People in Your Neighborhood: Meet the woman behind ‘blackbrownpb’
When Pacific Beach resident Paige Hernandez was in third grade, she observed racism for the first time in her hometown of Camarillo.
“A little boy on the playground got upset with [Hernandez’s younger sister in the second grade] and called her the ‘n-word,’” Hernandez said. “I just remember being called into the principal’s office with my mom and my sister. My mom was so upset: ‘How does that little boy even know that word?’”
Today, Hernandez is involved in local social activism and helps low-income students of color at San Diego State University in her position as director of student retention and success at the school’s Center for Intercultural Relations. She began in that post July 1 after serving as assistant director of strategic initiatives at SDSU.
Before that, Hernandez attended the SDSU master of education program for educational leadership and student affairs and achieved her master’s degree in 2018.
“I loved learning about different folks’ identities and activism and social justice and I realized that I wanted to do this as a career,” she said.
Raised by a single mom of Mexican and European heritage, Hernandez said she got her activist spirit from watching the way her mother, Shelley, advocated for her mixed-race children to be treated equally. Hernandez and her younger siblings have a black father, while her older half-siblings, from her mother’s first marriage, have a white father.
Social activism via social media
In May this year, Hernandez launched blackbrownpb, an Instagram page intended to “amplify the diverse experiences and voices of black and brown folks in Pacific Beach,” according to a statement on the page.
She said she was inspired to start it after following another popular PB Instagram page that she felt wasn’t reflecting local people of color, and she decided to create her own page to fill the void.
Struggles against the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and racism were highlighted at the Pacific Beach Town Council’s June meeting.
The page started with the idea of giving a voice to people of color in Pacific Beach. But once racial-justice protests started gaining momentum following the deaths at the hands of police of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, Hernandez began using the page to highlight local demonstrations against police brutality.
She attended four area protests — including the Paddle for Peace in Pacific Beach and the Black Lives Matter moving protest through San Diego County, both on June 6, and the “We March Against Hate” on June 20 in PB — but chose not to attend more due to her asthma, which could put her at risk during the coronavirus pandemic.
In the near future, Hernandez said, she intends to include historical examination of how PB came to be a largely white community and explore how it can become more inclusive.
Though she said community feedback about the page has been positive overall, she has received inquiries about its name.
“Some people have reached out and asked, ‘Why is it called ‘blackbrownpb’? Why is it not called ‘Inclusive PB’ or ‘Diversity PB?’” Hernandez said. “And I think we have to be honest with ourselves that Pacific Beach is not a diverse or inclusive community at all times. So I don’t want to send the wrong message to folks with marginalized identities that this is like this utopia where everyone is getting along and race and income don’t matter, because they do. But I’m trying to showcase that this is also a place where [they] belong as well.”
Hernandez also created an online resources page for black San Diegans at bit.ly/supportblacksd.
“This guide lists local organizations, resources and services for black residents, with a particular focus on support for black LGBTQ+ folks, refugees and immigrants, mental health services and support groups,” she said. “It’s also a helpful resource for non-black allies who are looking for local organizations to support monetarily or invest in.”
Hernandez was raised in what she describes as a “colorblind” environment where there was minimal discussion or acknowledgement of the difference in her and her sisters’ skin colors compared with their white brother and sister. Her mother thought it was the best way to protect her children from racism, Hernandez said.
Looking back, though, Hernandez says the colorblind perspective was harmful, as she encountered a culture shock in public school. “I realized, ‘Oh wow. Wait, I am different. Wait. I’m brown! How did I not recognize this before?’”
“Now I’m confident in who I am,” Hernandez said. “I can say, ‘I’m a black woman. I’m also Mexican. I’m also white.’”
Hernandez said she started noticing that she and her family were living “below the poverty line” while many of her white friends lived in large, luxurious homes. “It was like I was part of this dual world where I was always kind of part of the community but I was also outcast and forgotten — like my stories, my experiences weren’t showcased.”
She said her family had to move 15 times and she and her siblings changed schools eight times, all while living in Camarillo, because they couldn’t afford to keep their home. Three times they were homeless and stayed at friends’ homes, she said.
Though Hernandez as a third-grader didn’t know what the “n-word” meant when it was said to her sister, the whole experience made an impact that would last through her high school years. She began questioning if there was something “wrong” with her and her sister. “Why would he call us that? Are we dirty? Are we bad?” Hernandez recalled wondering.
It even affected her academically. “I didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself,” she said. “I didn’t want to be too smart because then … I’d be singled out. I kind of wanted to just slide under the radar.”
Despite the difficulties, there were positive experiences as well, Hernandez said. Her teachers stepped in whenever they could to offer support, both financially and academically. They would provide Hernandez and her sister things they needed for school, and one teacher even babysat them when their mom was unable to pick them up after school.
Her teachers also were the driving force behind her pursuit of higher education.
“I don’t think I would have gone to college if I didn’t have those teachers telling me, ‘You’re going to college. … You have to do this. You’re so smart and talented and we’re going to see you through that,’” Hernandez said.
Hernandez graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and geography.
After college, she joined AmeriCorps, where her first assignment was at Davis Middle School in Compton. There she created a college access center and programs to help parents and students understand what it takes to get into college.
Her second assignment was at SDSU with the California State University Program for Education & Research in Biotechnology. There she worked with a program in which students can submit proposals for biotech ideas and receive $2,500 to work on their ideas with industry experts, if selected.
After leaving her two-year assignment with AmeriCorps, she pursued her master’s degree at SDSU and has been working there since achieving it.
Next stop … community politics?
Hernandez and Pacific Beach Town Council President Brian White, along with Town Council member Ron Walker, recently discussed how to get more young people involved in PBTC meetings or on the board. White suggested Hernandez consider joining the Town Council, which she told PB Monthly is a possibility — but not quite yet.
“Paige is an intelligent, impressive and successful woman who has quickly become a great addition to our PB community,” White said via email. “It’s clear that her talents will be very useful in furthering PBTC’s mission to enhance Pacific Beach, and we look forward to working with her.”
For now, Hernandez wants to keep her focus on her new position at SDSU and helping to improve the graduation rate for low-income students of color. “I have to make sure I have the time to do it right,” she said.
Though her work keeps her busy, Hernandez occasionally can be seen around PB taking strolls with her partner, Joshua Beckermann, or walking their two rescued feral kittens, Meena and Teddy, on a leash. Hernandez also enjoys hiking, paddleboarding, kayaking in Mission Bay and inline skating down the PB boardwalk.