the couple stands in a baseball diamond, wrapped in a single talit
Sunny Schwartz (right) and Lauren Obstbaum married in Giants Stadium on May 29, 2016. (Photo/Bustle & Twine)

Q&A: This fighter for civil rights has baseball in her DNA

Name: Sunny Schwartz
Age: 62
City: San Francisco
Occupation: Criminal justice reform
sunnyschwartz.com

J.: Your background is in law, but your entire career, including over 30 years with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, has been focused on criminal justice reform. How did you first become interested in the subject?

Sunny Schwartz: I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, and I always felt class differences. Kids were plucked out of my class to go to juvenile hall and we only found out later. As it turns out, most of them were abused in some way, shape or form. Meanwhile, I wanted to be a lawyer, to stand up to the bully system.

Did you always believe that even the most violent offenders could change?

I think I’ve always believed that. I don’t, by any means, pretend I walk in the shoes of the men and women who are incarcerated, as we are worlds apart, but there is a parallel common humanity we do share. These are people who are not being heard, and being misunderstood, and as Pollyanna-ish as it sounds, I really do believe that most people want to do the right thing, if given the opportunity. Even the most violent human beings can potentially change, but there’s a big caveat there — they have to want to.

What is the Resolve to Stop the Violence Project that you started while in the Sheriff’s Department?

My job [was] to create programs for incarcerated men and women. We surveyed the prisoners and found that the majority were at a fourth- or fifth-grade reading level, most were high school dropouts, most were parents. We realized that in our offering life skills and parenting classes in prison, we weren’t looking at violence. But given our demographics, we knew that almost 80 to 90 percent of those incarcerated were either victims or perpetrators of violence, and it was incumbent upon us to take this on.

I learned about restorative justice at a conference. I had always looked at folks inside as the victims of circumstance, and there’s truth to that, but what about the victims? In 1997 we launched this program that’s still going. Every week survivors of crime are brought in as a way to foster empathy. Criminal justice does not lend itself to introspection, but this is often the first time they’ve heard the impact of their behavior, and when this is repeated enough, it can really have an effect.

You established the first-ever charter school for incarcerated and post-release adults, your second program to win an Innovations in Government Award from Harvard University. How did a charter school help this population?

We had community colleges coming in and teaching classes, but when their budgets were cut, their programs in the prison system were the first to go. I went into Sheriff [Mike] Hennessey’s office and said, “We have to become like Israel and be self-determined. No one will care of our people like we do.” We launched the charter school in 2003. Now we have over 3,000 students in 65 different community sites.

You also founded Strike Out Violence, a program of the San Francisco Giants. What is that?

The S.F. Giants are gutsy and sincerely community-minded. They not only put money where their mouth is but they put their principles in action. They raised awareness of our [restorative justice] program. Graduates from our program stood shoulder-to-shoulder with survivors of violence in the ballpark before a game, saying they’d do the right thing. The Giants also took on AIDS awareness in the early ’90s. Today that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but back then it really was. They’ve also taken on domestic violence. Our first Strike Out Violence Day was in 1998 or ’99.

What did it mean to you to recently receive the ADL’s Civil Rights Award?

It was so deeply moving on so many levels. My parents used to talk about how important [the ADL] was. I remember being told they were this righteous organization that stood up to all forms of bigotry. Painfully, it’s needed today more than ever.

Last year you married your longtime partner, Lauren, beneath a chuppah inside Giants Stadium. How did you manage that?

Besides social justice, baseball is in my DNA. I’ve always been a fanatic about it, even as a kid. My wife loves it too, though she’s not as crazy about it as I am. We live across from the ballpark, and I do a lot of community work for the Giants, so when the Supreme Court ruled that we all could get married across the land, Lauren said “How about a chuppah at home plate?” When I asked [President and CEO] Larry Baer if we could do that, he said yes. Our crowd was too large, and we ended up having to put the chuppah at second base so as not to disturb the grass. Our daughter Ella spoke at the ceremony and thanked Larry for making her moms’ dream wedding come true.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to sueb@jweekly.com.

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."