One can only imagine the smile on former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown’s face as he plans for his upcoming 80th birthday, and contemplates all of the anything-but-ordinary adventures during his years of political service in California.
Born in Mineola, Tex., marrying Blanche Vitero in 1957, and then receiving his J.D. from the University of California Hastings College of Law the following year, Willie Lewis Brown Jr. says, “the best free advice I ever got [was] ‘leave Texas and come to California.’”
The rest, as we all know, is history.
“The best career advice I’ve ever given anybody,” Brown says, “is [to] simply prepare yourself for the worst and you’ll survive the best.” His life rose from and was prepared to endure the hardships of racial discrimination and eventually the gossip and fickle loyalties of public office. Serving over 30 years in the California State Assembly as the first African American from San Francisco, he was elected the 41st mayor of the city, becoming the first African American to claim that honor and duty twice. He became a legend as chairman of the State Assembly Ways & Means Committee, and his breadth of experience in city and state politics is more than noteworthy: 1996–2004, mayor of San Francisco; 1980–1995, Speaker of the California State Assembly; 1964–1995, member of the California State Assembly. In actively engaging in the duties required of these positions and embracing them with his unique style and, what some might call flamboyant, outlook on life, he also became both a highly controversial political figure and a beloved hero of the people of the city with a big heart.
Retired from formal office, Brown stays vocal on political and social issues via his column, “Willie’s World” in the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also co-host of the periodic video and radio Will and Willie show with local comedian/political satirist Will Durst, and is seen and heard from time to time on KPIX-TV Channel 5/KCBS-AM (740) with Chronicle “Insider” Phil Matier. Demonstrating further his capacity to fully engage with his constituency and the world at large, he has even had roles in several major motion pictures, including The Godfather III, The Princess Diaries, and George of the Jungle — all of which qualify him for a rating on the entertainment industry’s coveted IMDB site.
Brown has weathered much but also won much from and for our city. After graduating from a prestigious law school, he took on a 1950s San Francisco that was rife with racial prejudice. Passed over by established law firms not hiring African Americans, he started his own, focusing on the needs of his church, Jones Memorial United Methodist, and the needs and social issues of the African American community. In May 1961, Brown and his young family had endured as much as they could — and more than anyone should — of the prevailing discrimination so ingrained at the time: He and other black families were refused showings of an open home in a prominent neighborhood. His and other young families — many from his church — and now-U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, revisited the housing development and were again refused. Eventually, with the media’s involvement Brown prevailed, discovering the power in shaping public opinion to include fairness to all, a tactic with a theme that has continued throughout his personal and political career.
This theme is strong in Brown’s approach to inclusiveness in social programs. He is praised for his San Francisco Mayor’s Summits for Women, gatherings that provided otherwise impossible inspiration to unemployed and underemployed women via workshops and appearances by inspiring public figures such as Oprah Winfrey, Suze Orman, and Hafsat Abiola.
Brown is currently engaged in a similar civic program, the Step IT Up, America project, enjoining mayors and corporate industry leaders from across the country. The brainchild of UST Global, Step IT Up, America seeks to train inner-city minority women to secure careers in “STEM” jobs: science, technology, engineering, and math. The group’s end goal is to create 5,000 jobs for women who will be trained and ready for entry in tech careers by 2020. The group is targeting 10 major U.S. cities: Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit, Newark, Chicago, Indianapolis, New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Oakland, ideally to reach 50 communities and to provide jobs for hundreds of minority women each year. The idea of placing women in secure, economically stable jobs as a catalyst for improving family stability spoke to Brown, and he was in Atlanta in December 2013 for the launch, calling the program a “ground-breaking and earth-shaking movement.”
Brown is passionate about Step IT Up, America. He says that after 31 years of service in the California Legislature he realized that no matter who was in political office, work-training programs designed to assist people in positive life changes were inaccessible to certain constituencies. “It was painfully clear — painfully clear — that there was no real emphasis on that huge volume of people who are outside of the normal consideration of operations,” Brown told his audience at the program’s launch event. “Clearly, the programs were designed for those who could access them with very little assistance from anybody. They were not designed for the people who are at the outer edges; and I didn’t do anything very much about it in my capacity of leader of the House at that time.”
“When I became mayor … I became the CEO of San Francisco,” he continued, “that’s usually the role of a mayor, and lo and behold it was front and center for me, with a huge volume of people of color, mainly who are outside of the delivery system in any aspect of opportunity for improvement of their lives through employment, through training. And here I am in the mecca, I’m in the place [San Francisco], where the world of technology lives … yet there were double-digit exclusions of people of color from within that framework.”
Brown’s frustration with so much technology within reach but the inability to fully deploy its benefit will be remedied: Step IT Up, America creates connection and opportunities and puts them squarely into a delivery system that is realistic for those needing them most. And Brown’s excitement about opportunities for Harlem, central Los Angeles, and our own West Oakland is obvious. He told audiences at the launch event that he is “frankly looking forward … to the smiles that are gonna come from the faces of the people who get the opportunity …”
So it seems, along with our good wishes from the Marina for his upcoming landmark birthday, former Mayor Brown has many things to smile about these days, including all the other smiles he will see via Step IT Up, America as the legacy of his Mayor’s Summit continues
across the country.