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City of Oakland’s Citizen Academy

Case Story

The City of Oakland has offered a citizen academy for the past 10 years. Silvia San Miguel has managed the program out of the city’s Equal Access Office since 2005. As her office provides translation services to all city departments and residents, San Miguel has attempted in the past few years to organize a Chinese and Spanish language version of the course.

So far the English and Chinese language academies have been quite successful. “The Chinese academy has an active alumni organization that meets regularly and participates in a lot of civic engagements.” reports San Miguel. “The whole point of the Citizen’s Academies is to let people know how the city works and where to go in case they have a problem. Once they have that information it gives them the knowledge and confidence to get what they need. If a resident doesn’t speak English they can call us and we will get them an interpreter to help them communicate with whatever city department can help them.” The city encourages graduates to stay civically involved by inviting them to events, asking them to volunteer, and by e-mailing them about what is going on in the city.

One important feature of Oakland’s citizen academies is the high level access that participants are offered to city leaders. Every city department participates in the program, and directors of most departments meet with each class and answer questions. San Miguel says it means a lot to most people to receive a business card from a city department director with a promise to respond to any needs or inquiries that might arise.

So far, Oakland has been less successful at enrolling monolingual Latino residents. “We have a problem with people not trusting the city government,” observes San Miguel. She is trying new strategies such as reaching out to stay-at-home moms through elementary schools and partnering with the city library to seek funding for a program that would include ESL classes in order to attract more Spanish speaking participants.

San Miguel and other city staff meet with prospective citizen academy participants and screen out those who may view the class as a place to advance a personal agenda. She reports that only once in her experience has an application ever been turned down.

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