The Pull of Public Service

How a volunteer-minded Californian found a passion for policy at Rollins and became one of America’s most dynamic public servants.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Libby Schaaf ’87 has a deep love for Oakland, California. She grew up there, she’s raising her family there, and she is—as of 2015—the mayor. She is, more specifically, the much lauded and sometimes derided mayor of the 45th largest city in the United States, a town known for fractious politics and an engaged citizenry.

But before she catapulted into the national spotlight, she was Libby Schaaf, Rollins Class of 1987, a political science major earning a minor in dance. That Florida detour may have been what put her on her current path.

“My parents always felt that it was an important part of your education to go to college in another part of the country,” says Schaaf. She had an aunt who had attended Rollins, which put the school on her radar, and Florida was certainly another part of the country.

“Rollins is where I really began to gain confidence in my intellect,” she says. “Going so far away from home was a challenge at the time, but I think that’s part of your education—recognizing that there are different societal norms and different political views.”

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

In the summer after her sophomore year, she took classes at UC Berkeley and ended up getting accepted to transfer there. “But that is what made me realize how much I appreciated Rollins. I mean, UC Berkeley had its great reputation, but the classes were hundreds of students.” She drove back to Rollins, newly appreciative of the
access to encouraging professors and its intimate learning environment. “It really made me realize what a phenomenal education I was getting here.”

Schaaf majored in political science and developed a keen interest in policy, but she says, “I never dreamed when I was a student at Rollins that I would actually become a politician.” And so she went to law school, then became a litigator at one of Oakland’s most prestigious law firms. But her love of public service continued to pull on her.

Schaaf and her mother founded their own nonprofit called Oakland Cares to encourage people to volunteer more in the community. “We would produce a calendar every month of one-shot volunteer opportunities so busy people who couldn’t make a regular commitment could still make a difference in Oakland. And that’s what led me to realize my passion was public service.” Three years later, she found an opening with a city councilman as a legislative aide.

“It felt like everything had come full circle,” she remembers. “Because in college at Rollins, policy really was my interest, and now I was getting to do it for the thing that I loved the most, which was my hometown.”

Mayor Schaaf dropped in on her former adviser, political science professor Rick Foglesong, to chat with his class about the importance of standing up for what you think is right. Photo by Scott Cook Mayor Schaaf dropped in on her former adviser, political science professor Rick Foglesong, to chat with his class about the importance of standing up for what you think is right. Photo by Scott Cook

That led to a position as an aide for then Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown (the once and current California governor), a stint as the city council president’s chief of staff, and to a job at Port of Oakland, where the 2008 recession hit hard. Laid off, she applied to a political training program for Democratic women.

“My kids were really young; I had a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old at the time. But when I got into the program, I realized ‘Why wait?’ I’ve been doing policy for other people for 10 years. And there’s never going to be a perfect time in your life.”

She became a city councilwoman representing District 4, the district in which she grew up, and then ran a successful campaign for mayor in 2014. Being a mayor isn’t easy, and that’s especially true in Oakland.

“Oakland is a place that has a long history of social-justice and political protest, so the level of vitriol is unsettling,” says Schaaf. “But people have a lot of legitimate reasons to be angry with government for failing them. You just have to remember that that’s what the anger is about, and that you, too, are angry about those things—and that’s indeed the entire reason you’ve gotten into politics.”

During this year’s Alumni Weekend, Mayor Schaaf was honored with a Rollins Alumni Achievement Award. “It’s a little surreal,” she laughs, noting her not-uncontroversial tenure. “No matter what your political leanings are, you want to create leaders who carefully analyze policy, look at facts and data and not just emotions, and take a stand, whether you agree with it or not.”

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

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