Updated: Oct 22
"My legacy definitely has to be pertaining to giving back, leading by example, providing resources, and making sure anyone who wants help can get help."
Derick Brown is the Senior Director for the Leo T. McCarthy Center at the University of San Francisco and founding member of MegaBlack SF. He was born and raised in the Western Addition in San Francisco and has enjoyed an extensive career in city government. Derick was a legislative assistant to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a director for Mayor London Breed, and community advisor for the San Francisco Police Department. He now works to educate and prepare public sector leaders.
We sat down with Derick to find out about San Francisco.
I grew up in a single parent home. For me, growing up in public housing wasn’t easy. As a kid we described it as the Wild Wild West—you had guys running through shooting, drugs, fights, a little bit of everything. At a young age, I went to the Boys & Girls Club every day where a kid could just be a kid and play sports.
I eventually graduated high school. I was fortunate to do that; however, a lot of my friends were not that lucky. They were either dead, in jail, or wandered aimlessly. When I graduated high school, I went to the place that I love, where I grew up as a kid—the Boys & Girls Club. I started working there, running programs for youth. After about seven years, I created a program that encouraged teenagers to go to college. I had a couple of college students come and talk to the kids to encourage them to go to school. And I tried to encourage them, and they looked at me and were like, “Wait a minute. Why should I go to school if you never did?” The truth hurt, but they were on it. So the next day I went to City College.
While at City College of San Francisco, Derick excelled. He was on the national dean’s list consecutively for two years and was elected student trustee where he was able to represent 100,000 students. He graduated City College valedictorian and transferred to UC Berkeley, where he graduated with honors. He was later awarded a position in the Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs.
After that experience, I had the opportunity to go back to the Boys & Girls Club as a consultant to work on the development of the Don Fisher Boys & Girls Club. I was also the liaison to city hall to figure out ways to form partnerships with community-based organizations in the area. After about 15 months, I received a call from the late Mayor of San Francisco, Ed Lee, saying “Derick, love the work you're doing. I need you to come work for me. I need you to be my senior advisor.” So I jumped on that opportunity and had an incredible time. I was the mayor's eyes and ears throughout the city.
Mayor Breed came on board, and she and Chief of Police [William] Scott created a brand-new opportunity for me to strengthen the relationship between the community and SFPD. I spent a couple years there developing programs, being a liaison between SFPD and city hall.
Currently, I sit as the Senior Director of the Leo T. McCarthy Center at University of San Francisco. Overall, my main job now is to lead by example and make sure that the center is preparing students for a life of public service. I'm drawing on all my experience and relationships that I've had throughout the past but still working in conjunction with the city, whether it’s with the mayor's office, the human rights department, SFPD, etc.
I am one of the founding members of MegaBlackSF, which is comprised of African American community leaders and city leaders. We pushed for the redirecting of SFPD dollars, 120 million, which the mayor and Supervisor [Shamann] Walton supported. Now we're looking at getting support from all the supervisors, making sure that those funds are intact so we can be intentional about sending funds to African American community-based organizations. I'm excited about this opportunity that I have now that I can capitalize on those relationships and truly take things to the next level.
You mentioned you grew up in a rough neighborhood. How did you escape negative peer influences and negative peer pressure?
It was the grace of God. Imagine as a kid in the public housing project and people running through shooting. Me and my friends dodging, ducking for covering, going in the house, but when things died down we went back outside to go play football and play basketball. That was just normal. Some days it was terrifying, but it was home. When I went to school, my grades weren't that good in high school. Not because I wasn't smart, it just wasn't cool to be smart. It wasn’t cool to get A's. It was cool to hang out and cut school. I think a saving grace was programs like Boys & Girls Club where a kid could go and just be a kid. Also, my grandfather was a pastor. Going to church, listening to him preach and being in the house of the Lord, and knowing that there is a God and there is an afterlife—understanding those things at a young age even though I didn't go to church every day—I had that background.
Could you elaborate on some of the study habits you developed to become Valedictorian?
I went to college when I was 25. I just had a daughter and worked full time. So, when I went to college, I was focused. I was dialed in. I would study and do homework in the morning, go to school in the afternoon, and [then] go to work. When I got off of work, I did homework. For several years at City my life was school. It wasn't about hanging out. It wasn't about having fun. It wasn't about going out. It was about being focused and keeping my eyes on the prize.
"When I was a little kid I always wanted more to life, but I just didn't know how to get it. But when I went to school I started seeing this is the way: you can get educated, you can meet great people, you can be surrounded by like-minded individuals, you can get into a career and really grow."
That's why I was so dedicated to studying. I graduated top of my class. It wasn’t easy, but I was determined. I was focused. I had a great support system. And I was the first person in my family to go to college.
What are some of the skill sets you believe helped you along the way as you progressed in your career?
I think being able to team-build, being able to build relationships, and being able to be open to different things. You never want to be closed minded…you got to keep that energy. You got to have passion. If you say you're going to do something, you got to do it.
What does an average week look like for you?
Starts and ends with Zoom. Start off the morning, and I try to hit some emails early (maybe 7:00 a.m. - 9:00 a.m.). I try not to do any meetings earlier than 10:00 a.m. Once 10:00 a.m. hits, I’m jumping on a call—maybe it's with the provost or the president here at USF or a Zoom with community members, the mayor, or supervisors. Then I am meeting with my team. I like to check in with them to make sure they're good and make sure they have what they need.
There are a lot of strategy meetings. I’m working on partnerships with the Biden Institute, an institute similar to the Leo T. McCarthy Center here in San Francisco. I’m very intentional about the partnerships I have, curating them throughout the day. I’m working closely also with the Warriors, Giants, and 49ers. As we lean into the evening, there are a lot of Zoom receptions. Before COVID hit, my evening would have been three or four different events at city hall, a restaurant, or venue. Now it’s Zoom receptions. And then in the evening, I’m hanging out with the fam kicking back, relaxing.
Are there any potential roadblocks you would advise readers to avoid?
Think about the people that you are surrounding yourself with and stay surrounded by like-minded individuals. I wanted to go to school years ago, but the group that I was with, anytime I even thought about school it was always, “Man, don’t go to school. You don't need school. You don't need that. We’re going to hang out.” Years of hearing that it's like, “Okay, I'm not going to do it.”
But when I started at school and they started to see me do really well, then those were the same ones that reached out and said, “Dee, how do I get started? How do I sign up?” And I could have been like, “Nah.” But I said, “Let me connect you with a counselor. Here is how you navigate. This is how you do it.” And I didn't look back.
"You got to be mindful of who you interact with. But then also you have to go with your gut and do what you feel."
And when you get to school, it's not about being cool (it is to a certain extent) but you have to work. And you have to surround yourself with a support system. You have to get mentors. You can’t get too far without mentors. Not having mentors is a huge roadblock. And for me, that was a turning point.
A huge roadblock for me early on was having a lot of people that I grew up with die. Having to go to funerals, seeing my childhood friends die [in their] early 20s if not teenagers. Mentally that was tough. But finding ways to meditate or finding ways to think—for me it was working out—to take my mind away from that.
Not having enough finances [also] was a huge roadblock for me. But one of the things that I had to do to overcome that was applying for grants, applying for scholarships, going after funds that I needed. At City College, Cal, and all schools, they have scholarship offices. I advise any student to find out where their scholarship office is and go for as many scholarships as possible, as many grants as possible, and apply for financial aid.
What is the ultimate legacy you want to leave behind?
I'm passionate about the community. I'm passionate about giving back. My legacy definitely has to be pertaining to giving back, leading by example, providing resources, and making sure anyone who wants help can get help.