A profile of Chief of Staff to the Mayor of Oakland, Ms Shereda Nosakshare, and how she applies empathy in practice.

A Commitment to Service

Shereda Nosakhare is a woman of compassion who is relentlessly committed to helping the people of the City of Oakland. She recalled a story of a woman who was continually calling the Mayor’s office during the middle of the night, complaining about a distressing noise that would keep her awake. Shereda could have swept it aside, focusing on more urgent and public issues. But she could hear the distress in the woman’s voice and was determined to assist her. She tasked city staff to track down the source of the noise – discovering that it was being caused by a large factory that needed to replace an outdated industrial fan. Because of where the woman lived, in the silence of the night the screeching noise from the factory was reaching her home. The fan was fixed and the noise disappeared. The woman was overjoyed that someone had finally listened to her.

From Paediatrician to Public Service

Born in a small town in Louisiana, Shereda moved to California when she was just five years old. Her family in Louisiana insist that she is a “southern girl at heart”, but she admits Oakland is “all she knows” and she “lives, breathes and sleeps’’ it in every way. Shereda’s mother was a nurse and her father a mechanic, and she initially pursued a career in science, her high school passion. She began her undergraduate degree in Portland, Oregon as a biology major, aspiring to become a paediatrician. But she quickly discovered that her high school interest in science wasn’t translating into college.

However, there was one class that she was enjoying much more than the others – political science. Realising that biology was no longer for her, Shereda switched her major and moved to Salzburg, Austria on exchange for a year. When she returned, she spent her senior year interning in the campaign of a female Democratic candidate who was running for office. After graduating, she returned home to California and began interning with the Alameda County Board of Supervisors while also working a day job. Shereda regards her internship experience as invaluable and believes that it is a fantastic way to gain practical skills after graduating, although acknowledged it can be financially challenging.

Her first real taste for the public service came through an opportunity in Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s office. Here, Shereda gained valuable knowledge of constituent services. After a little over a year in the role, she moved to the private sector, conducting social policy research and evaluation on different government education programs all over the country, principally those that formed a part of the No Child Left Behind Act. While she was proud of the work that they were doing, A Profile of Ms Shereda Nosakhare Chief of Staff to the Mayor of Oakland (2017 – Present) “Empathy In Practice” 19 she was frustrated at how little attention the government paid to the reports, often completely ignoring their recommendations. This frustration sparked Shereda’s desire to return to the public service, where she believed she could better influence decision-makers and make a real impact. When multiple of her friends alerted her to the same job opportunity in the office of a recently elected council member, Libby Schaaf, she knew that she had to apply. Her application was successful and she returned to public service with the city of Oakland to work with then Councilmember Libby Schaaf, and continued on with Mayor Schaaf where she has remained ever since. “The rest is history”, she says.

Chief of Staff and Combating Gang Violence

Like many of the professionals the CSA has profiled, Shereda did not grow up with the ambition of becoming a chief of staff. All she knew about the role was from what she had seen and heard of the White House Chief of Staff. The first time she came across someone in the role was while working in Congressman Barbara Lee’s office. Shereda described the Congressman’s Chief of Staff, Julie Nickson, as very “approachable… someone everybody could work with.”

In her current role, Shereda explained that the office’s limited budget and small staff required them to be “innovative” to have the greatest impact. During the COVID-19 pandemic, her team implemented barriers along sidewalks in Oakland neighbourhoods to make it safer for the increased number of families and children playing on the streets.

One of the major policies that she is proud of is the City of Oakland’s Ceasefire Program. The data-driven strategy coordinates with law enforcement, social services and the community to reduce gang and group-related homicides and shootings. Data collected by the city identified that there are only a small number of violent groups in Oakland and a limited number of those are active at one time. An even smaller percentage of the population was at risk of gang violence. By targeting these groups specifically, the program has had a major impact and resulted in significant reductions in violence.

The program utilises group meetings, community outreach and over-the-phone support to provide mentorship for individuals that are caught up in gang-related activities. Shereda explained that these methods are more effective than ostracising members of the community who have often fallen unwittingly into these situations. The city even employs formerly incarcerated members with similar experiences to mentor those going through the program.

COVID-19 has stifled many of the traditional mechanisms used in Ceasefire. The lack of person-to-person support is believed to have been responsible for a recent spike in gang-related violence. In response, the Ceasefire partners are returning to pre-pandemic methods given California’s Shelter in Place changes that can address the challenges imposed by the lack of social connection during the pandemic.

Unrelenting Compassion

Political chiefs of staff are often the public face of the government department they represent. This is an integral part of the role, but it is also one of the most difficult. Shereda often has to face members of the 20 community who feel let down by the system. It is difficult, she says, to not feel personally responsible for the challenges that these people are experiencing. Her philosophy is to “try to treat everyone as if [she] is the one going through it” and to then “figure out who can serve them best and see it through to the end”.

She applies this to any difficulty, great or small, that is being faced by a member of her community. Her commitment to this philosophy is ingrained in her and she has conducted herself accordingly since her first day on the job. In one of her first community town halls, Shereda was confronted by a group of community members frustrated that for years their campaigning for the installation of a stop sign in their neighbourhood had been ignored. While she was only new to the role, she was determined to find the right person who could make it happen. Within a week, the stop sign was up – a small project in comparative terms, but one that had a large impact on alleviating safety concerns for residents in the neighbourhood.

A Planner by Nature

In her personal life, Shereda has to balance her role with her commitments to three young children. The balancing act between the personal and the professional is especially difficult due to the demanding nature of a chief of staff in politics. Shereda says she is fortunate to have such a supportive husband, her “number-one cheerleader,” and is thankful to have a boss that has young children and can empathise with the strains of the role. Working in her hometown of Oakland also means she has access to a strong family network.

Shereda admits that she likes to plan out her life. A year ago she wanted to start holding networking meetings as she enjoys the connectivity that her role requires. The pandemic has put a hold on that for now. The reality for political chiefs of staff, Shereda explains, is that you must be prepared for change and learn to adapt quickly. The role is by design time-limited due to term restrictions. Nevertheless, in whatever she does in the future, she wants to be invested in helping people; pulling together individuals to achieve a common goal. These are skills that she believes are transferable across sectors. At some point she would like to run for office, falling short in her first attempt a few years ago. But in the meantime, she remains open-minded to whatever opportunities present themselves.

Transcribed and Edited by Jeremy Costa, The Chief of Staff Association.