The Fight for a Free Pass

Leah LaCroix’s efforts to make Muni free for low-income youth are a great example of how young people can change the city — and she’s just getting started.

Leah LaCroix

Leah LaCroix was a little girl living in the Tenderloin when she first fantasized about working in City Hall. She’d walk past the building’s grand dome and pillars on the way to the Main Library with her mom, and would think, “One day, I want to work there.”

That happened sooner than most people thought possible. In high school, she earned an internship at City Hall, and by the time she entered college, she had been appointed by the mayor to hold a seat on the Youth Commission. Its 17 members bring youth-centric policies and voices to government bodies — and LaCroix quickly jumped into a battle to make Muni free for youth, an effort whose ripple effects are felt today.

She was in her element.

“I had a lot to say, having grown up in San Francisco about what the city should be doing to serve our youth,” LaCroix tells SF Weekly. “My mom raised three girls as a single parent in a low-income household, so we didn’t really have the funds to get a car. My family got around on public transit. That was our everyday necessity.”

But the city was changing. Post-recession, the San Francisco Unified School District was drastically cutting its supply of yellow school buses to save money, and at the same time, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency was contemplating a 300-percent fare increase for youth passes.

“Young people are completely transit-dependent,” LaCroix says. “So we started working on a discounted youth pass. If there was discounts for adults, there should be ones for youth.”

It wasn’t an easy process. Even after the Youth Commission identified a pot of money that could be used to subsidize low-income youth’s Muni passes, the red tape was nearly impossible to get through. LaCroix went from one meeting to another — SFMTA to Public Utilities Commission and back to SFUSD — trying to get every player to approve their portion to make the project a reality.

In the end, after years of work, a pilot program was launched. Shortly thereafter, it received a helping hand: In 2014, Google donated $6.8 million to the program, the largest-ever gift to the SFMTA from a nongovernmental organization.

LaCroix and the Youth Commission’s hard work lives on every day. Tens of thousands of young San Franciscans now ride our public transit system for free.

“It took young people organizing and mobilizing for folks to really see that we were in it for the long haul,” LaCroix says.

But the Youth Commission was just the start. Around the same time that she graduated from San Francisco State — with a dual degree in urban planning and political science — someone suggested that she run for San Francisco’s Democratic County Central Committee, a powerful local voice whose endorsement meetings draw hundreds of people around every election.

“At first I was like, ‘No, that seems like a beast, I’m starting a new job, I just finished school,’ ” she says. “But the more I thought about it, I kept thinking about how young people are told ‘Not now,’ and to ‘Wait their turn.’ ”

In 2016 she decided to throw her hat in the race, and one year out of college, began campaigning in earnest. There were 10 seats, and when early results came in, she wasn’t anywhere close to winning.

But then the results started to change.

“Every day, I would nervously refresh the Department of Elections website, and as more ballots came in, I saw my name moving up and up,” she says. “By the end of it I came in seventh or eighth out of 10. It was a wonderful surprise, and it felt really good to have that win under my belt.”

LaCroix’s term on the DCCC is still active, and she juggles it along with a new job as an administrative analyst at the Port of San Francisco. The path forward holds many possible directions, but one thing is certain.

“I have a really big passion for continuing to serve young people,” she says. “It made a really big impression on how I see our political world. If there’s a space for me to run that allows me to continue to serve young people that’s what I do.

“A lot of the big movements in the city — presently and historically — have taken place because of the empowerment of students,” she adds. “I think any amount of opportunity that we have to elevate or showcase young leaders and let them know they have a seat at the table is so important. They’re hungry for those opportunities, and for people who want to know what they think.”

This story is part of our feature on Black people making history in S.F. Check out our pieces on Gloria Berry, Aria Sa’id, and Kaylah Williams.

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