Police Commissioner and CEO Shane Goldsmith: “Be the Hardest Worker in the Room”
Filed in: Woman of the Week
It’s a wonder that no one has made a movie about Shane Goldsmith’s life yet. Raised in poverty by a single parent, she now runs the Liberty Hill Foundation, which raises millions of dollars to support social justice efforts in Los Angeles. She also serves as an L.A. police commissioner—a particularly striking role, considering that her younger brother has been in jail for much of their lives. And to top it off, she rises at 4:45 a.m. every day to train for Spartan Races. We recently spoke to her about how the concept of “cold anger,” the sweetest part of her day, and the pressure to be stoic when she’s feeling anything but.
I GREW UP VERY POOR in Santa Monica, California. My mom died when I was nine, so my father raised my little brother and me on his own. He had health problems and was unable to work, and we had very little money as a result. I think he felt deeply responsible and guilty for not being able to give us a better life, but he also taught us that our poverty was the result of injustice, not our own failing or his. He passed away when I was 19, and then my brother started getting into trouble. He went to jail shortly after, when he was 17, and has been in and out of homelessness and the prison system ever since, for the last 20 years. Those are some of the biggest factors that have shaped my career. To feel powerless in the face of such enormous systems is very painful, and it made me want to spend my life fighting for people who don’t have a voice, and helping them fight for themselves.
MY BROTHER AND I JOKE that we should write a book together—The Police Commissioner and the Ex-con. Talk about a contrast in paths. I think there are a few causes for our differences. The biggest factor is that he has a severe mental illness. Also, after my dad died, we had no other family and no money. My brother did come to stay with me at college for a short time, but it wasn’t his community—he wanted be back in Los Angeles to be with his friends, who happened to be Crips, which is a very powerful gang. He was the only white Crip in Watts [a neighborhood in Los Angeles] at the time, so his nickname was Snow. His gang members were the ones who took care of him and made sure he had clothes on his back and a place to live. Obviously, that presented different opportunities and a different path for him than the path I was on.
I GOT A SCHOLARSHIP to a small liberal arts college in Ohio, where most people were quite wealthy. I had a ton of support there. When my dad was sick, people rallied around me and saw to it that I had money to fly home to be with him and then fly back to school after he died. They made sure I didn’t have to take incompletes on my courses, and that I had a place to stay during spring, winter, and summer breaks. It made a huge difference in my life.
ACADEMICALLY, I WAS NOT WELL-PREPARED for college at all. Most of my classmates had been educated in elite high schools, and I was not. But one thing my dad taught me early on, and that has served me well over the years, is to always be the hardest worker in the room. He would say, “You’re not going to be the smartest person in the room, but you can be the hardest worker.” I definitely out-worked all those other kids, and that enabled me to keep up good grades, even though I didn’t come in the door with the preparation and self-confidence that the other kids had.
AFTER COLLEGE, I DID A FELLOWSHIP where I worked in a homeless shelter in Indiana, and then at a national policy organization in D.C. Then I came back to Los Angeles to do community organizing, which was my goal all along. In my mind, community organizing marries direct impact on individual human beings with big, systemic policy changes that can have a ripple effect across many, many people. It was also attractive to me because I had a lot of pain and anger towards some of these big systems, and being part of a collective fight to change them was deeply gratifying. Since then, my whole career has been about community organizing. I worked for Eric Garcetti, who was then a member of city council and is now our mayor in Los Angeles, and he became a long-time mentor. Eventually, I landed at Liberty Hill Foundation, where I’ve been for nine years. Our entire mission is to support community organizers on the front lines of change, who are fighting for their communities.
IN COMMUNITY ORGANIZING, WE HAVE A CONCEPT CALLED “COLD ANGER.” People who are directly impacted by injustice are going to be angry, and it’s a natural and righteous response to unfair and harmful conditions. But when that anger is internalized, that’s self-destructive. Women in particular often turn their anger towards themselves—I certainly struggle with that. The idea of “cold anger” is that you have to find a way, over time, to get control of it and channel it strategically to change the injustices that have harmed you. It’s a lifelong exercise. For me, that anger gets triggered every time my brother goes to jail again, or when I’m sitting in a police commission meeting and a family comes in because their son was recently shot by a member of law enforcement. It gets triggered when I meet our youth leaders and I see that they have no families and are living in foster care. It’s a matter of taking a step back and thinking, What can I do about it? And what are the limitations of what I can do?
AS A WOMAN, I DO FEEL PRESSURE to not let anyone see my feelings, because I don’t want to be judged or seen as weak. It’s a heavy lift, because I have big feelings, and I don’t think it’s healthy or fair to hide them. But I want to offer as much power as I can for the people I care most about, and that means I have to be stoic sometimes. That’s another thing we talk about in organizing: the difference between the world as it should be versus the world as it is. I think a good organizer can hold a vision of the world as it should be, but operate in the world as it is—understanding its realities, limitations, and conditions, and try to fight for the world we dream of. Ultimately, I’m not going to make my feelings go away. I have to acknowledge that anger is a natural reaction to difficult circumstances, and also allow it to motivate me.
WORKING AS A POLICE COMMISSIONER has been a total gift, but I was very shocked to be asked. Prior to that, my main contact with the criminal justice system was through my brother’s terrible experiences with it, and I only knew his side of the story. Now that I’m part of the police commission, which oversees the LAPD and creates policy for them, I spend quite a bit of time with police officers, and I’ve gotten to understand their experiences and perceptions. Some of them are extraordinary people who are absolutely trying to do good every day. Still, it can be jarring. My brother will remind me, “Don’t hold my experience against all of these police officers. They didn’t do this to me.”
I OCCASIONALLY GO INTO MEETINGS where it’s an entire room filled with male police officers with guns, and everyone is 15 years older than me. In settings like that, when I am so different from everyone else, I do adapt my behavior so that I can accomplish what I’m there to do, and I’m comfortable with that. In some cases, if I just came out and said how I feel about something, it could alienate people who I need as allies. The more conviction I have about my values, the easier it is to make difficult choices about how to show up in a specific space and to be strategic and effective there. It also helps to get to know the officers that I work with, listen to their stories, find out what motivates them and what they care about; when we find common ground, we get more done.
ANOTHER STRUGGLE OF MY JOB came up when I first became CEO of the Liberty Hill Foundation and needed to spend a lot of time with very wealthy people, raising money. Coming from poverty, that was hard. I saw both of my parents die because they didn’t have health care, and that leads to a lot of resentment for people who have more than you do. To go play tennis with people who have more resources than I could ever dream of, that triggered a lot. These feelings you have as a kid come out in strange ways as an adult, sometimes irrationally. I’ll think, “Are they judging me because I grew up poor? Do they think less of me?” But I’ve learned that, when you open yourself up to other people, they’ll do the same, and that allows me to be much more comfortable in spaces where I feel insecure.
I HAVE DAYS WHEN MY WORK FEELS LIKE A BATTLE of multiple conflicting truths. I’ll ask myself, “Are you a social justice advocate, or are you a police commissioner? Are you here to support the police or are you here to support community organizations?” And I have to remind myself that I am one person—one whole person—and all of this work is consistent with my values of giving people a voice. I cannot let it feel like an internal struggle. Still, it’s a pretty incredible journey just inside my own head.
MOST MORNINGS, I GET UP AT 4:45 A.M. TO EXERCISE. Right now I’m into Orange Theory, which is extreme cardio. Then I get home when my family is waking up to help get everybody out the door. I take our seven-year-old to school while my wife takes our four-year-old to school. My son always insists that I actually walk him to his classroom; he never wants me to just drop him off out front, which touches me deeply. The two-block walk to school holding my boy’s hand is one of the sweetest moments of my day. Then I get in the car, and I’ve usually got a call or two scheduled for the drive on my way to work. I put on makeup while I’m stopped at red lights.
I ALWAYS TRY TO HAVE DESK TIME DURING THE DAY, but usually I’m just going from meeting to meeting, often late into the night or even for half of my weekend. My job at the foundation is more than full time, so I have to find ways to schedule the police commission work around that, and sometimes I feel like I’m falling short in all areas. I do feel like I never get quite enough time as a wife, a mom, a sister, a police commissioner, a CEO, or a friend, but there’s nothing I would take off my plate.
I DO A COUPLE OF THINGS TO KEEP MYSELF SANE. One is working as hard as I can every single day, and the other is extreme exercise, which is a very good outlet. I do these things called Spartan Races, which are basically hardcore obstacle courses. You carry buckets full of rocks and climb over high walls and run up steep mountains and do monkey bars. It is so hard and crazy, and I cherish nothing more than my bruises from them. It’s just such a great metaphor for life: The point of overcoming one obstacle is to move on to the next obstacle. It is not about eliminating the obstacles, just like I’m not trying to have an easy life where there are no challenges. What I’m doing every day is trying to learn from every experience and get stronger so I can overcome the next obstacle and fight another day.
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Photographs by Clarke Tolton.