Gloria Berry Brings Shipyard Health Dangers to State Politics

Even as Assembly District Delegate Gloria Berry experienced homelessness, the U.S. Navy veteran launched a group to mentor young Black girls.

It wasn’t only the obvious problems with the Hunters Point Shipyard that kept former District 10 supervisorial candidate Gloria Berry coming to community meetings years before the toxic cleanup was widely regarded as fraudulent.

She’d spent a decade in the U.S. Navy climbing potentially radioactive antennas for ship maintenance in that very yard (and, in 2012, she was diagnosed with a rare chronic blood disorder). Berry, a Fillmore native, links the draining medical condition of hypereosinophilia to the housing instability that took roughly three years to overcome, and she eventually found a permanent home in the Bayview.

That didn’t hold her back from continuously showing up to City Hall hearings, Police Commission meetings, and other community events as she normally would. Now one of the newly elected delegates for San Francisco’s Assembly District 17, she plans to sponsor a resolution bringing the failed cleanup to the California Democratic Party agenda — if not for her generation of residents battling health disparities, then for children in the Bayview who have yet to be born.

“A lot of times we’ve got to do the work and know that future generations will be looking back and thanking their ancestors,” Berry tells SF Weekly. “When we have women within our communities that care and reach back so much, I think that’s especially powerful.”

That’s the idea behind Berry Powerful Ladies, an informal Facebook group she leads to bring young Black girls in the Bay Area to various functions and cultural events, from career fairs to robot expos, on her dime. Berry launched the group in 2015, as the dust began to settle on her period of homelessness.

She knows firsthand how feeling loved by strong women they admired in childhood could motivate them to pursue higher purposes in life. For role models, Berry points to four women — Linda Zenn, Rita Jenkins, Janet Gloyd, and Lorraine Allen — who led the Young Girl’s Christian Charm School at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Fillmore.

“She came in empty with wanting to absorb knowledge and that’s what struck me about her,” says Allen, Berry’s mentor since age 11. “It moves me to tears to see her be so strong and determined.”

Berry was also influenced by the sight of her mother serving breakfast with the Black Panthers in the Fillmore and parents working hard to send her to a private high school, which was majority white. In the ’70s, the lingering Haight-Ashbury influence insulated her from overt racism among her classmates — save for feeling snubbed by her teachers and by the lack of Black music at school functions.

But Berry would come to know outward discrimination along race and gender lines while in the Navy, which she joined out of high school in the hopes she could afford college instead of being another female secretary in the Financial District. Despite high test scores she felt proud of, she was first offered to serve as cook.

She pushed back. Instead, she was assigned a role as an information technician and by age 22 or 23, became the first woman and first person of color to run the communication center in Stockton. But she also had to constantly battle colleagues questioning her abilities.

Berry eventually left the Navy so she wouldn’t be away from her young daughter, and she was “floored” when IBM wouldn’t hire her despite 10 years of technical experience. Instead, she spent the next eight years working for the California Department of Corrections at San Quentin State Prison and filed two discrimination complaints in between, winning both cases and a promotion to sergeant.

She ultimately felt she had too much compassion to be as tough as some corrections officers wanted her to be, but had a hard time finding a consistent direction after leaving the post. As Berry worked odd jobs, she experienced extreme fatigue, severe insomnia, weak lungs, heart pain, and other problems the Veterans Affairs Health Care System dismissed as minor. A free clinic diagnosed her with hypereosinophilia in 2012, and she must now take oral chemotherapy every night to maintain her blood count.

“At that point it was like, finally,” Berry says. “There is an epidemic of Black women patients not being taken seriously. I think we get looked at as dramatic.”

But she could hardly work and the bills stacked up. Berry lost the home she owned in San Pablo and went from place to place — shelters around the Bay Area, living with her sister, a temporary home in Antioch, and veterans transitional housing on Treasure Island for nine months until a place in Bayview opened up.

By then, Berry’s daughter was independent and enrolled at San Francisco State University. Attending every meeting she could to be another body in the room, from teachers’ union rallies at City Hall to Beds for Bayview, gave her purpose.

Berry was one of three Black women rooted in community activism to run for District 10 supervisor in 2018 — urging residents to vote “Berry Smart” — but lost to Shamann Walton. Not missing a beat, she ran for and secured an Assembly District Delegate seat on a progressive slate in January and sees education as her ultimate priority.

She ran to push for free health screenings for Bayview residents, drug treatment centers, police accountability, and veteran housing at the state level. But she is also set on finding a fiscal sponsor for Berry Powerful Ladies so she can reach as many girls as possible.

Most times Berry brings whichever young women, ages 13 to 24, she can fit in her car but sometimes she can get a van from a local church to fit more. Some recent events include slam poetry in Oakland, a teen fashion expo in Daly City, and a visual arts gallery in Moraga.

Beyond expanding the horizons of young Black women, Berry stays active in the Bayview and Fillmore. She regularly attends town halls and meetings on the Hunters Point Shipyard cleanup, to bring shelters to Bayview, and takes part in community workshops at the Fillmore Heritage Center. 

“I feel you can’t really exist here without giving back,” says Berry, now a grandmother to a one-year-old boy. “I let people know if they need me, just call.”

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

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