BEST OF THE BAY 2013: LOCAL HEROES

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Bruce Brugmann, Jean Dibble, and Tim Redmond

The San Francisco Bay Guardian — which has had a significant impact on the Bay Area's cultural and political dynamics and dialogue over the last 47 years — was largely the creation of three people with complementary skills and perspectives, an amalgam that gave the Guardian its voice and longevity.

Although they are no longer involved with running the paper, we're honoring their contribution and legacy with a form of recognition they created: a Local Hero Award in our Best of the Bay issue, an annual edition that has been adopted by almost every alt-weekly in the country.

Bruce Brugmann and Jean Dibble launched the Guardian in October 1966 after years of planning by the married couple, and they ran it as co-publishers until the paper's sale to the San Francisco Newspaper Co. last year, with Dibble running the business side and Brugmann in charge of editorial and serving as its most public face.

"We were one of the few husband and wife newspaper teams, a real mom and pop operation," Brugmann told us. "We couldn't have done it without the two of us, we needed both of our skill sets."

They met in 1956 at the University of Nebraska, where Brugmann studied journalism and served as editor of the Daily Nebraskan, starting his long career as journalistic rabble-rouser. Dibble studied business, which she would continue in graduate school at Harvard University's Radcliffe College while Brugmann got a master's in journalism at Columbia University.

As graduation neared, they started talking about forming a newspaper together, an idea that percolated while Brugmann served in the US Army, where he wrote for Stars and Stripes, and Dibble moved to San Francisco with their two kids to work in personnel and administrative positions.

After the Army, they settled in Wisconsin, where Brugmann worked as a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal before moving to the Bay Area to work on launching the Guardian while Brugmann supported the family working for the Redwood City Tribune.

"We came out here with the idea of doing it and we immediately started planning. Jean did the prospectus, a damn good prospectus," Brugmann said.

The Guardian published sporadically in the beginning, but it tapped into a vibrant counterculture that was clashing with the establishment and began publishing important articles highlighting inequities in the Vietnam War draft and exposing local political scandals, including how Pacific Gas & Electric illegally acquired its energy monopoly.

"A lot of it was just keep your head down and keep going," Dibble said. "We never talked about alternatives, it was just what we were going to do." The Guardian covered the successful revolts against new freeways in the city and plans to build Manhattan-style skyscrapers, publishing the book The Ultimate Highrise in 1971. In the mid-'70s, the Guardian won a successful unfair competition lawsuit against the Chronicle and the Examiner over their joint operating agreement, allowing the paper to become a free newsweekly. "Eventually, things got better, and we got some large advertisers in the '80s and they really helped kick us off," Dibble said. That was also when Tim Redmond, a journalist and activist steeped in radical politics, started writing for the Guardian, going on to serve as the paper's executive editor and guiding voice for more than 30 years. "Tim was always more radical than I was," Brugmann said, giving Redmond credit for the Guardian's groundbreaking coverage of tenant, environmental, and economic justice issues. "Every publisher needs an editor who was more radical than they are to push them." The two journalists had a prolific partnership, mentoring a string of journalists who would go on to national acclaim, turning the Guardian into a model for alt-weeklies across the country, exposing myriad scandals and emerging arts and cultural trends, and helping to write and pass the nation's strongest local Sunshine Ordinance. "We always wanted to make things better," Brugmann said of what drove the Guardian. "Even the battles that we lost, we got major concessions. Yerba Buena is much better because of the stories we did at the time, same thing with Mission Bay...San Francisco is much better that we were here. And we're really proud and we appreciate the work of the current Guardian staff in keeping the Guardian flame alive."

 

LOCAL HEROES: Kate Kendell

The night Proposition 8 passed was one of the hardest of Kate Kendell's life. She remembers it with startling detail — and she should, because she was one of the most prominent opponents of the measure to overturn marriage equality in California.

"I was hopeful right up until the end that Prop. 8 would be defeated," she said, speaking slowly as she pulled her thoughts from what sounded like a dark place. "Our initial polling numbers said we'd probably lose, but I really hoped in the deepest heart of my heart that when people got in there that they'd punch their vote in favor of the person they knew."

But as the voters of California showed in that 2008 election, sometimes the good guys lose.

Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, fought the good fight since she started there in 1994. The NCLR litigates, creates policy, and performs outreach for LGBT civil rights on a national level, with headquarters in San Francisco. After years of anticipation, she poured herself into the campaign against the proposition that would make her marriage illegal, and then the measure passed.

That night she hung her head in disbelief. She felt physically ill, and her mind roiled in grief equaled only by the death of one of her parents. "It felt like that," she said.

Kendell and her wife, Sandy, went home without speaking a word, and when she got in the door she tried to pull it together. Steeling herself to face her family, Kendell walked out of the bathroom and burst into tears. Her son said simply "this just means we have to fight more."

So she did, and we all won.

That led to the moment for which Kendell may be remembered for a long time to come. When Prop. 8 was overturned by the US Supreme Court this year, a flock of San Francisco politicians descended the steps inside the rotunda at City Hall. Kendell took to the podium and spoke to the nation.

"My name is Kate Kendell with the National Center for Lesbian Rights," she said, "and fuck you, Prop. 8!" The crowd erupted into cheers.

She regrets saying it now, but history will likely forgive her for being human. For someone whose own marriage's validity was threatened and who spent two decades fighting for equality, she earned a moment of embarrassing honesty.

Kendell's infamous declaration may be how she's known, but one of her key decisions behind the scenes shaped the LGBT equality movement as well. When then-Mayor Gavin Newsom's administration wanted a couple to be the first in his round of renegade gay marriages in 2004, it was Kendell who suggested Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.

The two were in a relationship since 1953, pioneers of LGBT activism in San Francisco. Kendell said it was only right that they were first to read their vows in the city they helped shape. "Were it not for their contributions, visibility, and courage in the '50s and '60s, we wouldn't be in that room with Newsom contemplating marriage licenses," she said. "I'm just happy they said yes. It was absolutely appropriate." And it's with that sense of history that she herself pioneers forward, pushing in states across the US what Harvey Milk fought for in California — workplace protections for the LGBT community. "In 38 states, you can be fired from your job or being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. That has to change," she said. "When the next chapter of history is written, it will be about a nation that treats the LGBT community as equals."

 

Theo Ellington

Last year, when San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee floated the idea of implementing stop-and-frisk, a practice that many civil rights advocates say amounts to racial profiling, Theo Ellington stepped up to create a Change.org petition to oppose the idea — and won.

The policy would have given San Francisco police officers the authority to stop and search any individual who "looks suspicious," in an effort to get guns off the streets.

"I found it was basically a predatory policing practice that didn't belong in a city like San Francisco," Ellington told us. His petition garnered a little more than 2,300 signatures, "enough to show policymakers we were paying attention," he guesses. Faced with mounting pressure and a community outcry, Lee ultimately abandoned the idea.

"That was a win, I think, for everyone fighting for what's really a civil right," the 25-year-old, native San Franciscan told us in a recent phone interview. "It's not a black issue or a white issue," but it did strike a nerve and provide Ellington with some momentum for coalition building.

Ellington was born and raised in San Francisco's Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, home to a significant portion of the city's dwindling black population. The campaign against stop-and-frisk helped catalyze his still-evolving political organization, the Black Young Democrats of San Francisco, of which he is president.

Go to BYDSF's website and you're confronted with some startling statistics about the experience of black San Franciscans: In the last 20 years, the African American community has dwindled to only 6 percent of the city's population; meanwhile, the high school dropout rate stands at 38 percent, the unemployment rate is 18 percent, and the level of poverty stands at a disheartening 20 percent.

To tackle these looming challenges, BYDSF now faces the hurdle of getting local elected officials to care. "Since then, we have been trying to build our membership and figure out where we fit in the political climate of SF," Ellington says.

His group's chief concerns include closing the achievement gap in San Francisco public schools, doing something about the escalating cost of housing, and finding better solutions for public transit. "There's the housing need, obviously. It's a need that working class folks in general are facing," he said.

He's pursing a master's degree in urban affairs at the University of San Francisco, and says he's taken it upon himself to learn everything he can about how cities operate. To that end, he often ponders vexing questions: "How do you figure out a way to give those same opportunities to everyone? How do you provide opportunities for all income levels?"

His successful opposition campaign to stop-and-frisk didn't stop Mayor Lee from appointing him to the Commission on Community Investment and Infrastructure, which oversees the successor to the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. A major project under that body's purview is the Hunters Point Shipyard development, a massive undertaking led by construction firm Lennar Urban, practically in Ellington's backyard. Having grown up in the neighborhood, he sees himself as being in a unique position to ensure that the developers are providing jobs for local residents as required under the agreement. "It allows me to speak to both sides — on the community level, and in City Hall," he said. "There are certain social dynamics you won't understand unless you have lived in the community." Ultimately, Ellington says, his goal is to push local politicians to find ways of making San Francisco a place where people of all income levels can find their way. "There's a lot more work to do," he said. "I think San Francisco is at a real pivotal point, where we can choose to go in the right direction ... or we can choose the opposite."

 

LOCAL HEROES: Shanell Williams

Shanell Williams is a chameleon activist, spearheading the effort to save City College of San Francisco from many fronts.

When City College fought off a statewide initiative to save money by stigmatizing struggling students, she defended the school as an Occupy activist. With a banner raised high, she faced down the California Community College Board of Governors, shouting their wrongs aloud at a meeting attended by hundreds. The board was stunned but her fellow activists were not, because that's who Williams is: an uncompromising defender of San Francisco.

Now, as City College faces a fight for its existence, Williams is defending it again, this time as a duly elected CCSF student trustee.

Williams is at the forefront of Save CCSF, an Occupy-inspired group publicly protesting the Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges, the body trying to shut down City College. San Francisco is holding its breath until next July to hear if the accrediting commission will close the city's only community college — and Williams was one of the key organizers helping students' voices rise up to decry the decision to close the school.

She has reason to fight hard, growing up watching her community ravaged by those in power who purported to do good. She is a black woman and San Francisco native raised in the Fillmore and the long history of redevelopment and its role in the flight of The City's African American population shaped her ethos. To Williams, there are forces that care about money at the expense of communities and those forces need to be fought.

"How are we supporting people to have a decent quality of life?" she said, and that's the way she's approached saving her community since a young age.

In 2003, while in high school, Williams got a taste of politicking as a member of San Francisco's Youth Commission, appointed by then-Mayor Willie Brown. "I think he's a very interesting character with a lot of influence over the city," she said, with just an edge of steel to her voice.

As a teenaged politician, she discovered the work of the Human Rights Commission and was inspired. While a student of Washington High School and then Wallenberg High, she had a tough home life and entered the foster care system, getting a firsthand look at how the state takes care of its youth.

It galvanized her, honed her, and made her yearn for change. "I just innately had a sense of wanting to see justice and fairness," she said.

Energized, she joined the Center for Young Women's Development, the Youth Treatment Education Court, Urban Services YMCA, the Youth Leadership Institute, and more. She joined so many organizations and taught so many youth and government officials that even she can't remember all of them off the top of her head.

At one point, she even taught judges across the country about cultural competency. "We had this whole spoken word performance thing we did," she said, laughing.

In 2010, as Williams took classes at City College, she waved the banner defending San Francisco's community college students. She pushed for city-level minimum wage requirements for City College workers, who earned dollars less. She also pushed back against state requirements to cut off priority registrations to those who took too long in the community college system — because she's been there herself.

"They need a few chances to get it right and become a good student," she said. When the struggle to save City College is done, win or lose, Williams sees herself remaining an advocate for students for years to come. At 29 years old, she's still a student herself, and she eagerly awaits the day she'll transfer to Cal or Stanford as an Urban Studies major. It all comes back to defending her city. "We have to broaden the movement," she said. "The enemy is not about color, it's about wealth inequality. It's not just about City College either. It's about the austerity regime that doesn't care about working class people and poor folks."

 

San Franciscans for Healthcare, Jobs, and Justice

When the San Francisco Mayor's Office cut a deal with Sutter Health and its California Pacific Medical Center affiliate for an ambitious rebuild of hospital facilities — which would shape healthcare services in San Francisco for years to come — community activists began to find serious flaws in the proposal.

So they organized and banded together into a coalition to challenge the powerful players pushing the plan, eventually helping to hash out a better agreement that would benefit all San Franciscans. Representing an alliance between labor and community advocates, the coalition was called San Franciscans for Healthcare, Jobs, and Justice.

When the whole affair began, it seemed as if the CPMC rebuild would incorporate a host of community benefits — but those promises evaporated after the healthcare provider walked away from the negotiating table, unhappy with the terms.

Then a second agreement, with much weaker public benefits, came out of a second round of talks between CPMC and the Mayor's Office. But by then, so much had been given up that "we were stunned," said Calvin Welch, who joined the coalition on behalf of the Council of Community Housing Organizations. "We met with [Mayor Ed Lee] and told him, this is absolutely unacceptable."

But the mayor wasn't willing to address their concerns at that time. When the deal failed to win approval after a series of hearings at the Board of Supervisors, however, "the unacceptable deal that the mayor created melted in the sun of full disclosure," Welch said.

That plan would have allowed St. Luke's Hospital, a critically important facility for low-income patients, to shrink to just 80 beds with no guarantee that it would stay open in the long run. CPMC's commitment to providing charitable care to the uninsured was disappointingly low. And while the project was expected to create 1,500 permanent jobs in San Francisco, the deal only guaranteed that 5 percent of those positions would go to existing San Francisco residents.

Enter the movers and shakers with San Franciscans for Healthcare, Housing, Jobs, and Justice. The coalition took its place at the negotiating table, along with CPMC, a mediator, and an unlikely trio of supervisors that included Board President David Chiu and Sups. David Campos and Mark Farrell. Over several months, the coalition put in some serious time and energy to push for a more equitable outcome.

"We pushed so hard for a smaller Cathedral Hill [Hospital] and a larger St. Luke's," Welch said, describing their strategy to safeguard against the closure of St. Luke's. They also pushed for CPMC to make a better funding contribution toward affordable housing, a stronger guarantee for hiring San Franciscans at the new medical center, and improvements to transit and pedestrian safety measures as conditions of the deal.

Under the terms that were ultimately approved, St. Luke's will remain a full-service hospital, and CPMC will commit to providing services to 30,000 "charity care" patients and 5,400 Medi-Cal patients per year.

CPMC also agreed to contribute $36.5 million to the city's affordable housing fund, and promised to pay $4.1 million to replace homes it displaces on Cathedral Hill. Under the revised deal, 30 percent of construction jobs and 40 percent of permanent entry-level positions in the new facilities would be promised to San Francisco residents.

One of the greatest victories of all, Welch said, was how well coalition members worked together. "This was the most straight-up equal collaboration with labor and community people, equally supporting one another, that I've ever been involved with," Welch said. Even though they were motivated to participate by different sets of concerns, the two sides remained mutually supportive, Welch said. During the long, grueling hearings, "The nurses never left," he noted in amazement. "The nurses stuck around for all the community stuff."

 

Photos by Evan Ducharme