Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Afterschool Change Maker: An Interview with Sylvia Yee, Part 1

By Sam Piha

Sam Piha
Sylvia Yee, Vice President of Programs at the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, recently retired. Ms. Yee, who joined the Haas Jr. Fund in 1993, had a profound impact on the afterschool and youth development movement in the San Francisco Bay Area and the state of California. She was a strong believer in the importance of schools working closely with the communities they serve, and the power of public and private partnerships. 

In partnership with other leaders in the City, Ms. Yee launched the San Francisco Beacon Initiative by bringing together the city and county of San Francisco, the school district, and a bevy of other private foundations. (You can view a brief video on the history of the SF Beacon Initiative featuring Ms. Yee by clicking here.)

We recently conducted a video interview with Ms. Yee before she retired. Below we offer some excerpts from that interview.    

Q: How did you form your interest in the Beacon Schools model? 

Sylvia Yee
A: I got interested in the New York Beacons during a visit  to New York in 1992. I was able to see live what a community school looked like:a school that opened its doors after school, on the weekends, in the evening that had this really close connection to community. 

Debbie Alvarez from SFUSD, Laura Pickney from the mayor's office, and several other private funders, conducted a joint visit to New York. All of us came away just energized by what it would mean to recreate this in San Francisco.

Q: What did you find most interesting about the Beacon Schools model? 

A: One of the things that was new about Beacon Schools was that it was a Community Center in a school setting, and that the (quality of the) relationship and the partnership between the community and the school was actually pretty new.

It was also unique in the sense that this was about smart government. This was about using underutilized public space that lay empty on the weekends and evenings and after school. It was a smarter way for government to partner with non-profit organizations and to partner with community groups in a new way to serve kids. Remember this was before California Proposition 49 and the federal 21st Century Community Learning  Centers initiative.

It wasn't just about the use of school space. It was also about how kids were served. This was just at the beginning of the Youth Development Movement, and the  exciting new youth development ideas which were about what all kids need to grow up healthy.

The New York Beacons were attractive because it was this coming together, this partnership between the community and non-profits in school sites. They were a space where kids could experience a whole variety of activity and programs and spread their wings.

Q: How did you adapt this model to San Francisco? 

A: When we brought Beacons to San Francisco, we did it in a San Francisco way. We asked kids and parents in each of the neighborhoods what they wanted in their Beacons. At the same time as we established some common goals and principles for all Beacons, and some common programs that we wanted, we encouraged each Beacon to be culturally relevant to their neighborhood and to their kids--to do things in a way that was responsive and made sense to them. That's what I meant by doing it in a San Francisco way.

We helped bring private funders together and formed a philanthropic collaborative that  made it easier for the Beacons because we all agreed that all of the sites would submit a single proposal, instead of submitting 10 different proposals to 10 different foundations, and that we would all receive common reports. Everybody tried to figure out how to “bust the barriers” to making this successful.

Q: What were some of the challenges? 

A: Very simple things in the beginning seemed like big barriers: for schools and non-profit organizations to learn how to really be partners, to negotiate who cleans up the classrooms after the after school programs, to negotiate extra hours for the janitors.

There were some really hard nitty-gritty things that made using school sites difficult  to use, and I am happy  that the Beacons helped pave the way so that today, many more organizations and many more schools can have this kind of relationship more easily.

Sylvia Yee, former Vice President of Programs at the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, started her career as a high school teacher. She moved on to administer educational programs at the elementary, secondary, and university levels in the United States and in China.

Passionate about social justice, Yee has been active in the fight for equal rights and opportunities at the local and national levels, and championed immigrant rights and gay and lesbian rights over the last two decades. A long-time community activist and leader, she was the  chair of the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center in San Francisco where she led the center’s organizing and other activities aimed at addressing issues such as affordable housing and services for low-income seniors and youth. She also led a community nonprofit agency, Mission Graduates, which provides college going support to low-income, immigrant children in San Francisco and later worked as a program executive in education and health at the San Francisco Foundation.


You can read other blogs by the LIAS project by going to: 

  • Expanded Learning 360°/365 Project website
  • LIAS Blog Written for the California Afterschool Network

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