Oakland Campaign Puts Kids First

Low-income youth and youth of color are often first to feel the effects of shrinking local human service budgets. In Oakland, California – across the Bay from San Francisco – dilapidated recreation centers, overloaded school social workers, and overwhelmed job placement programs are the product of years of de-funding at all levels of government. Policymakers’ rhetoric of supporting children is rarely followed by a commitment of resources.

Last year, though, an unlikely coalition of youth service providers, policy advocates, and community organizations succeeded in redirecting significant public resources towards specific human service needs in a tight fiscal climate. The victory of the Kids First! Coalition reveals important organizing lessons about framing issues around children’s needs and about the role of young people themselves in advocating for policy change.

In Oakland, one in every three children lives in poverty and in some schools more than 25 percent of the students are on probation or parole. Yet in 1995, the City of Oakland contributed less than $200,000 to private, nonprofit agencies serving people under 21 – far less than each of the neighboring cities of Berkeley, San Francisco, and San Jose.

At the same time, Oakland contributed disproportionally to California’s booming prison population, as drug and gang task forces “cracked down” on a perceived increase in crime by teenagers and young adults. For its part, the Oakland City Council contemplated evening teen-curfew ordinances, anti-cruising laws, and anti-loitering measures.

In 1995, an informal coalition of youth service providers who had mobilized to defeat the curfew proposal came together to devise a strategy to meet the growing needs of the city’s youth. Coalition members decided to replicate a budget set-aside initiative passed in San Francisco five years earlier. The legislation amended the city charter to require that 2.5 percent of the city’s budget each year be dedicated to fund public and nonprofit programs serving children and youth.

After several months of planning, the campaign started in March 1996 and included three key phases: a four-month period of petitioning to collect more than 50,000 signatures (one quarter of all registered voters); an interim period of three months to forge an electoral strategy; and a month to get out the vote.

A handful of youth development agencies and community-based organizations led the campaign to pass the Kids First! Initiative. These organizations also had strong bases of adult and youth members who were willing to work for an underfunded campaign that relied heavily on volunteers. The multi-racial coalition was less a broad-based ecumenical alliance and more a tightly-knit group of like-minded organizations and individuals. The campaign’s leaders understood the need to affect policy change and did not shy away from political conflict. Campaign leaders did not dilute the content of the initiative or the strategy of the campaign to appeal to constituencies unwilling to challenge the status quo.

Powerful forces threatened to oppose the campaign. Four months before the election, none of the City Council members had endorsed the Initiative, the local public employees union was contemplating a counter-campaign, and none of the electoral clubs or large churches had offered assistance. How did the campaign neutralize this potential opposition?

First, campaign leaders framed the media strategy for the initiative around the many problems and obstacles facing young people in Oakland. Politicians soon realized that if they publicly opposed the initiative, they would be perceived as indifferent to the plight of children in need. This point was reinforced at several Council meetings when nearly one hundred youth and adults in bright purple “Kids First!” tee-shirts filled City Hall to remind policy makers about the faces behind the campaign. In the end, none of the council members went on record against the initiative.

In addition, the campaign sought common ground with the unions, seniors’ groups, and other organized interests who feared the set-aside of dedicated funds for youth programs might negatively affect other areas of the budget. Campaign leaders agreed to work with these groups after the election to ensure other human service budgets would not be defunded because of the Initiative.

The campaign also found innovative ways to involve youth members from the start. Youth created two billboards to promote the campaign. Youth organizers shot, edited and produced a three-minute promotional video which was presented to neighborhood groups and churches to win their endorsement of the campaign. Youth organizers circulated petitions in junior high and high schools calling on council members to support the initiative. In the final weeks of the campaign, they walked precincts, raised money, posted house signs, and phone banked.

On November 5, 1996, dozens of students, parents and other neighbors filled the office of People United for a Better Oakland (PUEBLO) to celebrate the passage of Kids! First: the Oakland Children’s Trust Fund by a 3-to-1 margin. An estimated $75 million over the next 12 years had been set aside for pre- and after-school programs, job training, sports activities, teen centers, and health care programs for Oakland’s youth.

Today, the Kids First! Coalition has formalized into a multi-racial citywide partnership of youth and adults dedicated to the development of sustainable youth leadership actively engaged in building a safe, healthy, and just community. The coalition has helped oversee implementation of the initiative, and has started a youth organizer training program and a new organizing campaign around school safety. Coalition organizers look forward to forging new combinations of electoral mobilization, policy advocacy, and community organizing to build a “new majority” in the City of Oakland.

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