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SF State graduate founded America’s longest-running Juneteenth celebration

Wesley Johnson was a 1930s student activist before becoming a seminal entrepreneur in San Francisco’s Fillmore District

For the second time ever, the San Francisco State University campus will close on June 19 for Juneteenth. The festivities in San Francisco for the new federal holiday — which commemorates the emancipation of African American enslaved persons — have been rededicated to their founder, a San Francisco State alumnus named Wesley Johnson.  

In 1945, Johnson created what would become the longest continuously running Juneteenth celebration in America. The native Texan announced it in grandiose fashion, riding a white stallion in the street and inviting passersby to celebrate at his Fillmore District nightclub. Nineteen years later, he established the Juneteenth parade in San Francisco, leading the way again on a white horse in his signature 10-gallon white Stetson cowboy hat to set off a three-day festival. This year the parade took place on June 8, alongside a month filled with festivals in several neighborhoods. 

SF State alumna Melina Jones, who has served on the committee for the Juneteenth parade and festival, learned about Johnson when researching the history of the holiday for her annual “BlaCOEUR” Juneteenth event. 

“I just got so excited about him and his legacy in the Fillmore during the Harlem of the West era of the ’40s and ’50s,” said Jones, a designer and rap artist born and raised in San Francisco. “I was incredibly proud just to be from here and to know that I get to be from a region where there are all of these innovators who are just brilliant cultural engineers.” 

Wesley Johnson was born in 1908 in Galveston, Texas — the same city where Juneteenth celebrations began on June 19, 1866, one year after a Union Army general issued an order informing Texans that enslaved persons were now free. Although President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, it took two and a half years for the news to spread and for abolition to be enforced. 

After World War I, when Johnson was still a teenager, he and his family moved to San Francisco. Due to racist housing covenants and redlining, African Americans were welcome to live in only three of the city’s neighborhoods; the Johnson family settled in the Fillmore District. He entered San Francisco State College when the campus was located on Haight Street with about 1,100 students, very few of them Black.  

Several archival news clippings from the Golden Gater student newspaper, available in the University Archives in the J. Paul Leonard Library, highlight Johnson’s engagement in student life. In fall 1931, pledges from the Delta Sigma Theta sorority threw him a party to celebrate the birth of his second son. “Oh yes, all I need now is three more and I will have a basketball team!” Johnson quipped. 

As president of the International Relations Club, Johnson directed “The Big Broadcast,” a live variety show on campus in the 1930s. Tickets were 20 cents each. “Do you want to witness the greatest show ever given at State?” Johnson said in the Golden Gater to promote the show. 

SF State Associate Librarian Meredith Eliassen, the University’s archivist, notes that Johnson launched one of the first student organizations for African Americans. In 1935 he created the Utopian Club for African Americans to discuss social issues. The following year it became the Negro Students Club, which would eventually be replaced by the first-ever Black Student Union

Eliassen says Johnson paved the way for students who decades later organized efforts to effect change, particularly the strike of 1968 – 1969 that resulted in the nation’s first College of Ethnic Studies

“The issues for Black students in the ’30s were the same as the ’60s: They were paying a fee, but not getting an equal education,” Eliassen said, noting students were unhappy about exclusionary admissions policies and curricula that omitted persons of color. 

After graduating from SF State, Johnson became one of the seminal entrepreneurs in the Fillmore District, as detailed in a Western Historical Quarterly article by Emily Blanck from 2019. The commercial corridor of Fillmore Street was thriving with African American-owned businesses, giving the area its status as the “Harlem of the West.” Among the area’s 20 nightclubs were Johnson’s Texas Playhouse (also known as Club Flamingo, with 15 hotel rooms above the ground floor) and the Congo. On any given night Johnson would be spinning jazz music and dancing “up and down the bar,” waitress Dorothy Alley said in the 2006 book “Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era” by Elizabeth Pepin (B.A., ’94) and Lewis Watts. Famous musicians like Billie Holliday and Louis Armstrong would visit and spend time with Johnson. 

Johnson retired as grand marshal of the Juneteenth parade in the late 1980s. His legacy continues to grow, as people like Jones seek to share his story and his values with younger generations, with the aim to inspire as many as possible. She designed a new website and logo for Juneteenth in San Francisco. Unveiled just last month, the logo depicts a silhouette of Johnson on a white horse. Jones also wrote an article about Johnson for the Juneteenth San Francisco website

“When he had these businesses, he looked incredibly impeccable. Everybody came with this allure and this air of excellence and pride — and he would not have it any other way,” Jones said. “You could see that he had this very unwavering desire to be excellent, and you could see it in all the pictures. I think he was extremely strategic and just very proud.” 

Visit the University Archives in the J. Paul Leonard Library

Golden Gator archival news clipping behind a display case with the headline Wesley Johnson Again Directs Big Broadcast

An archival news clipping from the Golden Gater, as seen on display in the J. Paul Leonard Library

Debut novel by SF State alum shows the comfort of surviving in nature

Charlie J. Stephens’ ‘A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest’ follows a nonbinary child escaping danger into the refuge of the woods 

The debut novel from San Francisco State University graduate Charlie J. Stephens shows how the grace of nature can be an oasis of solace in times of strife. “A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest” follows a nonbinary child, Smokey, in Oregon in the 1980s. As their mother’s boyfriends come and go, Smokey aches for the comfort and safety their mother can never quite provide. When a dangerous new man moves in, Smokey finds refuge in the forests, giving themselves over to the strength and beauty of the environment. 

Stephens (M.A., ’09) has worked as a bike messenger, shark diver, wilderness guide, high school English teacher and more. After moving back to their home state of Oregon, they opened Sea Wolf Books & Community Writing Center by the coast in Port Orford. 

Stephens recently took the time to answer questions from SF State News during their recent writing residency in Palmer, Alaska, thanks to Pam Houston’s nonprofit organization, Writing by Writers. 

What inspired you to make “A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest” into your debut novel? 

The novel developed from a short story that I worked on for about eight years. It was kind of a strange experience/process because even though I worked on it for so much time, it never really got longer, just more developed and solid-feeling. When it eventually got published in a literary journal, I thought that would be the end of that piece. But because I spent so much time on it and knew those characters so well, developing the story into a full novel wasn’t that much of a stretch, and I found myself wanting to keep going with it. The result is “A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest,” which was published by Torrey House Press in April of this year. 

How closely is the story and the main character, Smokey, based on you and your life?   

The novel is a work of fiction (only about 5 – 10% from my own life experiences — the main one being that I grew up in Oregon in the ’80s and early ’90s) but I always consider it a compliment when people think it’s autobiographical. I hope that means that the story feels believable, personal and emotionally compelling to the reader in some way. 

How did you discover the healing powers of nature?  

I’ve always been connected to nature, having grown up in the Pacific Northwest and with a family who really appreciated the outdoors, plants and animals, being outside and trying to be good stewards for our land and waterways. Growing up working class in particular was part of this connection, as the plants and animals around me were always present, accessible and delightful — regardless of the houses we lived in or how much money we had. 

You mentioned the book “deals with queerness in a complex way.” Please explain more about this approach and why you chose it.  

This is a difficult time we are experiencing as humans (and animals) on almost every level. Queer people, trans people and nonbinary people are being strategically targeted on national, state and local levels. With the rise of book banning, textbook overhaul, the attack on public libraries, not being able to even say the word “gay” in many school districts and the criminalization of children and their families seeking gender-affirming care, it feels both vulnerable (for me as the gender non-conforming author of this novel) and critically important to show a nonbinary child in literature, in both beautiful ways as well as in showing some of the forces that don't really want that child (or others like them) to exist or thrive. 

Why did you choose San Francisco State for graduate school?  

I chose SF State because of its accessibility and its commitment to social justice throughout many of its programs, as well as for its campus diversity as a whole. I received my Master of Arts in Equity and Social Justice Education. 

Can you describe a pivotal moment at San Francisco State that changed or impacted your life?  

Being in a classroom with Jeff Duncan-Andrade was the most meaningful aspect of my time at SF State. His radical thinking, personal presence, compassion and commitment to youth and the adults who work with them was deeply profound, and the effects of his teaching have been long-lasting. 

Tell us about Sea Wolf Books & Community Writing Center: Why did you decide to establish this? 

After teaching in different capacities for most of my life — most recently as a high school English teacher — I needed a change after the pandemic. I decided to leave the Bay Area for the Oregon Coast and wanted to do something that I thought would benefit my newfound community. With my love for literature and my commitment to teaching, opening up a bookstore and writing center seemed like it would serve a need and also be something personally fulfilling, fun and engaging. It has been all that and more, and I’m incredibly grateful for it. 

What do you want to be known for?  

I’d like to be known as a writer, teacher and human who was brave enough to be publicly vulnerable, thoughtful and honest in this overwhelming world we find ourselves inhabiting.  

Learn more about the SF State Graduate College of Education

Student’s documentary helps her family heal from intergenerational trauma

Cecilia Mellieon and her daughter sit outdoors at Fortaleza Indian Ruins, homeland of their ancestors, near the Tohono O’odham Nation’s San Lucy Village outside of Gila Bend, Arizona. Photo from 2001.

Grad student Cecilia Mellieon utilizes visual anthropology, a field of study founded at SF State, to tell stories of urban Native American life 

With a video camera in her hands and empathy in her heart, one San Francisco State University student is focusing her capstone project on a subject many families prefer to avoid: their intergenerational trauma.  

Cecilia Mellieon, a graduate student in Anthropology at San Francisco State, is the director of a documentary titled “He told us the sky is blue.” It traces her family’s trauma to Native American oppression, focusing on the Indian boarding school her father attended in Fort Apache, Arizona.  

“If it hadn’t been for his experience there, he would have never left his family or his village,” said Mellieon, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation. “He would have never moved to the Bay Area, and so I would not even be here if it wasn’t for him making those decisions to get away from them.” 

The U.S. government established the boarding schools to teach English and trade skills to Native American children. Violent corporal punishment occurred often.  

“The ultimate goal was to have fully assimilated second-generation children — children who were removed from their lands, children who didn’t grow up with their culture or their language or their family members,” Mellieon said. 

In her 55-minute film, Mellieon’s family recalls surviving an abusive household. They share feelings of sadness and regret as they also work to resolve their anger. 

“These are stories that I know too well, because I was there,” Mellieon said. “There are scenes where my brother and my mom are breaking down crying. I was crying with them.” 

Cecilia Mellieon headshot

Born and raised in San Francisco, Mellieon is passionate about telling stories of urban Native American life with nuance and sensitivity. She uses a supportive, collaborative approach that aims to not only create an ethnography, but also a work that will benefit the subjects. 

Her approach is an application of visual anthropology, a field of study that was founded by late SF State faculty members John Adair and John Collier. SF State Anthropology Professor Peter Biella (B.A., ’72; M.A., ’75) was one of Collier’s students, and today he is Mellieon’s adviser. 

Mellieon entered SF State as an undergraduate in 2018 at age 42. She had just completed her associate’s degree from Los Medanos College while her third child had yet to start kindergarten.  

A new Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) extension to near her home in Antioch made the 50-mile commute to SF State feasible, with family help on child care. Now, one of her children, Tatihn Mellieon, also attends SF State, as a Creative Writing major and a student assistant in The Poetry Center. 

“It was the perfect grouping of coincidences that led to me to be able to go to State,” Cecilia Mellieon said. “If I had tried this at any other point in my life, I don’t think I would have had the life experiences. I don’t think I would have had the growth that I needed to be a confident student and be able to feel like I could tackle this.” 

Mellieon premiered “He told us the sky is blue” in November at Los Medanos College. She plans to take it to film festivals and make more anthropological films about big-city Indigenous life. 

Learn more about the Anthropology Department

Alum’s design, illustration work represents Filipinos and the Bay

Since drawing art in yearbooks in his youth, LeRoid David has wanted to make a positive impact through art 

Long before his illustrations would be seen at restaurants and on television, LeRoid David drew art in school yearbooks. Not just the covers. Every year he would sign dozens of yearbooks with a personalized comic for his peers. Each piece used the same caricature-based style and humor that is discernable in his work today. 

The San Francisco State University alumnus has a diverse client list. Fans have waved the cheer cards he created for NBC Sports from Oracle Park to Chase Center to Levi’s Stadium. Last year he designed the official San Francisco Giants T-shirt for Filipino Heritage Night. David’s digital caricatures are on signs for The Lumpia Co. restaurant, and his work appears in the 2003 superhero spoof film “Lumpia” plus the sequel “Lumpia with a Vengeance.”  

The erstwhile Tower Records at the Stonestown Galleria is where David (B.A., ’03) first applied the skills he was learning at nearby San Francisco State. He created in-store displays and doodled on the whiteboard above the cash register.  

David and the interviewer for this Q&A attended Burton High School in San Francisco together. 

In high school, you were sketching comic art by hand for the yearbook, newspaper and even the senior class T-shirt.  

I’ve always been an illustrator, going as far back when I was 3 years old growing up in San Francisco. I was always fascinated by product labels and logos, in addition to reading comics and watching cartoons. 

LeRoid David’s digital illustrations of The Lumpia Co. of proprietors Alex Retodo and Earl “E-40” Stevens smiling and holding pieces of lumpia in each hand while wearing T-shirts with the text Eat Lumpia

LeRoid David’s digital illustrations of The Lumpia Co. of proprietors Alex Retodo and Earl “E-40” Stevens. Photo credit: courtesy of The Lumpia Co. 

I’ll always remember you would take the time, upon anybody’s request, to sign their yearbook with a personalized cartoon. 

That goes way back to elementary school. Around that age I realized that art can make a big impact. I saw the impact of creating something for someone and how it affects them emotionally. I got hooked to using art to make an impact. It gave me a feeling of wanting to do more. 

To this day, I will get a message from old classmates, even people I haven’t seen since elementary school. They would go through their closet and find something that I did for them, and I don’t even remember it! 

Tell us about your job at Tower Records and how it intersected with your SF State life.  

I started out just like a regular cashier. Slowly over time, I got involved with the visual arts team. I would assist the store artists with a lot of the signage, and that’s when I would start to apply the design techniques I learned from class.  

I stayed with Tower Records ’til the very end, which was 2006. I was able to move up and work for the regional office to do marketing and events locally for the Bay Area stores. My job was to propose music events, whether it’s album signings or even in-store performances.  

Describe a class or a moment at SF State that had a major impact on your life. 

Man, there were a lot of moments. The first thing that stands out is becoming part of DAI [the Design and Industry Department] at SFSU. It not only helped develop my skills as a designer, but it also helped me learn how to connect with my peers, learning how to network and how to be a better communicator. 

The second thing at State was being part of FilGrad, the student-run Filipino graduation. At State I solely focused on my major and what I needed to do to graduate. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to take other classes such as Ethnic Studies. I knew that SF State had a very strong Ethnic Studies program, especially when it came to Filipino American history, so I joined FilGrad as a way to connect with the Filipino American community. 

Of course at the very end, we held a very special fundraiser: We hosted the premiere of the “Lumpia” movie at SF State. It was crazy, man, it was. It was a sold-out, standing-room crowd.

I’m a second-generation Filipino American. My parents immigrated to the U.S. when they were really young, so I didn’t grow up speaking Tagalog. I only knew what being Filipino was to food, pretty much. It wasn’t until my later years, and again, especially at SF State, where I learned about Filipino American history. 

I saw that, as artists, that we, too, can also create — and be part of that history, too. 

Learn more about SF State’s School of Design

Alum designs FDA-authorized app to treat fibromyalgia symptoms

Nelson Mitchell developed his design mind as a graduate student at SF State 

Learning to design furniture at San Francisco State University can lead to more careers than one may expect. For Nelson Mitchell, his master’s degree was the pathway to creating an innovative mobile app to treat fibromyalgia. 

Mitchell, a user-experience designer, is head of design and co-founder of Swing Therapeutics. Earlier this year the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) authorized its app, Stanza, to be marketed to treat symptoms of fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that affects 10 million Americans. It is the first fibromyalgia digital therapeutic approved by the FDA. Available only by prescription, Stanza employs a form of cognitive behavioral therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy. It has proven effective in extensive randomized controlled trials and real-world studies, with 73% of patients demonstrating improvement in symptoms. 

Stanza provides patients with a customized schedule of treatment, incorporating practices such as mindfulness and self-reflection throughout their daily routine. “It’s the therapist in your pocket,” Mitchell said.  

Nelson Mitchell smiles while standing in front of a brick wall on a foggy day

Mitchell (M.A., ’10) entered San Francisco State as smartphones started to become a near necessity for daily life. Faculty and students already knew that enduring product design concepts would be key to success in the mobile software space. 

“I was designing chairs and lamps and stuff like that, but SF State’s program was really great at teaching me the design process and how to think like a designer — how to come up with a hypothesis, test, iterate and refine the idea,” Mitchell said. “I took that and applied it to software and interface design.” 

School of Design faculty such as Ricardo Gomes, Shirl Buss, Hsiao-Yun Chu and Nancy Noble gave Mitchell the tools and the freedom to explore his interests in depth. 

“I felt like I had a new kernel, a new framework,” he said. “SF State gave me the chance to build it — and really build it in a way that I understood it. It’s like the difference between owning a bike and having someone else fix it versus being able to take it apart and put it back together.” 

At his company, Mitchell is spreading the word about the Gator work ethic: “Nobody is going to work as hard for you as graduates from SF State,” he told his team. “These are people that we need to create opportunities for.” 

One of Swing Therapeutics’ first in-house software engineers, Mantasha Khan, joined the company after completing her Computer Science degree from SF State. Khan (B.S., ’21) has a passion for creating technology solutions for health. She notes that Lecturer Jose Ortiz-Costa’s “Introduction to Database Systems” course provided her with an invaluable foundation of skills. 

“I’ve been meaning to reach out to [Ortiz-Costa], just throw it out there, [to say that] you have helped me so much,’” said Khan, who attended SF State as an international student from India. “Everything you have taught has been helping me every single day in my work, so I’m very grateful.”  

Learn more about the SF State School of Design and Computer Science Department

‘Finding Filipino’: Renowned comics artist discovered herself attending SF State

Rina Ayuyang’s new graphic novel and comic posters explore Filipino American culture and history — including on campus 

One evening in the 1990s, Rina Ayuyang was passing through the Creative Arts building at San Francisco State University. In a small recital hall, she discovered a Filipino ensemble performing a ballad, “Dahil Sayo (Because of You).” She recognized the song because her parents would dance to it in the living room of her childhood home. 

“I lived near campus and would walk down the halls a lot, and I’d just stumble upon things that were happening,” Ayayung recalled. “It was a very film-noir scene actually, this woman singing this Filipino romantic ballad that I just came and found myself in. And it was a very magical experience.”  

It was one of the many life-changing experiences for Ayuyang at San Francisco State to influence her as a comics artist and shape her as a human being. 

New graphic novel 

“The Man in the McIntosh Suit” (Drawn and Quarterly, 2023) is Ayuyang’s new graphic novel, presenting a Filipino American take on the Great Depression. Mistaken identities, speakeasies and lost love intersect from strawberry farms on the Central Coast to Manilatown in San Francisco. 

Kirkus Reviews writes: “Ayuyang spins a captivating tale that is both an homage to starry-eyed Hollywood movies of the period and a corrective that highlights the anti-Asian racism faced by immigrants as well as the thriving communities they formed.” 

Throughout her work, Ayuyang (B.A., ’98) aims not only to increase representation of Filipino Americans in the arts, but awareness of their key roles in U.S. history. 

“We always feel like we’ve come a long way, but there are still things that need to be addressed. We like to bury things in our history that aren’t as pretty,” Ayuyang said. “I feel like as an artist, we need to continue to use our platform to share ideas, motivate and inspire.” 

‘Finding Filipino’ and the ‘CIA’ 

Ayuyang was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and chose to attend SF State because she had deep family roots in the Bay Area. She majored in Art with an emphasis in Conceptual and Information Arts, an experimental program where she says everybody made their own rules and embraced a do-it-yourself ethos that prepared her well for a career in comic arts. 

“They called it the ‘CIA’,” Ayuyang said. “It was a little fun rag-tag artist operation going on. It had this grassroots feeling that felt very San Francisco, bohemian-like. It was very much my jam.” 

The courses that Ayuyang took in the College of Ethnic Studies from professors such as Dan Begonia taught her about the hidden histories of Filipino farmworkers and activists in California. She met lifelong friends in the Asian American Studies Department and participated in the Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor, a student organization.  

SF State has had such an impact on Ayuyang that she dedicated a comic to the University in her new poster series, “Finding Filipino.” Presented by the San Francisco Arts Commission for the Art on Market Street Poster Series, the nine posters are on display at 30 bus shelters in downtown San Francisco through June.  

On the “Finding Filipino at SF State” poster, she shares her Gator story: “Here, I learned that I was more than a ‘model minority,’ that I could be an artist, a writer, an athlete — anything I wanted to be.” 

Learn more about the SF State School of Art and College of Ethnic Studies

Speakers share stories of personal transformation at Commencement

SF State ‘can be your rock,’ said Jayshree Ullal, president and CEO of cloud networking company Arista Networks, at the May 26 event

San Francisco State University celebrated the Class of 2023 at its annual Commencement ceremony Friday, May 26, at Oracle Park. More than 4,000 graduates and more than 31,000 people attended the event, which featured technology business leader Jayshree Ullal as keynote speaker. Ullal talked about the challenges she faced coming to the U.S. from her native India to attend San Francisco State in 1977. 

“While I was pursuing electrical engineering, I was only one or two of 100 female students in a class of 100,” said Ullal (B.S., ’81), who studied electrical engineering at SF State and went on to become president and CEO of cloud networking company Arista Networks. “This made cutting class difficult, as we were conspicuous by our absence!” 

Despite being a trailblazer in a then mostly male field — and a “very shy, quiet introvert” to boot — Ullal said her Engineering professors and fellow students were supportive.   

“This great San Francisco State institution shaped me and guided my future,” she said. “And it can be your rock just like it’s my foundational rock.” 

Two honorary California State University degrees were also conferred at Commencement: legendary Rolling Stone writer and editor, author, DJ and TV host Ben Fong-Torres (B.A., ’66) was honored with a Doctor of Fine Arts, while activist, filmmaker, author and psychotherapist Satsuki Ina received a Doctor of Humane Letters.  

“Actually I didn’t attend my Commencement. Hey, it was the Sixties. We forgot, man,” Fong-Torres joked to the crowd. “But I have never forgotten this university’s impact on me. … I got that [Rolling Stone] gig, I think, because of the freedom that we had to experiment with journalism here at SF State, and the lessons learned from that freedom.” 

During Ina’s speech, she encouraged the Class of 2023 to make the world a better place through empathy and action. 

“I urge you to bring with you something that has always been inside of you, even before college, and that is your compassion,” she said. “We need all that you bring, and more than ever in this world of conflict, violence, injustice and suffering, we need your compassion. We need you to care and love family and friends, of course, but also the stranger, the other, the foreigner. Reach out beyond your comfort zone, welcome the outsider. It is compassion that can mend the fractures, heal the wounds and bring us together.” 

Other speakers included SF State President Lynn Mahoney, Associated Students President Karina Zamora and Associated Students Chief of Staff Iese Esera. Two student hood recipients, among 12 graduates honored for their academic and personal achievements, also shared their stories. 

“I began my journey in higher education as a homeless first-generation college student with a baby on my hip and another in my belly. I did not have support, money, guidance or a place to call my own. But what I did have was a dream,” said undergraduate speaker Nicole Bañuelos. “I had a dream that I would earn my degree in Biology and go on to study medicine and save human lives. This dream carried me through my most trying times. I learned how to study through morning sickness and nausea, how to hold a textbook in one hand and a baby in another, how to hold my head up high when I felt like the world was looking down on me. But most of all I learned how to never give up in the face of adversity and that after every dark night there is a brighter day.” 

Graduate student speaker Hasti Jafari, who was born in Iran, reflected on the Iranian women’s movement and the important lessons the Class of 2023 can learn from the brave activists there. 

“As someone honored to have called both countries home, I encourage you to see their fight as your fight, as the basic rights of women, people of color and the LGBTQ+ and disabled communities are under threat in this country as well,” Jafari said. “And in this deeply interconnected world, none of us are free until all of us are free.” 

Learn more information about SF State’s 2023 Commencement. 

Student script wins national award from Broadcast Education Association

Jae Hamilton wrote raucous speculative episode of U.K. teen sitcom ‘Derry Girls’ 

What started as a class assignment has turned into a national award for a San Francisco State University student who has since graduated. Jae Hamilton is a first-place winner in the Broadcast Education Association (BEA) Festival of Media Arts. Her speculative script for an episode of the U.K. teen sitcom “Derry Girls” brings a raucous yet thoughtful twist to a Catholic girls school in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. 

Hamilton (B.A./B.S., ’22) is among 300 student winners, representing 82 colleges and universities nationwide. They were honored at an awards ceremony at the festival on April 17 in Las Vegas. BEA is a leading international academic media organization that drives insights, excellence in media production and career advancement for educators, students and professionals. 

Hamilton wrote the script last fall as an assignment in Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts (BECA) 470: “Dramatic Writing for Television and Electronic Media.” The plot takes the “Derry Girls” protagonists to a shop in town where one of the characters gets in a dispute with the owner for overcharging for candy. In the episode’s secondary plotline, Hamilton takes the Derry girls as far from their comfort zone as she thought possible: to a museum exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs, showcasing his trademark provocative images of nude men. 

“It’s hijinks, but the basis is taking care of your own and standing up for what you feel is injustice,” Hamilton said. “I wrote it because it’s funny, but it’s also about self-acceptance. Even though they are very simple characters, they deal with lots of different emotions and themes.” 

A double major in Visual Communication Design and Creative Writing, Hamilton entered San Francisco State as a transfer student after a career as a theatre props technician in Atlanta. She is pursuing a career in video game design, and her passion is writing plays.  

“Writing is my happy place. It always has been,” Hamilton said.  

Hamilton is not the only member of the SF State community to be honored at the BEA festival. Her BECA 470 instructor from last fall, Associate Professor Marie Drennan, garnered Best of Competition in the Mini-Episodic/Webisode category of the faculty scriptwriting competition. 

Learn more about the SF State Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts and Creative Writing departments and the SF State School of Design


Jae Hamilton selfie while seated in front of a kitchen sink and window

SF State alum, author Ernest J. Gaines honored with USA stamp

Gaines (B.A., ’57) is most known for his novels ‘The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman’ and ‘A Lesson Before Dying’

A San Francisco State University alumnus is the latest American to be honored with a first-class stamp from the U.S. Postal Service. The late novelist Ernest J. Gaines is the face of the 46th stamp in the Black Heritage Series

Gaines (B.A., ’57) is known for writing about the people in small-town Louisiana where he was raised, often exploring enslaved people, their descendants and their enslavers. He rose to fame in 1971 with “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” a historical novel chronicling the recollections of its 110-year-old Black protagonist, whose life spans from slavery to the civil rights era. After garnering a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, it was adapted into an Emmy Award-winning television movie starring Cicely Tyson. His novel “A Lesson Before Dying,” about a Black man on death row for a murder he did not commit, not only won the 1993 National Books Critics Circle Award, but was also an Oprah’s Book Club selection. President Barack Obama awarded Gaines the National Medal of the Arts in 2013. Gaines died in 2019 at age 86. 

“Ernest J. Gaines remains an important role model for Creative Writing students at San Francisco State,” said May-lee Chai, associate professor and acting chair of the Creative Writing Department. “We remind our students that his first short story was published in our undergraduate journal, Transfer Magazine, which he later said led to multiple opportunities for him as a writer. His legacy as a literary giant and advocate for social justice is deeply inspiring.” 

Gaines was born in 1933 on a plantation in Oscar, Louisiana. He lived in the same former slave quarters where his family had been residing for five generations. At age 15, he moved to the Bay Area — the Navy town of Vallejo — due to a lack of educational opportunities in the South. His region of rural Louisiana lacked both a high school and a library where Black people were welcome. After Vallejo Junior College and the Army, Gaines enrolled at SF State. 

“It was there that I really got seriously into the writing,” Gaines said in a 2016 interview with the Academy of Achievement of his time at SF State. “I had some wonderful teachers on the campus at that time who were writers as well. And they encouraged me to write.” 

Learn more about the SF State Creative Writing Department. 


Commencement honorees encourage graduates to champion ‘a world of fairness and compassion’

Civil rights attorney Walter Riley, actor and activist Benjamin Bratt and DePauw University President Lori S. White all emphasized service and leadership at the May 24 ceremony

San Francisco State University celebrated the Class of 2024 at its 123rd Commencement ceremony Friday, May 24, at Oracle Park. More than 4,000 graduates attended the event along with thousands of family and friends.

In addition to celebrating new graduates, San Francisco State and the California State University (CSU) conferred honorary degrees on three individuals who’ve distinguished themselves with their service to others: actor and activist Benjamin Bratt, attorney and civil rights activist Walter Riley and the late psychologist, activist and educator Joseph L. White (A.B., ’54; M.S., ’58). White’s degree was accepted by his daughter Lori S. White, president of Indiana’s DePauw University. All three acceptance speeches emphasized the importance of activism and encouraged the Class of 2024 to make a difference in the world.

“I accept this recognition of my life’s work in civil rights, against racism, against police brutality, against exploitation of our environment and people for the benefit of the economic and political elite,” said Riley, who received the honorary degree Doctor of Laws. “I acknowledge all those whose work make this campus a place for truth and justice. Through our collective efforts we can move closer to a world where ideals become realities.”

Riley attended SF State in the 1960s and participated in the 1968 student strike that led to the creation of the University’s College of Ethnic Studies. Later he was active in the labor and anti-war movements, and after earning a law degree from Golden Gate University he took his fight for social justice into the courts.

“Every generation needs a purpose,” he told this year’s graduates. “May that purpose be just, creating a world of fairness and compassion.”

In his acceptance speech, Bratt recalled the struggles of growing up poor in San Francisco, one of five children being raised by a single mother who’d emigrated from Peru.

“School proved to be the refuge that I needed,” said Bratt, an award-winning actor and producer best known for roles in “Law & Order,” “Modern Family” and “Traffic.” “I loved school, and it was there that I discovered I was an eager and enthusiastic learner and seeker. More to the point, it was there that I discovered my own creativity and the power of the arts.”

Bratt, who received the honorary degree Doctor of Fine Arts, challenged his audience to use their educations to make a difference.

“If you are receiving your degree it’s because you’ve discovered your own voice and have enjoyed the privilege of someone else’s belief in you, perhaps your teachers, your own family, your community,” said Bratt, a longtime supporter of the American Indian College Fund, Amazon Watch, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Mission Cultural Center and other nonprofits. “The question is: What will you do with that privilege and the power of a prestigious university education? I’ll let you in on a little secret: We’re counting on you to do something spectacular even as you figure it out, because you are the inspiration of our hope.”

White talked about her father’s pioneering work as an educator and psychologist. A two-time graduate of SF State, earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University, he became known as “the godfather of Black psychology.”

Benjamin Bratt speaking during SF State's 2024 Commencement

Doctor of Fine Arts recipient Benjamin Bratt.

He returned to SF State in 1968 as a professor of Psychology and later dean of Undergraduate Studies, helping to launch what is now known as the Department of Africana Studies.

“Graduates, I hope you are inspired by my dad’s story and his lifetime and legacy of service to others, of which many of you are direct recipients,” said White of her father, who was granted the honorary degree Doctor of Letters. White added that she hoped graduates would see her father in themselves and, like him, accept that “those who have been so richly blessed have a responsibility to give back to others in meaningful ways.”

Other Commencement speakers included SF State President Lynn Mahoney, Associated Students President Ersa, graduate speaker Genesis Sorrick and undergraduate speaker Eddison Jintalan Contreras. The ceremony will be made available to view in its entirety on SF State’s YouTube channel.

Learn more about the University’s 2024 Commencement.