A Higher Purpose

by Anh-Minh Le

Students pose in front of the McCarthy Center on Day of the Dons, USF’s annual one-day fundraiser. Last year, during its 24 hours, over 3,000 donors contributed more than $1.3 million to support scholarships, facilities and academic programs at the university. The 2022 event will take place on April 6.

With a dynamic director at the helm, USF’s McCarthy Center — now entering its third decade — is poised to boost its profile and impact.

Growing up in San Francisco’s Western Addition, Derick Brown took drama and capoeira classes at the African American Art & Culture Complex; did his homework at the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center; and learned how to swim and played basketball and football at the Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco. “They saved my life,” he says of the local hubs. “That’s what led me to the work I’m doing.”

Now 42, as senior director of the University of San Francisco’s McCarthy Center — which strives to prepare students for lives and careers in public service, with the goal of shaping a more just world — Brown is a fixture once again in his old neighborhood. “It’s amazing that I have a chance to be a part of this incredible organization, and to give back to and uplift the community,” he says.

Through Engage San Francisco, for example, the center trains USF students to become literacy tutors placed at sites in the Western Addition. And students in the yearlong Community Empowerment Activists program embark on internships with advocacy and grassroots organizations while attending relevant classes.

As the McCarthy Center turns 20, Brown is not only growing its existing initiatives, but creating new ones. A year and a half into his tenure, “I’ve done a lot,” he says in his typical buoyant manner, “but I’m just getting started.”

The Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good was founded in 2002 by the late Leo T. McCarthy at his undergraduate alma mater. McCarthy, a former speaker of the State Assembly and lieutenant governor of California, began his career as an elected official in 1963, when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

At that time, Sharon McCarthy Allen, the oldest of Leo and Jacqueline McCarthy’s four children, was 7. “People would always come up and talk to him and tell him what their problem or their worry was,” recalls McCarthy Allen. “Maybe we weren’t quite sure what his job was, but we thought his job was always helping people — which, in fact, it was.”

On a Saturday morning in 2000, McCarthy convened McCarthy Allen, Art Agnos, Nancy Pelosi and the Rev. Stephen A. Privett (then-president of USF) to share his “idea for a center where students would be trained as ethical, public leaders,” his daughter remembers. “It wasn’t just in public service; it was anything where students could do something in the community to better themselves and the community.”

Leo McCarthy speaks with voters during his 1988 U.S. Senate campaign. | Photo courtesy of John Stanton Political Collection, California State Library.

Two years after that meeting of the founding group, the McCarthy Center opened. Dr. Pamela Balls Organista, who was on the psychology faculty, was invited to join its steering committee. “I’m always attracted to entities like this, where you can really touch both the university community and the broader community,” she says, adding, “This work, now more than ever, is so needed. So much has been happening in the community with questions about how do we empower folks that may not ordinarily have a strong voice and aren’t represented well. That’s very critical right now.”

Since its early days, the center’s impact has extended beyond the campus and the City. The USF in DC program enables students to spend a semester in the U.S. capital, combining coursework with government or nonprofit internships. The McCarthy Fellows complete summer internships at Sacramento institutions.

In 2017, USFVotes, a campaign to register all eligible students as voters, was introduced. That same year, the center established the biannual Leo T. McCarthy Award for Public Service, which spotlights individuals who exemplify the leadership values of its namesake. Former San Francisco Mayor Agnos was the inaugural recipient; in 2019, Privett was recognized; and the latest honorees, philanthropists and Gazette owners Janet and Clint Reilly, will receive the award this month. The ceremony at the Olympic Club in San Francisco on March 3 also serves as a 20th-anniversary celebration for the McCarthy Center.

“It was my privilege to call Leo McCarthy a dear friend and mentor for more than 30 years,” says Speaker Pelosi. “Whether serving in City Hall, in the State Assembly or as lieutenant governor, he worked tirelessly to educate our children, grow our economy and protect our environment. As the McCarthy Center celebrates its 20th anniversary, it is fitting to see Leo’s legacy carried on by young people pursuing careers in public service, and doing so by upholding his same strong code of ethics and advancing the cause of justice that he held so dear.”

McCarthy was actively involved with the center until his death in 2007 at age 76. He was even known for driving McCarthy Fellows to and from the state capitol throughout the summer. “My dad instilled in us: It wasn’t if you would help others, it was how you would help others,” says McCarthy Allen.

Today, in addition to serving on the McCarthy Center’s Board of Advisors, she is principal of St. Stephen School in San Francisco (and lives in the Forest Hill neighborhood where she was raised, as does her mother). Her sister, Conna, is an attorney and on the Piedmont City Council; brother Adam started a company that makes green, nontoxic cleaning products; and brother Niall is an attorney, whose practice encompasses elder abuse, one of their father’s primary concerns as a legislator.

While the McCarthy Center remains true to its founding mission, since Brown came on board in August 2020, he has “put my own twist on things,” he says. Take the mural unveiled in the center’s lobby last fall, a collaboration with Precita Eyes Muralists. The vibrant artwork and a furniture refresh are some of Brown’s “mini projects,” designed to cultivate a more welcoming and lively atmosphere.

McCarthy Center senior director Derick Brown next to a new mural. | Photo courtesy of Craig Lee.

The Equity Interns summer program for college students — a partnership with the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute and YMCA of San Francisco — debuted virtually in 2021. This year’s in-person participants will provide learning opportunities in the City for children in grades K–8.

Of particular resonance for Brown is the Rising Dons mentorship program, a joint endeavor with the university’s athletic department that kicks off this spring. USF students, staff and faculty will mentor sixth through 12th graders — many of whom will come through the Boys & Girls Clubs and the Hutch Center. (Brown’s daughter, Deriana, a first-year student at USF, is among the Rising Dons mentors.)

As a kid, “I would ride right past USF on the 5 Fulton, the 31 Balboa,” says Brown. “All I knew was: It was just some big church on the hill.” With Rising Dons, he hopes to elevate the Jesuit school’s profile as well as inspire the next generation to pursue higher education — “Let’s have these young people come to campus, let’s do workshops and fun activities to get them excited about college!” — and support them as they navigate unfamiliar territory such as college applications.

Brown is also spearheading social justice panels presented at the Commonwealth Club. And later this year, he plans to revive Conversations for the Common Good, a speaker series that has featured notable figures such as Governor Gavin Newsom.

Partnerships are clearly a cornerstone of Brown’s approach. “Teamwork makes the dream work,” he enthuses. “That’s all I do, day in and day out — look at ways that we can engage the community and work together. I’m trying to think creatively, outside the box.”

In her current role as USF senior vice provost for equity, inclusion, and faculty excellence, Balls Organista works closely with Brown, whom she calls “one of the most positive people I have ever met. He’s a great cheerleader, but he’s also a wonderful thought leader.”

McCarthy Allen is equally effusive: “You have to be optimistic and you have to reach for the stars. He does that and I love that about him.”

Reflecting on the McCarthy Center’s past, present and future, her pride is palpable. “I think Dad would be thrilled that we’ve continued to build on that founding — that group of five and Dad’s vision — and have reached out into communities, programs and classes,” she says. “All those ripples are out there making a difference and changing lives.”

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