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News + PoliticsShamann Walton's path—and his message

Shamann Walton’s path—and his message

An autobiography tells of a childhood of drugs, violence, and incarceration—and the change that led to a successful political career.

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A lot of politicians write books. Some do it for the money. Some do it to advance (they hope) their political careers.

San Francisco Sup. Shamann Walton wrote and published a book for a very different reason. From Juvenile Hall to City Hall: Your Resume Can Change doesn’t aim to be a New York Times bestseller, and he got no hefty advance.

Instead, he told me, he wrote the book to tell the next generation of young Black kids who grew up around poverty and violence that there’s hope, and another path in life.

It’s a compelling read, the story of Walton’s early history as a drug dealer and street fighter who spent much of his high school years either locked up or on probation, and his transformation to one of San Francisco’s most important elected officials.

Walton doesn’t sugar coat anything; his childhood wasn’t easy, and he made a lot of bad decisions. He also managed to get an education, at Morris Brown College and then SF State, and some important mentors changed his life.

We talked to Walton recently about the book, his personal story, and how he has evolved as an activist and elected official.

48HILLS Why did you decide at this point in your life to write an autobiography?

SHAMANN WALTON I started writing it in 1998, when I first graduated from college. Given my background, I thought it would be something young people would appreciate. I wrote many different versions over the 20-plus years before I decided to publish it. I really wanted to let young people know that you can make mistakes, things in life can happen, but you most certainly can overcome them.

48HILLS The title itself says a lot. You talk a lot about your childhood, getting into trouble, spending time in Juvenile Hall, even when you were in college, getting into a fight and getting arrested. You talk about how you were on probation for much of the time you were in high school, and just getting off probation was a big deal. How does that impact your current attitudes toward law enforcement and criminal justice?

SHAMANN WALTON One of the main things, something that also resonated with my one of the times I was incarcerated, one of the counselors told me that I would never amount to anything, that I wouldn’t accomplish anything, that I would be in jail or dead. You hear this from adults in the system who are supposed to support you. I don’t want to overgeneralize, but oftentimes the people in the system don’t take responsibility for young people of color, and that’s certainly tainted my view. But if anything, my view is more tainted now working inside the system. I don’t want to make it just about law enforcement; all systems that are supposed to be there to support communities can operate in a negative way.

48HILLS You have worked on ways to reform the juvenile justice system and better ways to address young offenders Can you talk a little about that?

SHAMANN WALTON We go back to the time when I got elected to the Board of Supervisors and fought for the closure of Juvenile Hall. Even though I was locked up in Solano County and Contra Costa County, I would go an speak at Juvenile Hall in San Francisco and Log Cabin Ranch and talk to young people, and the commonalities from when I was locked up in the early 1990s were the same in the latter part of the 2000s, like sleeping on a concrete slab, walking in a line, not being able to talk when you have meals, one teacher teaching several subjects. These are just things that prepare you for county jail or the penitentiary. They don’t do anything to rehabilitate you or provide you with opportunities to change.

Most certainly my experience as a young person and seeing this continue decades later played a pivotal role in this work.

48HILLS You got help, you had mentorship, people who advised you, told you to believe in yourself. None of us can do anything in life alone, but you make it clear that you needed help.

SHAMANN WALTON Philmore Graham played an integral role. He was the founder of the Omega Boys Club in Vallejo, but he was more than a mentor. He came out into the community, and if he saw you were hanging out in areas where most people wouldn’t go to, he would come and pick you up in the car, have conversations with you. He was really somebody who went above and beyond. I talk in the book about how, in my last stand in Juvenile Hall, he took me to a youth leadership conference, which was really the catalyst for a lot of change in my life. But there were a lot of people telling him not to do that, somebody else should be able to go, I wasn’t worthy of that opportunity. He decided that it was the best thing for me to go. Letting me go on that trip and have that experience literally changed my life.

Having an opportunity later to work with Dr. [Joseph] Marshall and Jack [Jacqua], and a lot of men in the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, I was fortunate enough to see a community of young black men who would provide an opportunity.

48HILLS One of the most important things you talk about was getting an education. You managed to get into Morris Brown, and that made a huge amount of difference. People who are trying to go to college now are facing even more challenges, including that it’s so expensive. What do you think about the role of government in making it possible for young people to have that same experience today?

SHAMANN WALTON I’ve taken out student loans, and had different opportunities. Getting a college education today because of cost is much more expensive, but there are different opportunities today that didn’t exist back then. But that opportunity to get out of San Francisco, to a place where people looked like me—all of my educators were Black, most of the student body was Black. There was nothing but Black people around me all focused on positive activity, and where I was from, because of poverty, that wasn’t the example I was receiving.

48HILLS Your first work in electoral politics was the Board of Education. But even now, the achievement gap is still a real problem in San Francisco, they are going back on the Lowell admission policy, back to what I think is a racist policy, so there a lot still to be done in the SF public schools.

SHAMANN WALTON The reason I ran for Board of Education was that I was seeing a lot of young people who had no skills because of the failure of the school system. I wanted to make sure there was a focus on Black students, Latino student, Pacific Islander students, students who weren’t thriving. It’s a racist policy to have a merit-based system at Lowell, it’s unfathomable that people want to go back to that. At the end of the day Lowell is not a great school because the exclude people, it’s a school that does well because they have more AP courses, educators who have more time. People who don’t appreciate an environment like Lowell aren’t going apply anyway.

48HILLS You chose to take the path of running for office and getting involved in electoral politics, which is one path and often a very frustration path; it must be very frustrating to be on the BOS now when you know what has to be done but you can’t get it done because the mayor won’t go along. There are also a lot of other paths that you people who want to make a difference. What advice to you have for people like yourself grad from college today and wanting to make a difference in society?

SHAMANN WALTON My mentors have always made it clear that there are so many ways to make a change. I chose electoral politics because I felt that no matter what I did, there was always a ceiling blocking me from making more change. and I thought becoming a lawmaker would allow me to have an impact in a bigger fashion. But it is very frustrating to be in this role, especially with the narratives that are being generated on the right wing and the way the news media reflects that. We are all going to disagree and that’s okay, but to create these narratives—and by the way, the mayor is responsible for these narratives about the dangerous dirty city. What did you think was going to happen?

Working in CBOs, teachers working with young people, we have people organizing, bringing people together to fight for issues. You have to have people in elective office, but you also have to have organizers, agitators, everybody has a role. You have to figure out what your role is and how you can be most effective in making change.

48HILLS You have a chapter titled what’s next? So what is next?

SHAMMAN WALTON As I’m looking at everything we need to get done, reparations, more affordability, more opportunities for people experiencing homelessness to be housed, safety … I’ve got a lot of stuff to do in the next four years, so I’m focused on doing my job well. What I’m going to do next, that answer will be more clear in a year or two, but I’ focused on doing my job the best I can right now.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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