Valerie Lynne Shaw is out of commission.
After seventeen years, Valerie stepped down last week as president of Los Angeles' Board of Public Works. She's served three mayors over five election cycles, but she won't be serving this one. Garcetti came in and did some housecleaning, and Valerie, along with the rest of the commission, was shown the door.
She took it in stride. If there's one thing Valerie understands, it's politics. She has a lot of practice in it. When I met her back in 1992 she was working as a deputy for then-councilwoman Ruth Galanter, whose sixth district included Crenshaw. Valerie was the point person for the area and I was a brand-new reporter for the Times assigned to cover Crenshaw in the aftermath of the unrest, and I needed to know people like Valerie. I knew the area well as a local and as a native Angeleno, but to report on it -- especially at that point -- I would need a kind of aerial view of its politics and inner workings that I'd never had before. I'd never needed it.
Valerie was more than happy to help out. We met for lunch, and she immediately allayed my small but creeping fear as a novice reporter that maybe I couldn't do the job well. Maybe I couldn't do justice to a whole history of fairly but passionately representing black issues in the press, a history that stretched back to Ida B. Wells and William Monroe Trotter in the nineteenth century.
1992 was a different time. Racial advocacy was already clashing with the notion of post-racialism, which had started up back then even as the latest bout of black rage against the machine was still playing out at street level. Valerie encountered that rage all the time, and it was her job to translate it into something at City Hall that might help Galanter help black folks in South Central, give them a voice. Valerie wasn't too fazed by the enormity of the task because it had been part of her life for so long; both her parents were politically active and very much part of the complex struggle for racial equality in the city of angels. A Crenshaw-area park is named for her father, Leslie Shaw. Being a council deputy was just one way to make the almost cosmic work of struggle a straightforward nine-to-five.
It suited Valerie. She was, and still is, an interesting and very effective mix of cheerful and steely, idealistic, and realistic. She is the straightest shooter I've ever seen in the political realm, incapable of telling a lie or glossing over unpleasant truths. She is quick to laugh but doesn't find everything funny. She is the first to acknowledge the limits of reality, accord it its place, but she never gives in to it. What she is not and never has been is cynical, tired, resentful or indifferent: In her seventeen years, she has done what she could to bolster resources and service in neighborhoods with the most infrastructure needs, and at the same time maintain a black political energy in downtown's halls of power.
That second thing has gotten harder to do as demographic shifts and redistricting over the years have squeezed black pols and their once-prominent community concerns into a corner. One of the things Valerie wants to do in her unexpected retirement is connect black organizations across greater L.A. so they can help each other and maybe unite as a single political force that blacks in City Hall increasingly are not.
But no signs of decline were evident last Friday in the Board of Public Works room, where President Shaw presided over her last meeting. The meeting was really a tribute to Valerie and the depth and breadth of the testimonials was truly impressive; speakers ranged from former bosses like Galanter to former board colleagues to family members. They were black, but also white, Latino, young, old, male and female. In different ways everybody said the same thing, that Valerie told the truth, that she unapologetically put people and community first. The speakers said she had taken them under her wing and taught them things. One thing we'd all do well to remember is that enacting equity is more than a full-time job, that it's tedious, redundant, and sometimes disappointing. But those aren't good reasons to stop doing it. Valerie won't.