In their own words…
I never thought I’d make it to the 34th floor of the Market Street Westin.
It’s something I’d dreamed about, over and over again—arriving at the final Hearst reception dinner in downtown San Francisco and posing for pictures in my swankiest black cocktail dress.
From the top of the skyscraping hotel, I saw rows of pastel apartments, the Pacific Ocean and three days of reporting flash across my memory.
I’d been kicked out of a Financial District building four times: first in an office, then in the hallway, then in the lobby, then on the sidewalk (which I asserted was public property). I stayed up until sunrise, cursing whoever decided the nearby Starbucks would close at 8 p.m. I replaced meals with interviews. I did nervous handstands against my Palace Hotel room wall.
But I finished on time.
The Hearst Competition, in all its challenging glory, gave me confidence to blast the “You can’t do this” anxiety from my conscience. My experience in San Francisco was just as valuable as winning the national title. I navigated a city I’d only visited in books. I made good friends who are becoming great friends. I overcame self-doubt and composed something coherent on the tightest deadline I’d ever encountered.
And best of all, I met brilliant real-life journalists who’ve watched the industry grow and change though the decades. They’ve had awesome days. They’ve had horrible days. But everyone told me, in one way or another: it’s the best career in the world. It’s worth every day of uncertainty. It’s not about the money.
And you can make it, truly make it. All you need is a pen and that burning, never-give-up passion.
Ana Alvarez remembers the sudden chill of handcuffs on her wrists, the internal storm of fear and relief, the sleepless night in San Francisco County Jail.
That’s when the 23-year-old former crack cocaine dealer, who undercover police arrested on 16th and Mission Street in August 2009, made a promise to herself.
“I was never going back to that overcrowded, smelly place,” she said. “It was time to turn my life around.”
Her attorney recommended Back on Track, a criminal reentry initiative founded by California Attorney General Kamala Harris.
The program, in partnership with Goodwill Industries, is open to first-time, nonviolent offenders between the ages of 18 and 24. Coursework guides participants through constructing resumes, acing job interviews and, eventually, becoming community leaders.
“Back on Track gives young adults the tools they need to succeed out there,” program director Joanna Hernandez said. “It is a tremendous effort to keep them from going back to jail.”
And it’s working, she said.
Fifty-four percent of adult offenders in the youngest age bracket typically cycle back into jail within three years. That number is reduced to 10 percent for those who graduate Back on Track, Hernandez said.
It has become one of the most successful anti-recidivism operations in the country, said the Attorney General in a press conference on Tuesday.
“I like looking at crises and seeing opportunities,” Harris said. “I believe we have an opportunity to reach and have some consensus that the system is not working the way it has been working.”
Back on Track is about prevention, she said. It’s a step toward change in the Bay Area.
The program works because participants gain a real sense of accountability, said adult probation division director Ernest Mendieta. He’s seen the transformations.
One out of five adults on probation in San Francisco is between the ages of 18 and 24, he said. Those who qualify for Back on Track have a clear advantage.
“We know this age group needs the extra guidance to make a better life,” Mendieta said. “The program mentors might be the only people who ever watched out for them or kept tabs on them. It wakes them up and shows them someone cares.”
Now in its fifth year, Back on Track continues to expand.
More than 500 men and women have completed the program. Most have moved on to full-time jobs and college degrees.
Harris will hand deliver 11 more diplomas at the annual graduation in the San Francisco Civic Center Courthouse on June 30.
Alvarez, who completed the program after 13 months of weekly phone check-ins, mandatory office meetings and 220 community service hours, will help decorate the basement room with balloons.
“I got the second chance I never thought was possible,” said Alvarez, who is now a Back on Track mentor. “I couldn’t be more thankful for that chance, and I’m excited to help people get their chances in the future.”
Like a tall tale heroine, California Attorney General Kamala Harris varies depending on the narrator.
Friends call her a charming anomaly: kindhearted but tough-as-nails, impeccably dressed but often too busy to shop, intensely serious but frequently laughing. She’s an author with a penchant for patent leather Manolo Blahniks, a crusader who relaxes by reading Mediterranean cookbooks.
“And she cusses like a truck driver,” said Mark Buell, a self-described civic leader and longtime friend. “There’s no one else like her.”
Buell periodically meets Harris at San Francisco’s Balboa Café, their favorite spot for cheeseburgers. He recalls one pivotal dinner in 2002, just before her ascent into legal celebrity.
Harris discussed running for District Attorney. Buell lamented his issues with her primary opponent and former boss, Terence Hallinan.
The conversation sparked an enduring political partnership.
“By the end of the meal, I told her I’d chair her finance committee,” said Buell, who has since tracked funds for Harris’s subsequent winning elections. “That’s how inspiring she is. We knew it wouldn’t be easy—she was trying to knock out an incumbent.”
But Buell had faith. Harris is a gamer, he said. Never afraid of an up-hill battle.
In a press conference Tuesday, Harris attributed her dogged determination to a unique upbringing.
She smiled broadly when she mentioned her parents, running a well-manicured hand through her thick dark hair.
The late Dr. Shyamala Gopalan, a Tamil Indian breast cancer specialist and Donald Harris, a Jamaican economics professor at Stanford University, met as civil rights activists in the ‘60s.
Strong opinions ran rampant in their household, Harris said.
“I was raised by a really phenomenal mom who taught us we could do whatever we wanted to do,” she said. “I was raised in a community, at a time in history, where we were challenged and encouraged to imagine and understand that we should not be burdened by what has always been, but instead pursue what can be.”
At an early age, Harris decided to become a lawyer. The goal eventually led her to Washington D.C to study economics and political science at Howard University.
There, she interned for former California Senator Alan Cranston, the Peter D. Hart Research Associates and the public affairs division of the Federal Bank Commission. She worked as a tour guide at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. She held her first public office: freshman class representative.
After graduating from the University of California, Hastings College of Law, Harris announced she’d become a prosecutor.
Her family was shocked, she said. The decision required as much defense as a thesis.
“What I said then, I definitely maintain today after a career as a prosecutor,” she said. “Law enforcement has such a direct and profound impact on the most vulnerable among us and has, as its responsibility, as its job, to be a voice for the voiceless.”
Former San Francisco City Attorney Louise Renne remembers sensing that passion in Harris. In 2000, when she needed someone in charge of family services, the young prosecutor topped her list.
Compassion was essential for the job, she said.
“I could tell right away how strong and smart she was,” Renne said. “But it was apparent that she was human, with a soft side. She never tried to hide that.”
Compassion is a major component of Harris’s success today. It connects her to people, Renne said. It makes her relatable.
Her public Facebook page bursts with praise.
“Thank you for seeking justice for us!”
Get ’em Kamala! Kudos to you AG…”
“Good job Kamala I am your fan.”
Ana Alvarez, who was arrested in 2009 for dealing crack cocaine, describes Harris as a role model—the tangible kind who walks into your life, smiles warmly and motivates you to be a better person.
After enrolling in Back on Track, a reentry initiative Harris founded for first-time, non-violent offenders between ages the ages of 18 and 24, Alvarez began to clean up her life.
She felt star-struck when the Attorney General walked into a group meeting.
“I’d only really seen her online and in newspapers,” Alvarez said. “But, before I graduated, she came in to talk to us personally. She really wanted to know what we thought of the program. She was so friendly and open to suggestions.”
Since launching the program in 2005, Harris has attended every annual June graduation. She’s addressed five crowds of parents, spouses, friends and children gathered in the San Francisco Civic Courthouse’s Jury Assembly room. She’s shaken hands with every graduate—all 514 of them, including the newly employed Alvarez.
“It’s like it’s her own children graduating,” said Back on Track coordinator Joanna Hernandez. “There’s this glow on her face. You can see she’s really feeling it.”
Hernandez said it’s apparent in the calls, emails, impromptu office visits: Harris cares. Her involvement isn’t a professional reflex or an empty PR move.
California’s top prosecutor will, as always, turn off her smart phone for this year’s graduation on the 30th.
She’s got 11 more hands to shake.
At the base of 500 South Sutter Street, Jasmine Pete tilted her chin skyward.
The 24-year-old in worn Adidas sneakers, hand-me-down Capri jeans and a black windbreaker examined the nine-story building from her spot on the sidewalk. She’d never been to San Francisco’s financial district before.
She opened the glass door, waved to the smiling security guard and pressed “2” inside the elevator. On a quiet floor lined with offices, she spotted the room label that was also her mission: “Dress for Success.”
Pete, a recovering crack cocaine addict, is among a growing community of formerly homeless women preparing for the work force in San Francisco.
Her local treatment center, Walden House, offers skill training for entry-level jobs.
When clients are ready to start interviewing, mentors make an appointment with Dress for Success.
It’s all part of a charity-driven network, said Prenatal Homeless Program spokeswoman Martha Ryan. Treatment facilities and homeless shelters send women to local non-profit clothing agencies for an education in workplace fashion.
But for volunteers and clients alike, questions often arise: What qualifies as acceptable professional style in San Francisco? And how can it be created on the most basic level?
“There really isn’t just one standard,” local career couch Kate Blake said.
When tech companies like Twitter and Google began filling office buildings, super dressy duds started to phase out of professional closets.
However, she said, it’s never a bad idea to polish for an interview. That’s the most crucial time to impress employers.
For this reason, Dress for Success supplies interview apparel to women in Pete’s situation: They must find work, and the right outfit helps.
Each client may select one free ensemble for an interview and, after she’s hired, another for the workweek.
“It’s amazing how much confidence one outfit can bring,” said program manager Kate Lillig. “We dress women to empower them.”
Clients are evaluated for clothing needs based on the nature of their potential job. Office positions require conservative apparel, while retail store managers admire trendy get-ups.
Clothing is available on a donation basis, so volunteers adhere to fashion icon Tim Gunn’s philosophy: Make it work.
It’s image consultant Elyse Freeman’s favorite style challenge.
Across the street from Dress for Success’s building, she styles homeless and disabled women at non-profit clothing store A Minor Miracle. Freeman favors solid colors and simple cuts in a city without a consistent work dress code.
“I think, ‘How can I create the most re-wearable look?'” she said. “I want women to be able to mix and match at home to get the most use at work.”
Freeman continuously searches the store, which also sells heavily discounted designer items to the public. Red heads look great in jewel-toned suits, she said. Blondes are most flattered by pastels.
And on the streets of San Francisco, every professional woman looks fierce in a towering pair of heels.
“Sometimes the women get emotional and almost cry,” Freeman said. “They’re finally ready to take on the world. I believe the best style, especially in big cities, is anything that gives you confidence.”
Schyneida Williams sought Freeman’s help for her first job interview.
After transitioning from homeless to self-supporting last October, Williams knew she needed workplace staples.
“I was wearing regular blue jeans and a sweatshirt when I walked in,” she said. “I left with a bunch of stuff, like this awesome purple sweater, that I never would’ve thought to try on.”
Now a case manager at the Prenatal Homeless Foundation, Williams refers other women to the clothing program.
Lovely clothes make all the difference, she said. It’s important to let personality shine through at work.
Inside the Dress for Success lobby, Pete wondered what look would be best for her.
“Right over here,” a volunteer said, ushering her into a room packed with suit jackets, casual blazers, dress pants and pencil skirts. “Our intern, Stephanie, will help you out.”
Stephanie jotted down Pete’s sizes and began leafing through the stuffed clothing racks. She paused to consider a beige Ann Taylor jacket.
“How about this?”
“I don’t know,” Pete said. “What about something younger?”
“Okay, what about this?”
Forty-five minutes and seven outfits later, Pete emerged from the single dressing room in a white pinstriped jacket and skirt from Dress Barn paired with black Chinese Laundry kitten heels. Matching rhinestone studs glittered from her ears.
She imagined walking into BCBG, an upscale clothing retailer near Union Square where she had an interview at 6 p.m. the next day.
She looked into the mirror.
“This is the one.”