Alive & Free’s success—along with his popular book—has given Marshall visibility not only in San Francisco but throughout the country. So when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom was looking to remake the city’s Police Commission, his first thought was Joe Marshall.
“I had seen firsthand the work he had done and knew what a presence he was in the community,” says Newsom, who is now California’s lieutenant governor. “I wanted someone on the commission who didn’t just understand law enforcement issues but the underlying problems. Joe was a different voice and offered a different and needed perspective.”
Marshall joined the commission in 2004, and Mayor Ed Lee reappointed him to his fourth term in 2014. Marshall says it’s one of the most rewarding jobs he’s ever had.
“At first, my attitude was that my community has enough problems and that what I needed to do was make sure the police didn’t make it any worse,” Marshall says. “But for me to have a community voice on the commission is priceless. I can get in the middle of tense relationships and move them forward.” Relationships between the police and the minority community have been getting better in recent years “but only because we work hard at it.”
Tony Ribera, former San Francisco police chief and head of USF’s International Institute of Criminal Justice Leadership, calls Marshall “a model of positive leadership” and says he “helped the police department grow into a 21st-century organization.”
It always comes back to USF, often in ways he never expected, Marshall admits.
On a 10-day trip to Israel with community leaders in 1994, Marshall met then-USF President John Schlegel, S.J., and the two hit it off. Later, when the university was looking for a new trustee, two former classmates already on the board recommended Marshall for the post: Adrienne Riley and Louis Giraudo, the board’s chairman.
“I was the last person I ever thought would be a university trustee,” Marshall says.
“We had to kind of convince him,” admits Riley.
Marshall left the board in 2006 after reaching the term limit, but he is still active on campus. He’s a regular on panels and seminars, has taught part-time in USF’s ethnic studies department, and serves on the advisory board of USF’s Upward Bound chapter, a college-preparatory program. He’s also a regular at Memorial Gymnasium, where he follows his beloved Dons. “If we ever get a really good team, we’ll own this town,” he says.
At a reunion of MacArthur Foundation grant winners, Marshall recalls looking around at the other high-powered recipients and wondering, “What the hell am I doing here? There are times when I just can’t believe it.”
It’s a momentary lapse. Only “I can” is acceptable at Alive & Free.
“Very few people have had such a profound effect on me as Joe Marshall has,” says USF diversity scholar Clarence Jones, who helped Martin Luther King Jr. write his “I Have a Dream” speech. “He’s like a lighthouse that’s pointing a beacon light. If you want to get through the storm, this is the course you must take.”
More than two dozen cities in the United States are on that course and have adopted the Alive & Free model for their communities. It has even spread internationally, establishing programs in South Africa, Thailand, and Canada.
“He’s changed lives and saved lives,” says Riley. “This isn’t [just] a job for Joe, it’s his life.”
It’s a life Marshall is dedicating to changing the world, one kid at a time.
“Like my grandmother said, ‘The more you know, the more you owe,’” Marshall recalls, leaning back in his chair in his classroom-turned-office. “It’s been a great, wonderful, joyous ride, but I got a lot more to do.”