SFSU Magazine Fall 2006: Yomi Agunbiade

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Behind the GreensAlumnus Yomi Agunbiade smiles inside the Conservatory of Flowers. Lush greenery and the reflection from the glass of the greenhouse overhead can be seen in the background.

Yomi Agunbiade (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 do that."

-- Rachel Howard