Learning How to Listen

Last month, we sat down with USFVotes member and Community Empowerment Activist, Zachary Sexton, to discuss his experience with the McCarthy Center in advance of  the Leo T. McCarthy Award Celebration. In this week’s blog, learn more about Zach’s current work with the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, what he’s learned from the community, and how he plans to use the skills he has  honed in the future. This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What’s your name, major, year, and what programs are you involved in?

My name is Zachary Sexton. I’m an urban studies major. I’m currently a junior, although it’s my second year and I come from Raleigh, North Carolina. I’m currently involved with community empowerment activists as well as USFVotes, and I’ve been with both for about a year. I’m currently working with the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation and on the Vision 2020 committee, and we’re looking at rules and regulations with San Francisco planning to help stabilize the community and prevent displacement.

Who does the community partner represent or advocate for and what project are you working on with them?

 The community partner I’m working with, the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, tries to represent the entirety of the Tenderloin Neighborhood, whether that be, you know, for the transgender community, the black community, the Latino community or the Vietnamese speaking, Mandarin speaking community. They try to bring all of the people of the tenderloin together and give them a voice. 

 The Vision 2020 project is a set of community agreements and guidelines that people from residents of the Tenderloin are currently putting together alongside TNDC to push for increased resources, social services as well as better infrastructure and better safety in the neighborhood as well. 


What knowledge and skills are you learning? 

I’m learning how to interact with communities and put their priorities above mine. I’m learning how to listen to people and make sure that their entire experience is heard and represented. I’m learning to not so much focus on what I want to do, but more what I want to have done for the community, and I want the suggestion for that to come from their voice. So it’s been very enriching to hear not just the voice of professional organizers or, you know, career urban planners, but also the people on the ground who experience everything through their own two eyes. 


What do you like most about your community partnership?

I find that the Tenderloin has an extremely diverse set of people and experiences and also has a lot of history. And I think that it needs to be preserved because people turn a blind eye to it out of fear or ignorance or whatever it may be. But I think that the story of the Tenderloin is something that needs to be documented because it’s an irreplaceable part of San Francisco’s history, as well as the history of many marginalized groups in our country.


So what is the biggest take away? 

Working in that community, my biggest takeaway is that you can never choose to ignore a voice, whether or not you agree with it. You have to listen to everybody who is on the ground and everybody who’s walking through this day-to-day experience because at the end of the day, the future is for everybody. And even though certain institutions or powers that be my children push people out of the spotlight, it’s our job as people for the common good to make sure that at the end of the day, they’re taken care of and everybody can have equal access to opportunity, as well as the ability to live ethically or with dignity.


Where do you personally want to take those skills and knowledge?

Personally, I want to look into creating my own nonprofit organization for either affordable housing or community land trust that takes some of the pressure off of historically marginalized societies, especially the black community coming from North Carolina.

There are a lot of areas where people are living paycheck to paycheck and trying to basically sell their souls for substandard housing. And I think that trying to find these strategies and trying to find these guidelines or find solutions in a place is diverse and as rapid and rapidly changing as SF is is a great way for me to learn the intricacies of just urban science in general and apply it to a place that is very near and dear to my own heart. 


What has the McCarthy Center done for you in terms of moving you forward?

I think honestly ceaseless opportunity, I’ve been offered many different paths that I didn’t even know are possible coming from back home. I didn’t know that a student could get an internship in City Hall. It’s a tons of opportunities and tons of great staff and fellow students that are going through this. And so many just connections I feel like will be just invaluable for the rest of my life, especially getting into USFVotes and working to kind of further the voice of youth democracy with not just myself, but also experienced members of the political arena and even students that have completely different experiences in their lives than my own. It just inspires me to see the world is a lot more open and a lot more possibilities. 

Interested in becoming a Community Empowerment Activist? Apply HERE.

Community Empowerment Activistsethical leadershipstudent leadersTenderloin Neighborhood Development CorporationUrban StudiesUSFVotesVision 2020 Project

Leo T. McCarthy Center • March 24, 2022

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