Dear Arianna, Help Save Our City from Uber

Uber is coming to my hometown of Oakland. Will the change this ride-hailing giant brings be good for our town, or a disaster?

As Uber prepares to take over a former Sears department store in the heart of downtown next year, Oaklanders have reason to worry. But Uber could also set a positive example that tech companies nationwide might emulate – if it chooses to.

Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington sits on Uber’s board. As a longtime advocate for social justice, I’m appealing to her to use her influence with the company to uphold the values she has long espoused.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, a technology-driven economy has squeezed workers and disrupted affordable living conditions, even while the overall economy flourishes. The galloping gentrification and displacement crisis that started in San Francisco and Silicon Valley has crossed the bay big-time, and seems to have accelerated since Uber announced its Oakland plans nearly a year ago.

Gentrification doesn’t just impact families. Nonprofit community groups also find themselves squeezed by soaring rents, endangering their ability to remain in Oakland. This, too, seems to be part of the “Uber effect.”

Oakland community leaders are alarmed enough that we recently published an open letter to UBER CEO Travis Kalanick in the Oakland Post, a community newspaper rooted in Oakland’s African American community. The letter points out that Uber should have at least some understanding of equity and diversity issues, considering that – in addition to Huffington ―  David Plouffe, former senior adviser to President Obama, sits on its board of directors and Obama’s former Attorney General Eric Holder gives the company legal advice.

Our letter to Mr. Kalanick spells out the problem:

The benefits of this technological surge have been very uneven and have led to the biggest wealth gap we have ever seen. Your unwillingness to release your diversity data worries us about your commitment to Oakland’s diverse residents, especially since your advisers have a history seeking diversity through openness and transparency.

The evidence is clear that a tech driven economy is accompanied by some serious challenges, including the displacement of the working poor. That said, we reject the idea that we are powerless to shape the impacts of technology on diverse cities, especially given Oakland’s history of fighting back against policies and actions to disrupt and displace our neighborhoods.

Thus far, Uber’s response to community worries has consisted of feel-good generalizations and reminders that the company will create jobs in Oakland. While that last statement is surely true, it leaves open the question of who will get those jobs and how they will impact communities that already feel under economic siege.

Uber can do better. That’s why we want Mr. Kalanick and his team to meet with us and work out a solid plan to make sure that this famously “disruptive” company brings real benefits to our neighborhoods, rather than forcing families, small businesses and nonprofits out of town. We’d like to see Uber and community leaders work out a set of basic agreements in the areas of jobs, education, infrastructure, entrepreneurship, housing, community engagement and research – agreements that will ensure that Oakland’s working families and small businesses get a fair share of the tech boom that’s turning the local economy upside-down.

Disrupting petrified business models that no longer serve their original purpose may be a good thing. Disrupting the very survival of working families is not.

Uber, are you listening?

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