San Francisco’s New Port Director Elaine Forbes Hits the Ground Running with Visionary Plans to Address Everything from Historic Pier Restoration to Social Justice Concerns
Elaine Forbes was appointed by Mayor Ed Lee as Executive Director of the Port of San Francisco in October 2016, with the recommendation of the Port Commission. She is now one of just eight women port directors in the entire country. Forbes, who previously held executive management and leadership positions at both the San Francisco Planning Department and the San Francisco International Airport, is also openly LGBT. She resides in the Castro with her partner of 16 years, Angela Calvillo, and their two dogs.
Forbes recently took time out of her busy schedule to speak with the San Francisco Bay Times about leadership, her vision for the Port, the challenges that lie ahead, and much more.
San Francisco Bay Times: You were recently appointed Executive Director of the Port of San Francisco. Tell us about yourself and how your personal background will help you to be a good leader?
Elaine Forbes: I want to thank the entire Port Commission for their recommendation and I want to thank Mayor Lee for appointing me. Mayor Lee has made it abundantly clear he is cheering for a successful Port.
I want to thank my staff for outperforming in their roles to help me succeed as a leader and thank you to outgoing Executive Director Monique Moyer who was a stellar mentor to me, and who saw in me the ability to lead before I recognized it.
I also want to thank my co-conspirator in life and in love, Angela Calvillo. She has encouraged me with courage, humor and kindness. I know with her by my side, I will lead with confidence.
I was born in San Francisco at Children’s Hospital and I have a long family history in the City. In fact, my great grandfather was a longshoreman and worked at the Port. My parents were high school sweethearts, but the romance ended when I was three. My young mom raised me. She worked very hard to make sure I had opportunities in life. As one example, her waitressing job somehow supported tuition at the San Francisco Girls Chorus. I experienced much of San Francisco in the 1970s as a young child—we lived in a commune in the Haight Ashbury, attended civil right rallies and concerts, and had an expansive definition of family and community. I also had early experiences in “managing up” so the adults would focus on meal preparation, instead of records, and conversation.
I had a third-grade assignment: “What do you want to be when you grow-up and why?” My report was simple: a person with her own apartment because privacy is important. My mom achieved my long-sought apartment of our own when I was in the fourth grade in the Canal area of San Rafael. I can proudly say that I achieved getting my own apartment and much more. I credit my mom. She showed me the value of working hard, of integrity, and she had an easy laugh and understood that life should be fun. While she died when I was only 19, and she was a young 37, I luckily carry a lot of her with me. I am the successful product of public education and public programs aimed at supporting working families. I attended Skyline Community College, Mills College, and then earned a graduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Today, I live with my partner of 16 years, Angela Calvillo, and our two dogs in the Castro neighborhood. Prior to my employment at the Port of San Francisco, I held executive management and leadership positions at both the Planning Department and the San Francisco International Airport. I’ve worked for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the Budget Analyst’s Office providing fiscal and policy analysis. I’ve worked as a redevelopment agency planner for the City of Oakland and worked for several non-profit land use policy and economic development organizations including the Urban Strategies Council and the California Budget Project.
My personal and work experience has allowed me to work well with diverse communities, to practice hard work, and lead with a purpose of collaboration, integrity, results and excellent service to the public. I’m proud to be one of eight women port directors in the United States during a time when women and minorities in our nation have experienced a setback. I hope my appointment inspires other women, and the LGBTQ community, to not lose hope and to not give up.
San Francisco Bay Times: What is your and your colleagues’ vision for the Port in 2017 and beyond?
Elaine Forbes: The Port is essential to the identity of San Francisco, and provides for unique and vibrant experiences that bring the public back again and again. The Port is also a place of work and supports over 500 tenants, many maritime and small businesses, and their employees. We must protect this valuable public resource. During this divisive time for our nation, all of us at the Port will make sure our San Francisco values of inclusiveness, diversity, collaboration, integrity, service to the public, and compassion for one another remain our priority. To value and foster diversity and respect for everyone is essential. This value will continue to guide Port staff in all of our interactions and will be the underpinning of our success.
I started my career in social justice and I will not relent on this vision. In 2017, the Port will focus on connecting our working-class families and communities of color to every project and activity. We will do this with more outreach and engagement, through contracting, and through workforce development partnerships. The Port will continue to support our maritime businesses like ship repair and cargo at Pier 80 and 96 because growth in this business line means good paying skilled jobs.
We will continue to do more to connect our diverse communities with the jobs and opportunities they deserve. Port staff and I are already creating a work plan to ensure a vibrant Southern Waterfront that supports surrounding neighborhood residents with jobs, more open space, and a thriving maritime-industrial center that works. We owe it to the Bayview community to invest more in our Southern Waterfront.
And as we create even more parks and open space, we will also preserve the space we have. With global forces acting on the ecology and economy of our planet and with the dismissive rhetoric taking place nationally, it is imperative that the Port advance climate protection and strive to be truly sustainable.
Water transportation will be in one of the many areas that we can ensure our environmental agenda is advanced. In fact, studies are underway to implement a hydrogen fueling station for ferry and vehicle use. And, I will prioritize the development of new and improved ferry landings, which will benefit the environment and help move our growing City around the region.
San Francisco Bay Times: What do you see as the Port’s largest challenges, and how do you plan to tackle them?
Elaine Forbes: Make no mistake—the Port is facing big challenges—challenges bigger than our Port enterprise can tackle alone. We need our partners. We are in the process of updating the Port’s Waterfront Land Use Plan with a public working group. This 20-year-old plan needs updating to address the financial realities of waterfront projects, and to provide a framework to respond to sea level rise and seismic threats. Staff and I will initiate tough conversations with the public, regulators, City staff, and the Port Commission about trade-offs, and in doing so we will value openness of thought, and the ability to disagree in constructive ways and find solutions to move the Port forward for future generations.
We are already in the project planning phase for one of our biggest challenges, which is to rebuild our over 3-mile Seawall. The Seawall extends beneath our Embarcadero Promenade that welcomes millions of people each year, provides flood protection to portions of the downtown, supports historic buildings, diverse small business and is a critical emergency response and recovery area for the entire City. The Seawall has done its job for 100 years, and it is our time to invest in this critical infrastructure to keep our residents and visitors safe. We must rebuild this infrastructure to address seismic vulnerabilities, protect portions of our City from flooding, and prepare for sea level rise.
I’m already working with my staff to implement innovative and creative financing mechanisms to address the Ports $1 billion capital backlog challenge and to ensure we restore our treasured historic piers. Addressing the backlog will ensure our future generations will also have a world-class waterfront.
We cannot accomplish these challenges alone. Public-private partnerships have and will continue to transform this waterfront for the future. Therefore, we work tirelessly in support of proposals at SWL 337 and Pier 70 that will create vibrant new neighborhoods with ample affordable housing, and will provide the Port with needed new revenue streams.
San Francisco Bay Times: We know you work closely with Leslie Katz, who is a Port Commissioner and LGBTQ community member. How will you work together to advance the LGBTQ community?
Elaine Forbes: Last year, Leslie and I welcomed the first Olivia cruise ship to Pier 35 for a port of call. This was a milestone for the Port enterprise and for Leslie and me, and we look forward to having more opportunities to celebrate our community this year and beyond.
Leslie also led the creation of an LGBTQ Affinity group for the California Association of Port Authorities. This group helps improve working conditions for LGBTQ staff in ports across California. I look forward to working with her and Ports across the State to ensure our organizations support and celebrate LGBTQ employees and embrace diversity more broadly. Finally, Port enterprise actively outreaches to the Golden Gate Business Association and the LGBTQ community for all our contracts that totaled $44.1 million dollars last fiscal year.
Commissioner Katz is a great mentor to me; I look forward to working with her more to make sure our LGBTQ community is represented in Port activities to realize our core value to celebrate diversity.
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