Love Finds a Way in Oakland

In this age of hypersensitivity, the more trivial an issue is, the more controversy surrounds it. This month, Oakland’s City Council voted 5-3 to adopt “Love Life” as the city’s motto. Supporters of the new slogan meant well — and really who can object to an exhortation to love life? But in an age where everything is overcomplicated, the snappy marketing phrase is fraught with potholes and politics. And because it’s Oaktown — racial politics.

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“Love Life” is the brainchild of Donald Lacy, whose daughter LoEshe — the name means “Love Life” in Nigerian — was killed near McClymonds High School in 1997. The 16-year-old died in the sort of senseless random gang-turf shooting that has taken too many young black lives in Oakland. Her father started the LoveLife Foundation to honor his daughter’s memory; he has been pushing the city to adopt “Love Life” as its slogan for years.

“Who’s against love?” chief slogan backer and City Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney mused over the phone.

For me, the drawback is that “Love Life” is too generic; it’s not specific to Oakland. It’s hard to find “a single motto that without context is deeply understood,” Mayor Libby Schaaf noted. Not long ago, Oaklanders proudly adopted the “There” campaign; residents unfurled “There” flags to counter Gertrude Stein’s famous comment about Oakland (“There is no there there.”).

McElhaney doesn’t give a fig about that objection. “Kaiser made the word “thrive” about them,” she countered. Besides, she added, “There are so few opportunities in life to be so generous on so little.”

Schaaf now is committed to implementing the council’s “policy direction,” as is her responsibility. But before the vote, she had sent an email to the City Council that noted “potential red flags” found by Bloomberg Associates, which has been giving Oakland pro bono marketing advice. To start: “The background of how the name was developed actually reinforces the very crime issues” that have given Oakland a bad name. True.

Enter racial politics. Because Schaaf and some motto foes are white, while McElhaney and some other supporters are black, “Love Life” fans suggested that opponents lacked empathy for victims of street violence. McElhaney told me she has not experienced any negativity from whites. Yet when we spoke, I felt a racial divide on another front. I asked her if authorities prosecuted LoEshe Lacy’s killer. McElhaney thought that they had. I checked, and the killer was arrested and prosecuted. “For me and my community, it’s of little solace,” McElhaney responded. “The systems haven’t changed.” (Me, I blame the shooter.)

On the other coast, Rhode Island Gov. Gina M. Raimondo has found out how controversial a new slogan, “Rhode Island: Cooler and Warmer,” can be. Locals want to know what it even means. Critics fault the state’s failure to work with the community to craft a motto and marketing campaign that catches on with the public. Wags have lampooned Raimondo’s choice of a New York design firm over the Rhode Island School of Design and a marketing campaign that included video of Reykjavik, Iceland.

Schaaf also would have preferred a more “robust” review process, but McElhaney hears only applause. I have to agree with Schaaf — Oakland should have a motto with Oakland pride. My idea: “Be there.” As for Rhode Island, I’d borrow from former Oakland mayor and current Gov. Jerry Brown, who famously said: “Small is beautiful.”

Email Debra J. Saunders at [email protected].

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