Eleanor Thompson is known in the Iron Triangle neighborhood as an advocate for youth and their safety. What’s less known is that she is motivated to work for the young people of Richmond by her own childhood experience.
Thompson was born in Arkansas but moved to Arizona when she was six. By the time she was 14, she had lost both her parents and entered a foster home with her two younger sisters, then 13 and 12.
Despite being the oldest, Thompson said she was the shy and reserved one who was often teased and bullied. It was her younger sister, she said, who was “aggressive” and stood up for her when she couldn’t get on the swing at school.
“My sister, she was a fighter, she’d tell people to back off if they were picking on me, and fight them if she needed to,” she said. “I learned what it was like to need someone to stand up for you but I also learned that there were rules that had to be obeyed.”
Just as she and her sisters received love and support from their foster parents, Thompson said she now wants to help others who are less fortunate – which she does now as founder and executive director of Social Progress and hopes to do next from a seat on the City Council.
Social Progress is a group home for teenagers from the Iron Triangle and North Richmond communities, where teens can go to receive tutoring, mentoring or for a safe place after school. There are usually about 25 youth there at any given time.
“I set up a group home for children who don’t make it in foster homes and I count myself lucky,” Thompson said. “I know what it feels like not being able to be with your family.”
After graduating from high school in 1967, Thompson moved to North Richmond and ended up living with a couple, Jack and Littie Mae Spicer, whom she met at Ephesians Church of God in Christ – which she continues to attend today.
Thompson attends church services twice a week. As a state representative for California NorthWest Churches of God in Christ, Thompson said she often goes to food and clothes donation programs to help the less fortunate in Richmond.
“My religion plays a huge role in driving me to go on helping others,” she said. “It gives me strength and belief that God will make a way as long as I put my mind to it and work hard.”
Thompson also credits her success to two role models, one of whom is the Spicer’s daughter.
She said that the Spicers used to drive her to their daughter’s place 10 miles away in Rodeo twice a week. And for four hours at a time Erma Hollinquest, then an elementary school teacher, would help Thompson with homework and read and edit her essays for classes at Contra Costa College.
Hollinquest said that Thompson was in her late teens when they first met. “Eleanor was very quiet and reserved, but as I got to know her, I learned that she care a lot about people,” she said. “Whatever she put her mind to, she would not let off and she has only gotten more determined over the years.”
She added that Thompson was “highly energetic” and that she would probably never slow down in her work for the community. “We still talk on the phone a lot but she’s always multi-tasking, writing an e-mail or going somewhere,” Hollinquest said. “She’s all about doing things for others.”
Thompson makes it clear she is thankful for Hollinquest. “If not for her, I would still be in college,” she said.
Through the Spicers, Thompson also met a second role model, Jamersina Preston. Preston noticed Thompson’s shyness and confronted her.
“She said to me, ‘You’ve got to look the world in the eye’,” Thompson said. “She taught me that when I talk to people, I’ve got to look at them and be clear about what I’m saying.”
Preston said that she has known Thompson for more than 20 years now, and still remembers the day she said those words.
“She cared a lot but didn’t have a lot of confidence,” Preston said. “When I spoke to her, she looked at me with disbelief as though asking if I was serious, and I said, ‘Yes.’”
Preston added that she felt Thompson had “grown 1,000 percent” since then and that she had the potential to bring about positive change with her experience in the community.
Thompson is still reticent about her own work. But her shyness hasn’t stood in the way of reaching out to the community. As she sat talking on a bench outside the Craneway Pavilion where she had been attending the Home Front Festival on Saturday, passersby repeatedly stopped to say hi. It’s creating that sense of community at the city level that motivated her to set aside her preference for privacy and run for City Council.
“I don’t like the way the City Council members are fighting,” she said. “I feel like they are not representing the people who voted them in and issues are not being addressed and dealt with.”
Thompson said she hopes to create more job opportunities for youth, which starts with an environment in which they can feel safe enough to leave their homes for job training and summer school programs.
She feels that the young people are intimidated by the system and have to be represented since they aren’t voicing their problems.
“They won’t come to City Council meetings to fight for themselves,” Thompson said. “Somebody has to be a voice for these kids and there’s no one on the council for them.”
Thompson is also the city police commissioner and a past president of the Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council. She was Crime Prevention Volunteer of the Year for Richmond in 2000, and in 2010, she was awarded a Crime Prevention Program Certificate of Honor.
“My friends look at me and say, ‘Eleanor is always for the underdog’,” she said. “And it’s true. I see that in our youth, who are our today and right now, not just our future.”
Thompson said she would work to create a safer Richmond through youth programs and job creation for Richmond residents. And she intends to make sure her voice is heard peacefully.
“I didn’t like it when my sister had to fight because of me and I still don’t like fighting now,” she said. “Fighting will get us nowhere.”