PACE students awarded Merritt Community Capital Scholarships to support studies in affordable housing

Since 2009, the Merritt Community Capital Corporation has been a generous funder of student scholarships in the School of Public Affairs & Civic Engagement totaling $23,434 annually — two to three students majoring in Urban Studies & Planning and one to two pursing a master’s degree in Public Administration. The objective of the Merritt Community Capital Scholarship Fund is to promote and encourage the development of student career interest in the fields of affordable housing development and management. These scholarships help students cover their educational expenses while pursuing their degrees at SF State and enable them to explore affordable housing career opportunities.

2021-2022 Awardees

Kathy Angeles

Kathy Angeles (Urban Studies & Planning) aspires to support and work closely with communities and impacted populations that have faced challenges with affordable housing and the injustices that come with environmental impacts within these communities. After graduation, she plans to pursue a career as a planner to improve the quality of life and reduce inequality in urban areas. She believes that it is essential for the community to have representatives who not only hear what they are saying, but also understand what is going on, and she feels that her close ties to her community have helped her gain knowledge about how to address these concerns. 

Taylor Davidson

Taylor Davidson (Public Administration) has been working in the Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) industry since completing her undergraduate degree. With an emphasis on affordable housing and criminal justice public policy, she hopes to use her master's degree to lessen our nation’s economic and racial disparity gaps. In her professional experience, Davidson recognizes the role that public policy and affordable housing play in undoing these disparities. By obtaining an MPA, she strives to play a crucial role in shaping these policies and increasing access to quality affordable housing. Davidson spends her free time enjoying friends and family, collecting vinyl records, traveling and spoiling her dog, Blue.

Temur Umarov

Temur Umarov (Public Administration) currently works for the Applied Housing Research Initiative at SF State. His previous housing policy related work experience includes internships and volunteering for Tenants Together, the Sustainable Economies Law Center and Public Advocates. Professionally, he hopes to work for the government (state or local) or a nonprofit on affordable housing policy. Ultimately, he wants to work to implement policy that promotes equity in the housing system because he believes affordable housing should be a human right.

Personal experiences motivate Lewenstein scholars to help others

The two 2020 recipients of the Dr. Morris R. Lewenstein Scholarship, Allison Phuong and Michael Brodheim, are at different stages of their lives and careers. But like the scholarship’s namesake, they are both lifelong learners, constantly striving to improve themselves despite challenging lives. The scholarship, each says, gives them some breathing room as both work full time while working toward their degrees.

Sociology major eyes career as mental health social worker

Allison Phuong

Allison Phuong, a junior majoring in sociology, applied to and was accepted by eight universities, but chose SF State after considering family and financial concerns. “Looking back now [that decision] was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life,” Phuong wrote in her scholarship application. “In my three years at SF State, I have found some of the most amazing professors, advisors and classmates who have helped me to see my strengths that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to find on my own.”

After graduating, Phuong, who has worked full time to support her family throughout her undergraduate years, wants to continue her education and attain a master’s degree in social work. She especially wants to help people cope with mental health issues —her father suffers from bipolar disease, and she grew up experiencing the challenges associated with it.

“Through helping my father I saw how much I wanted to pursue a career in helping those who need help and the many who want it. I have a passion for helping with mental health, whether for young adults or parents of any age or older people suffering with mental illness or families with someone who’s mentally ill. I know that can be kind of broad but my passion for mental health will allow me to work with different demographics,” she says.

The Lewenstein Scholarship, Phuong says, will help make the grad school application process less stressful. “I can go into applying for grad school with a wider lens and wider scope in terms of which schools and programs I apply to. It’s provided a cushion for me so I don’t have to be as stressed about planning ahead. It helps me keep one foot in the present and one in the future.”

Phuong has sometimes worked two or three jobs while attending SF State. “There has yet to be a semester where I haven’t taken on a full-time course load of work, part-time work, and volunteering,” she says. “Additionally, I have a full-time commitment to my family. When my father lapses into manic episodes, I have to step up to help them financially and emotionally.”

She says her advisor Taryn Wong has had a strong stabilizing influence on her. “She was such a concrete, supportive figure for me. I could always come back to her consistently every semester. I never had that person before.” Phuong hasn’t ruled out the possibility of becoming a college counselor herself, once she is finished with grad school. But her ultimate goal is to find balance. “I want to support my family but also support my own independent dreams, and to be happy while giving back to the community.”

Master of Public Administration student seeks to contribute through nonprofit work

Michael Brodheim

Giving back to the community is also a goal for Michael Brodheim. After being incarcerated for 35 years and then released in 2015, Brodheim found a welcoming place at SF State through Project Rebound. Prior to being incarcerated, he had received an undergrad degree from MIT; he then continued his education while in prison, obtaining a master’s degree from Antioch University and working as a paralegal helping other prisoners.

Upon his release, however, he discovered that finding a job was much harder than he’d anticipated. “Even in workplaces that hired formerly incarcerated people, I would lose out to someone who had just gotten a degree.” He says he realized he needed to rectify that gap and rebrand himself as not just someone who recently came out of prison but someone with a master’s degree in public administration.

His interest in public administration came from the advocacy and paralegal work he did while in prison for others who were incarcerated. “While incarcerated I learned firsthand that the criminal justice system — a system I formerly believed operated fairly — operates instead in a manner which disproportionately impacts people of color and poor people, helping to ensure that they remain effectively stymied from ever reentering mainstream society,” he wrote in his application for the scholarship. Brodheim’s name appears on two published federal cases: One upheld the rights of a prisoner to engage in protected activities under the First Amendment without being subjected to retaliation by prison officials.

Brodheim hopes to finish his master’s degree in the fall of 2021; he works full time and takes two courses each semester. Despite the challenges, he is grateful and appreciative for the second chance he’s been given in returning to society and the opportunities he’s found at SF State. “I feel extraordinarily lucky to have this second chance to breathe fresh air. The air outside has a different quality to it than the air on the inside.” He describes his experience at SF State similarly. “I am grateful for the welcoming culture at SF State, where I am treated as a human being. Such a breath of fresh air!”

While he works toward his master’s degree, he’s working full time at the Prison Law Office in Berkeley as a litigation assistant. He monitors prison conditions to make sure that prisoners receive appropriate medical and mental health care, among other concerns. “We want to ensure that the prison system does a better job than it would if we were not looking over their shoulders,” he says.

Having witnessed firsthand the effects of structural discrimination, Brodheim hopes he can work to change the wrongs he’s seen. He says, “I made an unforgiveable mistake, and I want to give back to the community I grievously harmed. I don’t know that I can balance the scale but I’ll make an effort to do the right thing as much as I can every day and hopefully make some contribution.” He believes a master’s degree in public administration will help him do that. “It will give me an avenue through which I can hopefully give back to the community in some capacity while working in a nonprofit.” 

‘Solar suitcases’ deliver hands-on experience to an environmental justice course

Jin Zhu and Autumn Thoyre with solar suitcase

Environmental Studies student Jin Zhu and Assistant Professor Autumn Thoyre with one of the solar suitcases (Photo by Jim Block)

In a conference room at a Stockton training center last July, Daly City middle school teacher Leland Oshins learned how to connect the wires, ports and circuits in a portable solar-power kit and reviewed materials that would help teach his students about electricity. He and about 20 fellow trainees also learned that the innovative educational program We Share Solar, an arm of the nonprofit We Care Solar, would send the assembled “solar suitcases” to remote schools, orphanages and refugee centers across the developing world, where they’d help meet critical needs like powering medical equipment, lights and water purifiers. Oshins left the training inspired.

“I hadn’t realized that the project was reaching into the classroom but also reaching beyond the classroom,” he says — teaching the kids about energy but also actually bringing power to developing countries.

Unfortunately, back at Thomas R. Pollicita Middle School, the logistics weren’t adding up. Oshins had 11 of the blue teaching suitcases and 180 students — five sixth-grade classes and one seventh grade. He felt deflated. “I’m not going to be able to teach all of my kids all these complicated instructions,” he remembers thinking. Unable to find support, he was ready to give up.

But during a last-ditch call to We Share Solar, his liaison told him that a professor at San Francisco State had just gotten involved in the program — maybe she’d have an idea. He shot her an email, and indeed, Autumn Thoyre, an environmental studies faculty member in the School of Public Affairs & Civic Engagement, confirmed that she’d be training her students to lead the classroom project. Could she send them over to help him out?

“I was like, ‘Yes, please!’” recounts Oshins, who is currently earning his regular teaching credential at SF State while teaching full-time as an intern at Pollicita. After that, he says, all the pieces came together. “It just felt like kismet.”

The partnership crystalized the solar suitcase project’s expansion to SF State. Launched in 2015 as a pilot at Cal State East Bay, the service-learning program gives CSU students training in solar suitcase assembly, then dispatches them to local middle and high schools to provide hands-on classroom guidance. The outcomes are richly layered: undergraduates get both service-learning and science-teaching experience; community schools get a meaningful, hands-on science project; and University faculty get an exciting, well-supported project around which they can develop their own curricula.

“I wanted a course that would think about energy systems in the context of environmental justice.”

New course, new direction

“It’s the kind of project that as an environmental studies professor, it’s really hard to pass up,” says Thoyre, who joined the College of Health & Social Sciences’ faculty in Fall 2016. After completing her first year, she was prepping a new Fall ’17 course when Karina Garbesi, the director of Cal State East Bay’s successful solar suitcase pilot, contacted her about including SF State in an expansion of the project. Thoyre had already organized her newly approved Energy Justice and Sustainability (ENVS 460) course around a different project, but she started rejiggering almost immediately. “Within a week I’d said, ‘I’m on board,’” she remembers.

“I wanted a course that would think about energy systems in the context of environmental justice,” says Thoyre, whose research is on energy policy and climate-change activist groups. She adjusted her curriculum to unify the suitcase initiative with her project “People’s Guide to Energy,” in which her students’ research on energy injustice sites is organized geographically on an interactive map. The connection was natural — one activity analyzes a problem and one develops a solution, she says.

Each training suitcase contains a booklet with step-by step instructions designed for middle school-level and up. There are interactive “Check for understanding” interludes to teach students about electricity while they assemble the apparatus and connect it to a solar cell that lives outside the case. The kit even comes with an LED bulb for testing the assembled power source.

The program, which partners with PG&E, added four additional CSUs this academic year. But the others are all based in physics classes. One of the benefits of the social science lens, Thoyre says, is that she can push her students to analyze renewable energy from a societal perspective — what problems does it solve, and what does it perpetuate? They explore gray areas like who has control over resources and what that means.

“Sometimes so-called ‘clean’ energy has problems,” she says. “If a project isn’t perfect, how do they make it better?”

Lighting up the classroom

In implementation mode at Pollicita, Oshins splits up his classes into small groups, posting one of Thoyre’s students at each one. By the end of two weeks, all 180 kids had built the suitcases from start to finish. Some kids even got an extra turn.

“They got really good with it. They could put this thing together in under an hour,” Oshins says.

He was especially gratified to see that hands-on building was a way for students who were not as strong at more traditional classroom activities to excel. One of his seventh-graders, Rafat, had trouble focusing and often acted out in class. “He gets yelled at a lot,” Oshins confesses. But Rafat quickly connected with his SF State mentor, Nathan Wong, and with the project itself.

“Rafat just nailed it. He worked his way through the build in no time at all, and was just so excited,” Oshins says. “I wish I could have taken a picture of his face — you could see how ecstatic he was to build something with his own hands, to really figure it out. He wanted to build it again — he was upset when the period ended.”

Thoyre’s students created a lot of moments like that, Oshins says. “In a relatively short amount of time, maybe 40 minutes, they were able to accomplish something really big for these kids.”

The project’s social dimensions go deeper than just different learning styles. We Share Solar originally designed the project to engage students from underrepresented groups — students of color, from low-income or immigrant families, and females — in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Students who get involved in science projects with a social justice component are more likely to get interested and stay interested, Thoyre says, citing a growing body of research.

And the culturally diverse middle-schoolers, many of them from working class, low-income or immigrant homes, saw role models in the SF State students. “There’s power in having college students from the same socioeconomic background as the classroom kids share their passion and show what it’s possible to achieve,” she says.

Katya Amezcua and LisaMarie Betancourt test the circuit

SF State students Katya Amezcua (left) and LisaMarie Betancourt use a digital multimeter to test the circuit on the solar suitcase they have just built. (Photo by Ernita Joaquin)

Reaching further into the community

Jin Zhu worked late the night before his scheduled visit to Oshins’ classroom, slept through his alarm, and missed the session. He was crushed. The environmental studies major, a newly transferred junior from Skyline Community College, has a passion for the suitcase project, including working with kids.

As a San Francisco native whose parents emigrated from Hunan Province to work in his grandfather’s Chinese restaurant chain, Zhu understands the value of his presence for some of the school kids. He was the first in his family to go to college, and hadn’t had a lot of role models or parental coaching to suggest careers outside the restaurant arena.

“Basically my parents just said, ‘Anything but restaurant work. Find a good civil service job so you can make a living,’” Zhu says. But college and the enthusiasm of his professors, including Thoyre, were opening his eyes more rewarding possibilities.

Determined to make up the fieldwork, Zhu used his own connections, did his own outreach, and brought the project to third graders at Boys and Girls Clubs in both Millbrae and San Bruno. His ingenuity also rescued a few of his classmates who’d missed their teaching day, and together with this SF State posse, he delivered a customized training, devising age-appropriate examples to teach electricity basics. His piece de resistance was a fart-based explanation on how electrons flow. He also included the social justice component.

“I wanted them to see their own privilege compared to kids in developing countries,” he says. He gave them examples of what energy is used for that they could easily understand — like seeing in the dark to remove a painful splinter or finish homework — “And then I emphasized: People don’t all have the same stuff you guys do.”

The kids loved it. “When they plugged in the light bulb, they were like, ‘Oh my god, we did it! That’s so cool!’” Zhu recounts. He especially loved how they took basic concepts and ran with them, asking questions like “Can moonlight charge it?” They wanted to show their families, and one girl asked to bring the suitcase overseas herself, “so that she could ‘see the people over there using it,” Zhu says. “It was really heartwarming.”

Like Oshins, Zhu observed that some of the kids who’d been labeled troublemakers were exceling in the hands-on activity. “So I told them, ‘If you want to do this in the future, there are jobs like this, where you put things together, and it’s an awesome job.’”

Switching on new ideas

Zhu is hooked. He plans to do more solar suitcase visits with the Boys and Girls Club. Encouraged by Thoyre’s support, he’s considering customizing an internship around his efforts, and is even eying a teaching career.

The project has also altered Thoyre’s academic trajectory, accelerating her timeline for incorporating service learning into her classes. She’s considering turning ENVS 460 into a service-learning class, and that idea is percolating up other possibilities, like training students to do simple energy audits, then sending them into the field to help low-income households find savings. “They’d learn some practical skills but also make a difference,” she says.

For now, Thoyre looks forward to hearing from We Share Solar about where last semester’s suitcases landed, to cement the value of the class.

“It’s not just that the students learn hard skills and soft skills,” she says, referring to assembling electronics and mentoring children. “They are also literally creating renewable energy. They’re actually helping people in the world have access to energy who really need it.”

Going even broader, Thoyre points to the powerful symbolism that even a middle-schooler can build a solar suitcase. A lot of her students arrive with a preconception that renewable energy isn’t used more because the technology isn’t far enough along, she says. “Once you demystify the engineering aspect of solar energy, it puts the focus back on policies and economics and social norms and those larger question of what kind of energy systems we’re using.”

Leveling the Playing Field: The Willie L. Brown, Jr. Fellowship

Jared Walker and Naomi Kelly in SF City Hall

Jared Walker (left) and Naomi Kelly in San Francisco City Hall

The Willie L. Brown, Jr. Fellowship offers public-sector opportunities to students who have overcome obstacles

With its gilded dome, grand staircase and formally dressed wedding couples posing for photos that will last a lifetime, San Francisco City Hall is a character in every story that plays out there. Jared Walker remembers when it entered his life: on the first day of his internship with the Office of the City Administrator as a Willie Brown Fellow. “When I first walked in there I was like…” — he takes a deep breath and exhales with a whoa — “I felt like this was a big chapter coming up.”

That chapter was a semester-long internship handpicked for Walker based on his career ambition to become a city manager. The Willie L. Brown, Jr. Fellowship connects talented, public-service-interested individuals like Walker — specifically, students who face barriers to opportunity — with public-sector internships, a $3,000 stipend and a support system to guide them.

Walker, a finance major who graduated this spring with a GPA just shy of 4.0, came to SF State through Project Rebound, a program that helps ex-offenders succeed on campus — he served three years in prison. He is one of 52 Willie Brown Fellows who have been placed in city and county government internships around the Bay Area, according to Raquel Pinderhughes, the fellowship director and a professor in Urban Studies and Planning in the School of Public Affairs & Civic Engagement, where the fellowship program is housed.

Support includes a weekly three-hour professional development seminar led by Pinderhughes. “The focus is on identifying professional strengths and weaknesses, preparing for informational interviews, written and oral communication, résumés, cover letters and discussing the issues that the students face in their internships,” she says. This includes ongoing counseling and mentorship for current and past fellows.

“SF State is a lifelong support system for these students, as are many of their supervisors — that’s our job.”

Partners at the City

And when Pinderhughes reaches out to people like City Administrator Naomi Kelly to place fellows, the answer is yes. That’s the original vision for the program, which Willie L. Brown, Jr. (B.A., ’55), the former mayor of San Francisco and former California State Assembly speaker, started in 2008. Pinderhughes works with seasoned city and county officials to find each fellow a position that directly facilitates his or her career aspiration, a laborious behind-the-scenes matching process she calls “the real secret behind our success.”

For City Administrator Kelly, mentorship is personal — Brown hired her right out of college, encouraged her to go to law school and guided her career as she moved through the ranks at the City. Her office regularly welcomes interns from throughout San Francisco’s neighborhoods. “If they want to come and work with me in the City Administrator’s Office and have an interest in public service, then I open up my doors.”

Walker is her office’s first Willie Brown Fellow. She ticks off some of the disjointed to-do list they exposed him to: measuring performance for animal care and control; developing policy to address the out-migration of African-Americans; evaluating software that measures the efficiency of the city’s fleets; working with different divisions on their budgets. “The array of topics he was able to touch on is kind of exciting,” she says.

Walking through the building’s Doric-column-lined corridors, Walker anticipated a weighty-sounding topic for his main project, so he was surprised to find that his work would focus on puppies and kittens. He soon learned that city management involves all facets of urban life — even ones with cute, furry faces. Working under Kelly’s budget and planning director Adam Nguyen, Walker analyzed a proposed change to the city’s animal vaccination schedule.

Nguyen says doing analyst work has enormous value for a future manager. “How many times do we vaccinate, what are the best practices, what are other municipalities doing around this? Then doing a cost-benefit analysis… and what are the tradeoffs and considerations along the way?” Gathering and assessing such facts yourself, he says, helps you to determine whether the information others present to you “is valid—if they’ve asked the right questions, if they have the information they need” to inform policy and operations-management decisions.

City managers pivot topics every hour or less, Kelly adds, so sharp analytical skills are important. “You’ve got to be able to think fast and on your feet.”

Nguyen also taught Walker that strong teamwork skills can make government more efficient. “Every step he showed me, ‘Now look, if you do this, you’re making it easier for the next person who has to pick this up and make something happen with this project,’” Walker recalls.

In addition to his project, he shadowed Kelly and others to a range of meetings, from listening to the mayor and department heads wrestle with public policy issues to reviewing purchase orders with division-based analysts. The internship, including the most challenging parts, strengthened Walker’s resolve to become a city manager.

Walker and Kelley talking

Metrics of success

Based on the program’s success rate, his odds look good. All former fellows are either employed, applying to graduate or law school, or in a postgraduate program, Pinderhughes says.

 And she doesn’t limit the definition of success to public-sector jobs. One former fellow is an English Language teacher for new immigrants. Another helps secure loans for low-income housing. “Even students with jobs outside the public sector are doing work that serves communities in meaningful ways,” she says, proud of the program’s already considerable impact.

“The Willie Brown students are highly motivated to pursue a profession and highly motivated to give back to their communities, so the likelihood of their going on to do something good in the world is very, very high.”

A dedicated network

The program is open to all SF State students, but the majority of applicants in the past year came from the College of Health and Social Sciences (CHSS), the program’s academic home. “Majors in CHSS are very directed to serving some of the critical needs in the city… public health, urban planning, housing, transportation, criminal justice reform, management,” Pinderhughes says. “They are well trained, their applications are strong, and their career goals are well defined.”

Something else the Willie Brown Fellows have in common is access to opportunities they wouldn’t ordinarily come by, including a network of influential people rooting for them to succeed. Supporters are dedicated because of their respect and affection for Willie Brown — and equally, Pinderhughes says, a deep belief in the program’s mission. “They are truly committed to the shared goal of getting people from diverse communities into positions of decision-making and power so that we can have representative government and services,” she says.

Naomi Kelly thinks cultivating such opportunity is just good governance. “The more diverse opinions you have around the table, the better your policy will be,” she says. “You need to have multiple insights into cultural differences.

Walker, who plans to get more work experience and then pursue an M.B.A., grasps the value of the doors being opened for him and his fellowship colleagues. “I think people are sometimes are written off — people just assume that you don’t have anything to offer because of what you’ve been through or where you come from. It’s all working against you,” he says. He calls the Willie Brown Fellowship and its many supporters “a counterbalance” to such routine prejudices. “This gives you the opportunity to show: That’s your past. What are you capable of now? What do you want your future to be like?”