Oakland Elects First Asian-American, Woman Mayor The first Asian-American mayor of Oakland, California was sworn into office earlier this week. Jean Quan is also the city's first female mayor and came from humble beginnings in a poor, immigrant family to win the mayoral race. Quan talks with host Michel Martin about her upbringing, her work as a social justice activist and her vision for Oakland's future.

Oakland Elects First Asian-American, Woman Mayor

Oakland Elects First Asian-American, Woman Mayor

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The first Asian-American mayor of Oakland, California was sworn into office earlier this week. Jean Quan is also the city's first female mayor and came from humble beginnings in a poor, immigrant family to win the mayoral race. Quan talks with host Michel Martin about her upbringing, her work as a social justice activist and her vision for Oakland's future.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's time for our Friday features. In Faith Matters, we will take a fresh look at the King James Bible. We'll find out why 400 years later it still influences the English we speak and how many people think about God. That is later. And we'll also hear what you had to say in Backtalk. And, of course, the Barbershop is coming up.

But first, our Friday political chat with the new mayor of one of America's most interesting cities. And with that election, she scored a number of firsts. We believe she's the first Asian-American woman mayor of a major U.S. city. She is the first Asian-American mayor and the first female mayor of Oakland. Her name is Jean Quan. Her campaign slogan was taking back Oakland block by block, and she's got quite a life story. She was sworn in on Monday.

JEAN QUAN: I was able to make and complete that journey for my family and for other families to go those eight blocks from a family association in Chinatown to city hall. My story is just one of the stories in Oakland. Together we're going to create an epic story of a great city. Thank you very much.


MARTIN: And Jean Quan, Madame Mayor Quan, is with us now. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations to you.

QUAN: Thank you very much, Michel, for inviting me.

MARTIN: Can we just talk a little bit about your life story? You are the first person in your family to be born in the U.S. Your parents were immigrants from China. They worked a very hard life. As I understand it, if I have this correct, your mother never really mastered English, never really became literate. Is that correct?

QUAN: That's absolutely true. My family is like a lot of other Chinese- Americans on the West Coast where our families have actually been here for a long time. My family has been in America for 100, well, actually, has been in Oakland for 104 years. We're not quite sure when my great grandfather arrived. It had to have been before 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act.

And so, because of the exclusion act, because of discrimination, men were allowed to come here to work, but not to bring their families, not to become naturalized citizens. So I'm the fourth generation of my family in the United States. I'm the first person to be born here.

MARTIN: How did you get the politics bug?

QUAN: My father had a deep sense of justice and we were always taught to help other people even though we were not well off. My dad had a restaurant. He never turned away anybody who was hungry. We were near the railroad tracks. When people would come to the back door, it was only a question of how much we'd give them, not whether or not we would feed them.

And I think that sense of justice and the fact that I was a student at U.C. Berkeley during exciting times also, when many things were being changed and I was part of the student movement of minorities who were pretty much first generation college students who found that the university didn't always represent our history, nor our communities.

And my husband and I were founders of the Asian-American studies program at U.C. Berkeley. And we're involved in what was called the Third World Strike, a strike of black, Latino, Native American and Asian-American students. And that fight that we recognize and have our history in the history books in California probably politicized me to a great extent.

The individual story that we've been telling, that the Tribune reporters sort of dug out of my subconscious is that during that time, I had been on scholarship at Berkeley and the dean had called me. And because I had taped a leaflet on a window and threatened my scholarship and brought my mother in, who was an immigrant woman who was not educated and he made her cry and that made me so angry at the arrogance of power that for doing what was my political right, I thought, that I would be threatened to have my scholarship taken away.

And fortunately for me, California had very low tuition in those days and I basically told him that, you know, I would get a work-study grant if I had to, but I wasn't going to give up my right to protest the situation on campus.

MARTIN: You have previously served on the school board and, as we mentioned, you've been active for pretty much your entire adult life. Why did you wish to be mayor?

QUAN: You know, I think that Oakland is this great and beautiful city. And I think that it deserved for the first time in 158 years to have both a woman representative. I think that the Asian-American community was particularly proud to have their first Asian mayor. Probably more importantly is I think that it was time for us to have a mayor who actually knew the city. We've been lucky enough to have a series of celebrity mayors: Jerry Brown, who's currently the governor of California was our mayor, Elihu Harris, who was an assemblyperson, recently Ron Dellums, who was a great civil rights leader in his own stead.

But most of them had not been in Oakland very long when they became mayor. I think that the community was looking for someone who actually knew the neighborhoods. There's not a library or a school in the city that I haven't been in. I walked nearly half of our 400 precincts.

I know people and have worked with people over the last 20 years on dozens and dozens of issues, from saving our libraries to reducing class sizes in the schools, to setting up a wildfire prevention district, to most recently a somewhat more controversial but key is to setting up a prevention fund that hires geographically deployed cops and spends almost an equal amount on intervention and prevention programs with young people.

MARTIN: Once again, if you've just joined us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Jean Quan. She is the new mayor of Oakland, California. We believe that she's the first Asian-American woman mayor of any major American city. She's certainly the first Asian-American and the first female mayor of Oakland, California, which is one of the country's most diverse.

You know, to that end, African-Americans comprise something, like, 35 percent of Oakland's population. Whites are 31 percent, Latinos 22 percent, Asians, some 15 percent. You know, it is one of the most diverse places in the country. It's also got a lot of the sort of typical challenges that a lot of big cities have right now - many cities and towns, California overall, under terrible budget stress right now. And there have been a number of high profile crimes in Oakland in recent years that have gotten headlines.

What do you think is your first challenge as mayor and how are you going to go about meeting it?

QUAN: Literally, the first thing I did after inauguration was we hosted the volunteer fair at city hall to address two of the issues. One is obviously in a time when government has to shrink because of the economy, but the problems don't go away. I think we can harness the vast energy of our citizens, particularly retiring boomers and a lot of young people are moving to Oakland.

I'm particularly concerned about our young people. One of my goals is to recruit 2,000 volunteers to work with the kids in Oakland, who I call - on the kids who are most in trouble - the toughest kids. This is 500 kids from the public schools that we arrest every year and are out on probation. Three hundred kids who age out of foster care. There are a lot of young people who are raised in the foster care system because their parents, some have had problems with drugs or they're in prison.

And many of the young women who are sexually exploited minors in Oakland working on International Boulevard are recruited straight out of foster care because the girls become homeless at age 18. Luckily, we just have this new state law that will allow them to continue to get support if they stay in school or in a job training program. So my goal is to get every one of those kids in a job program or a school program so they can continue to get support.

I can't imagine being homeless at age 18. The pimps in this town recruit kids straight out of foster care. There is still the existence of gangs and drug deal and that has created most of the violence in the city.

MARTIN: Well, what about your first moves as mayor? What do you plan to do to have an impact right away?

QUAN: We started, and we had 1,000 people come to city hall to recruit volunteers for the city and for the young people in the schools. What I am also doing is that this weekend, in East Oakland, I am personally leading a group of volunteers and neighbors and we're going to go door to door in one of the toughest beats in the city, a beat that has among the most highest crime rates. It has the highest unemployment. It has the highest number of dropouts and we're going to go block to block to organize that neighborhood, to form a neighborhood crime council, to tell them about Martin Luther King weekend the following week where we're going to literally clean up the neighborhood.

So, we're going to put the resources into this neighborhood because in this neighborhood, the unemployment rate is 28 percent for African-American young men and the graduation rate is only 30 percent. That's a disgrace. We can turn that around.

MARTIN: So you really do mean block by block.

QUAN: I literally mean block by block. So this is going to be our first sort of beat-wide experience and then we're going to launch similar efforts in West Oakland and several of the other neighborhoods where there's high crime rate. And last night, I had a murder in this district. And so, we're very motivated to turn that around.

MARTIN: And, finally, and I do hope we'll speak again and as you go forward in your term and you can keep us apprised of everything that you're doing.

QUAN: We'd be pleased to speak again.

MARTIN: I do want to ask, what message do you think people can take away from your success and your career?

QUAN: I want people to dream again. I know we've gotten very cynical. But Oakland is one of the most beautiful, diverse - we have 126 languages spoken here, as many cuisines. We're the hottest restaurant place in the Bay Area right now. We have great arts. We have great communities. So I want people to take a fresh look at Oakland, consider coming here and visiting. I want even Oaklanders to get out of their neighborhoods.

You've talked about many American cities being diverse and I've traveled a lot. I was a Kellogg fellow. I headed the National Urban School Board Association at one point. I've been to a lot of cities. Very few cities are as diverse and mixed together. I've been to cities where they've had a lot of different population, but we're a really mix of each other. It creates a certain buzz. Oakland is a place where a lot of new ideas begin.

And I want us to continue to be that place. I want us all to dream, whether we're an aging boomer who's affluent and lives in the hills or whether we're a new immigrant literally fresh off the boat, to think of Oakland as a city of dreams. A lot of exciting things happen here. We're the home to Pandora and as well as traditional corporations. We're just really a city that I think is the face of America in the future.

MARTIN: Jean Quan is the mayor of Oakland, California. She was sworn in on Monday and she joined us from her new office in city hall. Mayor Quan, thank you so much for speaking with us, and Happy New Year to you.

QUAN: Thank you very much, Michel.

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