework that looks at the big picture—poverty, homelessness, foster care, teen pregnancy, poorly functioning schools, neighborhoods with no infrastructure — and implements “a 12-year vision of measurably improving the lives of children and youth in Oakland.”
“Every time we have a problem with youth, we try to fix it by throwing a program at them,” says Rosalinda Palacios, manager of Narcotics Education League Centro de Juventud which provides substance abuse counseling and intervention, along with sports, recreation and youth leadership training. She is one of the early movers and shakers of Measure K. “We saw this as a chance not to just get money for programs, but as a way to develop an underlying philosophy, a strategy, behind youth development in this community.”
At this writing, the city has published its 60-page strategic plan and is on the cusp of funding its first round of private nonprofits and public agencies. The process has been elating, empowering — and turbulent.
Doing Something Big
In the early days, the heart of the project was youth and youth workers from EBAYC and People United for a Better Oakland (PUEBLO). They began by teaming up and going into their communities to question their peers: Why do kids engage in violence? How can we get kids out of that scene? They clipped newspaper accounts of youth violence and discussed their own experiences.
Their observations: Neighborhood violence is a fact of life for many kids. They need more places where they can learn, work, and recreate in safe and challenging environments. They need jobs programs, neighborhood teen centers, sports programs and community service projects.
The youth from PUEBLO then researched Oakland’s budget to see how much was being spent on youth and where the money was going. They discovered that very little went to nonprofits that provided direct services to youth. City money was being channeled through departments — police, parks, libraries and recreation — that were often not kid-friendly. Most had few programs, were understaffed, and closed in the evenings and on weekends, when youth obviously needed them most.
Kakishiba says he and the other adults started talking: “So what do we do now with this information? Do we leave it as an exercise or do we take it further?”
To make a real impact, the core group of five organizations — The Kids First! Coalition — decided that something big would have to be done, something on the scale of a ballot initiative. But how?
“A lot of us had experience in community organizing, but not in the electoral process,” says Kakishiba. “We didn’t know how to write an initiative or run a campaign. We were more experienced in fighting something negative—like proposals for closed campuses—rather than doing something positive.”
The coalition found a political consultant, Larry Tramutola, willing to work mostly pro bono. The consultant had already run successful school bond measures and was familiar with youth issues.
The next step was to answer several crucial questions: Should they propose a tax initiative or a budget set-aside? Should they conduct a petition drive or ask the City Council to place their proposal on the ballot? Who were the potential allies and enemies? Who would be on the fence? Where would they get the money and people to launch such a massive campaign?
The coalition decided that the economic and political climate wasn’t right for a tax hike. “A set-aside was also a political message,” Kakishiba explains. “It says that youth development should be at the top of the city agenda, not just something added on.”
They also decided to avoid city council entanglements by taking their idea to the streets. It was another political message that they didn’t quite trust the way things were being done in City Hall.
Hitting the Streets
They began collecting signatures during the March primary. To qualify for the ballot, they needed to collect 30,000 signatures in 120 days. “A lot of the service providers in the community wished us good luck, but they couldn’t be counted on to supply the hours,” says Kakishiba. “The feeling is that they already have enough on their plates.”
Margaret Brodkin of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth agrees that providers don’t make great foot soldiers. Five years earlier, she had waged a successful battle to secure San Francisco’s children’s budget. “It’s a fact of life. The extent to which nonprofits are intermeshed with government funding makes it hard for them to challenge the establishment,” she says. “They fear not getting referrals. They fear not getting funding. That’s what happens when the pot is so small.”
In Oakland, the bulk of the troops were clipboard-toting youth and young adults, dressed in bright purple Kids First! tee-shirts. On the first day of the petition drive, a hundred people hit the streets. Catalina Bautista, a 22-year-old peer adviser at Centro de Juventud, was one of the committed young women who took the short training, then stood outside of malls, shopping centers, transit stops and community festivals in all kinds of weather to collect signatures.
“I’m a shy person and it was hard for me to just walk up to people,” she says. “People would tell me that they don’t want to pay more taxes. I would have to explain that it won’t cost them anything. After awhile, people got used to seeing us. They’d see our tee-shirts and say, ‘Hey, I know about that!’ It felt great.”
Oakland organizers kept waiting for strong opposition from city workers, union officials or from bureaucrats who are often threatened by those not willing to play politics-as-usual. They had only to look across the Bay to see how fierce the opposition could be. “The politics got really dirty,” recalls Brodkin. Opponents had called the San Francisco measure “special interest politics.” Politicians ranted that it would tie the hands of city officials and take money from real needs, like the police and fire departments. For a long time, the local media remained silent.
In Oakland, however, there was no organized opposition. Coalition members suggest that courting early media support played a big role. After a positive editorial in the Oakland Tribune, no one wanted to go on record as being “against children.”
“I also think that the powers in City Hall underestimated us,” Kakishiba says. “The scuttlebutt was that we would never get enough petitions, so why worry about us. We didn’t try to dispel that idea.”
Despite the lack of opposition, it soon became clear that the passion of the volunteers wasn’t going to be enough to make the deadline. The day-to-day grind of signature gathering began to take its toll. Sometimes it was hard to maintain moral. Young people couldn’t understand why not everyone they approached would sign.
The Coalition decided to hire paid signature-gatherers. “The last 10 days were really crazy,” says White, the policy advocate. “We started bringing in 1,000 signatures a day.”
Signed and Delivered
On a Monday afternoon, right at deadline, more than 100 youth, parents and youth advocates in bright purple tee-shirts pulled wagons filled with petitions into City Hall. They submitted nearly 50,000 signatures. “The energy was really high,” Kakishiba recalls. “This was the real test — the idea that people could work together and pull something like this off.”
Qualifying was just the beginning. After the city clerk validated more than 30,000 signatures, “we realized we still had a campaign to run,” says White.
And there was not a lot of money to do it — approximately $11,000 in direct contributions for both petition gathering and campaign. Young people like Cindy Ha, an Oakland High School senior who had been gathering signatures, now put their energies into asking businesses to put up signs. “Business people were reluctant,” she explains. “They may have been for Kids First!, but they didn’t want to offend a customer who might be against it.”
The coalition could afford one direct mail piece. The youths produced a short video to present to neighborhood groups and churches. They built support through meetings with the local teacher’s union and the Police Officer’s Association. Other non-profits, like the Center for Third World Organizing, donated in-kind services such as housing for signature gatherers from out of town.
“We didn’t have money for any kind of polls,” says White, “so we just kept our fingers crossed.”
On November 5, 1996, 75 percent of Oakland voters approved Measure K to establish the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth.
After the celebration party and the hand-shaking, the Kids First! Coalition understood that an amendment to a city charter is nothing if not put into action. Coalition leaders met with city officials to educate them about the legislation and its intent.
“There were a lot of misconceptions,” Kakishiba says. “There were council members who hadn’t even read the legislation. Some thought all the money would go to non-profits. No one had an inkling of how to begin implementing it.”
The Nitty Gritty
One of the first steps was to solicit applications and select those who would serve on the Planning and Oversight Committee (POC). In a bold move, the new members set aside a booming 20 percent of the fund for projects “initiated, implemented and evaluated by youth,” according to Rebeca [sic] Mingura, interim project manager for the Oakland Fund for Children. Young people would apply for grants to the agency or agencies that are awarded these funds.
A call then went out to nonprofits and public agencies for grant requests. Two hundred and two applications came in. After a lengthy and complicated evaluation process, the POC recommended 38 grants for funding, ranging from a one-year grant for approximately $10,000 to the African American Development Association, to a four-year, $1.24 million grant to Children’s Hospital.
“It was very intense and I felt under a lot of time pressure,” says Ha, who was appointed to the POC. “But I think we did a good job. The youth were pretty vocal. We didn’t let the adults take over.”
Nevertheless, reality has hit hard and loud. As soon as the grants were announced, the Oakland service provider community went into an uproar. The POC funding recommendations have been called biased and slanted. Some are complaining that the entire process was rushed and that members of the POC lacked the expertise and training to make meaningful decisions. Others are say the members have conflicts of interest, i.e., they are echoing the wishes of the council members who appointed them. Others are being accused of having personal or professional ties to the applicant organizations.
There are complaints by those who were not funded (the guidelines for applying were vague, subjective and full of buzz words) and complaints by those who were (requested budgets were slashed with no consistency). Others say the problem goes beyond individual complaints and the usual turf wars. They worry that the “landmark initiative” shows signs of turning into business as usual, that there will be no real collaboration or cooperation between agencies.
Kakishiba says that there was very little basis on which programs were selected, “no real rationale . . . . It’s a mechanical approach to a strategic plan, just lip service.”
Rosalinda Palacios of Centro de Juventud is concerned that the original intent of the fund is being ignored. “I see no teeth to the philosophy of youth development,” she says. “It’s the piñata effect all over again. It feels like they are just maintaining the status quo.”
There was so much rancor that the Oakland City Council voted to delay any funding decisions. At this writing, an appeal process is being designed for all applicants.
In San Francisco, Margaret Brodkin of Coleman Associates says the Oakland complaints are familiar ones. Having a pot of money set aside for children and youth does not “solve the problems inherent in this field,” she says. “The Fund in San Francisco has suffered from turf battles, inadequate planning, funding by race, all sorts of political machinations. There are enormous frustrations with bad government, the fact that the pot is too small to fund everyone.
“But, nevertheless, it has done some fabulous things — a healthy amount of experimental things that never in a zillion years would have happened without the Fund.”
Mingura of the Oakland fund also remains philosophic. “This is our first year. We are going to make mistakes. All I can say is I hope those mistakes will be constructive.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to work in a collaborative way the city, the citizens, the nonprofits. Everyone has to remember that they have done a beautiful thing for children. We should be proud.”
Kids First! Coalition
2025 E. 12th St.
Oakland, CA 94606
The Oakland Fund for Children and Youth
One City Hall Plaza
Oakland, CA 94612
East Bay Asian Youth Center
2025 E. 12th St.
Oakland, CA 94606
Centro de Juventud
3209 Galindo St.
Oakland, CA 94601
Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth
2601 Mission St., Ste. 804
San Francisco, CA 94110
City of San Francisco
Mayor’s Office of Children, Youth and Their Families
1390 Market St. Ste. 918
San Francisco, CA 94102
Wolfson, Jill. "Putting Kids First: A Lesson in Political Power." Youth Today, May 1998, p. 32.
©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.