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Know Your Neighbors

Shakirah Simley

Battles Burnout and Apathy in Pursuit of Equitable, Healthy Communities
Written by Meaghan Mitchell
Published Jul. 17, 2022 • 9:07am

Western Addition resident Shakirah Simley could teach a master class on how to make the perfect peach preserves. She could also facilitate a lecture on social justice issues like food insecurity, create a racial equity plan for a local nonprofit or author legislation alongside politicians. 

Professionally, Simley has done all these things. Activism and community development have always been at the center of her work—often intermingling with the food industry. She’s been a legislative aide for former District 5 Supervisor Vallie Brown, assisting in the passage of over 30 pieces of legislation. She’s also built a successful artisanal jam business, managed community programs at Bi-Rite Market, and established and led the city’s Office of Racial Equity. 

When the pandemic struck, Simley pivoted into emergency service duty, becoming the executive director of Booker T. Washington Community Service Center after spending over a year in San Francisco’s Covid command center ensuring that the city’s emergency response had an equitable perspective.

During the pandemic, she worked to identify and compensate for racial disparities in the city’s Covid response. In the process, she aided in the establishment of relief access points specifically targeting communities of color.

The 100-year-old Booker T is San Francisco’s oldest Black-led organization. As executive director, Simley oversees the implementation of affordable housing initiatives and a variety of educational, wellness, workforce development and food-stabilization services. 

Simley’s passion for her work stems from her childhood. She was raised in Harlem, the eldest of five siblings, by a single mother who earned a living as a social worker. Her neighborhood was also considered a food desert. “As an organizer, I’ve spiraled from burn-out. As a working-class kid, I’ve swallowed hunger,” Simley said. “As a Black woman, I know racial terror and gender violence and discrimination. Apathy is not a choice. I, like many Black women, have never had the luxury of opting out.”

Simley was the driving force behind the “Fillmore Feel Well Initiative” at Booker T, a call-to-action campaign that featured several events and resources to support the health and holistic wellness of the Black and African-American community in the Fillmore and Western Addition. This initiative was a joint effort with six other neighborhood-based organizations. She also created “Service to Soul Initiative,” a program that provides 125 families weekly with meal boxes prepared by Black chefs, featuring produce from Black farmers. 

Simley is a collaborative leader who believes that every person holds the power to change their community for the better. “We need everyone—everywhere,” she said.

Photos by Camille Cohen

Shakirah Simley - portrait
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Special powers

Identifying inequities and BS—and organizing people to combat both.

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Arch enemies

Apathy.

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Weaknesses

Stone fruit. I’m seduced every summer. Must be the preserver in me.

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Lineage

Strong Black women who refuse to give up on their communities.

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Current mission

Helping people transform from their remorseful selves to their fullest, most regenerative selves in service of the community.

'Apathy is not a choice. I, like many Black women, have never had the luxury of opting out.'
Shakirah Simley - portrait