Awakin Calls » Sheryl Davis » Transcript
Sheryl Davis: Being a Human Bridge for Opportunity and Justice
Guest: Sheryl Evans Davis
Host: Pavi Mehta
Welcome to Awakin calls. Every Saturday, we host a conversation with an individual whose inner journey inspires us and whose work is transforming our world in large and small ways. Awakin Calls are an all-volunteer run offering of Service Space, a global platform founded on the simple principle that that by changing ourselves, we change the world to create a more compassionate and service-oriented society. Thank you for joining us.
Pavi: Good morning, good afternoon, good evening!. My name is Pavi Mehta and I am really excited to be your host for our weekly global Awakin Call -- welcome, and thank you for joining us! The purpose of these calls is to share stories that help plant seeds for a more compassionate society while fostering our own inner transformation. We do this by holding collective conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life -- speakers who inspire us to live in a more service-oriented way. And behind each of these calls is an entire team of ServiceSpace volunteers, whose invisible work allows us to hold this space.
Today, our special guest speaker is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, Sheryl Evans Davis. Thank you again for joining today's call! Let us start with a minute of silence to anchor ourselves into the space.
Welcome again to our weekly Awakin Call -- today, in conversation with Sheryl Davis. In a few minutes, our moderator will engage in a dialogue with our speaker and by the top of hour we'll roll into a circle of sharing, where we invite all your reflections and questions. I've opened up the queue right now, so at any point, you can hit *6 on your phone and you'll be prompted when it's your turn to speak. You can also email us firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a comment or question via the webcast form, if you are listening online.
Our moderator today is Dr. Jyoti Bachani. Jyoti is a warm-hearted, deep and soulful member of the ServiceSpace ecosystem. In her professional life, she serves as Associate Professor of Strategy and Innovation at St Mary's College of California. She’s worked as a Strategy Consultant for Fortune 200 companies, has authored, published, and reviewed several cases, and in addition, is also an artist who loves to explore the medium of the written word through poetry, and the visual world through painting. It's a delight to have her moderating this call today. Jyoti, over to you to introduce our guest.
Jyoti: Thank you, Pavi. Namaste, everyone and welcome to the Awakin Call. The theme this morning is ‘Being a human bridge for opportunity and justice’ and Sheryl Evans Davis is someone who believes that we all have the power to help by being a human bridge, by making a new co-connection and changing someone's life, sometimes just by seeing them. So thank you all this morning for making these connections happen.
As Pavi mentioned, Sheryl Evans Davis currently serves as the Executive Director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. The focus of the Human Rights Commission is to increase access, opportunity and equity for vulnerable populations. Sheryl has won numerous awards for her community work, and the opportunities she has helped create for youth and community development. Sheryl has also been the Executive Director of an organization called Collective Impact which basically was, is, a collaborative partnership of several organizations that serve the challenges facing low-income children youth and families, in the areas of economic development, community health and violence prevention. It’s created several public-private partnerships to provide critical health and social services to the historically underserved. Sheryl is also the founding director of Mo’ Magic, another organization similar to Collective Impact. It's a pleasure to have a chance to hear about her journey and learn about how she's made a difference in so many lives, essentially by a mantra that says ‘Create access to education, exposure and holding youth to expectations’ so that they can rise to deliver to those expectations.
In an earlier career, she has been an educator who in addition to teaching as a job for a school district, volunteered her time in neighboring areas of San Francisco, Oakland where children did not have the same opportunity. And through her volunteer work, making a big impact to create social justice and equity amongst populations that were very desperate for just access to opportunity. So thank you, Sheryl for being with us this morning, and welcome.
Sheryl: Thank you! Thank you!
Jyoti: I will mostly ask you questions in three areas -- of your service to the world, and then maybe after everybody on the call gets a chance to hear about the work that you've done in the community, and how you’ve literally been that human bridge, then to talk about some important life experiences that shaped your professional and personal journey, and then through that open up the conversation for others to join in and ask you questions about your inner journey, because a number of the people listening in this morning are change-makers, in and around the world. So, many of us have seen, everybody on the call probably has seen the bio on the Awakin website. And some of them might have gone on to see the connections to the TED talk you've given, and the other public information about you. But we would like to hear from you, in your words about your professional journey and what would you introduce yourself as, to the audience that’s listening this morning?
Sheryl: OK! Well, thanks again for the opportunity and welcome to everyone who is joining. I have an interesting journey and path to the work that I’m doing. I actually started out as a teacher, and I found that path not necessarily on purpose. I had gone to college and taken a bunch of classes, and really wasn't sure what I was going to do, after I graduated. And ended up with a lot of miscellaneous credits and realized what I would do with that, in order to graduate on time, was a Liberal Studies degree. And then thought what do you do with a Liberal Studies degree and I ended up with a fellowship as a teacher.
And I had a lot of jobs prior to that, that I had not really held on to. None of them really stuck for me, and my job in the classroom was the first time that I looked at the clock and realized it was the end of the day. And every other time when I'd worked, I’d look at the clock and I'd only been at work for an hour, but it seemed like forever. So I started working in private school and lived in a neighboring community to the private school. And I just realized that what was going on in the school, what they had, the access to the resources, were not only different from what I had had growing up, but they were different than what was available and accessible in the community where I lived. And so I spent my summers volunteering at community centers and other places, because I felt really conflicted about the work that I was doing in this affluent neighborhood in this school, versus where I was living and what people that had similar experiences that I did, had access to.
And from that work in community, I was asked to actually go and do work at a community center and I developed a community centers summer program, and wanted to really model, even though it was a free program that was available to children with not much, I wanted to model that on the programs that were being offered at the school where I worked. And at the end of that summer, we did a big event where all the kids were able to showcase their talents and the families came together. And the local district supervisor, our city and county supervisor, came to that event. And was pleased to see so many community members engaged & active, and asked me to come work in the office while somebody was out on leave.
I was able to continue working for the city and county of San Francisco doing community engagement and really working with our community members and partners to activate spaces and to elevate & amplify the voices of the folks in the neighborhood. And from that was offered an opportunity to develop a program for our Public Defender's Office that was focused on collaboration, that's where I had the opportunity to develop ‘Mo’ Magic’. So for me it's been just putting myself in service has provided an opportunity for me to go to another platform, another way to elevate. And every step of the way I'm always mindful to make sure that I don't speak on behalf of the people, but I give the people space to speak, and to have their views and opinion and ideas shared and implemented. So that has been how I've gone from all these different spaces.
So ultimately I ended up doing a program for the Public Defender's Office, which then offered me, or pushed me into this next place of developing programs at a community center, and developing some other programs for Collective Impact and then ultimately that work led me into the Human Rights Commission, to again take the work that was being done with community and in community, and to grow it and to really talk about equity and access as a Human Right. And how do we do that from not the policymakers lens, but from the people on the ground.
Jyoti: For some of us listening from other parts of the world, could you say a little bit about the program with the Public Defender, and the role of the Public Defender?
Sheryl: Yes. When there are criminal charges brought against a person and the police arrest them, the district attorney is the lawyer who is responsible for prosecuting the cases that the police department brings forth. The Public Defender is the lawyer that is assigned to a person who cannot afford their own attorney or lawyer, and they go to court with them and support them. The public defender created the program I was organizing and running, as a way to minimize the amount of people that were having charges brought against them, in that it was supposed to be a prevention measure, focused specifically on young people. So a way to keep young people out of the criminal justice system and that program mobilization for adolescent folks in our communities, Mo’ Magic was really focused on the importance of partnership. The idea that we could not do it alone. So the public defender was very clear, our Public Defender Jeff Adachi, is that he wanted to see less young people in the criminal justice system. And we as a community needed to make that happen and work together.
So part of my job and my responsibility in that area was to convene twice a month our different community stakeholders - so we work with young people, we work with businesses, we work with city agencies, with service providers, mental health providers, after-school programs, schools. Everybody came together and we would talk about the challenges or the issues that the neighborhood was facing and then develop strategies to address them. That program started in November of 2006. And just before the summer of 2007, there had been a series of shootings among young people in the neighborhood and that really galvanized the group because there was a lot of concern around what would happen once summer hit. We had this increase in violence just before summer and there was a lot of concern about when young people are out all day during the summer and hanging out on the streets, what does that mean for public safety, what does that mean for opportunity?
And the group came together to say we're going to make sure that there is a place for our young people to go. And we saw that summer a tremendous decrease in violent crime. And the summer before we had seen in that neighborhood 6 homicides. And the summer that everybody came together, we had 0 homicides in the neighborhood. So it really spoke to the community and it pushed the group to work together moving forward, to talk about what the issues were, the challenges were, and to work together to implement strategies for change.
Jyoti: That's amazing to hear those details, because a number of us have been in situations where we feel the disparity even within the same neighborhood sometimes where people don't have access to things and there's violence, injustice, not enough coordination between services, but many of us feel helpless in those situations and not necessarily are able to connect the dots. You were able to start from a position of volunteering and then being invited to work for the community center and then work with the public defender and able to make these connections literally acting as a human bridge.
So I would like you to say a little bit more about the place you were coming from, where you were able to respond in a manner that most of us who would want to respond, but not have the capacity to take the idea and translate into practice. How did you come up with what you needed to do, and the ability to reach out to everything from after-school, mental health services, and bring them to the same place to even have a conversation that needed to be had, to address these issues?
Sheryl: So I think there's a couple of different things -- one is I really started where I was comfortable, in terms of relationships and knowledge and skill set. So I had been a teacher, I was developing curriculum, I knew first hand what people were literally paying money for their children to have access to. I took opportunity in my community initially -- it all started from a summer vacation bible school, they called it. It started from me wanting to volunteer at my local church and I volunteered during the summer because that was what I had.
I had time during the summer, it was a one week program at a church and I went in there and I realized -- this is when I think it really hit me -- is that I went in there and we were doing this program. There weren't that many kids that came, there were maybe 10 or 15 kids that came the first night. I realized pretty quickly that my kindergarten boys -- I was working in an all-boys school at the time, my kindergarten boys had stronger skills and had access, and had been exposed to more then some of the fifth and sixth grade students I was working with, in this volunteer summer camp. I also realized that they were hungry.
So what I did is, I took not a lot of money, but what I had, and said that we were going to provide dinner at the volunteer summer camp. And so worked with other people there to provide meals for those young people. Then I said that we're going to shift the focus and let's really think about the way that if I was working in my school what would I do? So I brought in books from my own personal library and I did activities that I would have done with my kindergarten boys and by the second night, the number of students that were coming had doubled, and by the third night it had doubled, yet again. So even though we started (on a Monday) with less than twenty kids on the first night, by the time we ended on Friday, we had 100 young people that had come from the community.
For different reasons -- one, because it was a safe space, second, because there was food. And the third, the story that I heard was that there were fun games and activities happening. So we extended the program another week because we realized that there was a need. The second week I had parents and caregivers of those children coming with the children, saying I had to come see what was going on here, because I wanted to know why my child wanted to keep coming here. Then those parents became volunteers and they continued to bring other children that lived near them. That was really the beginning of the work that I started, where I felt like I was strong and secure, and it didn't start out big.
And starting in that place, I built authentic relationships in the community, until the next summer -- what I did is that I actually went to other programs and tried to help them. I did some workshops at their site, like I provided programming. One space they had girls that were between twelve and eighteen that were coming to their program, but they didn't have activities. So for that year I started with that group of girls, just working with them. I just would come for two-three hours a day at that community center and again taking basic ideas around like let us develop a project and there was a mural that had faces on it from the community and I asked them saying let's learn about those people on the wall outside and then invite those people to hear you share what you learned about them and that was just to begin the beginning, building relationship where I went into a space.
I didn't ask for anything. I just came offering and that let people know that I was really interested in them and not my own ambition. And those relationships then made it easier when I work working for the public defender to bring people together, because I wasn't coming to introduce myself, as I had already worked with them. I already proved to them that I was invested in community improvement and not using this as an opportunity to step into something better for myself.
Jyoti: That is such an inspirational story. As I was listening, I was thinking you must have been a very gifted teacher to take a program every week starting with a dozen kids and the kids inviting everybody else to grow to a hundred by the end of the week, and want to have the program again with parent volunteers involved. Most of my life as an educator, I see the opposite problem, of not being able to engage people enough and certainly not see this level of community participation. And you were doing this while you were working as a teacher, but this is just a volunteer part-time activity which had so much energy.
Sheryl: I think I don't know that it is so much that I'm gifted, as I would say that I'm just blessed to be able to see people and to see what their interests are, and to provide space for that. I was very fortunate because the other piece that happened is that, as I was doing this work, I went back to the school where I was working and said I really feel that this community neighborhood is adjacent to us. It's like our neighborhood right next to each other, literally just separated by a street, and I wanted to do more and they allowed and they provided the space.
We ended up bringing the program from the Western Edition, where I was living and volunteering and offering a program at the school where I was working, until that first summer where they allowed us to use the campus. We brought forty students from the Western Addition to the school where I was working in Pacific Heights, and the teachers from the school -- they volunteered, and the parents from the school bought food and they also volunteered. And I'm really happy and excited to say even though I'm no longer running that, that program that used to be one week, or I think it was two weeks for forty students, is now a five-week literacy program that serves 175 students. And it has teachers that are getting their Master's in Teaching, Reading from the University of San Francisco that lead those classes, and they work with the community partners to make sure that it's fun and engaging. And I again think when you find the thing that you feel like you add value, and you pour that into someone else, and you really recognize who they are and you celebrate them, it can't help but grow, I believe.
Jyoti: Many of the people in the ServiceSpace ecosystem come from the same mindset that you described by saying we'll hold space, we'll show up and serve with whatever we have, and starting small is the place, perfectly ok to start small. But we tend to have a sense of the ripples will happen, and we have to trust the process of paying it forward, but we don't see such quick results. So there's definitely something here in terms of building those authentic relationships and enabling them to lead, so that you can leave and the program still continues and it's a robust ongoing thing.
And I would like to hear a little bit more about that energy of recognizing not just that there was a hunger and need in the community and a willingness to serve on the other side of the street. And making this human bridge happen, but to see such wonderful results that lead to permanent change with ongoing programs -- because this magic that you're describing, it would be great to have that level of accelerated results in many other settings.
Sheryl: Yeah. I think one of the things that is really difficult is because when we do come with our strengths, it's sometimes hard to relinquish our knowledge, right? And to say I appreciate or value a different viewpoint, and I'll be honest -- like that has been often been a struggle for me, because I strive for things to be, as close to excellent or good, as perfect as possible. Everybody knows, those who work with me, that when I say ‘It is what it is’, that means that I’ve finally come to the point to realize that there is no perfect, and sometimes it takes longer to get to that.
But that has taken me a really long time to realize that part of this work is actually developing other people and allowing them to have some level of ownership as well. Anyone who has worked with volunteers knows that sometimes it is harder to actually work with volunteers as compared to just do the work by yourself.
But it is critical to invest in volunteers and to see how, as we build this work out, that we value the people that show up. And that we don't see ourselves as strictly in service to others, but that we really see ourselves in partnership with others. And so that the success of the work becomes not your success, because that sometimes hinders how people engage in the work. But as we do this work -- it is not me doing something for you, it's how we do this together collectively, and that is how I really try to move through the work, because that changes how we all come and show up for the work and how we move it forward.
And I want to say I think the other thing to really realize is that sometimes we get caught up in the perception of how great or how something moves forward. I did work in the community for years, before I moved into the work of the public defender's office. So I went to work for the public defender officially in 2006. I had been working in community from 1997 until 2006. The short time that I did in the public, in our legislative offices was six weeks and that was where I built the relationships with city agencies and mental health providers. It was the work that I had done in the community for nearly a decade that allowed me to work for six weeks in city government. That work in city government gave me access to all of these other networks, which then was a great platform for me to move into the public defender's office.
But I spend a lot of time going to places and feeling sometimes defeated, because I went into spaces where people were given funding and support and accolades and recognized, and I would always have to remind myself that this is not why we do this work. But I would still be in those places and knowing authentically from community, that a lot of the people that were being recognized for community work, had never stepped into the community! But I was committed to showing up and doing that work in community and helping them get to what they needed, and it didn't matter whether we got attention or whether we got funding. We ultimately just wanted to make sure that people felt safe and that they had resources, and that there was a network.
And was fortunate later to be able to take that model and give it, and get it more recognition but not for myself but for the community. And to create jobs and to create platforms. This week, I was meeting with a group of people at the community center and at Collective Impact and at Mo’ Magic, and I think more than any other award or something that I could get, what brought me most joy at that point was to sit and to look at the leadership of those places that I had once led. And to see them actually be the young people that I had worked with over the years. That we were actually creating a pipeline. Yes, you can participate in this program as a young person, but there are now probably twenty people that run Collective Impact, that work there, and more than half of them were once upon a time in the program, or had been a participant. So that to me means more than the other stuff and that has taken 20 years to make happen.
Jyoti: That is wonderful to hear. Could you say a little bit more about the work from 1997 to 2006 which literally seeded all this possibility and created the authentic connections and the personal journey that gave you the vision to know what needs to happen, how it needs to happen and then quickly use the power of that relationship as an insider within the government to make those connections but the groundwork and the feeding that happened earlier, could you say a little bit more about that part of your work?
Sheryl: Yeah, 1997 would have been the first year where we did the vacation bible school effort and so we would do that from 1997 to 1999. We would do, at the church, this like two-week summer camp where we would have over a hundred young people coming. From there we realized, from that, that doing summer wasn't enough. So from 1997 to 1999, we also did what we called Friday night program. So that was where the young people from the community could come to the church on Friday night. We would open up the door and it would be a scaled down version of what we did during the summer.
In 1999, the church where I was doing this work, said to me that they didn't like that we were bringing these neighborhood kids into the church. It was the government’s job to do that work, and that if I wanted to continue to do that at the church, I was going to have to pay. I was a school teacher at the time and just didn't have the money that they were asking me to give them. I didn't have that kind of money. They wanted something like 2000 dollars, every time we brought the kids into this space, and that was on top of us providing food and doing everything else. And I just remember being so heartbroken.
And at that time, the school where I was working, had something they called a professional development thing, that was named after someone, where they would give a teacher or someone money to do work, or to do professional development over the summer. And so I worked for that professional development opportunity and said instead of sending me to Rome or to Europe to study about something, and then come back and share it with my colleagues, I would rather you give me the money and let me find a way to provide programming for these young people during the summer. They came back to me and they said we can't give you the money. We're going to give this to someone else, this professional development opportunity, but what we can give you is access to this space, and we will reach out to our families and to the teachers to see if they will support that. And in return, we just ask that you work at our summer camp so you learn more about running a summer program. So at the time I was a teacher, I ran, I participated or helped run the school’s six-week summer camp, and then when the school's six-week summer camp was over, I ran the two week camp for the community kids.
And we did that starting in 1999, and that year it was all-volunteer. There were 40 kids. We had two parents that went out and bought some food for the kids' breakfast, lunch and two snacks for that. And then I had the physical education teacher and art teacher, they all volunteered to work that week. And so that went from 1999 to about 2001.
As time went forward, I was still working with the summer camp at the school. I was doing the two-week program at the school. But I couldn't do the Fridays at the church anymore. So the school then started doing a peer-tutoring program, where I worked with eighth graders at the school, and they would tutor the students. So we would bring students from the community to the school twice a week, and they would be tutored by our eighth graders. And then the school offered and let me do Friday nights at the school.
So over the years we went from just this one program at the church, to now I was at the school, and we had the two week summer camp, we had two days a week where the eighth graders were tutoring kids from the community, and now we had added a Friday night program. And I was still a teacher at the school at the time.
The school came to me and said, "We really want to do more. This is a great opportunity to have these young people from the community. It brings diversity to our school both socio-economically as well as racially. We want to do more," and I said I didn't have the capacity to do more. I literally was teaching from 8:00 until 3:00 o'clock. I would leave at 3:00 o'clock, and I had a large van that was my personal car. I would go around the city, pick up kids and bring them to the school for the tutoring. I would pick up kids and bring them to school for the summer program.
And I had a young child at the time. So I said, "There's just no way that I can do more." And the school said, "Well, we will create a position for you called the Outreach Coordinator." And they provided space. I was no longer teaching kindergarten. I was now doing this program full-time and finding money to run it. So I found money to cover the cost of the summer program, found money to cover the cost of the Friday night program, and continued to build that work, and was then was able to then use my ability to work with programs in the community, to do trainings and workshops with them.
And so by 2005 is when I was doing more volunteer work in the communities because I wasn't doing the summer program at the school. I was doing work in community to help them develop their summer programs, and then working with the school on the two-week literacy program it had evolved to. And then in about 2007...in 2006, I went to work for the Public Defender's office. I still continued to support the school with their outreach program and still worked with other programs to strengthen the work that they were doing. So from basically 1997 to 2006, I was working as a teacher, working in communities and building up programs to support the other work that was happening. So it has had all these different iterations and places where people may have thought it was much more glamorous than it was, but it was a lot of work. And it took a toll definitely on relationships both with my family and in community, but ultimately the gains were tremendous.
Jyoti: Thank you. Those details were very, very helpful because, to know that you literally have to bootstrap the programs up, from picking up kids and driving them in the van, to bring them to the tutoring programs, and even though you had the ability to recognize the unmet need on both sides for the students getting the tutoring and for the students giving the tutoring, you had the ability and the leadership experience and the process, so, you know serving, the details were very, very helpful to make this real.
Being mindful of the areas we need to cover, I would like to now switch gears and ask you about the formative influences and important life experiences that gave you the stability to not just recognize the unmet need, but have the resourcefulness and creativity with which you pursued these opportunities and this willingness to literally become the human bridge, whether it was driving back and forth, or making connections happen, to say, "Here are the resources, and here are the people who would benefit from having access to those resources." Because we don't see that happening as much as we would like to make it happen. I certainly would like to do more of this, so I want to know a little bit more about the life experiences that prepared you to have this courage and the drive to make it happen.
Sheryl: So I think that there are two times that really bring that up. That is, my grandmother and the church, because I think the church, at least for me, within the Black Baptist church, it is such a creative tool and mechanism to talk about spirituality just in terms of, for me, I remember having to learn poetry and songs and having to present, and it taught me to speak in public and it taught me to think in a different way, to not think so very linear.
But, most importantly, I think about my grandmother who is the person that made me go to church, and her home. I was born in the South. I was born in Texas. I moved to California when I was very young, but I spent most of my summers in Texas with my grandmother, and I just remember this small house that she had, but that it was always filled with people that she was helping. My great-grandfather, my grandmother's father, had glaucoma and had gone blind, and my grandmother had moved him in with her, and had set everything up for him, so he could still be independent because that was really important to him. But at the same time she was taking care of him. She didn't do it in a way that made him feel less than. And that always resonated with me, just the way she would fix his food and that it would be on the plate in a certain way so that he knew where things were and he could feed himself. He lost his vision later in life, and had been used to doing everything for himself. Or the way that she set up his little space, his bedroom, his eating area, his bathroom so that he could find his way and turn his radio on, and get to his rocking chair and listen to what was important to him. So that really stuck with me.
But it was also just the constant flow of people, in and out of her home. I remember she always had jobs that were manual labor, so I remember she worked at factories, all my life. She worked at factories. She would come home. At one point she worked at a cotton mill. And she would come home and there would be cotton all over her, just in her hair and all over her clothes, just covered in it. And when she arrived, she would sit down for a few minutes, and then she would get up and she would immediately go to work for other people. So she would fix dinner for my great-grandfather. She had another dear friend that she had moved in with her that had diabetes, and she would go in and make sure that he had taken his dose of insulin and that he had what he needed. Then she would have people come over, and she was kind of like a therapist/counselor that would sit around with and she would talk to them.
I remember that as her life, and her charge to me, really, in terms of like "As you do for yourself, you really are doing for others. And the more that you have, the more that you can give to others." And I just remember that. And that really shaped how I move through spaces. I feel like, when I go into a space and I have something, it's for the sake of sharing it with others. Or, if I have access to something, I have a responsibility to help others gain access as well. And I think as I grew up, that became more clear for me because my mother married when I was in about second or third grade, and we moved around the San Francisco Bay area a lot.
I went through from 3rd to 12th grade, I've gone through 8 different schools. And I realized that when I went to these different schools, I was often given better treatment than other people, based solely on the fact that I was new, or the perception of where I've come from before, or for some random test that didn't really mean anything, because my transcript is all that people knew me by and they could see on my transcript that I've been tested and put into a special program. Then they'd treat me differently than other students. I just realized that it wasn't because I was better than anyone else, but because of the perception of me.
And I just wanted to go into places and think about how do I make sure that I don't do what other folks are doing, but that I also recognize the greatness and talent in other people; that it's not because that they didn't test well, but because they weren't given the test. Or they haven't been tested in the things that they are super at. That has always been the way I walk into spaces because I realized that I been afforded a lot of great opportunities -- not because I am so great, but because I had access to things that people didn't. And that is really shaped the work I've done.
I realized that even more when I went to work in private schools. Even for myself, kids in the 5th and 6th grade were doing things that I had not done in my entire elementary, middle, or high school education. It hit home to be when I was working with one of the kids in community. She was in 10th grade working with a kid in 6th grade. So, I had a student in 6th grade in a private school and a 10th grade student in one of the neighborhood schools, and she said, the 10th grader said, “The book she's reading in 6th grade class, that’s the book the juniors in our high school read.” I realized again the expectation and what we put in front of the people determine how far they can go sometimes. So, we just have to make sure we get everyone the same expectation and opportunities to rise to greatness; regardless of where they live or what they look like, everyone should have equal access.
Jyoti: I'm impressed to hear about your grandmother enabling people to live independent lives even with health challenges or visual impairment. You have life values that has animated so much of what you do. Eight different school from 3rd to 12th grade, really seemed to have given you the ability to do these so much faster than most of us who stayed in the same school and dealt with the same people. Building relationships takes time, it takes a very long time for me. To put together the caring that you bring to enable others and to do it at the speed that you do. You used the word, building authentic relationships a few times and in the earlier conversations, you talked about how your students were energized. You have a pipeline of alumni working in the program and growing it. It makes me want to know more about creating those authentic relationships, because clearly you have the ability to speak not just the language of kids who don't have the access or opportunities, but also have the language of kids who do have those access and opportunities and then to make them aware enough to bring that service attitude and the ability to relate and connect and be that human bridge that you've been. So, say a bit more about what authentic relationships mean and how you've experienced them apart from the ones you’ve described, and hold the space and show up to a room, to help others develop that too, so that there's a pipeline for this to continue.
Sheryl: Yes. I think one of the things about being new or feeling like you're always a new person, it makes you really come into a room and try to assess who is in the room and understand what motivates people or what their interests are, so that you don't talk about something that they're not interested in and then get blown off. Over the years one of the things that I do is really try to see people and listen, and not pretend or fake. So if it is something that I'm not really interested in, I can say that authentically without demonizing or demoralizing someone else.
Most recently, I think about it in terms of being able to relate with young people, as I get older. My son who at 19, when he was in high school he would put music on in the car and sometimes I would not be listening to it and then at one point a piece of the music came on, and it was familiar to me, and I asked him a question about the music. And he affirmed that, the background music in this rap song was from a gospel song. And at that moment I realized, like, that has been how I've operated. And that I was now in a place to be able to better talk about, like, how I connect what is real me to what's real to someone else.
So at that moment, I realized with some of the music and other pieces that there's certain music that resonates with me, that impacts me, and that it may not resonate with someone else. But I need to realize that there is something that resonates with someone else and that I need to see how I can make that real to me. And that has been how I operated - that ultimately it might be - we don't like the same type of music but what music do you like? And where can I talk about how that music is similar to what I like, or how I can understand your liking that music. So building those relationships becomes not just about me, but it really is about listening and being able to have people be heard.
Where I learned the most from that was as an educator. Prior to 1997, I was a teacher from 1991 to 1997 at a bilingual emergent school. I had four sections of kindergarten students. The first year, I had four sections of kindergarten and one pre-K. The thing that I learned very quickly as a kindergarten teacher, which here in the United States, kindergarten is the first kind of entree into your formal elementary school education. And kindergarten is hard for parents and it's hard for kids.
When four and five year olds show up sometimes for kindergarten, it's their first experience at a full day program, where it's every day, that they're away from somebody that familiar to them. The one thing that you have to be able to do on the first day of school, is convince both the parent and the child that you see them, that you understand their fears, and that you are going to take care of them.
What I learned very quickly thereafter is, when you do report cards or when you do parent teacher conferences, every parent wants to know that you know what makes their child special, and that became really critical for me. So developing authentic relationships with that....when I had to do 70 report cards and I had to do 70 parent-teacher conferences, I could not be in a room with a parent looking for a piece of paper to tell me who their child was, because that was going to be the quickest way to upset them. No parent wants to drop their child off with someone and feel like that person doesn't know who their child is, doesn't know what their child is afraid of, what they love, what they like, and what their talents are.
So I learned very quickly in my first job as a teacher working with 70 students, and having to engage with a minimum of 100 parents over the course of a year, that I needed to know that child's name, I needed to know something that made that child unique from everybody else that I've worked with, and I needed to know something that child could develop and do better. Because that was going to let that parent know that I had taken the time to know their child. I also needed to know what the concerns were for that parent. So I have translated that into the work that I've done, because I realized that that was the quickest way for me to make a parent who may have been unhappy or disgruntled or frustrated, understand that I was there, not just to be a teacher, but to help their child be the best that they could be. That was the easiest way to defuse the situation -- when I could come in and say, "Oh you know I noticed that Tommy had a haircut today.” Or “I notice that Sally has a new pin, or that pin is really special.” Or that I realized that they are tired. Because then somebody could say yes they're tired because last night our dog was really ill and that was really hard for us, so now I need to remember that the dog is important to them.
And that they had a moment during this week and that needs to inform the work that I do. So that for me was the quick lesson around authentic relationship. Families, parents and children -- learning the importance of that and being able to see people -- that was where I realized that, that transformed how we do the work.
Jyoti: Thank you for sharing that. It was reminding me of my first taking of my son to kindergarten, and with all the anxieties of the only child being left at the school for the first time. And as I picked him up, his kindergarten teacher saw us in the parking lot and waved out, called his name and said something about trains, and my son has been a train enthusiast literally from the day he was born. The minute she said that it was like all my stress evaporated. I was like, she knows him, he will be okay with her, she cares. She's made this connection and found this way to link with him about things that he's excited about, and now twenty years later that still stays with me, being such an important moment for both him and me, in some ways.
Speaking of relationships, you have mentioned earlier about how when you were with the school and they wanted you to do more and you really were at capacity, and couldn't do any more because you were doing all that you could, and that did come with a price that you have to pay with personal sacrifices, including impacting relationships that are more traditional way of thinking about family. Can you say a little bit more about your inner journey in terms of -- there is so much unmet need, there's always more opportunities to do more, when you come with the offering and the service mindset, to serve the unmet need but it comes with this ability to also do self-care and know the limits, and know that you've reached capacity or burnout, or there's a little child at home, that needs you more than all the other children who are not getting access. So how do you balance that or what are your practices for rejuvenating? Having that level of self-awareness because this is for the long haul. And you need it stay in it. So if you can say a little bit about that, that would be really helpful.
Sheryl: I would say I did not do a great job of it. I think my son at that time probably helped me realize that I needed to do better. I remember he was in first grade and I had missed something at his school. And then I finally went into his classroom to see it. It was January, it was around the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and they had some presentations I had missed. But I came back and I showed up for this thing where they were highlighting the work that the kids had done around the "I Have A Dream" speech. Each of the students had done a dream cloud. The dream cloud had their dream of what they wanted for a better world. My son was in first grade and he was learning how to spell, it was all spelt phonetically. So it was cute. But it was something that changed a lot for me, but not enough.
I went into the classroom and I found his dream cloud and it said - "I have a dream that my mom will take a vacation from work.” And there were little side things, on the sides, that said other things, like she works too much and some other things. I remember him...to this day, he says to me like that time of his first grade was like, it resonated with him. He remembered that as a time when I worked way too much and this was during that period when I was picking up and dropping off. And just before, the school had asked me to take on more and that’s part of why I said I can't do anymore, because I've gone into my son's classroom and seen this thing where he had said he had a dream, which made it seems like it was such a hard thing, which it shouldn't have been, that I would take a vacation from work. And from that point on, I tried to make it a point to take vacation, so that he can at least look back and say that we had gone somewhere. And I tried to be a little bit more mindful. I did not necessarily do the job that I wanted, that was when he was in the first grade.
And I would circle back and have another moment when he was in about fifth or sixth grade, when our family pet passed and my son was devastated. We all were, and I just remember thinking that I had spent too much time being frustrated for having to walk the dog, versus enjoying those moments of being outside with the dog. I'd feel that as a chore and a task, and not as a moment to enjoy my pet and to enjoy being outside with my family. And then it would happen and then you know I would have that moment, we would do some stuff, and then within two or three months, I would be back to the same habits.
And where I really finally changed again was when my son was in 10th grade, and I realized, oh my goodness, we have maybe three years where he still lives with me year around, and this time is then going to be gone. And I have not modeled well for him, and I realized at that moment I needed to do a better job of modeling self-care and healthy habits. At that point, for the last few years, I have been much more intentional about taking trips and talking about therapy or meditation, or the importance of spirituality, however, we define that and spending time with each other.
And I just remember some stuff that had happened in his 10th grade year and I said to him, I'm going to pick you up every day for the next month, and this is what we're going to do. And then I started to be off a little bit after that, and started to do less of the daily, but definitely with much more intentional around like, oh my goodness, this time is about to come soon, and I have not modeled good habits, and I don't want to look back five years from now and say, I wish I'd spent more time with him. And then I think the other piece that was always, was in the back of my mind, I didn't want to spend so much time with other people's children and neglect my own child, that he ends up as a statistic that I had been trying to avoid.
Jyoti: While I was listening I saw the parallel between how you described your grandmother coming home with cotton in her hair, sitting down for a few moments and then going to work again. And how your son might have seen you as somebody who is working really hard and can afford to take some time off, vacation or a few minutes to just sit down. As I’m listening, I hear that you passed on the same values to your son of the importance of hard work and the importance of what, in my mind, is open-hearted living.
Yes, he is your son, he's special. My son's very special to me, but at the same time, I've reached a life stage as an empty-nester, where my aunt’s advice to me that everybody of your son's age, treat them like your own son is serving me so much better. And caring for everybody the same way, it's really hard to do, but it's very fulfilling as well. So thank you for sharing how you passed on the values and what the struggles are in the process of doing the work in self-care. I want to open up the conversation to other people who’ve been listening.
Pavi: Wonderful. Thank you, Jyoti. Sheryl, this has been a wonderful conversation...You know your approach feels so intimate and all the stories that you shared really, like leading with your offering, not coming in with a big ask and serving with what you had, and I'm wondering as you have organized and scaled your work, how do you keep that spirit alive and not let kind of static energy creep in?
Sheryl: I think, what has been interesting is that, since I now work formally for government, what’s been interesting is that I really do feel it important to stay grounded in community, and that has been difficult for some of the structures, especially in the form of government structures, that I operate that way. So I try to always, no matter what I do, to show up with the community, with me. I always try to bring someone that can counter the narrative that might be happening in the space. So I have done more work with the city government. I have tried to create more spaces to actually have community stakeholders participate in the conversations or be in a meeting that has typically been only for government officials.
But for me, I can't move work forward based solely on the policymakers. I have to actually hear from people that are impacted by the policies, and so I've been really working hard to continue in that vein. And then more recently, I've been working with researchers as well as different academic institutions to really think about how do we track the work that's been done. How do we measure impact and how do we talk about this in terms of scale, right? What's critical to this work?
There's one family that I have worked with for the last twenty years, that I'm still working to try and help them find what success looks like, and the researcher that I have been working with is interviewing them. There's a grandmother, there's her granddaughter, there is a daughter and her great-grandchildren. They interview all of them to really understand, like what is the goal of the programs that I've been involved with, and what the work that I've done with them, has been. And they're helping us to really think about like, how do we build this scale, based not on my interpretation, but based on the interpretation of the people who have gone through the process. So I always try to bring it back to the people and a lot of times you get pushback on that. I mean I literally said this to somebody the other day, it's like -- If me engaging with the community is going to be a problem, then I won't be able to participate in the whole process.
Pavi: That is amazing and just the story that you shared, talks about being in for the long haul, the fact that this is a family with whom you have worked for twenty years! Can you share a little bit more about that family and the journey with them?
Sheryl: The family, I came in contact with them, they're one of the families from the first time, the first program that I did at the church. So at the time, I started really this relationship with the granddaughter of this woman, and so the granddaughter was in second grade, I guess seven or eight years old at the time. She came to the program, and then she brought her two aunts and her two uncles -- but they were all the same age. And then the grandmother started coming. So the grandmother was coming. She had two daughters, two sons and a granddaughter and a grandson in the program. Six children, they were all in the same age. They were just a year or two apart.
The grand-daughter's mother went missing and was never found again. So that changed just so much in terms of the dynamic of that family. The granddaughter had seen her uncle murdered. She had lost her mother and never found again, presumed dead. The family had been living in poverty and so they were really a lot of why I started to do this work. The granddaughter now has two sons. Some of the children have been involved in the criminal justice system, and so it's just really been this ongoing, for me like how do we support them, because they've experienced so much trauma, and I've been able to help some of the uncles and aunts to get jobs or find support services, but I always go back to the granddaughter and the grandmother, and how do I support them? And how...I feel like in some way I have not fully arrived, or been successful, because I still need to help them and I'm not sure what that is.
But there has been a lot of in and out of the criminal justice system. There has been violence, there has been domestic violence, there has been community violence, there have been gunshots, there have been all these things that could have happened, and I'm still trying to figure out like, what does that look like for success. And at some level, they say to me that success is just still being alive. And so I get that. But on the other level, what is self-sufficiency, what does it look like to be able to live in a place where you feel safe, and where you know your needs are going to be met. So still working on that...
Pavi: Wow! It is incredible. I'm thinking back to what you had said earlier that really struck me was when you talked about how, when you just come in with your strengths, it can sometimes be difficult to relinquish your experience or what you know. To really see what need is in front of you and just the fact that you're able to hold this uncertainty or this place of like ‘I don't really know’, is powerful, given the vastness of your experience and how much you've accomplished. And I feel it is such a profound thing to bring, into the spaces that you work in, where so many times, I don't know, especially if you're divorced from the reality on the ground, you can have very pat solutions being put forward. So I can imagine, for your colleagues and for everyone who comes across you, it must feel a little unsettling, but also inspiring, your comfort with that. Maybe not comfort, but your ability to embrace what you don't know.
Sheryl: Yeah, it’s a challenge. But I think sometimes that is where we start, because then it is just like well let's just try something, right? Because you have tried these other things and they haven't worked, you know? And so saying ‘I don't know’ is easier for me than saying ‘It's not going to work, or there's no hope.’ I just have to keep hope, and that's how I keep hope -- by just saying, I don't know. And it allows me to believe that there's something out there, maybe somebody else who has an answer.
Pavi: Yeah, yeah. Another kind of question I had, given the kind of environment in this country and the kind of things that we are seeing in Immigration, and all of that, how in this environment, or when you sometimes look at the statistics and when you hear some of these everyday realities, it can be so easy to just lose faith. And so my question to you is what really keeps you going? What is that core? How do you kind of wake up with that hopefulness in the morning?
Sheryl: So for all the sad stories, there are still some positive stories. So I mentioned this family and they have been doing these family trees and working with a researcher. And I hadn't seen the granddaughter in a while and one of her aunts. So they came in this week to my office to meet with the researcher, and when they came in, it did my heart good just to see them. And then they said that the people that worked with me, they're like, they tricked us to get us here, because they told us that we are meeting with you and they knew we would only come to meet with you. And that made me feel good, that I had a relationship, that twenty years later, that they still value me and that would make them willing, that they would rearrange their schedule to come, to sit down and just talk to me and they did not even know what I wanted to talk about.
And then when they came in my office, when I left the organization before that, they’d bought me a mini-fridge for my office and everybody signed the mini fridge. And one person had put ‘Your Favorite’ on the mini fridge. And the two young ladies said to me, “What does that say? Why did that refrigerator say your favorite on there? We are going to erase that. We have to be your favorites!” And they were giving me a hard time about that. And then I said, well you know, I haven't talked to you all in so long, and I don't know like what you are thinking and I don't know what's going on with you. And maybe you've moved on, and you have got other people that are your favorite, at this point in your life. And the granddaughter, who is the reason I say often that I do this work, said to me, “When I talk about people doubting me it's never you. You, I know, believe in me, and always have hope and that’s what keeps me going, is knowing that I am working to make you proud.”
And that is ultimately what keeps me going, right? Like I always go back to me hoping and believing, offers somebody else hope; and if I lose hope, somebody might too. So that is what keeps me hopeful that even in the midst of darkness, there is this little ray of light. And I gave them a hard time the other day for not talking to me in a while, and so she sent me a text this week that said hello, this is my new number and I was like, what do you want. She is like I don't want anything, I just wanted you to know that I am thinking about you. That made my week!
Pavi: Beautiful. We have a question from a listener and she says given your role in both community-based change and government-driven policy change, from where do you see transformational justice/ social change emerging? From changing policies and norms or by helping shift the consciousness on the ground in a more person to person way?
Sheryl: So I think it's a little bit of both, and thanks for that question. One of the things that I have been working on and we actually just got funding to do, is what we're going to call ‘Equity Fellowships’ which is really going into community, working person to person, valuing the communities time by giving them a stipend for participation, but working with them to say like how do we disrupt the system, how do we take what you know are the people that are impacted by policies and disrupt the policymakers system of operation? And that I think -- it takes more time to do that, but I think that has more impact, then a workshop with system leaders or policymakers, in the hope that they implement something, and then having to worry about it changing for the next person that comes in, that gets appointed into that position.
I really think that the people on the ground are most important for making the changes that we want, so whether they do that through legislation or whether they do that with the policy, I think that they have to force the change, and they have to demand the change. What I've found is that the usual suspects, the people that typically come in and disrupt the meeting, have become a noise that policymakers can ignore. And so I'm working with them now on understanding how the system works, and understanding how to be heard and that really has to happen one to one.
But I'm hoping we can do it exponentially, right? That we if we do this workshop with 13 people, so the next time, those 13 people will work with 13 people. And then those 26 work with 26, and the next 52 works with the next group, and that will expedite the growth by doing it this way, and that it will continue to grow. But I think that we can't minimize the community voice and that it's only going to change with the push from the folks on the ground, and we've got to make sure that they have the tools and the resources and the access to do that.
Pavi: We have another question that has come in, and this question is around what are you most excited about in your current work?
Sheryl: Right now, I am most excited about one of the programs that I launched years ago -- it was an internship program that was really focused on taking kids from public housing, kids from the criminal justice system, young people of color that typically when they show up or interview don't necessarily interview well, or they come past the deadline, and they don't get into a lot of the programming.
So we created a program that was specifically for that group of young people and it has turned into the fourth summer now. There are one hundred and fifty young people in San Francisco that are part of this internship and they get divided into different groups. And I'm really excited this year because there are a couple of things happening this year. Last year, Stanford University did an evaluation of the program. They're going to do a deeper evaluation this year and then this year we will be funding to actually expand the program so we are doing a small pilot with five students in San Jose and five students in Oakland, to really see like can you do this program in other communities and how we build the capacity of other community-based organizations and service providers to do the work, but that is still true to that group of young people?
And that how do we replicate something that's been very neighborhood-based or culturally based in San Francisco and replicate it in other cities. And so we're working with the University of San Francisco as well as Duke University to evaluate that program and I'm super excited, because it's about youth development and leadership, but it is also an opportunity to do something regionally to look at communities that are being pushed out of these neighborhoods in the cities because of lack of access and because of the wealth and racial disparities. So I'm excited about that to see how we replicate programming and how we document that, and to kind of actually see if we are doing what we think we are doing versus just kind of say that these kids are great and this is a great opportunity, but to really document what the opportunities are, and the impact on communities.
Pavi: That is exciting, thank you for sharing that. Jyoti, we are in the last 5 minutes of our call. Do you have any burning questions that you want to ask Sheryl that you didn’t get to ask at the beginning?
Jyoti: I don’t have a question. I have a comment. Listening to you speak, the authenticity that comes through on how you hold space, I’m feeling very energized and enabled, just from the phone conversation. So thank you so much for doing this!
Sheryl: My pleasure.
Pavi: One more thing that I was struck by was the role of the church in your journey and it has been a creative wellspring that really helped you find your voice and way of thinking really. And I was wondering if you could expand on that, to share a little bit about your relationship to faith?
Sheryl: Yeah, I used to say, when I first started this work, especially in the neighbourhood where I was living, is that it was so dark and bleak sometimes, when violence was at its highest in our community, that I really needed to be safe. I needed to believe in something bigger, in order to actually get out of bed in the morning, otherwise I would just feel so hopeless.
But it has become this tool for me, I was sharing with Jyoti the other day that when I think about this song that I remember my grandmother used to sing and I remember it from church, that was like -- “I am a promise, I am a possibility, I am a great big bundle of potentiality, and I'm learning, I am learning to hear his voice and I am learning to make the right choice. I can be anything, anything that God wants me to be.” So that idea of a promise and potential plays over and over again in my mind.
And then I am also often drawn to, when we would have Black History Month program at the church, and there are all these poems that come back to me. I just remember one time when I was maybe seven or eight, when I heard this poem by Langston Hughes that said -- “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?” So those things still come to me today. When I think about dreams or what it is that people want to accomplish, and I am like are we in this moment of a dream deferred, and what happens to the dream if it doesn't get realized. Is it going to explode on us, or are people going to just feel like it is a burden? They have become tools for me to rethink how we have conversations and how we engage with each other.
And then just the music in itself becomes a tool to have conversations but that also become a tool for healing in some way. There's a song by this rapper, Chance the Rapper, called Sunday Candy and I was sharing with young people that the idea of Sunday Candy, for anybody that had experienced church in a way that I did, it was like you were in church all day long. The only thing sometimes you would have would be the Sunday Candy, that an elder or a grandmother would have, which was the peppermint candy that they would have in their purse, and you would be so grateful for that. Peppermint candy is not anything that I go to the store and buy, it is not anything that I want, but on Sundays, it was like gold. So that was remembering the discipline and the experience of the church and the bonding over things so simple as a piece of candy.
Pavi: Beautiful. We have one final question that we ask all our guests and that is what can we as the extended Awakin call, ServiceSpace community, what can we do to help further your vision and your work in the world.
Sheryl: I think, always in the form of to just see people -- that to me is the number one thing, and to help amplify those voices. We have several things that we will be doing -- like visiting our website or looking at the videos that we have, or sharing those, raising the presence of that, and providing a space for honest discussion, which doesn't mean that we always have to agree, but it means that we're respectful and have dialogue. And so for me being open and willing to see opposing views, and figuring out how we move forward in that, and then to celebrate and view the work and comment and participate, when possible.
Pavi: Thank you, that gives us a lot of concrete starting points. I just want to, on behalf of all of our listeners today, give gratitude for your remarkable spirit, and I feel your grandmother's spirit is so so strong in you. And I think of all those, the seventy children, the kindergartners whose not just report cards you wrote out but whose gifts you saw, and all the students, not just the seventy, but all the students, all the people that you've seen in your lifetime and what kind of seeds you have planted invisibly, across these decades, that are continuing to blossom and grow in unimaginable ways. It's humbling, it's inspiring and I think, it brings all of us back to that place of our own potential possibility and how it connects to others in our lives. So thank you so much.
Sheryl: Thank you for this opportunity to share.
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