Recent planning commission appointee Christina Olague brings a tremendous amount of experience to her position, having spent the past several years helping to lead the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (MAC). During her time there, Olague has worked to involve residents of San Francisco's eastern neighborhoods with the rezoning process they're undergoing by familiarizing them with the intricacies of city planning, giving them the tools and means to make their voices heard.
Besides her work for MAC, Olague has been deeply involved in San Francisco politics since moving here in 1982, from backing political candidates, to working with clubs like the Harvey Milk Club, to campaigning for progressive causes, most recently for a living wage.
Olague has been an activist most of her life, first getting involved with progressive politics in high school. She traces her activism to her childhood, and growing up poor in the Fresno Valley.
The daughter of a Latino farm worker, Olague says seeing laborers working 15-hour days with little compensation exposed her to racism and economic injustice at a very early age. Born in 1961, Olague also says the political climate of the 60s during her youth also influenced her tremendously.
Olague began her time here by attending San Francisco State, eventually dropping out to work full time, though she is currently finishing up her degree in Liberal Studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She has worked primarily in the financial district at stock brokerages, volunteering her time as an activist when not on the job.
She moved into the non-profit world four years ago, when her mother passed away after spending the last seven years of her life as a quadriplegic. Olague realized she no longer had as much financial and familial responsibility, so she quite her job downtown, landing her job at MAC soon after. While she's glad she made the decision, she sometimes longs for aspects of her former professional life.
"Sometimes I miss the Financial District, because your hours are pretty set," said Olague. "Here it's hard to detach when you leave your job, because you see the people whose lives are impacted by the work you're engaged in."
For the most part, though, the transition has been a smooth one for Olague, whose sees many similarities between her old work environment and her current one.
"I don't think it's any different in the non-profit world than the world in the financial district, really," said Olague. "There's the same amount of politics, it's just a different setting. You still deal with people's personalities - its not like you leave the Financial District and suddenly walk into nirvana or something."
Olague is already coming face to face with these sorts of politics on the Planning Commission. She worries that the rest of the commission had already been pigeon-holed her as a close-minded activist, one unwilling to look at all sides of the issues she will face, before she had attended her first meeting. She feels this assumption is extremely misguided.
"I feel very marginalized in a way - people automatically write me off and dismiss me as just being 'one of those radicals,'" said Olague. "I think that's hard to overcome.but over time they'll see I'm really committed to being open to consider the other side. And if I disagree, I'll be very sure to explain why."
Olague plans to make the most of her time on the commission, striving for excellent attendance, intensive study of the ins and outs of city planning, and making sure she reads the three-inch thick packet provided to her at every planning commission meeting. She believes her time on the commission will be learning process; one she believes won't end no matter how long she's a member of it.
Olague will have to work with Mayor Newsom, who she says she has no real experience with, and the Board of Supervisors, where she at least has two strong allies in Board of Supervisors president Matt Gonzalez, who appointed Olague, and District 9 representative Chris Daly. Daly says he believes Olague will provide a voice to the eastern neighborhoods currently absent on the planning commission.
"The Mission clearly has been in need of representation on the Planning Commission for quite some time," said Daly. "Especially if you look at what happened there during the height of the dot-com boom - the reckless development and rampant displacement that happened there. Christina has provided a significant response to that, and I think it's a great appointment by President Gonzalez."
While Olague does hope to employ the skills and knowledge she's gained working in the eastern neighborhoods, she hopes to communicate with all San Franciscans, and bring a level of accessibility to her position that she feels has previously been absent. She also hopes to keep an open mind about proposals she's presented with, hoping to look at them from the perspective of both tenants and developers, and both residents of the Mission and Pacific Heights.
Olague wants to be an advocate for progressive causes on the commission, including more open space, affordable housing, and neighborhood preservation. However, she also says she doesn't see these issues in black and white.
"There's all kinds of things I'd like to see, but you always have to work within a certain context," said Olague. "Every development that I vote for isn't going to be based solely on the number of affordable units, or the affordability of those affordable units. There will be other things I consider."
Olague brings formidable experience to the board. Her years on the Mission Anti-displacement Coalition have taught her a great deal about city planning, and her ability to explain the technicalities of rezoning laws to average citizens could foster a much greater degree of public involvement in the planning process. She has also been a strong advocate for the powerless getting their voices heard.
If she can convince her fellow commissioners that she is more than a close-minded reactionary, while at the same time continue to bring the voice of the voiceless to the commission and work to further a progressive agenda, her time there will be a success.