Sheryl Davis of the Human Rights Commission: Showing love to San Francisco through service

Celebrating a stellar event, the Human Rights Commission’s 25th Anniversary “Evening with Dr. Cornel West” are Dr. West, Sheryl Davis and her son, Henry Lee Davis III, a student in communications at the University of Southern California, on April 27, 2018. – Photo: Don Bowden

by Malik Washington

Sheryl Davis comes from humble beginnings, born in Dennison, Texas, and raised in the East Bay. She attended McClymonds Senior High School before studying at the University of San Francisco and San Francisco State University. Ms. Davis’ roots are in education and, in her position as the director of the city’s Human Rights Commission, she has utilized her skills as an educator to create programs geared toward uplifting our community.

Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheryl Davis. I found her to be highly intelligent, articulate, compassionate and down to earth. It goes without saying: Sheryl Davis loves Black people and she has a vested interest in seeing all of us achieve success.

As I delved deep into our interview, I found out that Ms. Davis is committed to serving all San Franciscans who have been marginalized or discriminated against. Whether you are Black, Latinx, Asian, Arab, Indigenous or a member of the LGBTQI community, the Human Rights Commission led by Sheryl Davis is actively seeking to create programs that serve you and all the people in San Francisco.

“I would come back at night to my neighborhood in San Francisco and there were 12thgraders who hadn’t ever turned on a computer – that bothered me.” 

During our interview, I asked Ms. Davis about the chain of events that paved the way for her to become director of the Human Rights Commission. She told me:

“I was teaching kindergarten boys at a predominantly white school, and these young children were working on computers and learning programs such as PowerPoint. They were only between the ages of 5 and 7. Now, I want you to understand, these were very young boys. I would come back at night to my neighborhood in San Francisco and there were 12thgraders who hadn’t ever turned on a computer – that bothered me.” 

Ms. Davis said that she felt conflicted and wanted to do something to address the inequities she saw in the access to adequate education in her neighborhood. She continued:

“I started volunteering at different community centers around the city during the summer and that is how I first met our Mayor London Breed. London was working at the African American Art and Culture Complex. Mayor Breed and I knew each other before Mo’MAGIC, but that is another story. At the time, I wanted to absolve myself of the guilt I felt for working at a predominantly white institution. I wanted to use my teaching skills to help kids in my neighborhood and my community. 

“I want to emphasize that there weren’t many Black teachers at the school I was teaching at. Most of the people of color were folks working in the kitchen or at the front desk. I want to make it clear that our people can be anything they want to be – but I really want to emphasize the need for more Black teachers.”

As we proceeded, Ms. Davis described the set of chronological events guiding her to her present position as director of the HRC. “When Ross Mirkarimi was a district supervisor here in the city, he attended an event that I helped organize at the Cultural Center which was created to engage families. Ross asked me to come work in his office after that. He asked me to help him be more intentional about engaging the Black community. He said that he did not want Black people to be forgotten in this work he was doing. 

Everybody that sits on our commission is supposed to be representing a base and we want that base heard. We want to make sure that there are investments and support for community-led efforts.

“From Ross Mirkarimi’s office I went on to work for Jeff Adachi at the Public Defender’s Office. The work that I began at Ross’ office continued at Jeff Adachi’s office, and those were the early beginnings of Mo’ MAGIC.” 

Mo’MAGIC is a collaborative San Francisco neighborhood based non-profit organization whose mission is to transform the community and youth through the magic of collaboration. Mo’MAGIC (Mobilization for Adolescent Growth In Our Communities) focuses on the historically Black Fillmore (often called Fillmo’) District, while B MAGIC, its sister organization, focuses on the still largely Black Bayview Hunters Point. Both were conceived and sponsored by the Public Defender’s Office under Jeff Adachi.

Ms. Davis said that she is glad that she has experienced life “outside the bubble,” referring to her roots in Texas, but she is proud to have been raised in the East Bay. Nevertheless, she acknowledges that her visits back and forth from Texas helped her recognize the covert racism that exists here in San Francisco, and she is uniquely qualified to help address that.

When London Breed was a supervisor, she asked Mayor Ed Lee to allow Sheryl Davis to run programming at the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center. After a few years there, Ms. Davis was asked to be interim director of the Human Rights Commission, and it wasn’t long before she became the director.

Ms. Davis talked about the work she is doing now with the HRC. “Right now, we are working on amplifying the voices of those in our community. I know what it’s like to have people speak on our behalf and get it wrong. Everybody that sits on our commission is supposed to be representing a base and we want that base heard. We want to make sure that there are investments and support for community-led efforts. 

“We are looking hard at mental health and behavioral health in our community. For instance, for some folks, getting their hair done in a beauty salon is therapeutic. For some folks, just sitting in the barbershop and shooting the breeze is healing therapy. We want to know what healing-centered practices look like in our community – it isn’t always based on Western medicine. A lot of people might not be into religion, but I know that spirituality in the Black community has been huge and helped us be resilient when faced with adversity. 

This photo from the HRC 25th Anniversary shows Dr. West and Sheryl Davis flanked by Supervisor Shamann Walton and Mayor London Breed.

“We are proud to be helping to advance the work of Mayor Breed and Supervisor Walton in regard to the push for reparations and we are monitoring the allocation of the funds that we got from the police department. I know the difference between going into the community and just giving out information as opposed to partnering with them, and I am committed to partner with members of the community.”

Ms. Davis explained that what it is to be young today looks much different than when she was growing up. She spoke about her son and how he has to deal with social media, how one tweet or one Instagram post could ruin his entire reputation. Ms. Davis and I discussed “narrative change” and how the white corporate mainstream media tells stories in such a way that fits their narrative and their base. Ms. Davis spoke about her experience with always having to fight the “angry Black woman” stereotype.

Ms. Davis wrapped up our conversation by talking about the value of the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper and here is exactly what she said: “The San Francisco Bay View is known to be hard-pounding and progressive. I don’t want folks to feel as if the paper was compromised by interviewing me, but at the same time, people don’t understand that there isn’t always an ulterior motive or hidden agenda at play. Even if I don’t always like what is being said in the SF Bay View, there is a value in the ‘call out’; there is a value in what is being said. When we talk about freedom of speech, that is real – I personally don’t want to see that lost. I prefer to do the work underground because I don’t want people attacking my character when they don’t even know me. However, in this business you have to be thick skinned.”

HRC Executive Director Sheryl Davis, seated beside Mayor London Breed, speaks at a meeting of community and business leaders to introduce Mayor Breed’s youth internship initiative, Opportunities for All. 

Finally, Ms. Davis had a word about our Mayor London Breed: “I know from the work that London and I did in the community that her commitment has been to fix what she knew was wrong when she was growing up. London knows about public housing; she knows about the Housing Authority and property managers. She knows about who is locked out of internships and job opportunities, she knows who is getting grants and who is not and she knows where the system is broken. 

“Part of what she has been focused on is trying to fix that, and she doesn’t have to put out a public statement every day for that to be real. I know personally what it is like to walk into a room and be ignored. I would go into a room full of department heads and go to the back in order to make room for others. London would come in and say ‘Why are you moving? Those people are not more important than you, come on back to the table.’ People don’t know – they get all caught up in the politics – but I know that London came into this work in order to make things better for the next generation, and that is all I know.”

Sisters and brothers: I don’t think that there is another newspaper in this city that will provide you with the unfettered truth about our Black leaders. I encourage you all to support the work of the Human Rights Commission and know that this newspaper supports Mayor London Breed. That doesn’t mean that we won’t call her out when we disagree with her – but we know she has come from a place not many politicians have come from, and that we have someone who is committed to fixing the system and the way that it is designed. 

I want to thank Sheryl Davis for her candor as well as her time, and we look forward to a prosperous and exciting new year. 

Bay View Editor Malik Washington can be reached at Malik@sfbayview.com. Contact him whenever you see news happening. Please visit our website, sfbayview.com, read and share the knowledge, wisdom, understanding and Black culture contained in our one-of-a-kind national Black newspaper and sfbayview on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.