Centering the Marginalized
In this week’s blog, Zachary Sexton, McCarthy Fellow in San Francisco, describes the importance of communities dictating their own priorities and developing their own solutions. Keep reading to learn more about his experience with the Tenderloin Community Action Plan, empowering neighborhood residents to determine their own basic needs from their lived experience.
I am Zachary Sexton, a 20 year-old senior with a major in Urban Studies and minor in Film. I prioritize working with marginalized communities in the Tenderloin and fighting for the Black community. I am currently a McCarthy Fellow interning with San Francisco’s Planning Department’s Community Equity Division on the Tenderloin Community Action Plan, and the Marshall-Riley Living Learning Community’s Advocate for Community Engagement. I hope to continue to find strategies for community empowerment through organization and neighborhood advocacy well into my future.
Working towards the Common Good is my imperative, and I believe the only way to do so is by following the lead of the community. I have committed myself to support marginalized groups in any and every capacity; through every instance of my service, it has been made clear that my role is to be a simple conduit for people’s power and not a controlling influence. That is why I value my internship with the Planning Department so highly. This process places the power of direction in the hands of the neighborhood’s residents and allows the expertise of public servants to shine through facilitating processes, collecting data, and providing resources. For the first time in my life, not only can I find trust in the goodwill of a government process, I can be an active part of it. Working on the Tenderloin Community Action Plan has been the most impactful thing I’ve done in the fledgling stages of my career. Although I could never do as much as I truly want to in such a short amount of time, I find pride in the trust that the Tenderloin Team has placed in me to accurately represent the Action Plan to community leaders and support the team’s development of crucial materials. I have also found pride in the confidence that members of the community have placed in me to assist in their self-empowerment.
The concept of facilitating self-empowerment is extremely important to the ideology of the TCAP. This is not a top-down process of helping the “unfortunate,” it is the bottom-up approach of revealing the power that people already hold. Through the resident bodies of the Action Plan (Community Stakeholder Group and Working Groups) the community dictates its own priorities and develops its own solutions. The Planning Department has the responsibility of refining its messages into government language and coordinating the proposed actions between city agencies. Even though the Planning team is leading from behind, it is crucial to note the importance of good government within a young and fragile process such as this. The team must be relentlessly committed to drawing the community together, accurately representing the capacity of agencies, and fighting for equitable change. I can say in full confidence that Andrea Nelson, Kamene Ogidi, Sydney Cespedes, Aseel Fara, Ilaria Salvatori, and Kimia Haddadan are the right ones for the job. I am endlessly grateful to have been a part of their team.
To truly serve any community, you have to make a concerted effort to admit to yourself that you will never know more about the reality of a situation than the person experiencing it. While your expertise and academic understanding are valuable tools to support the creation of solutions, there is no substitute for the lived experience of people who struggle with the issue of concern. This is the most important lesson that this experience gave me. Many have lost faith in our institutions of power due to how unresponsive they are to the basic needs of the marginalized. Being a part of the McCarthy Fellowship has proven to me that this history of inequity can be just that, a history. Working alongside fellow aspiring changemakers and public servants who are committed to the common good inspires confidence that good government is within our grasp. All it takes are people like the ones in my cohort who will center the marginalized and fight for true justice.
Learn more about the McCarthy Fellows in San Francisco here.