When our Director of Development Kristy Higares talks about Oakland, something changes. Her tone softens and smile widens, as if she’s talking about a beloved family member whom you just have to meet. For Kristy, the city is a homecoming, an embodied extension of her spirit. She loves the rich and diverse neighborhoods, the abundant cultures and languages, from the redwood hills to the shoreline.
Although she was born in Oakland, Kristy grew up in Manteca (a small agricultural town in the Central Valley). However, her grandparents worked in Oakland, and throughout her childhood, she cultivated a deep relationship to the town. Kristy returned to the Bay Area to attend UC-Berkeley, where she majored in English. After years of working as an educator in Oakland, she transitioned into non-profit arts administration, where she combined her creativity, curiosity, and keen organizational insight.
To call Kristy impressive would be an understatement. In 2010, she was honored with a Jefferson Award—the most prestigious award for public service— for her work at The Crucible, an arts center in West Oakland. In 2016, she was a YBCA Equity Fellow. The following year, she was selected as a fellow through the University of Pennsylvania’s Executive Leadership program.
To call Kristy impressive would be an understatement.
Here at Girls Garage, Kristy manages grants, programming, donor relations, and office humor with operational wizardry. Seriously—she can run through a Byzantine spreadsheet like she’s reciting the alphabet, and with her next breath share a TikTok video of her melodramatic pit-bull. (Walt Whitman’s famous line comes to mind: “Do I contradict myself? Very well. I am large, I contain multitudes.”)
A distinct duality also threads Kristy’s deep love for Oakland. “Oakland is such a complex and beautiful city,” she says. “It’s a city of resistance where protest and organizing is part of the culture. There’s a vitality and vibrancy in our streets. ” She points to the rich history of Black liberation politics and civil rights movements throughout the decades.
Part of the city’s complexity, however, is systemic oppression. The long history of police violence and corruption, gentrification, divestment from public education, and the displacement of Black, brown, and poor residents hits particularly hard. This stark reality is visible and visceral—beneath almost every underpass and freeway is a tented community of unhoused people in a city where the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2300.
Despite despair over the federal and state policies that have shaped injustice in Oakland, Kristy remains defiant and hopeful. “I believe Oakland will always be on the forefront around creative, impactful organizing and resistance,” she says. “We continue to do the work, and that matters.”
The junction of arts and activism in Oakland is palpable, like a thick August heat rising from the pavement. “Oakland is a city of activists, thinkers, rappers, artists, musicians, writers, sculptors, dancers, teachers, photographers,” Kristy says. From the Dia de Los Muertos and Life is Living festivals to the Black Lives Matter murals painted during the protests this summer, the town’s vitality is on full display. Although she’s a writer herself, Kristy draws inspiration from artists like Regina Evans, who creates altars on E. 14th St. decorated with flowers, letters, hand sanitizers, and condoms for young girls and women are who are sex workers or are sex trafficked.
“I believe Oakland will always be on the forefront around creative, impactful organizing and resistance…We continue to do the work, and that matters.”
Kristy finds the same interconnectivity and creative abundance at Girls Garage. In our Protest + Print program, teen girls and gender-expansive youth explore identity, politics, personal and ancestral histories. Participants harness art to amplify their voices and represent themselves on their own terms. As one participant reflected on her experience, “When I showed up for my first Protest and Print class, I wasn’t sure who I was, what I wanted to do, or why I joined. But I was met with open arms and surrounded by girls and instructors who showed me my purpose and gave me a sense of belonging.”
For Kristy, the true power of activist art is generosity. This is art made for the community, often in response to a larger social issue. The glorification of canonized aesthetics (long dominated by white, cis, straight American men) fades away, replaced by a force more impressive and holistic: a commitment to collective healing.
It’s only fitting that the beloved Director of Development at Girls Garage is so fiercely rooted in her communities. Whether she’s admiring the streaked morning sky at the Martin Luther King Jr. shoreline or orchestrating a fundraising campaign for our girls, Kristy demonstrates every day what it looks like to lead with love.