Oakland activist takes on new career BY SANDRA GONZALES San Jose Mercury News September 23, 2000 At 57, Harry Edwards has been known as many things: noted sociologist, political activist, campus protest leader. Add another label to the mix: bureaucrat. Or, more precisely, director of the Oakland Department of Parks and Recreation. That puts him in charge of neighborhood parks throughout the East Bay's largest city, a $27 million-a-year operation hobbled for years by mismanagement and, most recently, scandal. Whether as a young activist at San Jose State University -- where he led a black student protest that forced cancellation of the opening football game in 1967 -- or as the man who inspired one of the most famous protests in Olympics history, Edwards has savored each role. In his newest endeavor, however, he is not counseling professional athletes, advising major-league teams such as the 49ers or sitting in an ivory tower at the University of California-Berkeley, where he has been a popular sociology professor. The former Black Panther now deals with community issues such as rats that infest inner-city swimming pools. At the same time, he is trying to drum up corporate and non-profit support for community events and facilities. But why tackle such seemingly provincial problems when the worlds of academia and professional sports still beckon? Simply put, Edwards says, his life's work had lost some of its edge: ``I had been staring out the same university window for 30 years. Not that it had become boring, just predictable and routine.'' So when Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown approached Edwards for the $135,000-a-year job, he jumped at the chance. He accepted a two-year contract and took a leave of absence from UC. ``It's not a step down,'' he said. ``Any time you can come in and serve children and citizens of a city, it's a step up to the plate to do what you need to do to justify your time.'' Adds San Francisco 49ers General Manager Bill Walsh, ``I think it's his way of contributing to society. He likes to take on a challenge, and he's needed a challenge for some time.'' There have been naysayers, of course, dubious about Edwards' qualifications to manage such a post. Edwards quickly counters that his duties with the 49ers, working closely with Walsh, and his former consulting job with the Golden State Warriors prepared him for this. ``I didn't care who he was or how controversial he was. I was only interested in one thing -- can he do the job,'' said Oakland City Manager Robert Bobb, who works closely with Edwards. Edwards points out that even before his name was a blip on Brown's radar, he was touting the role that community parks and recreation play in helping reach black youth. He had even mapped out his ideas in a 1998 cover story for the Civil Rights Journal. Yet Edwards' journey fighting for racial equality began years before he took the Oakland post. Born in East St. Louis, Ill., the second of eight children, Edwards escaped severe poverty and moved with his grandmother to Fresno, where he became a state and national junior collegiate discus thrower. He later moved on to San Jose State University, where he got involved in track and basketball. There, he quickly made himself known, forming San Jose State's first black student organization. He subsequently attended Cornell University, where he received his master's and doctoral degrees in sociology. FBI target Caught up in the black power and civil rights movements, he joined the Black Panther Party. He soon became a target of FBI surveillance as he lectured throughout the country. But it was the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City that thrust Edwards into the international spotlight. While still teaching at San Jose State, Edwards -- with the support of black leaders -- formed the Olympic Project for Human Rights. As part of that effort, Edwards urged black athletes to boycott the Olympics. While there was no formal boycott, medal-winning sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos sent shock waves through the sports world when they raised their clenched, gloved fists in a black power salute as the national anthem played. In those days, Edwards preached about an overemphasis of sports on black youth -- to the neglect of academic, personal and cultural growth. Today, while he maintains his position is unchanged, he says the issue has become more basic: survival. ``My generation came up in the 1960s,'' he says. ``We overturned and overthrew, incited rebellion in virtually every institution. At a fundamental level, we now have an obligation to begin the process of rebuilding that which we disrupted, that which has given everyone an opportunity to sort out and sort through. It's time for us 55- and 60-year-olds to step into the fray.'' Sports as a hook Sports, Edwards adds, ``may be the last hook and handle that we have on a whole generation. And it is my responsibility to become involved directly through the trenches.'' Given this attitude, his latest venture -- overseeing more than 300 full-time employees and restoring Oakland's 109 parks, 22 recreation centers, swimming pools, golf courses and community programs -- isn't surprising. In fact, it might prove to be his most challenging undertaking yet, what with allegations of corruption and fraud already waiting for him and his staff to sort out. Among those allegations: that some employees collected paychecks for workers no longer there while others rented out city facilities and stashed the cash. Civil and criminal investigations are under way, and according to Edwards, several employees have resigned or been fired. There are those already critical of Edwards' managerial style. ``I don't have a lot of people telling me Harry Edwards is great and I'm glad he's here,'' said Margaret Cunningham, field representative of Service Employees International Union Local 790, which represents a majority of the department's workers. Cunningham said she believes Edwards has unfairly smeared the department with a broad range of unsubstantiated allegations. ``He's not out there with his employees in a positive way, only out there to check up on them and be censorial,'' she said. ``They are not seeing a strong motivator.'' Edwards pays this criticism no mind. ``It was chaos,'' he said. ``You find $690,000 lying on the floor in bags and boxes, grant money that nobody knows was there, a check showing up for $114,000.'' ``And just when you think you've seen everything, you find out the rats are running the people away from the swimming pools,'' he said of rodents that had infested a West Oakland pool. But Edwards thrives on chaos: ``When I found out how bad it was, I became very excited. I don't mind controversy. I was born in controversy, whether it was at San Jose State or Cornell. I think it's the biggest part of my personality.'' Imposing figure At 6-feet-8, with a shaved head, gray beard and baritone voice, Edward cuts an imposing figure for a parks chief. ``I could walk in a room and say good morning, and people respond as if I've just issued a death threat or a non-negotiable demand,'' Edwards said. Those who've known him over the years insist he hasn't changed. ``If there's anything about Harry that is true, it's that he doesn't seem to have mellowed, grown older or lost his passion for these issues,'' said UC sociologist Troy Duster, who's known him 27 years. Robert Blauner, a retired sociologist, has an entire chapter on Edwards in the latest book he's writing. ``I say Harry is sui generis, which means in general terms he's his own kind,'' Blauner said. Edwards also moonlights as a consultant with the state's Department of Parks and Recreation. He still travels, writes and lectures, though not as much because of his current post. He makes about $7,500 to $10,000 per speaking engagement. In between, he finds time to study and listen to jazz. ``I've always had a whole bunch of things going on because I'm bored very easily,'' said Edwards, who has lived at the same Fremont home for 30 years. His wife, Sandra, is an assistant superintendent at Milpitas Unified School District. He has two daughters and one son. In her autobiography, Maya Angelou described him as an angry man. Asked whether he was still angry, Edwards said, ``You can't live in this country and see as many things as I see and not be angry.'' Eventually, Edwards says, he'll probably return to Berkeley to teach, a profession he loves. One thing's for sure, he said: ``I have no intention of dying in this chair. I'm here to get a job done.'' Contact Sandra Gonzales at email@example.com or (510) 839-5321.
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