Government Reports:  Phase 2 of the Listening Campaign


Interviewee: Tonya Love, Title: Education Staff Member of AssemblyMember Rob Bonta’s Office

Downtown Oakland

Interviewer: Carolyn Carr

I: [00:00:00:00] Okay. I’m here with Tonya Love from Rob Bonta’s office in downtown Oakland.  And we’re here to talk about education and the power of arts in creativity in education.  Thank you so much for taking your time and I’d love to hear about your background. 

TL: [00:00:00:20] Yah, so I only recently started with the AssemblyMember Bonta.  I’ve been working for him since October of 2016, which is about five months from now. Previously I worked as a Public Health professional and helping to create better environments for young children age zero to five by encouraging healthy eating and active living in organizations that worked directly with those children.  These can be libraries, hospitals, childcare, and preschools, run the whole gamut.  And I worked with them to actually adopt policies that create healthy environments for children, and I also advocated for parks and play spaces. The goal was to increase the amount of physical activity but also increasing the access to healthy foods.  So I did that for seven years, and then once this opportunity came to work for the Assembly member I took it up.  I was very excited but I wanted to learn more about all the different things that impact the health of the child.  So, instead of focusing on Public Health, which is my background, I actually asked to work on issues on education and housing, etc.  So that’s why I’m here today.

I: [00:00:01:34] Fantastic.  That’s really great because you’re expanding your approach.

TL: [00:00:01:39] It’s all those different things my educational background taught me that all these different layers of the environment has an impact on how decisions and the practices that we make.  So, living in a house, a healthy house which protects you from a lot of communicable diseases, etc but also if you have a good job then you can afford healthy food. You can afford to be active if you live in a nice neighborhood.  All of these things come into play.  Its not just about the decisions you make, its about the ability to make those decisions.

I: [00:00:02:10] That’s a great distinction.  Before I start with some questions I want to get really basic demographic information.  I hope it doesn't offend you to ask your age.

TL: [00:00:02:24] No.  Okay, I’m 40.  I look young but I am 40

I:  [00:00:02:30] And your gender?

TL:  [00:00:02:31]  I’m female and identify as African American.

I: [00:00:02:37]  And neighborhood or city that you live in now?

TL: [00:00:02:40] I live in Oakland and I live in what’s called the Rose Garden neighborhood.  Which is in-between… It’s really close to Lake Merritt.

I: [00:00:02:50] I know right where it is, yah. Where the rose garden is.

TL: [00:00:02:52]  (laughs) Yes, where the rose garden is.

I: [00:00:02:54] Lovely! Right near the Ace hardware too I think.

TL: [00:00:02:56] Yes and Safeway.

I: [[00:00:03:00] Nice place.  Yes.  Well lets start off with a really big question, more about the thoughts of the people in the office and it may be just you who knows the answer or it may represent what Rob Bonta thinks but what are the big issues in education that your office is concerned with?

TL:  [00:00:03:17] So this Assembly Member, looking at his past legislation and what he has me working on now; he’s really concerned about the cost of education.  So in the past he has worked, he’s been a strong advocate for early childhood education and so he’s passed legislation that increases access to education and child care in Alameda county by providing the county with more control over how they provide subsidies to the teachers and making families eligible to receive funding so they can bring their children to child care.  He’s also a very strong promoter and supporter of Oakland Promise, which is the Mayor of Oakland’s initiative to raise funds to help kids go to collage by providing them with kind of a savings account.  He’s also interested in expanding preschool; making it affordable for everyone.  But on the other end he’s also interested in making college affordable for everyone so this year he’s working on a bill where they will establish a commission to do research on how to make sure that California can pay for college for all eligible residents.  So that’s been kind of the main focus on his end is making sure college is affordable but also expanding the opportunity for learning for children at the youngest age cause that’s where habits develop, zero to five.  That’s another reason why I was really excited to work with him because my past background is working with that age group.  So, really excited to work on that endeavor.

I: [00:00:04:56] And is he…I know there’s a cycle for bills and that’s, I think, just passed for this year.  Are these things that he’s actually trying to put into bill form?

TL: [00:00:05:09]  So, the early childhood education piece happened in the past in 2015 and now it’s being implemented.  I’m also working with different local organizations to see about expanding preschool, not necessarily at the state level but you know, on the ground.  The free college is actually a bill that was introduced this year. 

I: [00:00:05:34] Interesting. Well, great! Thank you.  So here are some questions that are more related to what’s happening in schools.  What do you believe makes a child want to go to school everyday?

TL: [00:00:05:44]  So my personal opinion; I think what makes a child want to go to school is an exciting learning environment and also being able to develop good relationships with not only the teacher and the educational staff but with their peers and the community.  If the child is having a hard time in their learning environment they’re not gonna want to go.  They’re going to be tense.  They’re going to be scared.  They’re going to be, you know, just bored.  You know, so the environment has to be stimulating in all sorts of ways not just academic but with the social relationships that they develop there.  So, also having the opportunity to be able to learn, practice, and excel at any skills that they learn whether or not it’s academic or it’s artistic or athletic.  All of these different things make it an exciting incentive for a child to want to be able to go to school.

I: [00:00:06:42] Yes.  I can tell you’ve thought about this.  It’s wonderful. What do you think inspires creativity?

TL: [00:00:06:51] Again, an environment that not only… an environment that spurs curiosity but also encourages the ability to be creative in how they think and how they process information.  So, in some cases structure is very important but when you have an educator that is really creative in how getting children to think about things.  I think that’s very important.  So for example when I was in school I was in drama and I was in speech class.  Not only did it help me socially, being able to speak publicly and one-on-one.  I was actually very shy when I was in high school so being in Drama helped draw me out of that but also it helped me to learn anatomy and physiology.  So for example I created stories in my mind about how the physical body functioned and how it all works.  And later on…

I: [00:00:07:53] What is fiction that you were doing or was it real?

TL: [00:00:07:55] I was just trying to think about it, story in my head.  And later on actually I was able to enjoy seeing one of the bodily functions being portrayed in animation. I don’t know if you’re familiar.  There’s a movie called “Osmosis Jones”.

I: [00:00:08:12] No, “Osmosis Jones” ?

TL: [00:00:08:13] Yah, it’s a cartoon that kind of talks about how the immune system works and you don’t really, I mean I don’t know if the goal was to actually educate children about the immune system but at the time when I was in high school I learned about immunology and became very well versed in the functions and I can just see how all the story played out and describe exactly how the immune functions worked.  It’s basically, just as a breakdown, it’s a story of a guy who exposes himself to a lot of viruses and just dirty things and how his body reacts to it as a result. 

I:  [00:00:08:53] Fascinating!

TL: [00:00:08:54] So, it’s a really good. And so, that’s kind of how I taught myself how to learn.  I actually wrote a story about how the immediate immune response to a cut.  I wrote a creative story about it.  I wrote a poem about it and it helped me to learn.  So, you know, that kind of thing is what goes into not just, you know, making you ready socially but also to help you think about things.

I:  [00:00:08:19] Yes. It’s so interesting because what the department that I work in is called Integrated learning and so much of our focus is on not staying in the silo of math or in the silo of English Language arts but to have those distinct voices and find ways to see the overlap and see the integration.  That’s exactly what you’re talking about.

TL:  [00:00:09:30] Yah.

I:  [00:00:09:30] Yah.  Great.  What can schools do better to inspire creativity?

TL:   [00:00:09:46] So again just having more opportunities to engage in different activities and learning styles.  I know back in my time (laughs).  I say that like I’m an old person. 

I: [00:00:10:02] you are not.  I’ll just say.

TL: [00:00:10:03] I’m not! But when I was in high school I had opportunity to take Art and to take Drama and even though I wasn't that athletically inclined I did take Cheerleading and I was in the band and music so all of that was part of my educational experience.  Now. I think its kind of a struggle between having a focus on making sure the kids are ready with the basic skills and having that be the primary goal and so maybe funding or opportunities aren’t as available as it was when I was in school.  So I think if it was up to me I would hope that schoolteachers and educators and decision makers could go back to that time.  It would be really helpful.

I:  [00:00:10:56] Yes, and that time— having more resources?

TL: [00:00:10:56] Having more resources, yes. And I wasn't educated in California.  I was educated in Oregon and a lot of funding went into high school education. And I was actually in a neighborhood that had, I would say funding and abundance.  Like a lot of the parents really put in time and money into it and I think some of the property taxes went into it.  It’s just, yah, funding and abundance.  I was really blessed to be in that school. 

I:  [00:00:11:30] Yes, that’s great. What is the role of arts in educating young people?

TL: [00:00:11:36] So I think art helps to stimulate creative thinking and it also helps children to learn the basics.  So, like I said having the ability to create a story on how the human body functions and works really helped me.  However, and drama and speech helped me gain confidence in being able to publicly speak which was really helpful to me in my career in Public Health but also in this job.  In Public Health

I had to be able to one, help community members learn about how the political process worked, and to educate them about what are some best practices in being able to raise your child and having a healthy child.  I had to convey that information to those residents were not necessarily as educated as I was.  So, I had to understand what was going on and then I had to convey that to them.  And then also we trained them to be able to go and speak to their legislatures about the topic. You know so.

I: [00:00:12:39] Very empowering,

TL: [00:00:12:40] Yes, very empowering.  So, you got to have a level of confidence to be able to do all that.  That’s what drama and speech really gave to me.

I: [00:00:12:46] Out of high school.

TL: [00:00:12:47] Out of high school.

I: [00:00:12:49] That’s fantastic.  This is a good story.

TL:  [00:00:12:51] Right.  So being able to, that helped me in that job and it helps me in this job as well.   Then another aspect of this job is being able to speak comfortably to all kinds of community members and elected officials.

I: [00:00:13:07] Can I ask this off script? How did you learn about the political process? Just on the job?

TL: [00:00:13:14] No, while I was doing Public Health.  I had to learn how to do that with my job.  But for Oakland in particular I developed an interest in local policy here as a hobby (laughs) to say.  I was looking for something to do with my time and I decided I wanted to know who… it was around 2010, and who was running for Mayor and why.  That’s what I wanted to know.  I decided to take it upon myself to learn about all the candidates (13:51-13:52? and issue out information??) So I started a blog, and I decided to go to debates.  I decided to go to house parties and I was going to ask questions.  I wanted to know who these people were and why they were running for Mayor.

I: [00:00:14:03] Was this back in Quan’s day?

TL: [00:00:14:05] Yes.  And she was actually one of the first house parties that I went to, and it was in a neighborhood that was actually pretty wealthy and for those who are listening, not all of Oakland has wealthy neighborhoods but there are some where there are actual great sidewalks that are brick, the houses have lawns, there have space in between them.  The trees are full bloom and provide shade and I went into that neighborhood and you know as a young African American female I felt a little bit out of place but I was determined that I was just going to go to this house party. It was open to everyone so I was like why not me?  And I was the only young black person in the room.  And but Jean Quan’s family embraced me. She herself, you know, she was the guest so she was talking to everyone but her husband and her daughter really warmed up to me, welcomed me and said “Please” you know “Sign up” “ talk, speak up, share your question” and all that other stuff.  And I asked her a question and she answered it.

I was like, “Great! I can do this.”  And so I did this with everyone and I shared my experiences on my blog and on social media and on twitter.  And from then on it kind of developed, Oh there’s so much more to this story.  But basically it developed into me just being involved in Oakland politics, going to public meetings, watching City council meetings and live-tweeting them and in 2014 I developed, I asked my followers; I have over 2,000 followers on twitter.  I asked them, would they be interested in having a Mayoral candidate debate on social media and they were and I organized it with the 14 candidates.  I interviewed them all on twitter for an hour and then they got to answer questions and got feedback and then the second component was having a live debate at city hall that was televised on KTALK.  And I think there were over 200 people in the room for the live debate.

I: [00:00:16:06] This is fantastic.  And this is all out of labor of love, really.

TL: [00:00:16:10] Really, yah.  Because I was nosy and interested and I wanted to know

I: [00:00:16:15]  Those are the right, that’s the right combination.

TL: [00:00:16:15] Yah. But again I’d have to bring it back to developing that confidence and speech.  For speech it was called forensics, forensics art. and I gave… I didn't do debate so much but I did what would be creative monologues.  So I’d have to be able to speak in front of people and I went to competitions and actually won some and it was great and it built up so much confidence to make me think that I could just do anything I wanted to if I put my time and energy into it.  I think that’s so important to instill into a child, even if you don’t, like I grew up poor.  Even though I was in a great school, in a great neighborhood.  We were actually very poor and just being exposed to the possibilities out there was what helped me to think that I could do it too.  You know, so, that’s important. 

I: [00:00:17:14] That’s great.  Thank you

TL: [00:00:17:16] Long answer, sorry.

I: [00:00:17:17] No I asked for it.  (Laughs) How are the arts integrated into schools now? 

Are you aware of that at all?

TL: [00:00:17:28] Well, I’m not aware of what specific schools have art, have drama, have other opportunities or sports available to them.  I know that some schools do within this district and some schools don’t.  I’m aware that some schools don’t have these things because they just don’t have the funding. They also don’t have what other schools do have is like a Parent Teachers Association and that’s actively raising funding for the schools, which I think is what allows these other school to be able to have the different what’s called Elective programs. But I also know that some teachers work very hard to create different learning structures for children like, so, for example they may incorporate a movie, or they may incorporate film or they may incorporate different ways of learning for children and I know it depends on the teacher, it depends on the school and the access to funding that they have available.

I: [00:00:18:31] And how do you think schools, or do schools prepare students for adulthood?

TL: [00:00:18:38] Well, again that’s different. 

I: [00:00:18:41] Yah, we’re stepping out the art piece.

TL:  [00:00:18:43] Yah the art piece.  So I think the purpose of schools is to help you learn, not necessarily learn specific things but to be able to help you learn period.   Which again prepares you for college.  Which, I think college actually kind of prepares you for your vocation but even then that’s at an academic level.  It's really hands on experience that really prepares you on how to do your job per se.    I would have liked, though in my high school had access to personal finance, home economics, and all those kind of things to help you be an adult.  I would have liked a little bit more instruction but I think what I had really prepared me and I don’t think … again I think that something that may be missing from a lot of schools now.  Just the ability to write a check, to start your own bank account, learn how to cook dinner, shop, all these things like, no one told me I should apply for a passport when I was in high school.  And how to do that or how to navigate college.  College on its own is hard academically but to navigate the business of it is difficult and how to manage your time.  You know, that kind of thing.  I mean even if a school doesn't go through that whole day to day schedule, learn your schedule, how to fill out FAFSA forms, how to do all these things.  Just preparing them for the idea that this is whats to come, I think would be great.  It would have helped me out a lot.  Cause I was fortunate enough to be able to go to Berkeley but my education wasn’t straightforward.  I didn't finish in four years.  I actually had a personal incident.  I was hit by a car my sophomore year and then life interrupted that.  I had to deal with one, recovering from the injury, paying for the hospital bills because at the time again I grew up poor, at the time I didn't have health insurance, and unfortunately the person who struck me didn't have insurance either.   So just dealing with that aspect and coming to the conclusion that its not going to be four years for me.  I had to drop out of school.  I have to get another job.  I had to work in order to get back into school and I ended up changing my career.  I was pre-med.

I: [00:00:12:14] oh, interesting.

TL: [00:00:15:15] Yah, here’s another thing I think high schools could do better at is educating students about all the different things they can do in life. So, I thought since I loved science that meant I have to become a doctor and that was it. (Laughs) You know it could be any kind of doctor but that’s all I thought I could do and in my career I actually did three different things that involved health.  So at first I worked in a laboratory; in a research laboratory, (12:47-49)(in the science at the bench??)  I did that for several years.  Then I did public health and that job I already talked to you about and now this.  I’m impacting the health of the community in this job as well. There’s so many different things that people can do with a science degree. That you think, “Oh because you like biology that means your a doctor. If you like math, then maybe you’re an engineer or a math teacher.” But no, there’s so many different things that someone can do with whatever subject.  And I think that would be awesome.

I: [00:00:22:16] And what would that be? Having people visit that represent those?

TL: [00:00:22:22] Yes; having people with different careers come and visit the schools and it doesn't have to be a doctor.  It could be a writer.  It could be someone that works in music, technology, someone who for a radio station, and it can be someone that works in a community garden and does social justice work.  I mean anything.  I didn't know that someone could get paid to taste ice cream.  (Laughs) I would have loved to be able to do that.  You know that kind of thing, 

I: [00:00:22:52] Yes. Yes.

TL: [00:00:22:54] A food taster or something.  You know, anything. You can be anything and don’t feel like you have to be one sort of thing in order to be successful because I think every job is important to the functioning of society.  You just got to do what you love doing.

I: [00:00:23:10] Absolutely.  So, my last question is how do the arts prepare students for a better future? Do you think?

TL:  [00:00:23:18] I think again, the ability to be able to think creatively, to be able to learn just basic academics and the socialization aspect of it.  All of it.  It prepares you for not only college but for life and I think I’ve demonstrated all the different ways that art has helped me personally.

I: [00:00:23:43] Absolutely, Yes.  Well thank you so much Tonya.

TL: [00:00:23:45] Oh, No problem.

I: [00:00: 23:46] This was great.  I got a little life story here.  It’s great because you look like you’re much younger.

TL:  [00:00:23:57] But you know what one thing I didn't share is my love of books and stories.  I think it helped me a lot with how to deal with my own person struggles.  I always used to call books as my addiction of choice.  Because I would turn to a book.  I would turn to a creative story in order to escape my own but also to give me ideas on how to deal with them. And I was watching the Oscars and it was Viola Davis who said something about art helps…film and art helps you understand people’s life and their struggles and all that.  And I think that’s so true.

I: [00:00:23:34] Absolutely.

TL: [00:00:23:34] So children read! Read everything! I used to read cereal boxes.  I used to read anything I could get my hands on but I really love fiction and I still to this day I read fiction books.  I love comic book stories.  I love it all.

I: [00:00:23:49] What’s your favorite that you have been reading in the last couple of months?

TL: [00:00:23:53] Well, the last couple of months I’ve been reading the budget but I’m really into the super hero movies now so I’ve been learning the background of them and so I watched Logan this weekend and after that I spent a lot of time reading Logan comic books so I could understand his story.

I: [00:00:23:13] There you go.  Thank you so much for you time!

TL: [00:00:23:16] No problem.  Thank you for coming.  And along that vein if you guys have some sort of program where we can go and talk to students; I’d be happy to do that.