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Sheryl Davis: Being a Human Bridge for Opportunity and Justice

Nuggets From Sheryl Davis's Call

Last Saturday, we had the privilege of hosting Awakin Call with Sheryl Davis.

Sheryl Evans Davis, Executive Director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, has provided life-changing public service and advocacy for almost thirty years. In her current public role, she continues her untiring work towards increasing access, opportunity and equity for vulnerable populations. Whether volunteering to teach low-income students when she was a teacher at a more affluent school nearby, or spearheading a collaborative partnership of organizations to address community issues in underserved neighborhoods, Sheryl has acted on her core belief that we all have the power to help...it's about "being a human bridge, making that meaningful connection, and changing someone's life, sometimes just by seeing them." Davis learned early on from her mother that you can't change others; "the only person you have control over is you. So... figure out what you can do that can help someone want to change." And that is exactly what Sheryl has done and continues to do.

We'll post the transcript of the call soon, but in the meantime, you can follow Sheryl's work through the SFHRC website which hold a wealth of resources and videos that can be viewed, commented on and shared. Also with Jyoti's heartfelt help, here are some paraphrased nuggets:

  • I had a liberal studies degree and had held a lot of different jobs. But my job in the classroom was the first time I looked at the clock and suddenly realized it was the end of the day! With every other job I'd had, time passed so slowly.
  • I don't try and speak on behalf of the people I try and create ways for their voices to be heard
  • Creating a place for young people to go in the summer resulted in a tremendous decrease in violent crime. Zero homicides the summer we started, compared to six the year before.
  • It worked because I started where I was comfortable in terms of knowledge, relationships and skill-sets.
  • The first summer camp I did was Vacation Bible School for kids at my church, we started with twenty students. I realized the kids were hungry so we had food prepared for them. I tried to offer these kids the same things that we offered to the kids I taught in Pacific Heights. By the second night attendance had doubled, the third night it doubled again. By Friday we had 100 kids enrolled. They came because it was safe, because there was food and there were fun games and activities happening. So we extended for another week. By the second week we had parents and caregivers coming through because they wanted to see this place and understand why exactly their kids wanted to be here.
  • We didn't start out big. We started with what we had and built authentic relationships in the community.
  • We brought 40 students from the Western Addition to the school I was working with in Pacific Heights. That program that used to be 1 week for 40 students is now is a five week program that serves 140 students.
  • I went into a space and didn't ask for anything. I was just offering. And those relationships made it easier when I worked with the public defender. People knew I was interested in community development and not trying to step into something better for myself
  • I don't know that I am gifted -- I'm blessed to be able to see people and what their interests are and to provide space for that.
  • When we come into a situation trying to lead with our strengths, that isn't always the best way to make a difference. It's hard to relinquish our experience, but sometimes that's what is called for. There is always a time when it is easier to do the work yourself rather than take on the challenge of working through volunteers, but in the long run it always makes sense to invest in people. Part of this work is about developing other people and allowing them to have ownership.
  • We have to see ourselves in partnership with others. The success is not your success but our success. When we do things collectively that changes how we all come and show up for the work and move it forward.
  • Significant Influences? The church -- the black Baptist church was such a creative force, I had to learn poetry and songs and public speaking and how to think in a non-linear way. And my grandmother -- I was born in Texas then moved to California, but I spent most of my summers in Texas at my grandmother's. Her small house was always filled with people that she was helping. She took care of my great-grandfather who had glaucoma but she set things up so that he could retain independence. She never treated him as less than and that had a strong impact on me. There was a constant flow of people in and out of her home. She worked at factories all my life. She worked at a cotton mill and would come home covered in lint. She would sit down for a few minutes when she came home and then immediately go to work for other people. Giving an insulin shot to the diabetic friend who lived with her, preparing dinner for my great-grandfather. As you do for others you do unto yourself - she taught me that.
  • Recognizing the greatness in other people is the way I try and walk into spaces.
  • As a kindergarten teacher I had to prepare 70 report cards. But during PT meetings I couldn't look for a piece of paper to tell a parent what I saw in their child. I learned quickly that I needed to know not just their child's name, but something that made their child unique, I needed to know something that would help that child develop their gifts, I needed to know what the concerns were for their parent -- and that approach that I learned with kindergarten students is what I've translated into my work.
  • The heavy demands of the work have taken their toll along the way on relationships in my life. My son had a project in school around MLK's I Have a Dream speech. The kids had to make their own dream clouds. When I found my son's it said, "I have a dream my mother will take a vacation." I've had wake up moments like that, that have spurred me to be more mindful of self-care and modeling the right things for my son.
  • This work has a long horizon. There's a little girl who was part of my very first summer camp. She was in second grade then. Twenty years later I'm still in touch with that family. It's a complicated situation. There's been so much trauma and loss they've endured. She's one of the reasons I got into this work.

Sheryl's story is filled with inspiration, and the magic that's unleashed when we believe in the unique potential of individuals and our boundless collective power.

Before the close of her call she recited from memory the stirring lines of Langston Hughes poem, 'Harlem':

What happens to a dream deferred?


Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?


Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.


Or does it explode?

***

We salute Sheryl's unstinting efforts over the decades to ensure the dreams of the young are not deferred. That they are heard, applauded and one day realized.

When we asked Sheryl what our extended community could do to help serve her work and vision in the world her response spoke volumes about the essence of her being: See people. Amplify voices. Participate where possible in creating dialogue and being willing and open to holding opposing views.

Much gratitude as always to the team of volunteers behind the scenes who make these calls and all ensuing ripples possible.


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