Origins of a Leader: A Conversation with Former Youth Commissioner Josephine Cureton
Updated: Sep 20, 2020
ABOUT THE LEADER
What is your background?
“I’m Josephine. I was born and raised in San Francisco, living in both the Richmond District and Sunset District. I’ve gone to public schools all throughout my education here. Definitely I am very passionate about activism and social change, and bringing forward a lot of youth-centric movements and politics in different aspects of San Francisco.”
What figures inspired you?
“When I was really young, my grandpa was really inspiring to me. Basically my grandpa raised for the first couple years of my life, and he was this really amazing figure that always inspired me to be curious about the world and give back to others. [Our church] has this monthly “Sandwich Saturday” where we’d make sandwiches for the homeless shelter and then he would also take me to St. Anthony’s with him. That really instilled in me really early this value of service and giving back to your community and just being aware and all that. My earliest memories were watching the PBS Newshour with him; I remember hearing about the Iraq and Iran wars, the stock market—so he definitely inspired me in that way.
As I got older, a really big inspiration for me was Supervisor Katy Tang—who ended up actually appointing me to the Youth Commission—just seeing her out there as such an amazing advocate and someone who also has a pretty similar educational background to me, going to Lowell High School and other San Francisco public schools. I was really inspired by her.
In high school, I was part of Lowell Exhibition Drill Team so Pauline, Erin, Brianna, Shana—all these different really powerful women who were able to lead this giant battalion of people, since the military is definitely seen as like a more male-dominated sphere so it was so awesome to see women leading and just being really inspirational people and mentors to me.”
What prior experience assisted you in this journey?
“Before the Youth Commission, I feel like a lot of my experience—and my passion for what I ended up doing came from, again, being a part of the JROTC program at Lowell. It really inspired me to really value service and bettering my community, and while I didn’t feel totally inclined to join the military for that, I really saw getting involved in city politics and community organizing as something that really does give back to your community and makes everyone’s lives better—that and the volunteering I did there really equipped me. I would say—especially for activism—being out in your community and knowing about it is so important. I was really grateful for my parents and my friends who really inspired me to get involved; to know who the power players in my neighborhood were, to participate in different service days and community events—that all really helped me.”
ABOUT THE YOUTH COMISSION
What was your vision for this journey?
“I definitely went into the Youth Commission not really knowing what my vision was—I was passionate about a lot of issues: Vote16 was something I was really passionate about and while I didn’t end up totally working on it (that was more another subcommittee), it was definitely really inspiring to help get that and it’s before the Board of Supervisors right now so I’m excited to hopefully get that on the ballot. I was also very justice-minded going in, like I really wanted to explore justice issues whether it be the prison industrial complex or how police interact in schools. That was something really interesting that I honestly didn’t really know much about, but also going to public school like knowing about the system: seeing police on my campus and having classmates and peers who I know did end up going to juvenile hall. I always had these questions about: ‘Is this actually effective? Who is this helping? Who is this targeting?’ I really wanted to explore that.”
What problem(s) or social issue(s) were you faced with?
“At the start of my term on the Youth Commission, the Balboa incident happened. If you’re not familiar with that, at the beginning of the school year in 2018 at Balboa High School, someone brought a firearm on campus and it says “charged” but no one was killed—there was one injury—but basically the police showed up, arrested the suspect who was a minor. They were taken out of the school and paraded in front of TV cameras and news outlets and such. There was excessive force used then they were taken to the police station, and the child was questioned without a parent or lawyer present. This brought up so many different issues going on: a) their Miranda rights weren’t respected b) there is a document called the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between SFUSD and SFPD. That basically detailed how police are supposed to interact on a school campus and with SFUSD students—which was violated so many times by those acts. Those were really two issues we jumped on at the beginning of my term, so we helped Supervisor Ronan’s office pass what then became known as the “Jeff Adachi” Ordinates, which expanded Miranda Rights protection to all young people under the age of 18 (used to be only under the age of 16) so that protects young people from self-incrimination and being taken advantage of by police officers. We also tried to work with the school district to clear how police would interact on campus. So far, none of our suggestions have actually been taken into changes, now a lot of our focus is getting San Francisco police officers out of schools, a really big change.
I feel like San Francisco is hailed as ‘so liberal, so progressive’ but realizing that the act of excessive force happens here also, like it doesn’t just happen in Kentucky or other cities and states out there. It does happen at home. It’s really humbling, it’s really scary but I don’t know, I feel like sometimes people don’t care about stuff until it’s happening in their own backyard. This definitely spurred a lot of people into action which is a lesson, and kind of a curse too.”
What was your greatest challenge in beginning this journey?
“One of the biggest challenges is just adjusting: we are full-on city commissioners—I’m a disaster service worker also, I’m supposed to respond to earthquakes and literally anything the city comes into—so you have to adjust so quickly because you’re in this role that people normally take on in their adult lives people who have experience with legislation and navigating bureaucracy. At least for me, coming from experience without much knowledge or any of that was definitely really hard—it was a really steep learning curve.
There’s definitely a lot of ageism in City Hall. We’ll have elected officials or other powerful people in the city come to talk to us, and they’ll be like ‘Oh my gosh, you’re the cute little Youth Commissioners’ and think we don’t know anything, and maybe if we give a presentation to them, they’ll be like ‘Oh my gosh, that was so cute! I love the youth voice’ then don’t do anything we ask them to do. That’s really frustrating—just because we have the exact same status and the same responsibilities as adult commissioners, and some elected officials, yet we’re definitely treated as inferior.
I feel like my white privilege does make it a little easier for me but being young, being a woman—City Hall was not set up for me. The systems in place were not set up for young women to really succeed and make their voices heard, so it’s really hard to navigate all of that. You feel like you have to earn respect and learn all of this. There are so many barriers; I think I’m lucky to have been on the Youth Commission for two years because that first year, I learned so much and also had really great mentors from our staff people and older Commissioners, who really helped me learn so much and build up confidence and ability to talk to people in power, but it’s definitely a giant learning curve.”
In difficult or uncertain times, how did you overcome adversity?
“Having support systems in place was really helpful for me, again, I mentioned the Youth Commission staff and older, more experienced Commissioners—that was really great. I feel like we have to work in teams to accomplish things and there were so many setbacks—campaigns take so long and some of things we’ve been fighting for like the closure of juvenile hall; that campaign was started back in the 1990s and we got it passed to close in 2019. Being able to be comfortable with a lack of closure, and just starting a movement, as opposed to seeing the start and the end, because these things take so long. Also, having people to support you—having your communities to support you also is really important and empowering.”
What was the impact of your work on the community?
“I feel like my work on the Youth Commission has yielded a couple of impacts so far: the Jeff Adachi Ordinates, which expanded Miranda Rights protection, and my subcommittee, the Transformative Justice Committee, which was able to really help out the campaigns and be one of the only active members of the closure of juvenile hall and 850 Bryant, also known as County Jail #4. Those have been two really big wins: right now we also have two Commissioners who are on the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Panel, deciding what juvenile justice is going to look like once juvenile hall is closed. They’re going to be very influential in figuring out what we do now, like ‘How can we promote justice?’ and ‘How can we provide re-entry support?’ but not in this space, in the complex we have now.
For my first term, I hosted a D4 Youth Forum—it was really great to just gather young people from the community, and we all developed a social change plan together, I got free boba—so we all got to kind of bond, learn about the different resources available in the city, and for me, that was really great to be able to engage with different people I haven’t really met before—just because, as a Youth Commissioner, you’re supposed to represent your whole district and definitely I can’t know everyone in D4, that would be too hard. It was just so empowering to be able to meet all these people, to hear their perspectives and I hope they left feeling more empowered and more knowledgeable, and it was really cool to see some of the people who attended leading more activist movements, at the climate strikes—hope they apply to be Youth Commissioners themselves soon. That’s really exciting.”
How would you describe your personal growth as a youth commissioner?
“A big change—I have grown so much. I feel like one of the most important things I learned from being a Youth Commissioner is how to cooperate and work in teams, and also how to set boundaries, which I kind of think go hand-in-hand. The Youth Commission is just so diverse—we have people from all different backgrounds, going to different schools, and all types of professions coming together—you really learn how to balance your own perspectives and others’ and that’s just so important because I feel like a lot of people think of the Youth Commission sometimes as ‘mini-politicians’ and we’re projecting our own opinions on people, but there are so many time where you have to learn, and this has been a big lesson for me: there are times you step up, and times you step back—depending on your experiences in our community. In terms of setting boundaries, just knowing yourself: time management, self-care and taking care of myself while honoring other people’s boundaries [inaudible] definitely so much work and knowing how to take on not enough that you won’t be burn out, while enough to make sure you’re not putting too much on your co-workers. I’ve definitely developed a much greater social lens and a lot more compassion and empathy throughout my time on the Commission, definitely D4 is just one district with very different people compared to other parts of the city. It’s been really great to meet other people and expand [inaudible] city view, parts of the city are different, especially being on the Youth Commission, being with such different people—you get so much out of it.”
What skills have you gained that will assist you in the future?
“I’ve been lucky enough to break down so many boundaries in legislation and bureaucracy, and our local political system—that has made my other work outside of the Youth Commission a lot easier and hopefully will make my work a lot easier in the future. I hope to be able to use those skills in the future to make City Hall and government—and all of this murky legislative language—hopefully a lot more accessible to people than right now. It’s so inaccessible, especially to young people. Time management and capacity building; there’s been so much I have gained from the Youth Commission.”
What advice do you have for anyone who is considering applying to the Youth Commission?
“When you want to be a leader, you have to know your community and really value your community. I feel like a lot of people get so swept up in the idea of leadership like ‘That’s the time to project my opinion and do everything I want to do.’ But when you’re a leader, it’s not about you. Not at all—it’s just the hard truth. It’s your duty as a leader is to uplift them and to really just be the voice. That’s the biggest thing in terms of leadership. In terms of the Youth Commission, I think what we really love to see is genuine care for your community and your city—genuine community involvement. Already going through one cycle of applicants, I feel like the most compelling candidates weren’t the people with the longest resumes or the most letters of recommendation, or anything like that—they were people that when we interviewed them, or when we read their applications, this genuine love shone through for their city and what they’ve done. Even if they haven’t been involved in establishment politics before, we could see people who have improved their schools or have developed a social conscience from just living in a certain neighborhood—I feel like that’s so much more important. You should never have to feel like you have to have this resume, that’s like ‘picture-perfect’ or anything like that—what really makes you so compelling, and what I think makes the best leader—is having compassion.”