Thick-Skinned | Event organizer Karen Hester wants to build a better Oakland.
Oakland's Karen Hester has her fingers in a lot of pies. She puts on neighborhood happenings like Bites Off Broadway, Rockridge Out and About, and the Temescal Street Fair, all featuring food trucks and other amenities. But she's also an advocate for causes like keeping the views from the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge free of billboards and creating Latham Square Plaza at Telegraph and Broadway. In addition to trying to make Oakland a better place to hang, Hester also is a cohousing consultant and a true believer in the concept—she helped found and lives in North Oakland's Temescal Creek Cohousing community.
Paul Kilduff: Is Oakland the next Brooklyn?
Karen Hester: What we are seeing, and I think this is part of what people are calling the Oakland renaissance, is just that we have a lot of culture-makers who have been moving to Oakland because they have been pushed out of San Francisco. But if you look at the history of Oakland, there's just been amazing folks who've always lived here who've been keeping the culture (the food industry in particular) alive all those years. So those of us who've lived in Oakland a long time, we know that it's just been a secret about how incredibly exciting and diverse Oakland is. But now that secret's getting out to the world, and that's all a good thing.
PK: What does Oakland need?
KH:It gets down ultimately to leadership, and not that everything should center on city hall, because there are so many people out there doing DIY who are making Oakland a better place to live, and that's what excites me. But ultimately, I do think it's a lack of vision at city hall, and I'm talking about over many, many years, not just the current administration. I think that if you start there, that would help a lot. And we have to have more money for all the services that are critical, particularly for education.
PK: Not a fan of Mayor Jean Quan?
KH: I'm not a huge fan of Mayor Quan. It's not to discount some of the things she's done. She's certainly super involved in the community. I see her everywhere, and to me, that's a little bit of a problem. I'd like to see her less at events and taking photos. I'd love to see her more actually working behind the scenes and not just trying to be out front all the time. It's a delicate balance, and I get that, but yeah, she goes to more events than I do, and I'm an event coordinator.
PK: What does it take to be a community organizer?
KH: It takes a certain vision for wanting something better for the community that you live in. The community activists and organizers that I admire in Oakland, they have an amazing depth of knowledge, but they also have this persistence that they've somehow been able to sustain for a long time. It's the folks at Oakland Heritage Alliance or the Ella Baker Center or Destiny Arts Center who've been in the trenches for 25 years. Those are the people that keep me going.
PK: So you have to be a politician—even though you're not an elected official, you have to think like one?
KH: You have to think like one to a certain extent and then not to think like one. One of the problems of a politician is always: "Are people gonna like me?" The real essence of a community organizer is to care and not to care at the same time. It's not that you want to be rude to people, but to always be worrying about what people might think of you is not really helpful as a community organizer because sometimes you have to be out front and doing a bit of an unpopular thing. You have to have a little bit of a tough skin.
PK: Would you go shopping at the proposed Coliseum City complex?
KH: No. Jerry Brown did a good job at bringing people into the downtown and uptown [areas]. But there's a reason why the downtown and uptown [areas] are on the upsurge, and it's about transit quarters and density of population there, increasing that. What's the long-term vision for the coliseum? I think it's just an idea that's dead on arrival. I could see it being the biggest boondoggle in the world.
PK: Is there any street food that you won't eat?
KH: Insects could be one of the next big things, because there's so much good protein, and I tried them once. It's tough to do. Obviously, it's just a cultural thing.
PK: Does food taste better when it comes from a truck?
KH: It tastes better because you're outside, and you're enjoying the people around you. It's the experience of being part of an international food movement that makes it so tasty.
PK: What's your favorite thing to do in Oakland?
KH: To ride my bicycle into different communities and enjoy the music there or experiencing the parks. It's really riding around Oakland and just seeing what the different communities are like.
PK: Is Oakland very bike friendly?
KH: Other cities are doing a better job than us, but it's really quickly getting there. Being on the bike path on the Bay Bridge was really just euphoric. It's what we're supposed to be able to do—enjoy world-class views on our bicycle. Finally we're getting closer to that end result.
PK: What has always been more vibrant about Oakland have been the little neighborhood centers as opposed to the downtown. Do you think that that's going to change as more people move to downtown?
KH: There's just no discounting the excitement that First Fridays and Art Murmur have brought to those areas. And that's why the city has to do everything in its power to make sure that those can continue—especially the First Fridays and closing down Telegraph. I've been just a big proponent of that. It's the lifeblood for lots of those businesses.
PK: The term Oaklandish. What does that mean?
KH: There's actually a business called Oaklandish.
PK: I know that. When you say "outlandish," it doesn't have a very good connotation. Why do you want assign that to your city? I don't get it.
KH: People are also using Hella Oakland. To me it's just about having pride in Oakland and kind of our history of being a little bit on the outside and that makes Oakland exciting and vital. That's what I associate with that word and that name. It's very positive for me.
PK: I guess it's kind of plucky.
KH: Plucky is good. That's a good description. I like that.
PK: Maybe I'm just being too literal.
KH: It's a little bit of, "We're here. We're Oakland. Get used to it."
Birthplace: Lubbock, Texas
Astrological sign: Capricorn
Motto: “To thine own self be true." "Nature is my religion.”
Book on nightstand: Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain.
Favorite Curse Word: Coño.
Favorite Mode of Transportation:Bike.
Favorite Current Movie: Blue is the Warmest Color.