For Black History Month, we are resharing Fiat Vox episode #23, first published in 2018, about Clothilde Hewlett, the executive director of the Cal Alumni Association:
Some people move to San Francisco for its jobs. Or its nightlife. Or its natural beauty.
But Clothilde Hewlett moved for Rice-A-Roni. Hewlett was 14 years old waiting at the Canadian border with her mom and two younger sisters. They’d been there for two weeks, but things weren’t looking promising. “And at one point, my mother, out of despair, looked at me and she said, ‘Where do you wanna go?’ says Hewlett. “And all I could think of is I had a seen a commercial called Rice-A-Roni and it didn’t look like people in San Francisco were suffering. So I said, ‘San Francisco.’”
Listen to Hewlett’s story — how she pulled herself out of poverty, found salvation as a student at UC Berkeley, climbed the ranks in the government and corporate America and returned to the campus, where she is the executive director of the Cal Alumni Association, giving back to students who need it most.
[Music: “Rose Ornamental” by Blue Dot Sessions]
Some people move to San Francisco for its jobs. Or its nightlife. Or its natural beauty. But Clothilde Hewlett moved for Rice-A-Roni. She was 14 years old, waiting at the Canadian border with her mom and two younger sisters. They’d been there for two weeks, but things weren’t looking promising.
“And at one point, my mother, out of despair, looked at me and she said, ‘Where do you wanna go?’ And all I could think of is I had a seen a commercial called Rice-A-Roni and it didn’t look like people in San Francisco were suffering,” says Hewlett.
[Sound clip: Rice-A-Roni jingle]
“And I said “San Francisco,” she says.
Hewlett grew up on the east coast, first living in rural poverty in Ithaca, New York, then in tenement housing in Philadelphia’s inner city.
“I was really thinking, ‘How can people live in this level of suffering, this level of hunger? Going without so many basic things. And yet there is such wealth in this country?'” says Hewlett. “And I resolved at that point that if I ever made it out of what I considered hell, I would never forget that feeling, and that I would always work in whatever I did to relieve suffering. So in essence, my early years became the driving force of everything I did afterwards.”
But there were moments of light in Philadelphia, too. It’s where she saw her mother become an activist, as a part of the Civil Rights Movement.
[Music: “Woke up this morning” by the Freedom Singers]
At one point, the family lived in a little apartment in a community center called Fellowship House, where people gathered to find nonviolent solutions to social problems. She was right in the middle of it all, singing peace songs for the Freedom Riders about the leave on desegregation missions to the South.
“And so it was ingrained in me from a very early age — social justice, the equality of all people regardless of race, religion or gender,” she says.
In 1963, Hewlett joined her mother on the March on Washington.
“I was very upset. My feet hurt. I could not understand why I was on this long, long bus ride only to march for what seemed like hours.”
But over the years, it has become one of her most precious memories.
“I just think it was so courageous to take this 8-year-old along so that she would never forget,” she says.
[Sound clip: excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech]
“And I have never forgotten.”
Once the family was in San Francisco, things turned around. They moved into a small flat on the corner of Hayes St. and Buchanan St.
“There was a lot of pimp pandering, drugs, you name it,” says Hewlett. “But to me it was such an improvement. I felt I was in true heaven.”
At 15, Hewlett started visiting a nonprofit community center that supported low-income youth. It was here that she met Jerry Brown, now the governor of California.
“I didn’t really quite understand politics at that point, but I felt like, ‘Okay, this is a way out.'”
Brown suggested she go to UC Berkeley.
“I didn’t even look beyond to any other universities. I was going to Cal.”
[Music: “Heliotrope” by Blue Dot Sessions]
So Hewlett applied and was accepted. It was on the Berkeley campus where her whole world opened up.
As a kid, Hewlett loved learning. She’d raise her hand in class, eager to answer questions. But afterward, walking home, she’d brace herself for groups of kids looking for a fight.
[Music: “Fifteen Street” by Blue Dot Sessions]
“I think living in the inner city, there’s a sense of hopelessness,” Hewlett says. “Children at a very young age are no different than children are in war-torn countries. They get it in their mind that they’re going to follow the same patterns as their parents, their brothers and their sisters. And when one decides that they’re going to break out of that mold and says, ‘No, I’m not going to be a drug dealer. I’m not going to be in a gang. There’s another life for me. I’m dreaming of something better, something different. Something beyond these walls.’ You are, in effect, challenging the status quo. And I would say that in the inner city when you challenge the status quo, it is met with violence.”
But at Berkeley, it was a different story.
“I mean, I was like a kid in a candy store.”
Hewlett spent seven years at Berkeley, first as a political science major, then as a law student.
In law school, Hewlett was part of a large cohort of black students. When she was accepted in 1976, the law school, then called Boalt Hall, was under a lot of pressure to increase diversity. (This was before California Proposition 209, which prohibits public institutions from factoring in race, gender or ethnicity into admissions.) The school sent out many acceptance letters to African American students, expecting only a fraction to accept. But black students already enrolled at the school paid a visit to every African American accepted, encouraging them to attend.
“It was the largest class of African American students ever,” says Hewlett. “It felt almost like what you might feel being in a black college.”
Hewlett says having a large African American student body put pressure on the school to change its practices. She remembers one time, when she was asked to take a tax exam that discussed Kunta Kinté, a character in the novel Roots , who was kidnapped from Africa and forced into slavery. It asked students to put a price on his body parts, referring to his body as property.
“We were in shock,” she says. “We were stunned, but we didn’t want to flunk out of law school. So we were trying to figure out what to do in the middle of the tax exam. Fortunately, all the white students stood up and walked out, which relieved us because then we could protest without having to flunk out of that particular class. It was through that tax exam, I believe, that the administration started to come to a greater understanding of what it meant to be African American in this country.”
After Hewlett graduated from law school, she blazed ahead, determined to make a name for herself. She became a district attorney’s investigator, and had to work with the San Francisco Police Department, which was under a consent decree for not hiring or promoting women and minorities.
“They did everything they could possibly do to drive me out,” says Hewlett. “I’ll never forget when this police officer came to me to get this warrant and he said, ‘Ah, you’re the little black girl from the D.A.’s office.'” (She was 28 at the time.) “During that time, those were the types of situations you encountered day in and day out. I never got into arguments with anyone. I responded with pure perseverance. But what was building up in me was this level of strength and aggression.”
When Hewlett eventually go to the top of her field — she worked as undersecretary of state and consumer services; she was a high-level assistant district attorney; a powerful legal lobbyist — she felt her confidence grow and her resolve harden. And she decided…
“I will suffer in silence no more,” she says. “And I turned into this very aggressive outspoken leader that takes no prisoners. In fact, I think something that I’ve worked on a lot in my later years is the ability to use soft power.”
[Music: “Cases to Rest” by Blue Dot Sessions]
When Hewlett became the executive director of the Cal Alumni Association in 2016, she was ready to give back to the campus that had opened the world to her.
“Public higher education will set you free, make no mistake about that,” says Hewlett. “I wouldn’t be here today. I came back to Cal, to where it all started. I did not want to end my career at the top level of corporate America or the top level of government, without really touching and changing some lives.”
So, she rolled up her sleeves, and got to work, supporting the next generation of leaders. The alumni association gives out more than 700 scholarships each year. Many go to underrepresented students — students of color, undocumented students.
“Being able to give them hope for their life, being able to show them a way forward, will have a greater impact than anything I could do on a major corporate board or in high political office,” she says. “Because when you look at it, at the end of your life — you’re going to die. Everybody’s going to die. And you’re not going to be able to take it with you. The only thing that will remain is what you’ve given to other people. What you did to make someone else’s life a lot better.”
Without her struggle, says Hewlett, she wouldn’t be the leader that she is today, giving back to students who need it most.