Interview

'I listen to the people': the Moms 4 Housing advocate bringing activism to Oakland city council

in Oakland
Carroll Fife, right, talks with Ms Gwen, an insecurely housed resident of Oakland, in January.
Carroll Fife, right, talks with Ms Gwen, an insecurely housed resident of Oakland, in January. Photograph: Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images
Carroll Fife, right, talks with Ms Gwen, an insecurely housed resident of Oakland, in January. Photograph: Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images

Carroll Fife, known for helping homeless mothers take charge of a vacant California home, won a seat last week

Last modified on Mon 16 Nov 2020 11.02 EST

Carroll Fife made headlines in the US last year as the radical architect behind Moms 4 Housing, a group of homeless mothers who bonded to commandeer a vacant home in Oakland, California, and put a face to the state’s housing and homelessness crisis.

Now, the vocal advocate for tenants’ rights is entering a new chapter in her activism. Fife won a seat on Oakland’s city council in last week’s election, beating a two-term incumbent. She will oversee an Oakland district that includes historically Black and underserved communities in West Oakland and more affluent areas with prime views of the San Francisco Bay.

Fife says she has no plans to change city government and “try to turn shit to sugar”; rather she plans to open the doors of city hall for other organizers to bring their demands to officials. The Guardian spoke to her about her ambitions for office, this year’s anti-police-brutality protests and her view on the presidential ticket.

How did the huge protests against police brutality and racial injustice this year affect your decision to run for office?

The protests in Oakland in early June and that feeling of “we gotta change this shit” that came out of it was a major factor in my decision to run. A few days later, people marched again to protest the death of Erik Salgado [who was killed by California Highway Patrol on 6 June], and several of the young people who I mentor and who were teargassed and hit with rubber bullets in prior protests told me then that I needed to transition into a different space and run for council, because they had the streets under control.

That day – Juneteenth – I announced my run, and we started raising money on 6 July. Being sequestered at home because of Covid was an asset in these intense times because it gave my team and I time to think and strategize.

How did your two decades of activism inform your approach to your city council run?

For years, people asked me to run for office but I said it wasn’t my jam; I thought we could be more impactful working on the outside. But we kept running into roadblocks that made me consider what could be possible if we’d have more progressive legislators at the local level.

As the director of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, I’ve always had to listen to the people closest to the pain so I knew there was huge dissatisfaction in the city, especially among Black people who have been let down by the mayor and neoliberal politicians.

So even though we started the campaign later than most, we were very confident in our tools to do outreach and the things necessary. And Moms 4 Housing played a role because people saw that I was willing to do whatever to make sure people have what they need.

I also knew that being in the field and connecting to people wins campaigns, not the number of lawn signs you have or texts you send. That’s why we ended up with so many endorsements as a challenger, raised record amounts of money, and had almost 350 volunteers working each day.

What skills do you bring to Oakland City Hall, and what skills do you hope to develop during your tenure?

People say I can’t legislate because I’m an activist, but it’s been my job to legislate on an everyday basis. We’ve organized to get speed bumps to stop people doing donuts up and down the streets. I serve constituents everyday. Now I’m just expanding the way we do that and have to institutionalize the process.

Fife stands outside a homeless encampment in Oakland in January.
Fife stands outside a homeless encampment in Oakland in January. Photograph: Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images

The fact that I already listen to the people is critical and a skill that I wish the incumbent would have exercised: really listening to them about what’s happening. I’m also not beholden to any special interests like the police union or predatory landlords.

I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I think there’s more for the city’s administration to learn from me than me from them. If anything, I think I’ll learn things that are problematic because our governments weren’t meant to care for the people and I believe that trying to change that system is naive and foolish. My goal is not change the system and make shit into sugar – I’m going to take what I can from this position and use it to benefit the people who are hurting.

What are your priorities for your constituents?

I have a whole spreadsheet of issues I want to address. I want to support our small businesses in this pandemic and sustain our local economy in this uncharted territory. I want these businesses to be resilient in this city and continue to contribute to the culture of Oakland.

I also want to divert police funding to a fund or somewhere that can keep our city afloat. It’s problematic that every other public sector is seeing cuts except police. Our fire department has a crumbling infrastructure that affects them saving lives while our police aren’t held accountable for taking lives.

I’m also on a permanent quest to make housing a human right at the local and state level. We need to do something about the people who are perpetually homeless and use every bit of resources we have. It’s unconscionable that we have children in encampments that aren’t even fit for animals and we lose a little bit of our humanity each day we let these conditions exist.

At the macro level, what do you think a Biden-Harris presidency can mean for Oakland and progressive politics?

I don’t get excited about people in elected positions, even my own. I’m excited about people deciding to take power into their own hands and see what they’re willing to do to push Biden and Harris as officials.

I do expect people to push them – especially Harris – to prioritize her hometown of Oakland and invest wholeheartedly in solutions because she has first-hand knowledge of the housing crisis and how Black and Brown people have been criminalized.

But I’m not gonna celebrate just because we have her in this position. I celebrate substance over symbolism and when we get caught up in symbolism, we let elected officials off the hook.