by Minister of Information JR Valrey, Oakland Bureau Chief
Gabriela López was one of three San Francisco School Board directors recalled in 2022 along with Alison Collins and Faauuga Moliga. The people’s agenda that these directors were pushing did not fit in with the right-wing agenda of some San Franciscans, who wanted to keep an illegal and unfair Jim Crow admission policy in place at the coveted Lowell High School. Lowell historically excludes Black people and other underprivileged groups from getting into the school in any significant numbers.
Gabriela López is a champion of people’s rights to an adequate education, with an emphasis on Black, Brown and Pacific Islander students’ rights, and because of this courageous, historic stance, she and her two colleagues were denigrated, belittled and attacked in the mainstream media.
Beyond the media helping to crucify them under false pretenses, which led to the recall’s success, their lives were threatened – thanks to organizations like the Manhattan Institute, founded by the late head of the CIA, William Casey. The Manhattan Institute headed up the organizing of the ‘22 San Francisco School Board recall campaign and mainstream media strategy. In recent years, the organization has been responsible for organizing similar school board recalls and media campaigns all across the nation.
Although we lost this battle, these three school board members were unjustifiably recalled and terrorized because they wanted fair treatment and equitable access to educational resources for Black, Brown and Pacific Islander students in San Francisco. But we have not yet lost the war.
People like Gabriela López, Alison Collins and Faauuga Moliga are still on the battlefield in different capacities around San Francisco, fighting for the rights of all students to an adequate education. Check out this exclusive interview with Gabriela López telling the story in her own words as we mark the one year anniversary of the 2022 San Francisco School Board coup aka recall. Support playwright Ishmael Reed’s off-Broadway production of “The Conductor,” a dramatization of the 2022 recall, here.
JR Valrey: Why were you recalled in February of ‘22? Media reports claim it was because the SF school board was taking up too much time renaming schools. What’s the real reason?
Gabriela López: It was politics over policy. It wasn’t about what we were or weren’t doing – it was about who we were and who we represented. It was about us being intentional around centering who needed to be prioritized versus who historically has been prioritized.
If anyone knows the history of education in America, we know those who have been left behind because of racial policies are continuously negatively impacted in public schools. I believe there were a number of issues we were tackling as a board that didn’t fit what those who opposed these ideas wanted the school board to focus on.
I often found the media was very specific about how they tailored their stories to insight fear, and often hatred, to contribute to the idea that we were “incompetent and incapable,” which is far from reality.
During my time on the board, we discussed and took action on issues, many which were decades long, that addressed racism in schools, inequities across the school district, workers’, students’ and families’ rights to safety in schools and numerous other issues that remained stagnant years prior.
I often found the media was very specific about how they tailored their stories to insight fear, and often hatred, to contribute to the idea that we were “incompetent and incapable,” which is far from reality. Each board member contributed a different level of expertise and brought a certain perspective plus experience that was lacking for many years and also represented groups and communities that hadn’t had the ability to serve on the school board in San Francisco – in some instances, ever.
It wasn’t corruption, it wasn’t illegality or any number of valid reasons to recall an elected official, it was merely board members with extensive backgrounds in education who were committed to serving their communities and finally representing the needs of those who are often left behind – primarily the reason we ran.
It was a group of privileged constituents led by outsiders who didn’t see that as a priority which ultimately resulted in the recall. All of it to take control of yet another commission, another board, that would be fully run by the mayor.
JR Valrey: What is the history of Lowell High School, and why is it so coveted?
Gabriela López: From what I have learned over the years, Lowell High School has a known reputation for being this very elite and privileged institution. For decades, the Black and Brown population at Lowell has been severely lacking, and the few students who had the ability to attend encountered numerous harmful and racist experiences during their time there.
The fact that it is admissions-based created a culture that allowed those with more access to resources to attend while those with the least were left out of many opportunities. It should not be a privilege for students who have more access to go to this specific public high school; the privilege should be for any student to go to any high school of their choosing.
JR Valrey: What is it about a student lottery and democratizing enrollment at Lowell, that the opposition did not like?
Gabriela López: Beginning with the fact that this has been voted out and is known to be an illegal admission process, it is mainly the idea that many who oppose the change will somehow be losing out on opportunities for themselves or people similar to them. It is a scarcity mindset that drives an intensity around admissions to a local public high school that stems across the country and leads to threats, harassment and lawsuits to ensure there is no change to the status quo.
All of it is about political control, about ensuring that the establishment maintains its prominence with those who have means and those who have money.
JR Valrey: Who and which organizations funded the opposition?
Gabriela López: The biggest issue that not many seemed to question was the involvement of literal billionaires, many who were from out of state and had no ties to education, and why they were funding the recall. The real questions should have been how they became involved, why they were so invested in San Francisco schools and why it was far more important to invest more than nine million in funding an election instead of putting it toward a public education system in dire need of resources.
All of it is about political control, about ensuring that the establishment maintains its prominence with those who have means and those who have money. It was about removing all the elected officials who were finally centering people who have not been historically centered and ensuring that money went in to remove them, and were replaced by people who would go with what the top said to do. This is a tactic that is happening to school boards across the country.
JR Valrey: What kind of intimidation tactics were deployed by the opposition during the recall? Did you fear for the safety of yourself and family? Why?
Gabriela López: During my time on the board, I faced numerous threats via email, phone calls, direct messages and even people coming directly to my home. There were various instances when these experiences became more serious, from rape and decapitation threats to videos of our faces being burned.
It is important to note that many of these threats were targeting myself and my colleague, Alison Collins, specifically, as the Black and Brown women on the board, despite many votes being unanimous. I understand differences in policy and hearing each other’s arguments, but unfortunately what the public, the media and many elected officials did was contribute to the fervor around school board discussions that contributed to those who would take it to a more violent level feeling like they can.
Despite all of this, I did not fear for my safety. I was careful, I was diligent, I was prepared and I had support from my community when it came to safety issues that I could not depend on the police nor the school district to provide. I did, however, ensure that my family stayed completely out of it, although there were several occasions when people were contacting or threatening my parents over what I was supporting on the school board. And that was absolutely something I did not tolerate.
I believe it was carefully crafted to continue to pit two communities, both dealing with and trying to heal through their own sets of pain, against one another.
JR Valrey: Was this recall battle a fight between the racist Chinese community and the low income Black and Brown students who wanted to attend Lowell? Can you explain the nuances?
Gabriela López: What I know is, history repeats itself. The issues between both communities, specifically regarding placement in schools in San Francisco is long known, and I believe it was carefully crafted to continue to pit two communities, both dealing with and trying to heal through their own sets of pain, against one another.
JR Valrey: You were recently on a panel at the Black Repertory Theater with former recalled school board member Alison Collins and playwright Ishmael Reed, who wrote a play about the ‘22 SF School Board recall called “The Conductor.” Do you think that his play was true to your experience? And what did you ultimately think about “The Conductor”?
Gabriela López: I think it was the first piece that portrayed the reality of the recall and named who was involved and what their intentions were in a very direct way. Many did not want to have discussions about what the recall entailed, and this play spent time being very honest about this and the consequences of it.
JR Valrey: What did you do after the recall to get your psychology and mind back after such a traumatic experience?
Gabriela López: First, I just want to appreciate the question. It is not often I am asked this and am thankful for the check-in. After the recall and finishing my time on the school board, I took an intentional step back to focus on myself and remind myself why I was doing this work.
I realized that I became incredibly ill while serving, often feeling pains in my body that I hadn’t recognized before and noting the amount of sleepless nights and stress filled days while serving as president of the board. Suddenly, and under unfortunate circumstances, that was all gone.
It gave me time to think about the work I had done, learn from my experience on the board, note what would be important to share with others and get back to loving learning and teaching again. I spent time away from this political space and got back in the classroom. I also spent time in nature and intentionally spent time with my family.
JR Valrey: Will you ever run for political office again? Why or why not?
Gabriela López: When I committed to running for office, it was with the understanding that I would not serve longer than two terms or run more than two times. In that, I did not expect a recall election to happen unless someone said it as a joke, like in the show Parks and Recreation.
Leading a campaign while working full-time and balancing real life issues, while also trying to survive in one of the most expensive cities in the country, is one of the most difficult things a person can do. I am thankful that I had a team of people who became family who supported me throughout that work, but I am also very aware that this part of my life leant me more learning, experience, understanding and personal growth than I could ask for.
This has helped me be ready to build on the next thing I focus on, which is my schooling and Ph.D. journey. I believe this has and will continue to contribute immensely to others who are interested in this work, but I do not plan to run for any office again.
JR Valrey: How could people keep up with you online?
Gabriela López: I am active on social media via Twitter, Instagram, Medium and Facebook @Lopez4schools. You can also visit gabrielalopez.org to keep up with the latest!
JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of Black New World Media, heads the SF Bay View’s Oakland Bureau and is founder of his latest project, the Ministry of Information Podcast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Instagram.