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 Munoz – part 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.”