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Politics & Policy

Women who led San Francisco through the pandemic

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Abigail Stewart-Kahn was two weeks into a brand-new position helming San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. She was prepared to tackle evictions, build housing units and expand Street Outreach teams—but navigate a pandemic?

“A deer in headlights comes to mind,” Stewart-Kahn recalls with laughter, when asked how she felt at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, facing unprecedented obstacles. 

“Under my desk…that’s where I wanted to be,” she added.

But looking back, Stewart-Kahn is proud of the milestones she and her department achieved. 

“As the pandemic came to San Francisco, people were terrified that those experiencing homelessness were going to contract and pass away from COVID-19 in the thousands and that they would also be conduits of the virus across the city,” she said. “That fear was not realized. In fact, we kept the COVID-19 rate among the homeless population at the same or below the general population.”

As of August, San Francisco has recorded fewer than 570 COVID-related deaths. The city assembled an alternate care site in the Presidio should San Francisco’s hospitals surge with COVID-19 patients, but it was never used and shut down in May.

Dr. Andrea Tenner, San Francisco’s COVID Task Force Lead, recalls relying on gifted frozen pizzas for weeks as she coped with long hours at the hospital, and little sleep, in the early days of the pandemic.

“When the grocery lines were out the door and I was working 17 hours a day and didn’t know where I was going to get meals from… [a couple of friends] shipped me a bunch of pizzas without asking from Chicago and I ate that for almost a month,” Tenner recalls.

Despite a backbreaking workload, Tenner would go on to help shepherd the city through COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, a large-scale effort that included community partnerships and mobile sites to get the word out about available resources.

Maria Su, Executive Director of the Department of Children, Youth & Their Families (DCYF), straddled childcare for her own kids while also providing learning and socialization opportunities for more than 2,500 of the city’s neediest children through Community Learning Hubs.

Maria Su and Phil Ginsburg listen to students at a learning hub inside the Minnie and Lovie Ward Recreation Ctr. on Thursday, July 23, 2020, in San Francisco, Calif. | Photo via Getty Images

“You saw data points of our marginalized children not actually being connected [to teaching] longer than 30 or 40 minutes at a time,” Su said, referencing distance learning. “As a mom, you’re like: How in the world are you going to learn anything if that’s the case? When I saw those data points, I said we have to do something.”

DCYF launched the learning hubs in Sept. 2020 to help at-need children, like those who are homeless, in foster care or living in public housing, to tackle remote learning in a structured and supervised environment. Su leveraged relationships with San Francisco’s libraries and the Recreation and Park Department to build 86 hubs across the city. She is now working on another challenge: crafting a multi-year plan to help families recover from the pandemic.

Dr. Naveena Bobba, Deputy Director of Health at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, led the city’s medical response to the pandemic, and Mary Ellen Carroll, Executive Director or the Department of Emergency Management, ran the team coordinating and operating San Francisco’s COVID-19 response.

From the beginning of the crisis, San Francisco saw women step up to the challenge. Here/Say’s Meaghan Mitchell, in conversation with District 2 Supervisor Catherine Stefani, spoke with these leaders about their experiences guiding the city.

Below is an edited and condensed section of the discussion. The full conversation can be viewed here.

Meaghan Mitchell: Why is it that so many women were leaders in San Francisco throughout this pandemic?

Maria Su: Mayor Breed and Dr. Susan Philip… I just personally feel like both of these women, not only are they badasses, but they literally took leadership and the definition of leadership and redefined it for themselves. They made it bold. They made it passionate, they made it emotional and they made that all okay. And because they said that you can lead with passion, with boldness, with a lot of emotion and care…it made it easier for me to step into my leadership and be able to then draw on my own intuition.

Abigail Stewart-Kahn: San Francisco has done everything right in impossible times. And we have not done everything right. We have made mistakes. And part of what doing everything right means is seeing those mistakes, admitting [to] them, listening to community and continuing to build. Of course, people of all genders have these traits, but I particularly saw women demonstrating collaboration, communication and calm in the crisis. 

Dr. Naveena Bobba: We have to remember that early on in the pandemic, we didn’t know much about COVID-19. So [essential workers were] putting their lives at risk to help others who were extremely sick. The toll it took on families, especially mothers, who came home and potentially had to socially distance and didn’t feel comfortable sleeping or interacting with their families because they didn’t know what that interaction might lead to… There’s a toll that has been unspoken. It’s something that we have to continually remember: how much women sacrificed during this pandemic.

Mary Ellen Carroll: While we are looking back, we are still fighting forward and we’re by no means out of this, and that speaks to the endurance that one needs [to do this work]. This is slow, arduous, painful and enduring work and women in general are tenacious and badass and I think tend to stick with it. I just see it as a part of our own tenacity and a stick-with-it-ness and patience to muddle through this disaster.

Mary Ellen Carroll at the Emergency Operations Center at Moscone Center South on Thursday, February 18, 2021 in San Francisco, Calif. | Photo via Getty Images

The impact on women across this country and the world from this pandemic has been really detrimental. Because women have had to step back and they’ve had to take care of their kids and play that role to keep families going. But we’ve got to change things if we’re going to continue to see this kind of leadership among females. 

Catherine Stefani: When we invest in women, this is what we get. We get strong leaders who we empower to make difficult decisions. This was a very emotional time. We saw what our school kids were suffering through and we created community hubs. We saw what our seniors were going through and we made sure they had access to groceries and medications. I think when you invest in women, when you make sure they’re in positions of power to begin with… the results have shown what women leaders can actually do.

Sophie Bearman can be reached at