2015 First Place Writing Winner

Samantha Schmidt

First Place
Indiana University
$5,000 Scholarship Award and Hearst Medallion

Winning Stories

News | Personality/Profile Article | Spot News

News Story

The pastor and choir led the members of the congregation in a spiritual song they knew all too well.

“We shall not be moved,” they sang. “We shall not be moved.”

Soon, the pastor changed the lyrics slightly.

“Gentrification is our enemy,” he sang out. “It must be removed.”

In that Sunday sermon, live streamed online, Rev. Amos Brown urged the congregation of Third Baptist Church to speak out against the city developments and burgeoning housing prices that were driving African Americans out of San Francisco.

He looked out into a crowd much smaller than when he first became pastor in 1976. The church had reached a peak membership of more than 3,000 people. Today, that size has plummeted to about 1,000.

In a press conference Tuesday, former Mayor Willie Brown discussed the dwindling population of African Americans in San Francisco. The problem has become evident through the disappearing membership of once-dominant churches such as Third Baptist, he said.

“Churches have literally gone out of business,” Willie Brown said. “There just isn’t, in my opinion, any way to reverse that.”

Black people are estimated to make up less than 6 percent of the population in San Francisco, according to census data. In 2000, they were about 7.8 percent.

The former mayor credits this decline largely to gentrification, which has made it “extraordinarily expensive” to live in San Francisco.

More than one in every five of the region’s African Americans live below the poverty level, according to a recent study through PolicyLink. About 61 percent pay more than a third of their household income toward rental housing, the highest burden of all race or ethnicity groups.

Under Willie Brown, the city made strides with diversity in city government, he said. When they took a picture of all of the black members of city government, the group filled up all of the steps in front of city hall. Four years later, after he left the position, the same group photo only filled about half of the steps. Soon it will fill no more than a quarter.

The Fillmore neighborhood was once considered the heart of the black population in the city, the “Harlem of the West.” But soon, Amos Brown said, the city’s urban renewal policies and gentrification created temporary public housing units and displaced many black residents.

“It has made people mad, distrustful of white folks who have been in authority,” said Amos Brown, who also serves as president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP.

In a city where most major ethnic groups have their own districts – Chinatown, Little Italy, the Mission and Japantown – the black community does not have its own place.

In the Sunday sermon, the pastor encouraged everyone to attend a Board of Supervisors meeting the following week to discuss their grievances with gentrification.

He extended his arm out with his hand in a fist.

“We’re on our way to victory,” he sang. “We shall not be moved.”

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Personality/Profile Article

Before he became speaker of the California State Assembly, before he was known as “Da Mayor” of San Francisco, before he faced an investigation from the F.B.I and started spending thousands of dollars on designer shoes, Willie Brown Jr. was a trouble maker.

He grew up in Mineola, Texas and graduated from a small, segregated high school with a class of about 15 students. He was smart but mischievous, always towing the line. Anticipating an inevitable spanking at school one time, his former classmate Virginia McCalla remembers, Brown rushed home during his lunch break. He returned to school with extra clothes layered across his bum. Extra cushion.

Even then, Willie Brown knew how to weasel his way out of situations. As a politician, he has proven to be equally clever. The former mayor knows exactly how to depend on his allies and skirt the edges of the law.

“He’s smarter than everybody else,” said Corey Cook, a political professor at the University of San Francisco. “Willie is still the best show in town.”

Regarded by both his critics and his supporters as the most influential person in San Francisco politics, the former mayor has proven to get things done.

During his two terms as mayor, he was a leading force in the tech industry boom, the restoration of City Hall, the Ferry Building, and the University of California San Francisco at Mission Bay, said Darcy Brown, a former member of his advance staff as mayor.

His terms were also plagued with allegations of corruption. Republicans repeatedly claimed he used office funds as campaign contributions. But even after an F.B.I investigation, none of the claims have been confirmed, Cook said.

The cops and the F.B.I hate him, the former mayor said, because they found it impossible to prove he was a crook.

In the 1980s, a Republican assemblyman approached the F.B.I with claims of Willie Brown’s campaign financing corruption. An F.B.I sting operation offered fake bribes to legislative staff, a probe “set up to get Willie Brown,” Cook said.

When a member of his staff realized she had taken a $2,000 check from an F.B.I agent, she approached the mayor in tears and resigned, Willie Brown said. He refused to accept her resignation, since she hadn’t broken the law. Instead he simply told her to write “F.B.I” in their records as the source of the funds.

“And I kept the money,” he wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle column.

Instead, Cook said, the probe backfired on the initial informant, who soon after became indicted on political corruption charges.

“He learned the rules harder than anybody else,” Cook said about Willie Brown. And despite the allegations and criticism, the former mayor has managed to retain his influential status in San Francisco.

“I would still be mayor if there weren’t term limits,” Willie Brown said. “That’s how much I loved that job.”

Willie Brown’s role as a highly desired lawyer and unofficial lobbyist places him at the center of some of the most significant and controversial lawsuits and development deals in the city.

He has only registered as a lobbyist once last year, in order to represent Boston Properties in a tax debate. The company paid him $150,000, according to the San Francisco Ethics Commission website. Whenever he represents other clients, Cook said, he claims he is a lawyer, not a lobbyist. He rarely explicitly discloses the names of the clients he represents.

Aaron Peskin, former president of the Board of Supervisors, said he would describe the former mayor as having a sort of “Wizard of Oz” syndrome. He finds a way to create the perception that he still has power, Peskin said.

And for the affluent socialite, unofficial lobbying might simply mean talking to his friends, former colleagues and current legislators at parties, galas and dinners, Peskin said.

“If you’re Willie, and you’re at an event every night, you just run into people,” Peskin said.

Willie Brown’s influence is most obvious in his weekly column in the San Francisco chronicle. It’s the first thing that most San Francisco residents — whether or not they support the former mayor — read every Sunday morning, said Darcy Brown said, who worked for Willie Brown when he was mayor.

Critics say Willie Brown uses his columns as a lobbying device to cater to his friends and unofficial “clients” without explicitly stating his relationship with them. But Carl Hall, executive officer of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, said many readers don’t care; they assume he has special interests.

“He’s such a notorious figure, everybody probably knows he’s involved in just about everything going on,” Hall said. “That’s why his column is interesting.”

Perhaps his pride is rooted in his rags-to-riches upbringing in Mineola, where the grandmother who raised him didn’t have much, his former Mineola classmate Edward Dickey, 81, said.

Willie Brown and Dickey would work in fields picking berries in order to make money. Later on, Brown became a shoe shiner. Whenever he was able to make his own money, Dickey said, Willie Brown would spend it on clothes, even back then. But at the time, his family’s situation seemed just as bad as everyone else’s in town.

“At that time I did not realize how awful that really was,” Willie Brown said, wearing a Brioni suit that likely cost about $5,000 to $6,000.

Much has changed for the former shoe shiner, who now lives in The St. Regis hotel and flaunts his obsession with designer shoes and expensive dinners. But back in Mineola, Willie Brown was just one of the troublemakers.

“He was just Willie to me,” Dickey said.

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MARIN–The 75-year-old cattle rancher rings the bell outside his home, looking out across the acres of golden hills.

“Hello world,” Al Poncia says.

He points to a house several yards away, the one he grew up in.

The five-foot man with a gray ponytail is retired now, but he still lives on the same ranch that his grandfather bought four generations ago. His son, Loren Poncia, left his corporate job about a year ago to take over operation of the family’s Stemple Creek Ranch full-time. Fifty-five miles north of San Francisco in Marin County, it spans 1,000 acres and raises all-natural, grass-fed beef and lamb.

In all his years on the ranch, Al Poncia has never seen a drought quite like this one.

In January, after three severely dry years, California’s governor declared a drought state of emergency. The drought is estimated to cost the state farming industry $2.7 billion in 2015 alone, according to a new study from the University of California, Davis.

For many California farmers like the Poncias, there simply isn’t enough water to irrigate the fields, forcing the ranch to rely heavily on water from the ponds, creeks and soil. With no rain, their grass won’t grow. With no grass, their cattle won’t survive.

Fortunately, this year’s drought has been somewhat mild for the northern region of the state, Al Poncia says, especially compared to 2013.

He pulls out a small notebook and reads the rain measurements he recorded in pencil throughout the year. From September to December, they were showered with 21 inches of rain. But in the last five months, they’ve had less than 7 inches.

“Just little son-of-a-biscuit drizzles,” Al Poncia calls it.

In early 2014, the drought almost led the ranch to catastrophe. It didn’t rain for 13 months. Two of the ponds dried up. Each time a cow trotted by, dust swept up from the ground, Al Poncia said. Many of the cows were as much as 200 pounds under weight, and the family had to start reducing the herd size by about 20 percent.

“We were within hours of selling our entire herd,” Loren Poncia says.

Then one morning, Al Poncia’s wife, Cathie, stirred him awake to tell him it was raining. The date was February 2, Al’s birthday.

“It was magnificent,” he says.

It rained for about 45 days, Al Poncia says. It filled the ponds and gave the ranch enough water to make it through the rest of the year.

Even after the rain, the Poncia family has worried about the available water in the region’s aquifer, which is often tapped by the local grape industry and nearby town of Santa Rosa. The heavy rain was likely not enough to make up for the 13 dry months leading up to it. An aquifer is like a sponge, Al Poncia says, it takes a while to absorb water.

“Will it refill in one year?” Al Poncia says. “I doubt it.”

Although their ranch isn’t experiencing the same level of drought as the Central Valley, Al Poncia says the business feels the indirect effects. Since the family imports most of its feed and alfalfa from the drought-stricken area, the prices it pays for this feed have increased by 50 percent.

Driving around the ranch in his white pick-up truck, the retired farmer pulls into one of the greenest pastures on the ranch, stepping out onto the soft clover and grass. Because of Loren Poncia’s re-seeding and rotation process, pastures like this one have stayed green despite little rain.

The family uses wells and solar panels to pump water from the ponds and streams into storage holders, which then disperse the water into troughs throughout the property. It takes about 15 to 20 gallons of water a day to provide for each of Loren Poncia’s approximately 200 beef cows.

For the last few years, Loren Poncia has followed a process of dividing up large fields into smaller fields, and rotating the cows from pasture to pasture. This gives the grass time to rest and grow.

Al Poncia looks out at a herd of cattle from his truck window.

“These guys are looking good,” he says.

They’ve made it through this year, he says, but in the unpredictable ranching business, one year of decent rain doesn’t mean much.

“You can do everything right and they can come and kick you in the behind,” Al Poncia says. The man is missing the tip of one of his index fingers, the result of a nasty accident with a rope and a cow about 10 years ago.

Back in his home, he points out some framed family photos. One wall shows the couple’s grandkids. Another wall displays an Apache blessing: “May the rain wash away your worries.”

A black and white photo shows four generations of Poncia men sitting together.

Cathie Poncia recalls the time when Loren was born, and how he loved to sit by the window and look through the binoculars out at the ranch below.

“By the time he knew what a cow was, he was on it,” Al Poncia says.

He always knew he wanted to be a rancher. But he didn’t expect to face the century’s worst drought, says Loren Poncia, who lives in a nearby town with his wife and two children.

“The business itself is a gamble,” Loren Poncia says. “We’re making it, but if the drought continues there’s gonna be a lot less cattle.”

If it still hasn’t rained by January, Loren Poncia says, the family will have to start selling its cattle. If it hasn’t rained by March, he plans to sell it all.

“It could get that bad again,” Loren Poncia said. “But we’re not gonna let it.”

The rancher is an optimist. He hopes to continue what his great-grandfather started, and maintain the ranch for another four or five generations.

“Mother nature has a way of balancing everything out,” Loren Poncia said. “Hopefully we’ll make it.”

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