Forget being invited into the house. Carroll Fife wants to burn the house down.
Just a little over a year ago, Fife organized the takeover of a vacant house alongside homeless and housing-insecure mothers and their kids in Oakland’s District 3. The occupation lasted eight weeks – until January – before Marin County sheriffs executed a forcible eviction raid.
Now, the 44-year-old housing activist is taking the fight to City Hall. In November, she defeated two-term City Council Incumbent Lynette Gibson McElhaney after fellow community organizers called on Fife to run for office. Opponents never saw Fife – or her victory – coming.
One of the co-founders of Moms 4 Housing, Fife dedicated decades of her life to public service as a community organizer. Shortly after finishing high school in Michigan, Fife moved to California. Not long after, she settled with young Black organizers in Pasadena. They held study groups and read radical Black literature that focused on Black history and how to turn racist social orders on their heads.
In 1999, Fife moved to Oakland and became an active community organizer. After earning her degree in psychology, she worked briefly as a paralegal. Then she joined the community-based activist organization Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE).
Afterwards, it didn’t take long for Fife to realize that housing was one of the central issues for Oakland’s Black community, which had shrunk significantly after costs skyrocketed. She launched the Black Housing Union at ACCE. Ever since, she’s been on the ground fighting tirelessly to protect the human right to housing.
Fife currently serves as the secretary for the chair of the Black Panther Party Cubs, a grassroots activist group focusing heavily on the idea that Black people must rely on one another to build infrastructures that truly serve them. This is known as self-determination. Taking up the mantle, Fife vows to transform the system as a city councilmember. To start, she wants to divest over 150 million dollars from police funds and direct them instead towards community programs, violence prevention, and affordable housing.
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How do you define your work?
For me, work is the alignment of purpose, skill and passion with service and commitment.
What population does your work serve?
I serve people who have been adversely impacted by systems that do not affirm life.
How do you do your work differently than others in your field?
I challenge myself to address the elephants – the things in the room that are intimidating. I also don’t tend to accept things the way they are. I strive to create what is just and equitable, which is often in stark contrast to what actually is.
How did you create an audience or community?
I didn’t create an audience or community. I serve where I am and address the issues that I’ve been through. These issues happen to be the same things a lot of people have been through or are currently experiencing. So I am part of an existing community.
How did the pandemic or protests change or shift your life?
The pandemic intensified the necessity for organizing, outreach, collective work and the need for systems of care in our neighborhoods. The protests also highlighted the issues I’ve been working on for years. In essence, they were the in-your-face evidence or “I’ve been trying to tell you” moments that helped make it change a reality and impossible for most naysayers and obstructionists to ignore.
How did you find strength in some of the darkest hours this year?
Meditation, family and faith. And ice cream.
Who or what gave you the courage to continue on?
Well, it’s definitely hard most of the time! Hours fly by, the work never ends and there are infinite expectations and judgment, but the conditions must change. And we need as many people contributing to that change as possible. Some days, sheer stubbornness and determination keeps me going. Not to mention the well-resourced and persistent opposition.
However, something much bigger provides me with the fuel to continue in spite of my own personal disappointments. That bigger something is love. I have an immense and fierce love for people – especially those who’ve been hurt. Lao Tzu and Mufasa both attribute the capacity to be courageous with abiding love, and who are we to question those two?
Which of your accomplishments gives you joy?
I don’t necessarily find joy in accomplishments. I find joy in trying to get the process right. My biggest opposition is internal: my fears, doubts, self-judgment, lack of capacity, etc. When I do the microcosmic work to overcome those things, I notice the outcomes in the macrocosm. That makes me stronger and more able to shoulder things I wouldn’t have been able to carry – all while being flawed at the same time. It’s a beautifully challenging and joy-filled process.
What is a philosophy or idea that keeps you grounded?
In a word: gratitude. Gratitude helps me handle good AND bad times. Hardship has taught me how metamorphic gratitude can be. I remember a quote from author Melody Beattie. She said, “Gratitude turns… turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity…it makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
I am grounded in the knowledge that I am standing on the shoulders of giants who have come before me and shifted the world. There are so many blueprints left to learn from. It’s humbling. Knowing that I am a piece of a much larger something keeps me engaged. It’s my obligation to give, too, because I’ve been given to, lol. I want my life to mean something. I try to pay it forward for those who’ve paved the way for me to be.
2021 and forward: what is your great imagining or construction of what the world must look like and be?
My great imagining for the future is one where people are loved and cared for, no matter what.
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