Mills Alums Make Their Mark on Oakland

Oakland, CA—October 16, 2019

Whether fighting for social justice or creating space to foster curiosity and free expression, these Mills alums are stewarding Oakland to new heights and looking to help the Town’s next generation of leaders find their voice.

Rich in cultural diversity, home to a dynamic arts scene, and boasting a long history of deep civic engagement, Oakland—or the Town, as it is known by locals—has been the backyard of the Mills campus for over a century. Its neighborhoods, networks, and people are woven into the fabric of the Mills experience, as many students and graduates can vouch. For many at Mills, this vibrant city serves as a formative political, creative, and professional incubator.

This connection to the Town continues well beyond the graduation stage. Many Millsies, in fact, stand at the helm of Oakland’s future, putting their passion for the community and their leadership skills to work steering the city to new heights. 

“Oakland is a city of grit with a cosmopolitan upside full of culture, creativity, and charm,” says one such alum, Kymberly Miller ’92, who in August was named executive director of Children’s Fairyland—an amusement park and beloved family destination that has sparked the imaginations of Bay Area children since 1950. 

Kymberly Miller sits for a professional portrait with the whimsical landscape of Children’s Fairyland in the background.

Kymberly Miller ’92, seen here at Children’s Fairyland, serves as executive director for the iconic Oakland theme park.

In her executive role at this iconic storybook-themed park and Lake Merritt landmark, Miller is at the vanguard of a space dear to many Oaklanders’ hearts. For decades, Fairyland has been dedicated to advancing the literacy, creativity, curiosity, and well-being of some of the Town’s youngest residents—a perfect fit for Miller, who previously held leadership positions at the Girl Scouts of Northern California. There her work centered around creating space to cultivate confident and inquisitive young people—a critical step in developing the next generation of thinkers and leaders, particularly for young girls, who may not readily envision themselves in these roles.

“There are so few environments where girls have a space where they can build confidence in who they are, deepen their values, and build their networks—but it remains incredibly important to do so,” says Miller, who aims to foster just such a space at Fairyland; “Those environments produce amazing people who can navigate the complicated world in which we live.”

No stranger to building social support networks or navigating the world’s challenges, fellow Mills alum and 2017 Commencement speaker Lateefah Simon ’18 held her first major leadership role at the helm of the Young Women’s Freedom Center in San Francisco. There her work centered around engaging, organizing, and empowering young women of color.

Dressed in graduation regalia, Lateefah Simon stands at a podium delivering remarks to the graduating class of 2017 during the 129th Commencement ceremony at Mills College.

Lateefah Simon ’18, pictured above addressing Mills graduates at the 2017 Commencement ceremony, is a nationally recognized activist and president of Oakland’s Akonadi Foundation.

Today Simon—a nationally recognized advocate for civil rights who has worked alongside Senator Kamala Harris—is president of the Akonadi Foundation, which seeds money to key social-cause oriented nonprofits supporting the Town’s most disenfranchised citizens. Located in downtown Oakland just a stone’s throw from city hall, the goal of the Akonadi Foundation is to challenge and dismantle structural racism and build leadership in communities of color.

“Oakland is a center of struggle, pride, love, and a cradle of powerful social movements,” notes Simon, who received her Mills degree in public policy and takes inspiration from the Town’s storied political history: “There’s a historical narrative and legacy here around race and culture and the interconnectedness of people of color coming together to defeat racist policies.”

How to confront social inequities is a common lecture topic for Simon, who continues to visit campus where she leads conversations with students around racial and gender justice, Oakland’s civic history, and political organizing. In fact, Simon first discovered Mills as a visiting lecturer and enrolled after the administration encouraged her to become a student. Before this, Simon had never considered that college would be in her future, though the skills she learned during her time at Mills would prove invaluable.

“At Mills, you learn to work until the job is done,” says Simon; “The administration at Mills has always believed in me, even sometimes more than I believed in myself.”

Mentorship and the conviction of others in her talent was also a boon for fellow Mills alum, Brenda Luckin MFA ’82, MA ’02, who from a young age was encouraged to explore her artistic vision—a gift she now endeavors to pay forward as co-curator of the newly launched MAC Fine Arts Gallery in East Oakland.

An industrial two-story brick building with a sign that reads “West Coast Macaroni” stands against a blue sky.

Co-curated by Brenda Luckin MFA ’82, MA ’02, the MAC Fine Arts Gallery is housed in the West Coast Macaroni Factory, a 1930s-era building that has since 1969 operated as one of the oldest artist live-work buildings in the United States.

“Three amazing high school art teachers saw something in me and allowed me to create and invent my own techniques,” recalls Luckin, who has built a career as an arts educator and curriculum designer for public schools. The invitation to create without restraint was part of the campus culture at Mills that most appealed to Luckin during her time both as an MFA student in studio art and as an MA student in education.

Now Luckin is bringing her passion for unleashing others’ artistic expression by partnering with co-curator Daniel Peters to create a professional gallery for the exhibition of some of the Bay Area’s most accomplished and up-and-coming talent—including works from high school seniors. The gallery, which celebrated its opening ceremony this past August, is housed in the West Coast Macaroni Factory building, one of the oldest artist live-work buildings in the United States, and sits about a dozen blocks west of the Mills campus. 

“My single goal is to enable children to make art that means something to them and not to a rubric,” says Luckin, whose appreciation for drawing outside the lines was buoyed by her stints at Mills both within and outside of the art department.

“The two times I attended Mills there was an abundance of visiting and guest lecturers and speakers that really opened up many new ways of thinking in their area of study,” says Luckin. 

Meanwhile Miller, who now holds the reins behind Fairyland, chalks up her executive bonafides to her time in college and to her chops as a student activist.

“I was part of the strike of 1990 and a member of the Black Women’s Collective, working to build equity in the Mills community,” says Miller,  who majored in Political, Legal, and Economic Analysis (the equivalent of today’s Politics, Economics, Policy & Law degree). “Those experiences and more helped me build the skills I needed to become the woman and contributor that I am—I cannot say enough about how Mills fostered my leadership and desire to contribute.” 

“My time as a student at Mills was transformative,” echoes Simon, Akonadi president and activist; “I learned how to be in any room and sit at the head—and lead.”

Still active in the Mills community, Simon is hopeful that the next generation of Millsies will be equally adept at rising to the challenge of directing Oakland’s future for still more decades to come; “I am passionate about the work that I do, and I do believe that Mills students are preparing to lead the way in our city.”

About Mills College

Located in Oakland, California, in the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area, Mills College is a nationally renowned independent liberal arts college for women and gender non-binary students, with graduate programs for all genders. Ranked one of the top-tier regional universities in the West by U.S. News & World Report, Mills is also recognized as one of the Best 384 Colleges in the nation by The Princeton Review. Since 1852, we’ve been empowering students to become creative, independent thinkers and leaders who take and inspire action. Take a virtual tour.