(B.A., '92) faces constant scrutiny as general manager of the
San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. Heading an agency with
a $100 million budget, he's accountable to the mayor, the Board of Supervisors
-- and to more than 800,000 residents who enjoy the city's public spaces,
from the swing sets atop Pacific Heights' Alta Plaza to basketball courts
in Bayview. His photo appears two or sometimes three times each week
in the San Francisco Chronicle's "Chronicle Watch,"
where readers point out public eyesores that need fixing -- and the
paper provides phone numbers for the government employee responsible.
"If you can't take criticism, you can't do this job," Agunbiade
says with unflappable cheerfulness. But this afternoon, in his wood-paneled
office overlooking Golden Gate Park, things are going as well as can
be hoped. He's spent the morning in meetings with some of the 1,100
employees under his charge, hammering out how the department could be
run more efficiently. And tomorrow morning, he'll see the results of
long meetings from more than a year ago: the opening of Garfield Square,
a Mission District soccer field refurbished with an enterprising partnership
of city and private funds.
"To see kids show up at Garfield tomorrow, and they've been playing
in a dust bowl for years and now they have a field, that's awesome,"
Agunbiade says. "And that's what my job is about -- delivering
things that bring smiles to families in San Francisco as much as I can."
Agunbiade's sense of public duty is matched by an appreciation of the
relative luxuries San Franciscans enjoy. Growing up in Nigeria as the
son of a diplomat, Agunbiade remembers walking to the river to bring
back buckets of water. It was watching his uncles help design a new
Nigerian railway system that made him realize he wanted to work in the
civil service, as an engineer.
Agunbiade's father was transferred to San Francisco when Agunbiade was
15. But when his father was relocated back to Nigeria just two years
later, Agunbiade knew he wanted to stay in San Francisco -- and he chose
San Francisco State as his anchor.
"It was absolutely the right decision," he says of his entry
into the Engineering Department. "It kept me connected to the city,
and my community and friends, and my future wife [Mimi Lee (B.S.,
'92), with whom he has three children]. And I loved SF State because
it was hands-on, and I had access to my professors and learned so much
in that department, which was really a small-school setting."
He also credits the University with putting him on a fast track to his
public service career. At the start of his senior year, he attended
a school-organized panel in which two engineering alumni stressed the
importance of getting city internships. Agunbiade got the message, and
landed a traineeship with the Department of Public Works. After a year
of wading through sewers on inspector's rounds, Agunbiade was hired
as an engineer directly upon his college graduation. One of his first
projects was to help design the Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant,
built largely underground near Ocean Beach.
He went on to oversee a new cutting-edge telecommunications system at
City Hall as part of a $300 million earthquake restoration. From there,
a steady chain of promotions by mayors Willie Brown (B.A., '55)
and Gavin Newsom moved him from engineering to management.
"In San Francisco people care about parks almost above all else,"
Mayor Newsom says. "Yomi is tasked with bringing various communities
together and working out a multitude of quality-of-life issues that
impact all of us daily. Whether it's Coit Tower, the Palace of Fine
Arts or a local neighborhood playground, Yomi has listened closely to
what people need and what their expectations are, and endeavored to
create usable, safe and beautiful public spaces."
Agunbiade, who became acting Park and Rec general manager in 2004 before
winning the permanent position in 2005, says SF State prepared him for
that role. "In the engineering program we were constantly being
presented with real-world problems," he says. "That's what
I continue to lean on. How do we maintain 100,000 trees in San Francisco
without enough staff? You look at all the variables. It's not so easy
when you're talking about rec programming or maintenance of lawn --
the answers are more nuanced. But the training at State prepared me
to work through it."
Agunbiade's former professors are not surprised by his rise. "He
was always a serious student; none of this floundering around,"
says V.V. Krishnan, professor of engineering. "Although it did
surprise me that he does so well in the public eye, because he's not
the flamboyant type."
Agunbiade's former SF State housemate Jim Wang (B.S., '92),
now an administrator in construction management for the San Francisco
Public Utilities Commission, says he knew even as a fellow undergraduate
that Agunbiade could thrive in such a high-pressure job. "In his
own way, he's outspoken,
and he's not afraid of taking criticism," Wang says. "Even
in school he was smart, hardworking and dedicated to the community."
Today, Agunbiade has his work cut out for him. He currently has 29 projects,
from park cleanups to new construction, under his watch. He is working
with the mayor's Rec Connect Initiative to improve recreational programming
by moving it to a school-calendar schedule and offering more adult classes.
And he's making frequent field trips to Golden Gate Park's Alvord Lake,
which has recently drawn much community concern due to vagrants. As
usual, Agunbiade's strategy is to build connections with other city
departments to address the whole issue. "Going through and seeing
what the families who use the parks see has led to outreach," Agunbiade
says. "We want to get these homeless a dry bed. That leads to a
cleaner park, but also addresses everyone's needs."
The necessity of being "on the ground" keeps Agunbiade busy.
"I spend a lot of time going to sites, because what we do here
is find solutions," he says. "And unless the solutions address
the reality in the field, the staff won't buy into it."
He says SF State's practical atmosphere made the school the best fit
he can imagine. "I find that a lot of my fellow alumni are more
real-world based," he says. "I really wanted to get out of
school and start working and making a difference, and SF State let me