Image by (Leticia Luna/The Citizen)

April 29, 2021

By Misha Berman, Staff Writer

On April 23, former Peralta Community College District Area 6 Trustee Karen Weinstein organized and hosted a Zoom event titled “From Community College To Elected Office” that featured five panelists who were once community college students are now elected officials. 

During their individual talks, the panelists showed attendees that anyone can aspire to be an elected official regardless of their background and despite any discouraging obstacles they encounter in life. 

The group consisted of Community Leader Adena Ishii, Hayward City Councilmember and Mayor Pro Tempore Aisha Wahab, State Assembly Members Ash Kalra and Robert Rivas, and Oakland City Councilmember Sheng Thao. The local and state leaders discussed their diverse backgrounds and how their journeys towards leadership began as community college students.

“I enrolled at the community college here at Merritt College. here in the city of Oakland,” Thao said. “And I decided, ‘You know what, I’ll do paralegal, I’ll get a parent legal certificate and do paralegal work and then that’ll get me into the workforce quickly,’ or what have you.” 

Thao talked about how she was a single mom when she was attending Merritt and how she brought her child with her while taking the final because he was sick and could not go to daycare.

While attending community college, Thao learned how to navigate the demands of higher education, as well as the benefits of working with teachers and counselors to find outside-the-box solutions. “My son was able to come with me to take my final exam. I wasn’t allotted extra time, which is what I was asking for, but they did give me a separate room with my son so that I could take the test. And I think that that was really, really helpful,” Thao explained.

The panelists also spoke about the individual adversities they have faced in their lives, and how they work at overcoming them.

“I grew up in foster care, I was born in New York City. My parents were refugees escaping Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion,” said Wahab.

“From the rest of the panelists, I think we all learned that, for the most part, none of us know exactly the direction we’re going, right. And I think that perseverance is a big piece of it,” Wahab said in reference to personal progress. 

Ishii, who attended Berkeley City College before transferring to UC Berkeley. said said that it was her dream was to attend the university. She recalled an encounter with a counselor who discouraged her from applying. “I kind of just ignored that, and moved myself up.” She went on to graduate from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

At the age of 10 she had to start working, then landing at community college after high school. Ishii eventually became the first Japanese American woman to serve as President of the League of Women Voters in Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville. During the panel, she also spoke about her father’s battle with early Alzheimer’s disease. 

During the Q and A section of the event, a student spoke about how she has a learning disability and asked the panelists how they are able to manage all of the responsibilities of being an elected official as someone with a learning disability.

Thao, who has struggled with ADHD and is disabled in her right hand, emphasized the importance of utilizing resources that are available to accommodate one’s specific difficulties.  

“You have to reach out for those resources. Disability doesn’t mean that you’re inadequate, not at all. It’s just, you have to seek out these resources and be proud of it,” Thao said.

*A previous version had erroneously listed UUAW Berkeley (per the event’s flyer) as the presenters of the event.