Twenty-six-year old Sokhom Mao has decided to run for Oakland City Council’s second district seat.
While there is still ample time before the July 1st 2014 filing date, the former foster youth and current commissioner on both the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Commission and the Oakland Citizen’s Police Review Board plans to amass a “war chest” going into next year’s election cycle. With roots in Oakland’s Cambodian community, and a base of support among foster youth and their advocates, Mao plans on launching an intense grass roots campaign.
“The thing about it is, is that time and time and again, candidates don’t have enough foot soldiers on the ground,” he said in an interview. “I am going to get me some new Nikes… and I am going to be walking up and down those hills. We are going to break up precincts, and we are going to be walking everyday.”
Mao vowed to recruit 100 volunteers by the end of February, has already assembled a campaign team and will be opening a bank account to start fundraising.
“I want to be able to be an advocate on a higher level who will make a positive impact in the rise of young people and families in Oakland,” Mao said.
He is no stranger to advocacy, both for himself and for foster youth across the country. He entered foster care in Alameda County as a boy. While a sophomore at Oakland High School in 2004, his placement was changed to a group home in Hayward. Unlike thousands of California foster youth who had come before him, Mao was able to stay at the high school he loved because of the landmark Assembly Bill 490, passed a year earlier, which allowed foster youth to stay in their school of “best interest” even if they moved out of the district.
Finding stability at Oakland High, he was able to graduate and go on to San Francisco State University, where he went on to become part of the first cohort of Guardian Scholars. The Guardian Scholars Program helped Mao with housing, tutoring and the countless other obstacles young people face in college.
After graduating in May of 2010, Mao went on to work at the California Social Work Education Center, which creates curricula for public child welfare workers.
Throughout, Mao was a leader in the California Youth Connection, a 25-year-old policy advocacy organization led by current and former foster youth. Today, he is a member of the Board of Directors.
In the 2010, he was a strong voice for transition-aged youth in the run up to the passage of California’s Assembly Bill 12, which was signed in September of that years and extends foster care to age 21.
The following year, he shared his story about the boost that California’s AB 490 gave him in an effort to influence the federal government to ensure the same type of supports for foster youth nationwide.
Mao hopes his candidacy can serve as an example of reasoned idealism for the thousands of other foster youth advocating for their rights throughout the state and country.
“It indicates a signal of hope, but more than only hope it has to more to do with the desire and attainment of what is possible; that what they [foster youth] can do is endless, and that their goals are achievable. If they set their minds to it they too can achieve the positions of being a candidate for elected office.”
For Oakland, Mao envisions a three-pronged platform: public education, public safety and improving the city’s fiscal strength.
On December 14th, he and his team will hold a campaign meeting at the Oakland Vietnamese Alliance Church.
Mao is off and running.
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.
NOTE: Daniel Heimpel is also on the California Youth Connection Board of Directors.