HOPE, Ark. — When Shirley Weber and her siblings fled this place as children in 1951 on a midnight train bound for California, their destination seemed so distant and unfamiliar to the relatives who stayed behind that they called the state a foreign land.
As Weber stood at the edge of her family’s 100-acre farm on a recent visit, her first in decades, memories of her birthplace came flooding back. She and her cousins swapped stories about shelling peas on her aunt’s screened-in porch, how dark it got at night before the city installed street lights, and what forced her family to flee—her sharecropper father’s refusal to back down during a dispute with a white farmer, and the lynch mob that threatened to take his life.
Weber inherited that tenacity from him, along with his belief that education is the portal to a better life. She rose from her hardscrabble roots to earn a Ph.D. and become an academic, a school board member and now a legislator, always championing the causes of underdogs.
Inside the California Capitol, she’s an education reformer who doesn’t flinch when taking on the powerful teachers union, shrugs off setbacks, and “just won’t die” on the issues she cares about.
“I don’t fear that I’m going to get lynched at night or that someone is going to bomb my house. I don’t fear that,” Weber said. “What my predecessors stood for and fought for was a whole lot harder than what I’m fighting for today.”
At age 68, the Democratic Assembly member from San Diego, a tall black woman whose short Afro is speckled with gray hairs, has a 40-year career as a university professor behind her and little ambition for higher office.
“She doesn’t need this job, and that’s freeing,” said Sen. Toni Atkins, a fellow San Diego Democrat who considers her a mentor.
Weber insists that the state “can and must” do a better job teaching low-income students, and has devoted herself to the cause. California’s achievement gap between poor kids and their wealthier peers hasn’t budged in decades, and the state’s needy fourth graders now rank dead last in math compared to other states.
Her solutions include tightening the requirements for teacher tenure and mandating greater fiscal accountability—ideas that make her the rare Democrat at odds with the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest union for educators.
Often, her proposals stall in the Democratic-controlled Legislature or get vetoed by fellow Democrat Gov. Jerry Brown. Critics consider her a stubborn, impatient, anti-teacher’s union zealot. But Weber says she’s not deterred.
“It doesn’t bother me that I’m upsetting people who don’t want to change because they’ve got to change,” Weber said. “I come out of a legacy that says, if you don’t keep kicking at the door, you’ll never be able to wear it down or open it. So, I keep kicking.”
Weber’s life as a Californian began at age 3 in South Los Angeles’ Pueblo del Rio housing project, where she and her seven brothers and sisters lived alongside other African American families.
Her father David Nash supported his brood with decent wages earned working a union job at a steel mill. Her mother Mildred was a homemaker. But having only made it to the 6th grade back in Arkansas, Weber’s father was semi-literate. He could write his name, she recalls, and “read a little.”
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