Berkeley Talks: The power of mentorship, sisterhood in politics


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Kamala Harris and Libby Schaaf smile in front of a California flag

U.S. Senator and 2020 Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf in January 2020. Harris has been called the inspiration for Emerge California, a training program for women leaders, of which Schaaf is an alumna. (Office of Senator Kamala Harris photo via Wikimedia Commons)

“I don’t know anybody who can honestly say there hasn’t been somebody in their life that helped them along,” said Louise Renne, a lawyer who served as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and as San Francisco City Attorney. “And I try to pay it back by working with young people in public housing here in San Francisco.”

Renne took part in a panel discussion — “Bay Area Women in Politics” — hosted by the Bancroft Library’s Oral History Center in July 2020. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and Shanelle Scales-Preston, who sits on the Pittsburg City Council, also spoke on the panel.

UC Berkeley is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the first women at Berkeley

UC Berkeley is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the first women at Berkeley.

“I think all of us will say we have to be optimists to survive in these careers,” said Schaaf. “It’s what gets you out of bed in the morning because we also have to hold tremendous suffering and tragedy in our communities. That is also part of our jobs. But I want to see a world that is equitable and where everyone thrives. And when I talk about equity, I believe that structural racism is one of the biggest barriers to everything good that we want for the world. And that includes getting an actual representative democracy. It’s not just about women, but it’s also about people of color. It’s about anyone who does not fit the dominant identity. And we have to start to reverse engineer those policies, those practices that have been in place forever that are maintaining these obstacles to people getting these opportunities.”

This discussion was part of the Bay Area Women in Politics Oral History Project, which highlights the work of women leaders in the Bay Area. “We really wanted to think about this project as a way to document the history of our region’s political women, from elected officials to activists to campaign staffers to fundraisers,” said Amanda Tewes, a historian and interviewer for the Oral History Center who is leading the project. “I think we can all agree that women are often the backbone of America’s political work — and we felt it was important to record that.”

Listen to the discussion in Berkeley Talks episode #92: “The power of mentorship, sisterhood in politics.” Watch a video of the conversation below.