Brenda Harris was born in Montgomery, Alabama. Growing up she looked up to her parents as role models, both of whom were active participants in the civil rights movement and had participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the mid-1950s. Harris would listen to her parents discuss the inhumanity of racism, injustice, and discrimination and quickly learned about the importance of doing her part in social movements. Harris recalls that her mother instilled an understanding that underprivileged populations have similar struggles, no matter their race. Coming from a household marked by rural poverty, she had learned this all too well. Harris also recalls her father serving in the segregated Air Force and remembers that learning of his experiences furthered her own understanding of systemic injustices. These circumstances helped to make Harris into the socially conscious and politically aware woman that she is today.
When Harris was in high school, her family moved from Montgomery to Marysville, California, about fifty miles north of Sacramento. Harris graduated high school in 1969. She attended Gonzaga University before transferring to the University of San Francisco in 1971. Brenda was drawn to the city because of her positive experiences there and the established family ties she had. She was also motivated to get a Catholic education because it was a more familiar learning style that she enjoyed. The school was significantly smaller than it is today and there was a larger population of black students. The religious aspects of the Jesuit institution also had a strong presence and social justice was emphasized across the campus.
From 1972 to 1975, Brenda worked in USF’s Drama Department and Financial Aid office while studying communications and sociology. She found that the school’s black community was deeply involved in multiple non-profits in the Western Addition, Bayview–Hunters Point, and Haight-Ashbury districts. Harris tutored at Benjamin Franklin Middle School on Geary Blvd., and worked with a Jewish women’s organization in an effort to unite different groups. She also volunteered at the Free Clinic in the upper Haight.
She later partnered with the Junior League, which offered counseling to students of color who were interested in learning about scholarships and who strived to secure equal education and desegregate schools within the San Francisco Unified School District. After graduating from USF, she went on to earn her elementary and secondary school teaching credentials and a master’s degree in administration.
Harris spent most of her time working in the Western Addition because of its close proximity to USF. This was the first time she was able to fully immerse herself in a black community. For her, the Western Addition was a place full of cultural richness. She witnessed the slow gentrification of the Fillmore District and participated in the Western Addition Project Area Committee (WAPAC) meetings that were meant to protect the neighborhood’s dwindling culture.
Her engagement with the Fillmore lasted until she left the city. She did her student teaching in the Fillmore and worked as a volunteer in the College and Career Counseling department in the neighborhood.
Harris was also involved with the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center. Dr. Shirley Thornton, Deputy Superintendent of Specialized Programs at the State Department of Education, USF alumni, and San Francisco native who Harris described in an interview as “competent, bold, and courageous,” asked Harris to be her political appointee at the State Department of Education in 1990. Dr. Thornton requested that Harris represent her at the weekly meetings hosted by Lefty Gordon at Ella Hill Hutch Community Center. During these “kitchen cabinet meetings,” local organizers and citizens came together to discuss issues surrounding the black community of San Francisco.
Harris was well-qualified, having taught elementary, middle, and high school students, in addition to serving as a school counselor and administrator. Harris also taught as an adjunct professor at California State University Sacramento from 1996 to 2006. The culmination of her experiences built the foundation for her impactful role within the Department of Education. She credits her success to her Jesuit education. Harris feels that the most important thing that she accomplished while working for the Department of Education was providing technical assistance and guidance to school districts, non-profits, and their partners. Harris still attends Jesuit philosophy and theology classes while working for the Education Department near her current home in Sacramento.
Brenda Harris is passionate about improving education in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. She is currently a member of USF’s Board of Trustees and has spent countless hours supporting USF’s mission of social justice. Recently, her work with the Ester Madriz Scholars and Martín-Baró Scholars Programs has earned her the 2018 Engage San Francisco Community Partner Award for Western Addition changemakers. Her support has helped create this book, a book that strives to honor the lives of prominent African American leaders in San Francisco like her.
— Jack Weinrieb and Meghan Grant
Interview with Brenda Harris by Jack Weinrieb. 8 Mar 2016.