by C. J. Hirschfield
Quick—describe what you think the President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco would be like. If you answered a former high school dropout, an enthusiastic texter, someone with a flair for dressing hip, a lesbian podcaster, and a neighbor of the Grand Lake Theater, you’d be right.
She has been called “the millennial president,” and Mary Daly says she has the coolest job ever. With over 1,800 employees, her 12th district includes nine western states, as well as the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and Guam. The district is the nation’s largest by area and population, covering
1.3 million square miles and 60 million people—the largest and most diverse district within the Federal Reserve system.
On Daly’s first day on the job, she had a sign installed right as you walk through the front door of the agency’s building in San Francisco. It reads, “Our work touches every American and countless global citizens.” The entire wall around the sign changed as well. Where there used to be flags from all nine states, there are now photos of people representing every region. Her clear message? “We’re here for them, and we’re in dialog with the people we serve,” she says.
While the job of the Fed may sound dry—as the central bank of the U.S., it decides on and implements monetary policy to manage inflation, maximize employment, and stabilize interest rates; supervises the nation’s largest banks and provides financial services to the U.S. government while promoting the stability of the financial system—Daly breaks it down in a way that makes it personal.
“It’s about everyone getting a job, having the cash they need, feeling successful, and having mobility,” she says.
Mobility was critical to Daly’s own trajectory to success. She dropped out of high school in Missouri, lived on her own at age 16, and worked in a doughnut shop and a Target store to get by. She went back to earn her GED, followed by a B.A., Master’s, PhD and a post-doctoral fellowship. Her background is in the study of economic equality, and she wants to make it clear that her success story should not be an exception, but the rule.
She has studied economic wage gaps—gaps between whites and Blacks, men and women—and says that mobility can be hampered by your zip code. The path forward, she believes, should be about “escape velocity,” and not luck.
In physics, escape velocity is “the minimum speed needed for a free, non-propelled object to escape from the gravitational influence of a massive body, that is, to eventually reach an infinite distance from it.” Daly has said that she was able to find a mentor to help lift herself up and out, and she wants everyone to have an opportunity for success.
Daly describes the two tiers of the pandemic: one tier includes tech workers and others who can successfully work at home and are relatively immune to financial shock; the second tier has had to deal with layoffs, loss of healthcare, and economic dislocation. “The important thing is that we can’t leave these people behind,” she says. “We can’t treat essential workers as disposable once the pandemic passes.” She argues that escape velocity is not just a social issue; it’s an economic issue as well. “You can’t sideline whole groups—if you do, our country will grow less quickly, and we won’t be able to compete globally,” she says.
Inspired by both her studies and her passion, Daly has created a podcast from the Federal Reserve Bank called Zip Code Economies. She has described the series
as “the most rewarding project of my career.” The project’s stated goal is to uncover stories of success and hope in unlikely places.
Focusing on the community level, and told in the words of those who live there, the podcast explores how individuals and institutions are successfully connecting, even in our deeply divided country. Previous stories have included San Diego’s cross-border community, how Salt Lake City’s religious community is being transformed by the influx of newcomers of color, and how the Central Valley’s agricultural town of Firebaugh has committed itself to ensuring that more than 97% of its young people—many of them English language learners—graduate high school.
The ground-breaking Daly considers Janet Yellen, the current U.S. Treasury Secretary and first woman to serve in that role, as both a mentor and friend, and they stay in touch. Describing her as “wicked smart and fully human,” she says that they discuss everything from the current economic situation to their favorite things to cook.
In fact, Daly admits she prefers gathering to cooking, and that her wife Shelly is actually the cook in the family. They’ve lived near the Grand Lake Theater since 1996, and she says that it felt like home “the moment we got here.” What they like about the neighborhood? The Grand Lake Theater, the farmers market, the food, the drumming and the dance, just to name a few things. She also cites the diversity and the community-oriented feeling as being important to her.
She recalls walking Lake Merritt one evening and spontaneously joining a George Floyd bicycle parade “with every kind of person—and tricycles. I was overwhelmed with community, and that provides the foundation of my hope,” says the self-proclaimed unbridled optimist. “It still brings tears to my eyes,” she says. “We can do anything if we come together—that’s the definition of Oakland.”
Daly recently gave the commencement address titled “The Agency of Humanness” to graduates at her alma mater, the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She encouraged grads “to build a world that is better, more generous, more equal, more forgiving, and most importantly, more complete.”
C. J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel, and advocated on behalf of the industry. She has penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, and now writes regularly for The Oaklandside, EatDrinkFilms and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University. Hirschfield currently lives in Adams Point and serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film Series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.