Bay Area high achievers on our radar this month include household names and the next generation shaking things up.
Rahsaan “New York” Thomas
San Quentin inmate Rahsaan“New York’’Thomas is doing things behind bars that most of us on the outside only dream of. He’s co-host of the wildly popular podcast Ear Hustle, where he tells humanizing stories from the inside. He is co-founder of the organization Prison Renaissance, which connects incarcerated people to the rest of society through art and social justice. He’s a storyteller and staff writer at San Quentin News, with bylines in The Marshall Project, Insider and Current. And, now, he’s a curator. Last month, the Museum of the African Diaspora hosted Thomas’ first exhibition, Meet Us Quickly: Painting for Justice From Prison, featuring 21 works from fellow inmates depicting everything from the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to meditations on social justice. Meet Us Quickly is all about prison inmates increasing proximity to the outside world. “According to the laws of physics, everything that occupies space is matter, but when you’re serving a life sentence, it feels like you defy physics — you occupy a cell but don’t matter to society,” Thomas wrote in an essay accompanying the exhibition. His work is attempting to change that.
Somewhere at Stanford, there’s a freshman working hard to save the world. For years, Liza Goldberg has been collaborating with a team of researchers from NASA and Google to create Cloud to Classroom, an educational program for kids that makes the science of climate change more approachable through satellite imagery. Goldberg, who received a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant for the project, has spent the last year promoting its series of apps to science educators across the globe. “Climate change is really hard for many students to understand through just statistics and news articles,” Goldberg said to Stanford Today. “But when we give them satellite images showing trends like ice melt and forest fire, it becomes a lot easier for them to visualize local to global climate impacts.” As a 14-year-old in Columbia, Maryland, Goldberg scored an internship with the NASA team that studied mangrove loss by using satellite imagery from Google Earth Engine. Not long after, she pitched the idea for Cloud to Classroom to the Google Earth Engine team in Mountain View: “I just reached out to them and said, ‘What if we put these satellite technologies in the hands of not only scientists and researchers, but also the next generation?’”
When it comes to making a difference, leave it to the 10-year-old. Around the holiday season last year, Palo Alto sixth-grader Tessa Berney started rounding up donations to feed families struggling with food insecurity amid the pandemic. Her idea was to put together simple yet hearty Italian meal kits that consist of dried pasta, pasta sauce and an uplifting message. “I can’t write them a check, I’m only 10, so I want to help them in a different way,” Berney told Palo Alto Online. So she spread the word to her neighbors on the community networking site Nextdoor and to her fellow students at Silicon Valley International School. Berney received enough provisions — delivered contact-free in buckets outside her home — to put together 145 kits, which she dropped off at San Mateo’s nonprofit Peninsula Family Service. Berney’s efforts were noticed by Palo Alto Firefighters Local 1319, which gave her a $1,000 check for her future charitable endeavors.
Like many tales of the past year, this one began with a late-night tweet. At 11:44 p.m. on January 8, SanFrancisco tech CEO David Friedberg typed the words: “The Pandemic War is an actual war we must fight and win. … here’s my proposed plan and analysis …” What followed was a long-winded thread wherein the Production Board founder broke down his five-part plan to vaccinate the entire country in 30 to 45 days. It included eliminating liability; sourcing, staffing and operating COVID-19care centers; providing rapid tests for everyone plus immediate antibody therapy for all COVID-19 patients; and doing a high-volume vaccine rollout, sans red tape.The internet responded with a mix of doubt and intrigue.Sure, this was a tech CEO —nota medical professional— but his expertise is in life sciences, and viable options were running out in California as the situation was becoming increasingly deadly. ABC7’s Luz Pena tracked down George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at UCSF, to see what he thought of the plan. “I think this is an interesting approach and I kind of like it,” he said.
Along with Bob Hope and Steven Spielberg, Esa-Pekka Salonen has joined the ranks of artists (and non-Brits) who have been awarded honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II. Originally from Finland, the dynamic music director for the San Francisco Symphony — that’s Sir Music Director to you — replaced Michael Tilson Thomas in 2020, and has been making a splash in the City ever since. Despite COVID-19 wiping away all live performances for the symphony’s 2020–21 season, Salonen shone last year in the company’s first native digital program, Throughline, which is available for streaming now. “This is a true personal honor, but more than that, it is meaningful to have artists honored at a national — at a historical — level,” Salonen says of the distinction. “It shows an appreciation of art-making as a necessary part of society. A recognition that culture is who we are, not just what we do.”