Social work alumna blends homeless advocacy with humor

On stage during a comedy night in Chico just before the 2016 election, Shahera Hyatt ’08 (Social Work), MSW ’10 is talking about two homeless teenagers she met who, while rummaging through a trash can, had the police called on them.

What was that 911 call like, she wonders aloud. Perhaps you should check your privilege and recognize that these people are less fortunate than you and not causing any harm, she imagines the dispatcher telling the caller, before waiting a beat.

“Just kidding. We’ll arrest them,” Hyatt-as-dispatcher quips.

It’s the perfect example of how seriousness and humor blend in Hyatt’s life. By day, she is the director of the California Homeless Youth Project, a nonpartisan state organization that works to educate policymakers on the issue of youth homelessness and provide research-backed solutions to the crisis. At night, she’s a fixture on the Sacramento comedy scene, drawing inspiration from her work and using her stand-up act and monthly live current events show to shed light on social justice issues and politics.

“My day job is pretty heady, and comedy is, too, because the threshold for getting people to laugh out loud is pretty high,” she says. “But I do it in part to have more laughter and levity in my life, because I’m constantly mired in awareness of social injustice and human suffering. It doesn’t take that away. It’s still a huge weight on my head and my heart. But I get to explore a creative community and laugh every night.”

Hyatt’s past informs much of her present. The issues she experienced growing up in Rancho Cordova, including homelessness, are part of what inspired her to pursue degrees in social work, and they provide a unique and important perspective as she tackles youth homelessness at the state level. The social justice and political issues she deals with during the day form the basis of her comedy, which in turn serves as relief from the weight of her job.

Homelessness forced her to drop out of high school at the age of 16 and take the California High School Proficiency exam in order enroll at American River College, where her class schedule could accommodate a work schedule.

“It wasn’t about being disconnected to my education, it was about needing to work to be able to afford rent and have a place to live,” she says. “I knew I wanted a pathway out, and I had role models, a cousin who had been through similar situations and went on to get her Ph.D. It illuminated a path for me.”

During her first semester, Hyatt audited a class on the psychology of chemical dependency. That sparked an interest in the helping professions, which eventually led her to Sacramento State for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work. The University provided a practical education with field work at the core of both her undergraduate and graduate degrees. By the time she entered the workforce, Hyatt had more than six years of on-the-job experience, including at the Homeless Youth Project, where she first started working eight years ago as a grad student.

The makeup of Sacramento State’s student body provided an added, and equally important, benefit.

“The social work program at Sac State is one of the largest and most diverse in the country,” Hyatt says. “And something that prepares you well for working directly with communities of impact is studying with the communities that are impacted. Because our classrooms were so diverse and because the curriculum focused so much on introspection, the student body enriched my education.”

As the California Homeless Youth Project’s director, Hyatt educates state legislators, executive branch officials, and other policymakers about the issue of youth homelessness and works with them to develop evidence-backed solutions. She conducts academic research and meets regularly with children, teenagers, and young adults experiencing homelessness to gain their perspective and learn where gaps may exist in the state’s current support systems.

The need for such solutions is great: 5 percent of California public school students experienced homelessness during the 2013-14 school year, and roughly one in 10 CSU students are homeless, according to Hyatt.

“We try to speak and write in ways that are easy for folks to understand, no matter what their expertise level or how busy they are, to let them know what they need to know and how they can help,” she says. “We’re very research-informed, very solution-oriented, and I think that’s something we don’t see enough in policymaking.”

The project’s recent successes include passage of a bill requiring colleges and universities to develop a plan for housing students during academic breaks, as well as another that requires them to have a staff member on campus to respond to the needs of students experiencing homelessness. The latter bill led to Sacramento State hiring Case Manager Danielle Munozpart of the University’s ongoing efforts to help students in need – with whom Hyatt works closely. And the project’s connection to Sac State goes further: Both of Hyatt’s interns are current social work students.

As for stand-up comedy, that pastime began two years ago when Hyatt took a class at the Sacramento Comedy Spot, founded by comedian and fellow Sacramento State alum Brian Crall. She decided to perform at an open-mic night as a sort of one-off, “bucket list” thing and became hooked.

Today, she performs four times a week, is taking an improv class, hosts a weekly open-mic night and a monthly talk show called The Latest Show, and co-produces the Moving Van Show, a roving monthly pop-up comedy show.

“I talk about relationships and politics through a social justice lens,” she says. “It’s not like a TED talk. It’s funny jokes and they just happen to be about the things that I grapple with in my life. Taking it to the stage and making light of it, or even making some points while I’m just processing the world around me in funny ways, is a lot of fun for me.”


Two alums join Sac State president on mayor’s technology council

Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen and two University alumni are among the 19 individuals selected for the City of Sacramento’s Technology Council, an advisory group that will provide input to the Mayor’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the Sacramento Business Journal reported today.

Amy Tong

Along with Nelsen, Amy Tong ’94 (Management Information Systems), MBA ’98, and Ryan Montoya EMBA ’16 will serve on the committee, the latest example of how Sacramento State is playing an important role in the Capital Region’s growth. Tong serves as director and chief information officer for the California Department of Technology. Montoya is the chief technology officer for the Sacramento Kings.

President Nelsen has made innovation and entrepreneurship a key priority for the University, and one that recently was boosted by a $6 million donation to establish a Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on campus.

As CTO of the most populous state in the U.S., Tong is responsible for keeping technology up and running for more than 130 government agencies, as well as providing strategic guidance for California’s IT programs and policy. Montoya was a driving force behind making the Kings’ new arena, the Golden 1 Center, one of the world’s most technologically advanced.

According to the Business Journal, the technology committee had an introductory meeting last week and next meets in February. Recommendations for the unpaid positions were made by the mayor’s innovation office and approved by Mayor Darrell Steinberg. The council was created in 2016 under then-mayor Kevin Johnson.

Pair of Hornet alumni head California Department of Technology

If you think dealing with technology issues at home or at the office is a big job, imagine doing it for the entire state of California.

Amy Tong

Running the state’s Department of Technology – keeping computers and other technology up and running for more than 130 government agencies, as well as providing strategic guidance for California’s IT programs and policy – are two Sacramento State alumni: Amy Tong ’94 (Management Information Systems), MBA ’98, and Chris Cruz ’88 (Business Administration). Tong is the department director as well as the statewide chief information officer; Cruz serves as chief deputy director and deputy state CIO.

Both grew up in Sacramento – Tong immigrated to the United States from China with her family when she was 12 – and came to Sac State in large part because it offered an affordable, quality education close to home. Both also have spent nearly their entire careers working in the public sector and say they enjoy their current roles because of the ability to take a wide view of the state’s technology infrastructure and propose solutions to make it more efficient and effective.

Below, they answer a few questions about their time at Sac State and their current jobs with the Department of Technology.

Why did you decide to attend Sacramento State?

Cruz: It was an easy decision for me because, for one, my parents were helping me pay for college, and I found out that I could actually live at home. I also liked the fact that Sac State has a strong business administration program, and that’s where my degree is, in business administration and management. So I really enjoyed my time there, and the fact that it was easy for me to live at home and go to school.

Tong: I’m actually very, very similar. I was able to live at home, and I worked throughout college to help (pay for) my tuition as well as help my family. Staying close to my family was important, and Sac State has a great reputation. One other thing that attracted me was the difference between the Cal State and the (University of California) systems. My brother actually went to UC Davis, so we have this debate all day long at home that the UCs are more research-oriented and Cal State is more practical. I’m a practical person, so I liked the Cal State system.

When did you become interested in working in the IT field?

Tong: My major (management information systems) was in either its first or second year when I started at Sac State. It’s computer science but inside business administration, and that’s kind of the uniqueness that attracted me. How do you apply computer science into business?

Chris Cruz

Cruz: I always had an understanding that I would get into the IT field, but I actually started in business and went through understanding policy and business before I transitioned into information technology, which I did at the midpoint of my state career. That served me well in terms of having the business sense to communicate technology to business folks, because it can be quite frustrating if you’re very technical in your approach and you’re not able to break things down into what I call “bricks and mortar” for them.

How has what you learned at Sac State helped you throughout your career?

Cruz: I graduated in 1989, and six months after, I applied for state jobs and was able to get a state position at the Department of Justice. Sac State gave me the foundation to get into an analytical position as opposed to starting in an entry-level position. It prepared me for what I would learn in business, the economics of things, looking at the fiscal perspective of how government works and operates, and being able to have that big-picture thinking.

Tong: After my bachelor’s degree, I came directly to work for the state, but I had the opportunity to work during the daytime and go to night school for my master’s. It really helped me appreciate more of what I learned in college and then immediately apply it to what I needed to do at work. That back-and-forth makes the whole learning experience much more meaningful. That’s one thing I really enjoyed about Sac State. Even through my bachelor’s degree, (for) a lot of the items that were taught in the classroom, my professors always talked about how they would apply to real-world experience.

What’s your favorite part about your job?

Tong: Problem solving. My favorite part is that we have a broad perspective and can realize that Department A has a solution that can be used for Department B. We’re in the unique position to facilitate a lot of this collaboration and look for ways to share resources and streamline efforts for the state as a whole. Having a more enterprise-wide view, a statewide view, a holistic view helps drive efficiency within government.

Cruz: Having the opportunity to come in and work with Amy and all the fine people here to help transform the way government works from a technology perspective. That has been something that I enjoy waking up in the morning and knowing, that we are making a difference as a technology organization, and that we’re making things more efficient and effective for government through strategic change, through a collaborative government. It’s not an army of one. It’s an army of many.

What’s your advice to current Sac State students?

Tong: Get a job while you’re going to school. That work experience is invaluable. I know when we’re hiring, we always look for a good balance of education and practical on-the-job training.

Cruz: Learn that life is a privilege and not an entitlement. When you come into a job, a degree doesn’t guarantee a certain amount of success. What it does is get your foot into the door, but what you do after that, you’ve got to earn and work hard.