Though San Francisco has long been seen as a place of great diversity and a mecca for equity, that hasn’t always been the case for the Black community, particularly in the city’s Fillmore neighborhood. Despite its reputation for equity, San Francisco has seen a Black outmigration, with the Black population decreasing 50% from 1970 to 2010. This marked decline from the 1970s was a direct result of racist policies implemented via redevelopment that led to the displacement of tens of thousands of Black families. Ironically, San Francisco’s progressive reputation has been formed by grassroots activists, including Black residents who fought decades of redevelopment that displaced people from their homes (Brahinsky, 2018). Though the city has retained these activists’ legacies, it has not retained the activists themselves; 2020 Census data indicate that only 5.7% of the city population is African-American or Black.

With awareness of and sensitivity to this historical context, Engage San Francisco (ESF), contributes to and supports a vibrant, thriving Fillmore community by bringing together community members with University of San Francisco (USF) students and faculty to elevate African American histories and knowledge; foster learning, college access, and literacy; and build partnership capacity. Located within the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good, ESF is a place-based initiative (PBI) at USF, where we partner directly with community-based organizations, city agencies, and individuals working in and with the Fillmore neighborhood.

Yamamura and Koth (2018) define a PBI as “a long-term university-wide commitment to partner with local residents, organizations, and other leaders to focus equally on campus and community impact within a clearly defined geographic area.” To realize ESF’s vision, we recognize, honor, and draw from the legacy of Black San Francisco. We hold close our commitment to demonstrate cultural humility; employ an asset-based approach to community engagement; and enact our commitment to anti-racism through partnerships, coursework, and programming that cuts across campus silos. Below we highlight a few examples of our programming since ESF’s launch in 2014.

African American Histories and Knowledge
In 2019, we celebrated the publication of Changemakers: a book in both print and online formats. This was the culmination of a multi-year collaboration with two community members, Mrs. Lynnette White and Ms. Altheda Carrie, who invited one hundred students from the Esther Madriz Diversity Scholars and Martín-Baró Scholars programs, along with professors Stephanie Sears and David Holler, to help them research and write the biographies of African-American activists. To date, 1,500 copies of Changemakers have been distributed to local schools, libraries, summer reading programs, and communities. And, just last fall, the San Francisco Public Library, in partnership with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, hosted a panel of Changemakers in conversation with USF faculty and students.

Partnership Capacity and Health
One multi-year, multi-faceted partnership is with the Success Centers San Francisco, where we co-hosted several members of the AmeriCorps VISTA program who developed projects including: expanded infrastructure for information management; documentation of public health concerns; and curriculum for Code on Point, a technology training program. In addition, Executive MBA students worked with the Success Centers’ board on their strategic planning process. In past years, we have also co-hosted pop-up mobile community clinics in the Fillmore neighborhood, where the USF School of Nursing and Health Professions and the School of Education worked in partnership with community-based organizations.

Learning, College Access and Literacy
ESF Literacy employs 60+ undergraduate students who tutor K-5th grade children in public elementary schools and community-based after-school programs within the Fillmore. We strive to develop literacy-informed, anti-racist, and equity-minded tutors who can expand our partners’ ability to provide high quality education and care. Tutors read articles, watch videos, write reflections, and have group discussions to reflect on their personal access to educational resources, the ways systemic racism has impacted the Fillmore, and how oppression functions broadly. Most important, our training curriculum provides tutors with both current and historical examples of work for the community by the community.


We recognize our obligation to identify and hold ourselves accountable for institutions’ role in perpetuating racial inequity, both historically and currently. This requires us to acknowledge our direct affiliation to USF and its actions, and to remain consciously aware of how white supremacy and anti-Blackness enter our work, both in how we are perceived by and interact with the community. ESF is therefore charged with the responsibility of deconstructing norms of whiteness within our initiative, and incorporating antiracist thought and practice in our training with professional and student staff.

Collectively, the ESF staff discusses how power, privilege, and identity affect our work systemically, institutionally, and personally. We continue to identify intentional ways that USF community members can learn of and repair harm inflicted by the institution. This continued evolution of our work is informed in approach by Critical Race Theorists and Black feminist scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks.

While ESF is not a traditional community-engaged learning program, we are keenly aware that we may fall into patterns that support white supremacy culture and practice. As such, we work to address the historical realities of race and racism on internalized, institutional, organizational, and systemic levels and, in doing so, we draw upon the Center’s anti-racist statement and our commitments to students and communities. We actively recognize the lived experience and histories of community partners, students, faculty, and staff in ways that support critical analysis in programming, day-to-day interactions and student preparation. This works to counter white supremacy culture that is assumed to be the normative epistemology in much of higher education, and more specifically a common thread within the field of community engagement. We invite colleagues who are interested in our approach to place-based work to join the Place-Based Justice Network.

By Karin M. Cotterman & Dresden June Frazier, University of San Francisco

Karin M. Cotterman directs Engage San Francisco at the University of San Francisco; Dresden June Frazier manages Engage San Francisco Literacy at USF.