America’s younger generation is getting increasingly involved in local politics, and even without the big-name donors, many are gaining traction through powerful grassroots campaigns. 

21-year-old James Coleman’s run for City Council in South San Francisco’s District 4 is no exception. With a childhood-friend-turned campaign manager and community volunteers, Coleman has quickly amassed quite a following and outraised the 18-year incumbent Rich Garbarino by over $4,000, his campaign says. 

Coleman is running on progressive platforms like fighting climate change, defunding and demilitarizing the police in the city where he was born and raised, universal childcare and internet access, and promoting other youth voices. 

Now a student at Harvard University, Coleman says meeting people from more privileged backgrounds has made him reflect on the housing insecurity, exclusionary zoning laws, and inequitable access to public transportation that many SSF residents face. 

Growing up in what was historically an industrial city, Coleman saw major real estate development as the biotechnology industry boomed, and the ensuing effects on his community as costs of living rose. Expanding affordable housing is another of Coleman’s priorities for his hometown. 

When asked what’s missing in SSF’s City Council today, Coleman can’t suppress a chuckle as he says, “Energy. Bold ideas.” If elected, Coleman will be the youngest person and first openly LGBTQ+ member in the council’s history. 

In spite of decades of growing immigrant communities in SSF, the council has long been dominated by older, often white residents. While the council has somewhat diversified in recent years, Coleman believes he can represent not only the younger generation, but all “regular people” who need to be heard. 

“How can you look at the world around you and not do much? Or like do the minimal? It’s just so unconscionable to me that we are in the middle of a national pandemic and our city is throwing breadcrumbs at our people.” 

Coleman says the city has $31 million in uncommitted reserves which should be used to support the community through the pandemic. “This fund was kept for a rainy day, and if this is not a rainy day, I don’t know what is,” he says. 

According to a press release from his campaign, Coleman has received campaign donations averaging $50 each, while his opponent Garbarino’s average is $529 per donation. Even so, according to Coleman, he is surpassing Garbarino. “This was made possible due to the diverse coalition of students, educators, and retirees who’ve put their faith in James’ campaign so far,” the press release said. 

Franchesca Buendia, Coleman’s friend and campaign manager says SSF’s reception of Coleman has been inspiring. She helps manage the campaign, their other high school friend built the website, while other friends and residents in the district help with phone banking. 

As for the difference between Coleman and Garbarino, Buendia says, “It’s in approachability and accessibility. James has been actively connecting with community members and getting a first-hand look at what residents are going through.” 

And Coleman has big plans for his community. “People always tell me, ‘you should have three priorities,’ but I have four, because there are so many issues that are important.” On his website, he outlines 15 topics and his stance on each. 

In line with his environmental advocacy work, Coleman wants to strive for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, which he says is in line with scientists’ recommendations. “Anything beyond that is climate denial. We need to be listening to what scientists say.” 

It’s not a radical idea, Coleman says, referring to Berkeley City Council’s recent ban on natural gas in future construction. “South San Francisco has not been doing their fair share to address the climate crisis. And I think it’s about time we start doing so.” 

Coleman also hopes to reenvision SSF’s approach to public safety. “South San Francisco is no stranger to its share of police violence,” he says, remembering 15-year-old Derrick Gaines, who was killed by an SSF police officer in 2012. Officer Joshua Cabillo is now a San Francisco police officer, and in 2018 shot another civilian in the back. 

James Coleman, who is running for City Council for District 4 in South San Francisco, poses for a portrait in South San Francisco. Coleman, a 21-year-old climate activist and Harvard student, is hoping to bring progress to his hometown. Courtesy: James Coleman

As councilor, Coleman wants to create a police oversight commission for community members to hold the police accountable and address issues. He also wants a group of first responders trained in social work and mental healthcare to respond to nonviolent emergency calls, an alternative being adopted in several cities. 

Having watched SSF community members pushed out due to unchecked rent increases, Coleman also hopes to implement rent control and make affordable housing truly affordable. Currently, costs are determined by San Mateo County’s median income, which is made higher because of wealthier suburbs like Atherton and Menlo Park. 

Coleman doesn’t want to limit his city’s potential, and at 21, he sees his own future similarly. While he’s interested in politics, he says he might go into medicine or law or scientific research. 

He was raised by two working-class parents: his father, a FedEx worker, sustained an injury which left him disabled when Coleman was five, and his mother is a Taiwanese immigrant who supported the family as a lab assistant. 

This experience made Coleman want to be a doctor from a young age: today, he’s studying human developmental and regenerative biology at Harvard. Coleman also took on a minor in government and even co-founded what is now a chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, but still says he never imagined himself running for office until this year. 

His hometown’s response to George Floyd’s murder this summer actually pushed Coleman to enter politics. “Seeing our City Council being unresponsive and dismissive to the community’s call for change … inspired me to actually make the run for office and want to actively make change.” 

Once the high school valedictorian and now attending Harvard, Coleman has clearly been academically successful. “There’s some point when you turn to a kid and you’re like, ‘I’m not sure I can teach you any more,’” says Coleman’s high school Economics and Government teacher, Jason Capitan. 

But while not everyone who gets A’s is cut out for political success, Capitan says Coleman stood out even when he had 40 students in one class. Even back then, Coleman wanted to save the world, Capitan says, remembering his former student’s determination. 

Now, Coleman wants to take the experiences, education, and privilege he gained at Harvard back to SSF, to “empower and improve on the community where I once grew up.” 

And it doesn’t matter who thinks he’s grown: as Capitan says, “He’s not limited by anything. Everyone’s like, ‘Well, no, wait your turn, wait, you’re not ready for it yet’ … he’s like ‘No, let’s do it now, let’s get it done.’”