Best of the Bay 2010: Local Heroes

Pub date July 27, 2010



“The thing I love most in life is being a grandmother for social change.”

“If you mess up, you fess up — and then you fix it up.” That’s one of the motivational philosophies Sharen Hewitt, founder and executive director of the Community Leadership Academy and Emergency Response Project (CLAER) passes on to the people she works with. Her organization provides peer-to-peer empowerment and civic engagement programs as well as immediate crisis stabilization for victims of violence, helping them get the support they need. CLAER is based in Bayview, “but we serve the whole city, which unfortunately needs us more than ever,” she says.

A community leader and organizer for decades, Hewitt has been a critical and unyielding voice on housing, voter registration, education, employment, and political access issues. Her current focus has been on easing recent tensions between the African American and Asian American communities, weeding through the crowded field of candidates running for District 10 supervisor, and “insuring continuing dialogue about the development of sound public policy in the face of diminishing resources.”

“We celebrate diversity, and we try to raise the bar every day,” she says of CLAER. “San Francisco is the richest city in the richest state in the richest country in the world. It should be unlimited in its capacity to serve.” 




“My favorite thing about the Bay Area is the coast along Route 1. It consistently amazes me.”

Food revolutionary Iso Rabins has organized the most intriguing — and fun — food events of the last year, expanding his health code-defying Underground Market far beyond its original berth in a Mission District home. But his keystone contribution to the Bay Area is his ability to communicate his vision of feeding communities without the agro-industrial machine — by recognizing the soil-generated bounty available to all of us if we know where to look.

“The way our society is structured right now didn’t seem like it paid attention to our local community. I think food is a great way to break through that,” Rabins says. His brainchild is forageSF, an organization that promotes hunting and gathering through wild food walks, eight-course foraged meals, and retail opportunities for foragers who spend days picking through the woods, fields, and coastlines. In the locavore-freegan vein, Rabins calls attention to a world beyond shrink-wrap and leaden government regulations. And his message is being eaten up by change-hungry SF. “I really think you can do business and help people at the same time,” he says.




“Something I love about San Francisco is being able to take yoga classes with the best teachers from here to Timbuktu.”

Eleven years ago Katherine Priore was an English teacher in Cincinnati’s public school system. After a particularly stressful day in the classroom, she finally took a close friend’s advice by attending said friend’s yoga class. Priore was instantly hooked. “I had never experienced such profound internal stillness. My stress was alleviated and the stream of anxious, teaching-related thoughts vanished in those 90 minutes.” It was this eureka moment that set Priore on the path to creating Headstand, an organization providing youth in economically disadvantaged areas with access to yoga.

The organization’s ultimate goal is to create a shift in the education system whereby the physical, emotional, and psychological health of students has the same importance as the academic skills they’re building. Headstand aims to do its part by integrating yoga into the curriculum, not just as an elective but as a requirement. Over the past two years, the organization has offered 1,400 yoga classes to 660 youths in the East Bay and San Francisco, and this fall it plans to bring Headstand to San Jose and Houston. With a slew of evidence that Headstand is positively affecting the lives of its students, all signs point to the early success of the program and to the potential it may just be starting to fulfill.




“I love the Youth Speaks office. It doesn’t matter what I’m wearing or what I look like there.”

Odds were against Erica McMath Sheppard to be onstage at the Warfield this past March receiving thunderous applause from a sold-out crowd. But as McMath Sheppard’s powerful championship Youth Speaks Teen Poetry Slam spoken word performance put it, “I been helping myself my whole damn life .” Two things were clear under those bright lights: this woman has a story to tell, and the world’s going to hear it — no matter a difficult childhood, a disastrous trek through the foster care system, and eventual emancipation from her guardians at age 16.

In addition to her poetry laurels and longtime involvement with the Youth Speaks arts program, the Class of ’10 Leadership High graduate was senior class president, involved in the Black Student Union, and active in a slew of other extracurriculars — a record that earned her admission to Dillard University in New Orleans this fall. Does she consider herself a role model? “I’m not trying to be the voice for foster girls around the world,” she says. “But this is my dream.”




“It’s not always easy to live in San Francisco — but it sure is a hell of a lot of fun.”

A constant presence on the queer and charitable scenes for years, Donna Sachet will go to any lengths to call attention to worthy causes — including rappelling down 38 stories of the Grand Hyatt San Francisco to raise money for the Special Olympics.

As a performer and sparkling personality, Sachet MCs the popular Sunday’s a Drag weekly brunch spectacular at Harry Denton’s Starlight Room, hosts the live coverage of the Pride parade on television, writes a society column for The Bay Area Reporter, and attends pretty much every charitable event worth attending. (You can always spot her by her impeccably tailored red outfits — she is, after all, Scarlet Empress XXX of San Francisco’s Imperial Court.) Her annual holiday Songs of the Season event and Pride Brunch fundraiser, along with her involvement with the Bare Chest Calendar benefiting the AIDS Emergency Fund, have raised thousands of needed dollars.

“You just have to do it,” she tells us of her unflagging energy. “I love my community. But even if it’s not particularly about your own community, we’re all in this together.”




“When I paint, I focus completely on what I’m doing and everything else fades.”

Freshly minted Pro Bowl superstar Vernon Davis has shown immense prowess on the football field since being drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in 2006. His career is on the upswing, and last season he tied the NFL all-time record for most touchdowns as a tight end. Davis’ success is the product of natural talent combined with drive and vision. He grew up in inner-city Washington, D.C., where a wise grandmother helped him dodge the environment’s potential pitfalls.

That same talent, drive, and vision extend beyond the goal posts into more esoteric realms. He’s an avid painter and seeks to be a role model for kids who might be afraid to explore their creativity. Earlier this year he launched the Vernon Davis Scholarship Fund, which will benefit a deserving Bay Area art student who would otherwise not be able to afford college. “I want to keep encouraging kids, especially in the inner city, to stay on track and pursue their dreams.”




“I love being around a really vibrant queer and progressive community.”

On March 8, labor activist Jane Martin helped organize a flash mob in the crowded lobby of San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis Hotel. The purpose was to spread the word about a worker-called boycott of the hotel and urge tourists coming in for Pride to stay elsewhere. For five raucous and entertaining minutes, members of Pride at Work/HAVOQ, One Struggle One Fight, and the Brass Liberation Orchestra burst through the doors to sing, play, and dance to Lady Gaga’s hit “Bad Romance,” warning bewildered patrons not to “get caught in a bad hotel.”

The result: A collaborative effort of young and innovative labor leaders like Martin became a viral YouTube sensation, reaching hundreds of thousands of viewers. Martin has been joining with hotel workers in picket lines and organizing around queer economic justice issues in the Bay Area since 2001. She led picket lines at the Omni Hotel to decry the company’s move of locking out thousands of workers. “To ultimately win was really exciting,” she said. “When the hotels backed off, that was really inspiring.”

She recently joined 1,000 in staging a protest at the home of GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman as part of her organizing work with the California Nurses Association. And, as always with Martin, there’s more in the works.




“The Bay Area embodies the American spirit more than anyplace else in the country. You can be who you are without any fear.”

San Francisco is a city of immigrants, a place where generations of people have come — from all over the country and all over the world — for a fresh start in a welcoming environment. But Mayor Gavin Newsom put that tradition at risk this year when he directed law enforcement agents to start referring juveniles charged with crimes to federal immigration authorities. It’s been a disaster — in one case, a 13-year-old charged with stealing 46 cents was turned over to the feds, and he and his mom, who is married to a U.S. citizen, both faced deportation, breaking up a family.

San Francisco Sup. David Campos has led the battle to protect the city’s sanctuary policy — and has taken on the larger issue of immigration reform. An immigrant who arrived in the United States from Guatemala at 14 (and who couldn’t get federal financial aid to go to college because of his status), Campos isn’t afraid to challenge the growing nativist movement: “What’s made this country great,” he told us, “is taking talent from all over the world and integrating it into society. Now the current climate precludes that.”