February 2021 Advocate: Social justice activist wins SSF Council seat

Social justice / Community organizing

21-year-old social justice activist James Coleman wins seat on South San Francisco City Council

By Eric Brenner, Advocate Editor

AFT 1493 began working with a new local social justice organization, “ChangeSSF,” after it was formed in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in late May of last year by a group of young activists in South San Francisco.  Some SMCCD student leaders, who the union had worked with previously at our colleges on issues such as opposition to arming our college public safety officers and calling for our district to be a sanctuary campus, were among the founders of ChangeSSF. Last summer ChangeSSF members began to actively organize in South City for reforms such as reallocating city funds from the police budget to social programs and for the removal of police officers from city schools. After the activists felt their proposals and viewpoints were not being taken seriously by SSF City Council members, one of the group’s founders, James Coleman, a 21-year-old graduate of South San Francisco High School, decided to run for a seat on the Council in the November 3 election against 18-year incumbent Richard Garbarino.

At the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester, representatives from ChangeSSF, including Coleman, participated in AFT 1493’s teach-in on social justice unionism and we highlighted the group’s organizing and Coleman’s campaign in the September 2020 issue of The Advocate. Through the fall, Coleman ran an amazingly dynamic campaign, primarily powered by college students, and incredibly, ended up defeating Garbarino in a major upset. His news release after winning declared that he was “the youngest, first openly queer, and first democratic socialist to get elected to the South San Francisco City Council.” We checked in with Coleman after he had attended his first meeting as a member of the City Council in December 2020 to ask him to talk a bit about his background, his campaign and his plans for attempting to bring social justice reforms to South San Francisco. We also got in touch with Andrea Sims, a member of ChangeSSF, to get a perspective on the group’s ongoing organizing following Coleman’s ascendance to the Council. 

James Coleman

James Coleman moved back to his South San Francisco home from Harvard University at the beginning of the pandemic in Spring 2020 to finish his junior year online.  As he begins serving on the South San Francisco City Council, he is completing his BA this semester, studying Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology as well as Government, taking all his Harvard courses online from home.  James credits a high school history teacher as first sparking his interest in politics, specifically environmental justice issues. At Harvard he joined the Bernie Sanders for President campaign.

Concerned South San Francisco youth organize ChangeSSF in summer 2020

Following the death of George Floyd, James joined a group of concerned young people who had attended South City and El Camino High Schools and first came together to try to address issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement at the local level in their own city.  They formed an organization called ChangeSSF and began regularly attending SSF City Council and School Board meetings to try to learn about and impact decisions about police accountability and budgeting and police officers in the schools.

In November 2020, South San Francisco City Council candidates were being elected by district elections for the first time and James lived in District 4, one of the two districts where members were up for election. He decided to run despite the fact that his opponent would be Mayor Rich Garbarino, an 18-year veteran on the Council.  James didn’t expect to win.

How did he win?

So how did a 21-year-old, LGBTQ, democratic socialist candidate beat a well known, long-time South City incumbent politician?  James ran an incredibly activist grassroots campaign that engaged around 100 volunteers and more than 200 donors, mostly a network of college friends and graduates from South City high schools, including numerous Skyline College students.  The campaign focused on social justice issues, including universal pre-school for all SSF residents, de-carbonizing the electric grid, and building affordable housing, in addition to reallocating funding from the police to social programs.

In addition to this being the first time for district elections, it was the first time local elections were held in a general election year, and the pandemic and the huge focus on the presidential election helped to vastly increase the turnout from the usual 20-30% to almost 86% of the 8500 voters in the district!  James explained that his campaign volunteers focused on phone-banking and text-banking, making over 17,000 calls and contacting every voter in the district about four times. They also made extensive use of social media ads, which were very affordable for such a small area. Garbarino, meanwhile, relied on lawn signs, mailers, postcards and incumbency/ name recognition. James pointed out that his victory showed that young people can run and win when they run grassroots, social justice issues-oriented campaigns.

Now that he’s won, what are his goals?

Now that he’s in office, James is hopeful that he can work with other Council members to achieve some of his campaign goals. His initial priorities include the establishment of a police review commission, the expansion of SSF’s existing Pre-K program to become a free universal program available to all city residents, the banning of natural gas in new construction with a goal of making the city carbon neutral by 2030 and the decriminalization of poverty, homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness by providing case management rather than arrests and incarceration.

A new San Mateo County pilot program about to be implemented in South City, as well as in Daly City, Redwood City and San Mateo, will take a small step to address this last issue. The County will fund one mental health professional in each city to team with police officers to respond to incidents involving someone suspected of having a mental health crisis.  James would like to see the program expanded and replace the police officers with either a second mental health professional, a paramedic or firefighter.

ChangeSSF continuing to organize and support community members

While James is developing his priorities for working on the City Council, Andrea Sims (a 2013 graduate of SSF High School) reported that ChangeSSF is continuing their community-based work. The group is currently working with the San Francisco-based non-profit Mission Meals to deliver 300 food boxes each week to families in South City who have been impacted by COVID-19. They are also continuing to speak out at the SSF School Board and to work with student groups in South City schools to try to get Student Liaison Officers (SLOs) removed from SSFUSD school campuses because their presence is both physically and emotionally disruptive to a safe learning environment. The group is also working on other projects, including anti-racism trainings and other educational meetings and workshops. Andrea said ChangeSSF always welcomes new members who would be interested in working with them. Anyone interested should DM them on Twitter, Instagram, or on Facebook or email them at CHANGESSF@gmail.com.


Coleman: “We’ll have an inside-outside strategy” with ChangeSSF

James Coleman plans to continue to “work very collaboratively” with ChangeSSF.  He said, “We’ll have an inside-outside strategy.” James also intends to hold virtual chats and virtual office hours to get input from voters.  When asked how students from our district might be able to get involved in social justice work, he suggested they consider joining groups like ChangeSSF, Sunrise Bay Area or Peninsula DSA.  He also said he would be happy to talk with any student who would be interested in getting involved with any of the issues he’s working on on the City Council. He can be contacted at: James@James4SSF.com, Twitter, Instagram, or on Facebook.