Alumni

Alum directs ‘The Murder Inc. Story’ docuseries on BET, and it’s a hit

SF State helped Michael J. Payton develop his love for hip-hop into a career

When San Francisco State University graduate Michael J. Payton posted a YouTube video about hip-hop record label Murder Inc. four years ago, he didn’t expect it would get him hired as director of the official docuseries for national television. But it did.

“The Murder Inc. Story” premiered on Black Entertainment Television (BET) on Aug. 9 and hit No. 3 trending on Twitter. Payton (B.A., ’15) directed all five of the one-hour episodes and interviewed icons such as Ja Rule, Jay-Z, Nas and Daymond John.

In early 2019, label founder Irv “Gotti” Lorenzo posted an all-points bulletin to his 1 million Instagram followers: “Whoever knows Michael Payton. Let him know to reach out to me. ‘Cause I am gonna let him be [a part] of the Big Official Documentary.”

That same night, they connected over the phone and Gotti tapped Payton to direct the series.

Murder Inc. recording artists like Ja Rule, Ashanti and Lloyd dominated the charts in the early 2000s, shattering Guinness World Records. Federal money laundering charges against Gotti and his brother would contribute to a fast downfall, though they were acquitted. The music retains legacy and influence, as it has for Payton since age 12.

“I remember being enamored with their mystique and the whole brand,” said Payton, who grew up in Oakland. “It’s really a story of hope [and] belief in oneself. That’s one of the things I’m most fascinated by with hip-hop culture. It was all from the minds of very young people who had nothing. If you believe and have a passion and work hard, you can change the world.”

An SF State vibe

After high school, Payton selected SF State for its audio production and music recording program in the Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts (BECA) Department. He discovered a hip-hop community that would not only shape his career, but also provide him with a deep scholarly understanding of the genre that he loves.

He took Africana Studies courses with Dawn-Elissa Fischer, an anthropologist renowned for her research of hip-hop and other aspects of Black popular culture.

“He is a great communicator and peer educator,” Fischer said. “He created pathways and opportunities for many students, and he has continued to do so for those who came to SF State after him.”

In the Africana Studies Department’s Hip-Hop Workshop course, he served as assistant to Fischer and Dave “Davey D” Cook. Davey D and Payton reunited for “The Murder Inc. Story,” where Davey D appears as a historian.

“[Including him in the docuseries] was one of my proudest moments,” Payton said. “He was a big anchor for a lot of the cultural context in this story, and BET just loved him and his contribution.”

Commuting from Antioch, Payton would arrive on campus early in the morning and stay as late as possible. He was active in the Black Student Union and was general manager of student radio station KSFS and booked shows at The Depot. His weekly “Turn Up at The Depot” event allowed student rappers (including himself), DJs and bands to perform alongside notable artists. He was having the time of his life and recorded an EP titled “19th and Holloway.”

“There’s nothing like walking from Parkmerced to Stonestown late on a Friday night with your friends,” he said. “I wanted to capture that vibe in that EP. To this day, I still go back and listen to it and feel the same feels that I felt back then.”

The takeover

A scholarship from Jay-Z’s Shawn Carter Foundation helped make it possible for Payton to attend SF State. When they met for an interview for “The Murder Inc. Story,” Jay-Z was so excited that he called his mother when the cameras stopped rolling: “Mom, look at this young man who we put through school! He is now working with BET!’”

Payton is now working on a project for the Shawn Carter Foundation’s 20th anniversary. Payton is also slated to direct a docuseries about women’s contributions to hip-hop and executive produce a documentary about jailed drug lord Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff.

Payton emphasizes that he aims for all of his work to be a catalyst for change and community involvement. “I always want to make sure we’re able to weave in things that are going to start necessary conversations,” said Payton, who earned his master’s degree from New York University and served as an executive fellow for the governor’s California Volunteers initiative. “It’s not just these people [who] made cool music and this cool thing they did. No, let’s also dig deeper into these stories of why and how and give that cultural context.”

Learn more about the Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts Department.

Student creates mural honoring essential workers

Emma Wakefield completed the mural, commissioned by the Lake County Arts Council, days before graduating

A new muralism class at San Francisco State University has already extended its reach far beyond campus, into rural Lake County. Utilizing both art-making skills and business savvy learned in the class last fall, a student won a grant to create a large mural honoring essential workers.

Emma Wakefield endured sweltering heat for a week in May to paint the Essential Workers Appreciation Mural, a project of the Lake County Arts Council. Days later, she graduated from San Francisco State with a bachelor’s degree in Art and a minor in Education.

The mural shows a child sleeping with a stuffed animal under a large quilt with images of first responders, a teacher, a power-line worker, a mail carrier, a grocery store clerk and others. Measuring 44 feet wide and 13 feet tall, it covers the full back wall of the Meals on Wheels Thrift Store in Lakeport, about 120 miles from San Francisco. It was dedicated July 1 at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

In researching the mural, Wakefield learned about the varied, vital roles of essential workers. “It was very, very cool to see all these people who were incredibly brave during [the pandemic] and willing to go out and continue their work and face the danger of basically a plague,” Wakefield said.

The mural fits the overarching theme in all of Wakefield’s art: finding beauty in daily routines. “I would like my art to be something that people know they can look at and get a warm feeling from,” she said. “I want people to feel comfortable, to feel safe and to see the world through a new view. Something you do every day can be beautiful.”

Wakefield says she wouldn’t have thought to apply for the $8,000 grant if she hadn’t taken the “Murals and Public Art” class, where Lecturer Daniel Velasquez (B.A., ’16) aims to impart far more than artistic techniques. He also provides students with an understanding of the entrepreneurial aspects of careers in the arts, including governmental funding and contract negotiation.

“Assignments are focused around real-world opportunities that they seek out, stumble into and create for themselves,” Velasquez said.

SF State was Wakefield’s first choice for college. She was excited to move to an urban area. This shows in her “Sci-Fi in SF” series of drawings that reimagines the cityscape and SF State campus in a futuristic society.

“When I came to San Francisco, I was like, ‘Whoa, there’s a building taller than four stories! I was like, ‘This is the future!’” said Wakefield, who grew up in Loch Lomond in Lake County.

She jokes that the entire Lake County population could fit in Oracle Park, the 42,000-seat home of the San Francisco Giants and the SF State Commencement.

“Attending San Francisco State, as a whole, changed my life,” she added. “I met a bunch of people from different backgrounds and different cultures, talking with them and learning more about them — and seeing something outside from my very small town.”

Learn more about SF State’s School of Art.

Pulitzer Prize-winning alum appointed CSU Trustee

Immigration rights advocate brings his perspective to CSU leadership

Jose Antonio Vargas (B.A., ’04) became the voice for undocumented immigrants back in 2011 after coming clean about a closely guarded secret — he was not a U.S. citizen — in a New York Times essay he wrote about his life. Since then, he’s become an outspoken advocate for the undocumented, publishing a memoir and producing documentaries on the subject before founding his own media advocacy nonprofit Define America. And now the Gator is taking his advocacy back to the place that nurtured him as a young adult: the California State University (CSU).

Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Vargas to the CSU Board of Trustees Friday, July 22. Pending State Senate approval, he will join the 25-member board in adopting policies and regulations that govern the CSU system in areas such as educational policy, finance and campus planning. Lawyer and philanthropist Leslie Gilbert-Lurie was also appointed to serve as a CSU Trustee.

“These leaders from diverse backgrounds, walks of life and California regions bring a broad swath of expertise and experience to our world-class colleges and universities at a pivotal time for our state,” said Governor Newsom. “I look forward to continuing our work in partnership with the state’s higher education leaders to expand access to more students, create debt-free pathways, eliminate equity gaps and increase opportunities for the next generation of leaders to achieve their dreams and build a brighter future for our state.”

Following the governor’s announcement Vargas turned to social media to express gratitude for the appointment. “CSUs are home to thousands of immigrant students and students of immigrant families from all backgrounds,” he said. “As a proud graduate of San Francisco State — Class of 2004, before there was DACA, when the Dream Act was 3 years old, when there was little vocabulary and support for undocumented students and our families — I am honored, humbled, and excited. Let’s go.”

The older he gets the more he says he values the education he received in California public schools. “Joining the CSU board is my way of giving back. And we must give back in whatever way we can,” he said. “Because of its size, CSU is home to a truly diverse student body, which includes undocumented students of all backgrounds. My hope is to represent the diversity of the entire student body, and it’s crucial to remember that a student’s immigration status is only one part of that student’s humanity.”

Vargas came to the United States. from the Philippines when he was 12 years old. As his life unfolded, he navigated school, then college and work without proper documentation, eventually earning a degree in Political Science from SF State. After graduating, Vargas worked as a journalist at numerous well-known publications, including The Washington Post, Huffington Post and The San Francisco Chronicle, until going public about his immigration status in 2011. He later shifted the direction of his career to advocate for people in similar situations.

He produced “Documented,” a film about his experience navigating life as an undocumented immigrant, and explored the same topic in his bestselling 2019 memoir “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.” In 2012, he established a nonprofit media advocacy organization, Define America, which works to change the narrative on immigration in the United States.

Pier life: Alum and retired professor finds heaven among Coastside outsiders

You don’t have to put on airs around Toni Mirosevich, whose new book explores the people of a seaside pier  

Jobs in truck driving, restroom maintenance and attic insulation attracted Toni Mirosevich. Anything involving manual labor, she felt at ease — until chronic fatigue syndrome arrived in her 30s. She then discovered a new vocation using her hands. Writing led to a distinguished career as an author, poet and San Francisco State University professor spanning three decades.

Along the way, Mirosevich — a San Francisco State alumna and professor emerita of Creative Writing — and her wife have forged an unlikely bond with the denizens of a seaside pier about 8 miles south of campus. Mirosevich’s new collection, “Spell Heaven and Other Stories” (Counterpoint Press), is a fictionalized account of the fishers, crabbers, surfers, drifters and other “outsiders” whose ways of life draw them to the 49-year-old pier that extends nearly a quarter mile into the ocean. Characters like The Crab King, Kite Man and Tommy Bench are based on five elderly men who sit together on a bench and talk every day.

“These are my people. You don’t have to put on airs around them,” Mirosevich (M.A., ’92; MFA, ’94) said during a walk along the pier on a recent sunny and windy afternoon. She visits twice a day from her home up the hill, often accompanied by her wife and dog. “I grew up around fishermen who knew the art of bulls--t. People here know how to bulls--t you, and I feel very comfortable with that.”

Mirosevich has chronicled the Pacifica community for decades, including her 2005 poetry collection “Queer Street.” Her short-story collection “Pink Harvest: Tales of Happenstance” won the 2007 First Series in Creative Nonfiction Award from Mid-List Press and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award.

Mirosevich says being so close to the sea loosens people up.

“My wife said that someone told her, ‘All the marbles roll from the edge of the continent,’ so things are a little crazier down here, too,” she said. “And that’s good, too.”

‘Not a straight shot’

Raised in a working-class Croatian American fishing family and immigrant community in Washington state, Mirosevich enjoys manual labor. After she could no longer perform such physically demanding work, she began to write about her condition.

“I always tell people it’s not a straight shot what you think you’re going to do,” she said.

At SF State, an English professor named Judith Breen dissuaded her from dropping out.

“I took her modern Canadian fiction class and at the time was very ill and didn’t think I could continue in the graduate program. I went to visit her during office hours to drop out, and she encouraged me to stay in the program,” Mirosevich said. “In essence, she encouraged me to persist. If it hadn’t been for that office visit and her belief in my ability to overcome the limitations of the illness, I wouldn’t have gone on.”

The Finders

Mirosevich has gone on to pay it forward as a mentor to countless SF State students. Once a first-generation college student herself, she relates to them as she does the people of the pier.

“When I think about Toni, words that come to mind are generosity, humility, kindness and humor,” says Tanu Wakefield (MFA, ’06), who has remained friends with Mirosevich since graduating from SF State. “The most important thing that Toni taught me was to be generative as a poet: to generate as much material as we could.”

Wakefield is a member of a writing group of six SF State Creative Writing alumni convened by Mirosevich two years ago. They call themselves “The Finders” and meet on Zoom for two hours a week.

“It’s been amazing. Toni is someone who can come up with unique strategies and just ways of being quick on your feet and quickly responsive to work,” said Wakefield, a past poet laureate for the city of Belmont.

Ann Guy (M.A., ’18; MFA, ’20) is also in The Finders.

“Having this group in the pandemic saved me and opened my mind,” Guy said. “It’s magic. It’s just what she does.”

Mirosevich’s next public reading for “Spell Heaven” takes place May 25 at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco. She will be in conversation with SF State Lecturer Emerita Frances Phillips.

Learn more about the Creative Writing Department at SF State.

Xpress to anchor desk: Another SF State grad helms Bay Area television newscasts

Just 10 years after drawing editorial cartoons for SF State’s student paper, Sara Donchey leads a nightly newscast with fellow alum Ryan Yamamoto 

Sara Donchey’s most pivotal moments at San Francisco State University occurred after midnight. On deadline for the Golden Gate Xpress student newspaper, she launched a career that has taken her to television news jobs in Texas, Los Angeles and now back to San Francisco. CBS affiliate KPIX added her to its roster of anchors in January. Just 10 years ago she was drawing editorial cartoons in the Humanities building and learning about what she describes as a special camaraderie that can only be formed in a newsroom. 

“The night before we went to print, we were there super late,” said Donchey (B.A., Journalism, ’12), who was an opinion editor at the paper. “You become friends with those people for life. I’m still friends with all of them, including my teachers. … State was just the coolest place. I’ll always love it, and I’ll always love going back to campus.” 

Donchey helms the 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. weekday newscasts. At 5 p.m., fellow SF State alum Ryan Yamamoto (B.A., Radio and Television, ’94) sits at the anchor desk next to her. He joined the station late last year. 

Although Donchey and Yamamoto attended San Francisco State in distinctly different eras, she says she felt an immediate bond with him, like every Gator alum she meets.  

“When I meet other people from State, I know that we had the same college experience, which was really a community,” she said. “The city was our backyard and our playground. And it was an exposure to one of the best cities in the world.” 

The entire Bay Area is an SF State classroom within itself, providing valuable lessons for life and career. 

“When you live in a city like San Francisco, you are forced to experience life through someone else’s eyes,” said Donchey, who was raised in Los Angeles County. “It just gives you this exposure to culture. … We would learn about these things in the classroom and then we would go out and experience them in our lives outside of school. It’s hard to imagine another college atmosphere like that.” 

While Donchey describes the Xpress as her first “living and breathing journalism experience,” the broadcast news medium’s visual storytelling and performance opportunities also intrigued her. She connected on Twitter with a KPIX reporter, leading to a production assistant position at the station after graduating from SF State.  

Not all of Donchey’s time on campus was in the Xpress newsroom. Ethnic Studies classes from Lecturer Larry Salomon inspired her with new perspectives, and she and Salomon have remained in touch. She played intramural volleyball, too. In addition, she made sure to never miss a class taught by Lecturer of English Language and Literature George Evans. 

“He made me enjoy reading again,” she said. “I have vivid, crystal-clear memories of sitting down in that class. And it was late at night! I went to that class every Friday because it was so good. I think about it all the time. If I ever went back there [to visit campus], I’d want to tell him in person how much I loved his class.” 

Learn more about the Journalism major at SF State.

Recent graduate wins at CSU Media Arts Fest for two straight years

‘Every day can take you to a new story. That’s the beauty of San Francisco,’ filmmaker Pietro Pinto says.

Film school in San Francisco provides some of the world’s most breathtaking backdrops for a student short. A recent San Francisco State University graduate student from Italy discovered something even more desirable, boosting the filmmaker’s burgeoning career and helping him land slots (and awards) at film festivals around the world.

“People are very open-minded. Every day can take you to a new story,” said Pietro Pinto (M.F.A., ’20), who won Best of Show and Best Narrative at the 2021 CSU Media Arts Festival for his film “The Golden Gate.” “That’s the beauty of San Francisco.”

The films Pietro shot in the city showcase more than the fog of Baker Beach and Twin Peaks, the Castro marquee and the tall skyscrapers. Ambient sounds of the city also play a role. Sparse dialogue contrasts with constant sounds of crashing ocean waves or the hum of traffic, adding to the tension of the scene.

In the 15-minute drama “The Golden Gate,” a young gay man (played by San Francisco State student Franklin Racobs) finds the courage to stand up to his abusive and homophobic mother, a moment that would change forever his past and future. It is based on a true story of a friend Pinto met in San Francisco.

“Being an Italian student in San Francisco, for me the Golden Gate — all through my studies — was the place to go to get inspired or even to have time off,” Pinto said. “I thought this would be a perfect celebration for the city I was living in, even if [the film] is a drama.”

He recruited more SF State School of Cinema students to participate in “The Golden Gate,” including several from an introductory filmmaking class he taught. They shot one scene in class.

“It was fun!” Pinto said. “It was really a way to celebrate with the school and what the school gives you, which is a great community of very talented and very innovative filmmakers.”

Pietro’s “Icarus” showcases San Francisco Ballet dancer Angelo Greco at the height of the pandemic. Pinto recognized the fellow native Italian while jogging in San Francisco. They bonded immediately and began collaborating on the film, which won a Top 30 award at the 2020 CSU Media Arts Festival and was featured at the 2020 San Francisco Dance Film Festival.

“The Golden Gate” went on to screen at 20 film festivals, spanning Italy, Argentina, China and Boston. Pietro’s thesis project, a short thriller titled “Adam,” premiered at the 2020 Venice International Critics Week.

Next summer, Pinto plans to work with Professor Weimin Zhang on a documentary workshop with students in Apulia, Italy. Pinto coordinated a similar workshop in Bologna, Italy, in 2017 as Zhang’s teaching assistant.

“Pietro has been an inspiration to me as I have witnessed his passion, endurance, strength and extraordinary accomplishments,” Zhang said. “He is really one of a kind in my 15 years of teaching. I especially admire him with his extraordinary creative drive and tremendous energy and determination under any circumstances.”

Pinto says he values the School of Cinema’s support of independent and experimental film, a reflection of the artist community in the Bay Area as a whole.

“What I appreciate the most is the capacity to accept diversity and to integrate, and to honor and to give pride to diversity. So I felt at home,” he said. “And then there was a little Italian community I got to meet. It was like my start away from my country, and I fell in love.”

To learn more about studying film at SF State, check out the School of Cinema.

SF State Students Make Their Mark on Bay Area School Boards

James Aguilar (left) and Taylor Sims

All San Francisco State University students are interested in education, of course. That’s why they’re University students. But two Gators — James Aguilar and Taylor Sims — are taking their love for learning even further. They’re both helping set the course for others’ education as board members for their respective school districts.

Aguilar and Sims are among the youngest trustees ever for their local school districts. Although they each have their own unique story of how they were elected, they share a common goal: a desire to serve their communities.

Sims, who will graduate this semester with a B.A. in Sociology and a minor in Africana Studies, is a school board trustee in the town where she grew up: Pittsburg, California. As a trustee, she’s focused on understanding her community’s needs to help shape Pittsburg Unified School District’s vision, goals and policies. Although Sims was sworn into office just a few months ago, she has already set many goals and priorities. One of them is to provide more mental health resources to students.

“At a school board meeting, there were multiple students who expressed, especially during this time of COVID-19 and distance learning, that they’re having mental health issues,” she said. “There’s a lot going on in the world, so they need help to better focus in the classroom.”

Another priority for Sims is advocating for ethnic studies in K-12 education. This is vital for Pittsburg because it’s a diverse community, she says. “It’s important that we don’t erase history, we don’t whitewash other cultures’ histories and we actually celebrate and appreciate all of the cultures that are in Pittsburg,” Sims added.

Sims says that she learned a lot about her culture through her Africana Studies classes at SF State but wishes she received this type of education while she was going to school in Pittsburg. “We’re not taught that in high school, which is why we’re now pushing for ethnic studies to be implemented into Pittsburg schools,” she said.

James Aguilar

SF State Political Science junior Aguilar is also a school board trustee for the San Leandro Unified School District. He says community and student engagement are his priorities.

As a trustee, Aguilar listens to the communities he serves — virtually during the pandemic — and uses what he learns about their needs to shape how the district supports student learning. Recently, he and his colleagues have been doing that by surveying the community on reopening schools for in-person instruction.

“We’re going into our community and asking how we can navigate conversations on reopening,” said Aguilar. “With that, we created a reopening readiness dashboard that’s been helpful in creating the vision for what the future will look like.”

Another example of community engagement is when Aguilar reached out to his constituents following the storming of the U.S. Capitol in January. “It really has been a crucial time for us to come together and support our students, staff and the larger community. We want them to know that the district is with them,” Aguilar said. “We have to create a space for them to make change happen, to impact the future.” Engaging the community and students after a pivotal moment in U.S. history is critical to staying ahead as a district, he added.

“I plan on reaching out more often and really understanding what others are feeling at this time. More perspective will only help us,” Aguilar said. “In an ideal world, I want to know that everyone’s mentally OK because I know for sure I wasn’t at some points in the last year. A lot has happened. Stress and frustration is high.”

The students are also serving their communities in other elected or appointed positions. Aguilar currently serves as a board member for the SF State Foundation. Sims was recently elected as a California Assembly District 14 Democratic Party delegate.

Student Organizes Large Soap Donation for Kenyan Village amid Pandemic

San Francisco State University student Wayne Metho’s zeal for helping people crystallized while working in his native Kenya as an assistant manager in the hotel industry. So when COVID-19 started spreading around the globe, he naturally turned his attention back home, gathering donations for its citizens and working with a health care nonprofit. “People are my passion,” he said. “This is just a small way I could make a difference.”

Metho came to the U.S. in 2016 to study at Berkeley City College and transferred to San Francisco State in 2018. Even after years of living in the U.S., he maintained close contact with former colleagues in Kenya. Occasionally they would band together for philanthropic projects, like buying books for children and providing food to families in need.

Just after shelter-in-place orders went into effect in the Bay Area, the International Relations major learned about Tiba Foundation, an Oakland-based nonprofit that partners with local health care organizations in western Kenya to provide volunteers, funding and strategic guidance. Metho began volunteering for the organization, where he learned of a crucial need in the community Tiba serves: soap.

“People are my passion. ... This is just a small way I could make a difference.” — Wayne Metho

Many villagers didn’t have access to soap, a shortage that could be a matter of life and death during the COVID-19 pandemic, explains Tiba Foundation Executive Director Diane Dodge. But because of the pandemic, transporting soap from the U.S. would be too hard and securing soap at that time in Kenya was tough. That was the challenge, and Metho knew just who he could turn to: his former colleagues. Pooling their money, together they bought and delivered 750 bars of soap to about 300 families through Matibabu Hospital, Tiba’s partner organization.

Tara Neuffer, operations manager of Tiba Foundation, explained that Metho’s group represents a cornerstone of community organizing in Kenya, referred to as a chama: an informal cooperative in which members pool their savings and often make investments together. “They’re mutual-aid community fund groups where people pay monthly dues,” she said. “If you need a loan or there's a family tragedy, everyone in the group will democratically agree to lend you the money that you’ve been paying into.”

Inspired by Metho’s skills and drive, the organization offered him an internship after the project concluded. “We realized what an asset he was,” Neuffer added. “Not only is he intelligent and a great communicator, he just has that passion and will do anything it takes to complete his goals, which are always community-focused.” He’s currently helping develop videos and other visual promotional content and assisting with communications and fundraising.

Metho’s “passion for people” is an outlook that infuses most aspects of his life. When not working with Tiba, he’s a caregiver for people with disabilities in San Francisco. He takes his clients grocery shopping or to doctor’s appointments along with offering other kinds of support — work that’s essential and potentially dangerous during a pandemic. For Metho, however, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. “I just like doing nice things for people,” he said.