City Camp, Oakland: Inspiring Civic Action
My alarm goes off. It’s Saturday, 7:30 am. I swing an arm to turn it off and just lie in bed for a couple more minutes, coming to terms with the fact that, yes, I do have to get up at this ungodly hour in order to attend City Camp Oakland. Billed as an “unconference” of civic leaders and residents to build a stronger Oakland, I knew that this was an event not to be missed. Or at least that’s what I was telling myself. Well, guess that’s what coffee is for, right?
Gripings about the early mornings aside, let me get right to it and say that, yes, I did get up and made it to the event, and I am so incredibly happy that I did. City Camp Oakland was, in my opinion, a runaway success. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a gathering of such talented and passionate people, from all sorts of backgrounds and ages, coming together because they care deeply about a city and the people in it.
My expectations for the day were blown away multiple times. First, the turnout – the event took place in Oakland’s city hall, and as I entered the chambers it was standing room only. I found a spot to stand along the back wall and listened as the organizers laid out the day.
The event began with a keynote address by Kalimah Priforce, co-founder of Qeyno Labs, a company that sponsors hackathons for underprivileged youth. He spoke about the great need to “hack” one’s circumstances; he called Martin Luther King, Jr. one of the greatest social hackers, and explained how impactful it can be to serve as a mentor for youth who are learning to grow and thrive in challenging circumstances.
Next came the unconference part. Going into the day there was no set agenda at all. Rather, the idea was for the attendants to come up with the program themselves, to suggest topics for discussion and presentation. So when the MC announced this and opened the floor to suggestions, I silently groaned. I expected to hear crickets and blank stares.
Boy was I wrong. Immediately hands shot up around the room. People suggested topics ranging from ways to improve voting technology, to strategies for engaging more people around Oakland’s climate change goals, to helping organize a local art festival and everything in between. Second pessimistic expectation dashed!
The organizers posted on one of the back walls all of the topics that were suggested and then distributed little dot stickers to the attendants. Everyone then went up to the wall and placed stickers on the topics they wanted to happen. Afterwards the organizers tallied the votes and created a schedule for the day, posting all of the topics into an hourly chart.
Ok, ok, so it’s all been going fine for now. But surely these unorganized little discussions were bound to dissolve into contention much like your average public meeting. I mean, this is local politics we are talking about, right?
Nope – throughout the day I consistently impressed with the civility and genuine caring that I experienced from the other attendants.
My favorite session that I attended was a presentation of the city of Oakland’s use of a mobile app called See-Click-Fix. The smartphone app allows you to report problems like illegal dumping, pot holes, etc. You can take a picture of the issue, label it, and submit it in to the department of public works. You can check back in on the issues you report using the app, and the city will mark it as closed once they’ve been resolved. In the three years that the app has been around, the city has seen a 68% increase in the number of service requests, pretty much all of that coming from people using the app. This struck me as a great case study in how modern technology can involve more people in government to help make communities better.
At the end of the day everyone came back together in the Oakland council chambers to share their reflections. By that point people were noticeably tired, yet the atmosphere was undeniably upbeat. People were enthusiastic about all the sessions and everyone they had met.
To close the event, none other than the recently elected mayor of Oakland, Libby Schaff, gave a rousing acknowledgment of everyone in the room and what each one had helped create that day. She gave particular kudos to the city employees who had came out, bringing them all up front to take a bow. “People think that city employees are snails, but these are turbo-charged, fire breathing snails!” Mayor Schaff declared (after her election, Schaff famously rode in a burning man-esque snail car that shot fire from its antennae).
Needless to say, I was thoroughly impressed with the event. I came away feeling inspired about the people working to solve seemingly intractable problems in Oakland and fired up to contribute in whatever way I can.