Remember back in October, when we asked you to nominate a local hero? This week, we're featuring a few of the people and organizations doing good in our neighborhoods, as suggested by our readers.
Vallie Brown is a former community activist and current legislative aide to Supervisor London Breed. She was nominated by an anonymous community member who praised the importance of her hard work, declaring, “We have all benefited from her efforts whether we realize it or not.” We recently chatted with Vallie about the Lower Haight, her connection to it, and her efforts in shaping what it has become today.
Hoodline: How does it feel to be nominated as a local hero?
Vallie Brown: I'm honored, because community activism is sometimes a thankless job. When you are a community activist you put so much time into trying to make a change, or to connect people to something that can change their neighborhood or their life. It’s nice when people are able to look up from what they are doing and say, ‘Oh yeah, this person has made a change.'
H: What accomplishments are you most proud of?
VB: I really enjoyed all the different projects I did in the Lower Haight, but the project I enjoyed the most was writing a grant and raising money to put trees and tree guards down the 300, 400, and 500 blocks of Haight Street. It was a real community project; John Muir [Elementary School] was involved, the laser etchings on the tree guards came from John Muir students and the children at Hayes Valley South. We held workshops at John Muir Elementary School and Hayes Valley South public housing.
I wrote the grant along with a few other neighbors in the Lower Haight for the Community Challenge Grant, and received $25,000. We also raised money from the neighborhood as well. For this project, we had one of our first bar crawls. The merchants and neighborhood joined together. We had 90 people participate in the bar crawl to raise money for the trees and guards. It was a really great, fun project, and the end result was three blocks of trees and beautiful tree guards. I’ve been involved with a lot of different projects, but that one was the most fun, and rewarding, because so much of the community was involved, from public housing, to our elementary school, to neighbors and merchants.
H: What drew you to civic activism?
VB: When I moved into the neighborhood 20 years ago, we were a completely different neighborhood. I mean, I watched people in the middle of Fillmore Street shooting guns — it was surreal. We had five shootings in one week on Haight Street between Fillmore and Webster, three people died. We also had a double homicide on the 400 block where two young men were killed at the same time. Something had to change. We just couldn't live in a neighborhood and turn our backs on what was happening.
That's what motivated me into doing something. Because people were moving into the Lower Haight, and [the neighborhood] was getting gentrified, there was a bit of resentment from community members that have lived in the Lower Haight for decades. When I started I wanted to do something that was nonthreatening, so we started doing community clean-ups. I would organize it by meeting at local cafes. DPW would supplies us with bags, brooms, and gloves. It was an activity where everybody was welcome. We walked around the neighborhood, met people as we cleaned the neighborhood. It gave people a chance to meet their neighbors and merchants.
Many times when the neighborhood had a violent incident, we would get angry, and have meetings with the SFPD, city departments. and our elected officials. I soon realized these meeting were helpful for people to vent but produced no real change. We needed something that brought us together after these meetings. Something simple and something we could see the results [from] instantly: neighborhood clean-ups. We would talk, eat and exchange ideas. Merchants donated coffee and pastries, making [the gathering] a non-confrontational activity.
That's how I started, about 15 years ago. And then from there, it kinda grew. At that time I started a neighborhood organization. Lower Haight actually had two organizations at that time, a neighborhood and a separate merchants association. Nicole from the Vapor Room and Oli from Record Pressing started the merchants association, and I started the neighborhood association. We had quarterly meetings in churches, businesses and public housing. We tried to include everyone. Our focus was, safety, clean-and-green, and the John Muir Elementary School. We had events, wrote grants and advocated for legislation and City action to address these three priorities.
H: Newcomers may not realize how violent it used to be. Nowadays you see families walk and ride bikes throughout the neighborhood.
VB: Yes well we also pushed community policing, and pushed for the beat patrol legislation. At the time our supervisor [Ross Mirkarimi] was working on legislation to implement beat patrols in neighborhoods that had a high crime rate. Lower Haight was one of the areas.
As a neighborhood, the Lower Haight came out in force to advocate for this legislation, attending meetings and hearings for the beat patrols to be a reality in our neighborhood. It passed as a one-year pilot program. We were lucky — we had two beat officers who were dedicated to make a change. With the beat officers, we created a model for community policing. We did workshops on how to train people in community policing for both neighbors and merchants, and we created a community policing model for Lower Haight. I wrote a grant which was funded through the Mayor’s Office of Community Justice for the training workshops. We would hold the workshops at the Northern Police Station.
We also implemented the Broken Window Theory. Are you familiar with it? You should read about it, it’s really interesting. They originally tried it back east, in Philadelphia, and then in New York. The theory is that if a window is broken, a block or neighborhood makes sure it’s fixed right away. [Or] graffiti, garbage, dumping — anything that’s blight. What it does psychologically is it makes people feel that the block is cared for by the people that live and work in the neighborhood. So if neighbors take that much pride and [put] that much effort in the little things, they’re not going to [allow] the big things like drug dealing, prostitution, or other things that can bring down the quality of life in the neighborhood.
I think there was a combination of things that were tried and practiced in the Lower Haight that changed the neighborhood for the better, especially attacking the violence. I feel the beat officers were the important piece that dramatically changed the neighborhood environment for the better.
H: Would you say that was the biggest change you’ve seen in the community since starting?
VB. Yes. The relationship we have with the City and their departments has changed for the better. We started to partner with the City and realized there were things we could ask for from them to improve our neighborhood. For example, code enforcement. This is where the City Attorney brings in City departments to deal with buildings that could be contributing to neighborhood safety issues. Back then we had quite a few. We also worked on getting services to the neighborhood, like the City’s workforce programs. They would outreach to the folks on the street for training and jobs. That was a big deal in getting people off the streets into positive environments. It wasn’t about pushing out the drug dealers, it was [about] creating opportunities for people so they didn’t have to turn to illegal activity to put a few dollars in their pocket.
Some of the other guys on the street, unfortunately, wouldn't take these opportunities, and they were faced with things like stay-away orders. And unfortunately a lot of them were arrested, and sadly some of them were victims of homicides.
H: What drew you to the Lower Haight?
VB: It was my community, so I wasn’t expecting the police, the City, the officials, or anyone to change it alone. I thought that if it was going to change it was going to be the neighborhood, the people who live and work here, that would make the change. I felt I had to step up and look for positive solutions.
I think too many people think, 'Someone else will do it.' No one can do it alone — I didn’t. Many neighbors, merchants police officers, other City departments, and elected Officials worked together to tackle the issues and to make the Lower Haight a safer, friendlier neighborhood. As a neighborhood activist, when you figure that one out, it’s like a light bulb goes off in your head.
H: Do you have any advice for aspiring civic activists?
VB: Start small and look for small successes. I think that when people bite off more than they can chew, it can be frustrating. As an activist, you devote so much volunteer time, and if you do not see improvement, you can get burnt out. And that’s sad.
As a neighborhood activist I think, ‘What can I change and what can I do?’ Look for it, and do small changes, be creative. You’ll see the accomplishments, and that small feat can be the motivation to do the next thing. You’ll also inspire others to be part of the change.
H: What projects are you working on at the moment?
VB: None, zero, because I work for the City now. When I was an activist, I had a supervisor bring me into City Hall as a legislative aide in District Five. I always try to stay connected to Lower Haight, like with clean-ups — a little bit here, and a little bit there. There are some great activists now in Lower Haight who are doing all kinds of things. So I’ve moved over, and let them continue doing amazing things.
I think it’s exciting. Don’t be afraid of change, I think change can is a good thing, we’re seeing change in the Lower Haight. New people are doing new things and I love it.”
If you've got a local resident or organization that you think is making a positive difference in our neighborhoods, let us know at tips [at] hoodline [dot] com.