Sherman Dean

"We get a chance to really be vocal out here and control our own story."

Sherman Dean doesn’t want his younger brother or nephews staring at a screen all day. When they visit him at his home in Richmond, California, he usually sends them to play in the park just up the block. “They want to stay in and play video games all the time,” says Sherman, but he has other plans. “You all got a park right up the street. We built it. Go use it!”


[aesop_image img=”” panorama=”off” imgwidth=”50%” credit=”Photo courtesy of Sherman Dean” align=”right” lightbox=”on” caption=”Sherman Dean (left) at Unity Park design session.” captionposition=”left” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

In fact, the park Sherman and his neighbors helped build is Unity Park, a project that came into being following six years of persistent effort by local stakeholders convened through Friends of the Richmond Greenway (FORG). Made up of 17 local nonprofits, FORG worked closely with community members to develop a common vision for the new green space. This transformative project, which cost five million dollars to bring to fruition and included an extensive community-led design, planning, and construction process that employed dozens of local residents, took place practically in Sherman’s backyard.

Turning an eight-block section of the Richmond Greenway, formerly a corridor of underutilized brownfield sites, into Unity Park produced a much-needed place for neighborhood youth, families, and seniors to exercise, play, and gather as a community. As co-chair of the Unity Park project’s Community Outreach Committee alongside former Groundwork Richmond executive director Sarah Calderon, Sherman saw first-hand how this broad community collaboration created other layers of change, too. He really lights up talking about the less tangible results of the work. “At the basic community level, which in most places is really unheard of when you think about the relationship with our city, our nonprofits, our residents … we get … a chance to really be vocal and be heard out here and really get a chance to control our own story,” says Sherman. “And I feel like projects like this, like Unity Park, really are instrumental to that transition, to that transformative story.”

[aesop_image img=”” panorama=”off” imgwidth=”50%” credit=”Photo: Groundwork Richmond” align=”left” lightbox=”on” caption=”Sherman (second from right) with Groundwork Richmond Green Team youth leaders at Richmond City Hall reporting back from a Groundwork-hosted youth visioning summit on the redevelopment of Richmond’s Point Molate. ” captionposition=”left” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

Presently, Sherman serves as Green Team Coordinator for Groundwork Richmond, one of the members of the FORG coalition behind the Unity Park project. Sherman describes with a grin the work of his environmental youth development program with 14- to 18-year-olds: “What do we do? The question is what don’t we do?” Under Sherman’s leadership, the Green Team engages in a variety of healthy built environment community service projects around Richmond, many organized and led by Groundwork Richmond: “re-forestry projects, planting trees, transforming blighted areas into parks, pocket parks, and working on our Greenway.”

Unity Park is located right in the middle of the 3.5-mile Richmond Greenway trail. “We ride bikes on [the trail], and walk along, and whatnot. We also participate in different recreational activities … we go hiking, we go kayaking, biking around. We try to do as much things close to home as possible to get our youth to understand that there’s all these things that seem so far away are actually really close, especially where we live.”

[aesop_image img=”” panorama=”off” imgwidth=”40%” credit=”Photo courtesy of Sherman Dean” align=”right” lightbox=”on” caption=”Sherman with his mother, nephew, little brother, and sister at church.” captionposition=”left” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

Sherman grew up partly in Bakersfield, California, and partly in Richmond and the Bay Area, so he “got a little SoCal and NorCal upbringing coming up.” Raised in a strictly religious family, Sherman describes his childhood as sheltered, but he was aware that Richmond had a reputation as a dangerous place. “We’ve had this negative kind of cloud over us,” he explains. “In the last few years, we’ve been doing a whole bunch of community restoration work and really trying to change our culture and change our narrative out here.” Alongside fellow Unity Park project stakeholders, Sherman was involved in “grassroots level organizing and action–not just ideas, but taking those ideas and physically making them come to fruition.”

For Sherman and for Richmond, the stakes are high: “With this Unity Park project, we’re trying to show not just our city, but even the whole Bay Area, that when you put community members in charge of their own solutions or their own resources, we do know how to manage our resources. We do know how to design. We do know how to build what we need and what we want.”

[aesop_image img=”” panorama=”off” credit=”Photo: Josue Hernandez Photography” align=”center” lightbox=”on” caption=”Sherman speaking at Unity Park groundbreaking event, April 2017.” captionposition=”left” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

Sherman reflects on how the development of Unity Park changed the way his community functions: “It’s something to be proud of, because we pulled together as a people, as a community.”

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“Pretty soon, we won’t even need these processes. It’ll just be, like, OK, what’s the community want to do, what do we need? And the city will already be on board,” Sherman explains. “Having Richmond be a city for its people, that’s actually governed by its people … to have the city function as something that people put time into, energy into, money into, and then it turns around and comes back into those people’s lives in different forms. Unity Park is just step one, just a baby step.”

The change is both immediate and long-range. Tangible and intangible. Fundamental to building momentum and realizing lasting change, to be sure. But, the changes Sherman perceives in Richmond are also making themselves subtly known within himself, too. “Through this project, I learned that Richmond is a city that I definitely feel like I want to be a part of and really want to leave a lasting impression on, as far as what I do what I did for my city or what I could do for my city while I’m here, for my community while I’m here. I learned that that is a strong motivation for me. Working with Groundwork is still … wanting to be able to give back to my city and wanting to give back to, even if it’s just, you know, maybe some fresher air down the road with a few trees, you know, it’s something that I feel like I want to do.”