Building Community Through Engage SF

For several years now, my Engage San Francisco colleagues and I have taken students, staff, faculty, supporters, and administrators on walks in the Western Addition. We intentionally don’t call them tours, as this is the neighborhood we work with, and community partners and community members join us on the walks. Most importantly, the word ‘tour’ rings of voyeurism and doesn’t challenge the ethical implications of looking at a community rather than working with a community.  We walk seeking connection and knowledge. Inevitably we see the things that we plan, and also inevitably something happens that is unplanned, which is part of the magic of being with community.

21263606852_d32386758c_o

We walk to learn about the history of the Western Addition, the Fillmore, Japantown, San Francisco, and the United States. We learn about and discuss how policies contribute to systematic injustices that impact residents in the Western Addition, particularly residents who struggle to make ends meet. We learn from and with community members and community partners and we discuss  connections between USF and the Western Addition. These walks are customized for the participants and they are intentional in their design. The community partners who join us before, during, or after the walks vary because we don’t want to take folks for granted or overburden our partners with the work of teaching USF-ers how to enter and exit community respectfully. A few of the partners who have joined us include: African American Art & Culture ComplexCommunity GrowsCollective ImpactAfrican American Shakespeare CompanyAfroSolo and the SuccessCenterSF.

30378593046_f45ef726d9_o (1)

The guidance I provide folks on the walk typically includes an overview of where we will go and who we will visit with along with some historical context about redevelopment and outmigration, but the most important instructions I give are: 1) Stay curious. 2) Pay Attention. 3) Examine your assumptions. This is because flexibility is required to work with community, and curiosity is needed to learn as opportunities emerge. Some examples of how the magic of community knowledge appears (because despite our best attempts, we are always obviously walking through community as a majority group of strangers) include:

The time we were walking down Fillmore with Professor Stephanie Sears, Ms. Altheda Carrie,  Ms. Lynette White and the Esther Madriz Diversity Scholars and a man stopped us and said,

“If you are here to learn, one thing you need to know is that we (African Americans) all came here during the war (WWII) to build ships and then they tore our homes down. We worked here for the war and then there was no where to live. If you learn anything today, that needs to be the one thing you understand.”

The time we ran into Bicycle Bob at every turn, totaling four unplanned meetings during the course of a 2-hour walk. He was flyer-ing for an upcoming Sunday Streets event and we continued to cross paths, making the neighborhood seem small and familiar.

The time that we visited the garden at Rosa Parks elementary and Melissa Tang of

IMG_20170906_143241107_HDR (1)Community Grows offered the opportunity to hold one of the chickens from their chicken coop.

The time we saw Rico Hamilton of Street Violence Intervention Project (SVIP) outside McDonalds and he knew numerous USF-ers on the walk and generously stopped to talk with all of us about the ways his work has intersected with USF.

The first walk I went on was led by Rachel Brahinsky, Assistant Professor and Director of our Masters in Urban and Public Affairs. We ran into Reverend Al Townsend, who has been a community leader and activist for decades. Rachel knew him from interviews she had conducted with him for research and writing. He shared with Rachel’s graduate students a bit about his experience with community organizing that dates back to his days as a student at SFSU, and he joked that if he had picked a different path, perhaps he would have become as famous as his classmate, Danny Glover.

Many, many years ago a friend taught me that stories from our lives are gifts we have to give. So we take the walks to learn about the community organizations that host and teach our students, we take these walks to make history real and see the ongoing impacts of redevelopment and reflect on what is no longer there. We take walks to see the outcomes of our partnerships with the Western Addition. We also take these walks to hear stories and receive the gifts that the community has to offer. For this we are grateful because without the trust and teachings of community members we would not be able to do this work.   — Karin Cotterman, Director of Engage San Francisco

12394374835_3048113657_o

Support ESF here. Visit the USF Western Addition resource page here.

Advertisements

Elections and Democracy – San Francisco Style

Corey Cook headshot

Corey Cook 
Corey Cook, Professor of Politics is currently on leave but is still a critical observer of local, state and national politics. Professsor Cook regularly contributes to the McCarthy Center blog while he establishes the School of Public Service at Boise State University.

As my friend Jon Bernstein pointed out in a Bloomberg View piece last year, the timing of our elections can have a profound consequence for policy and governance. For instance, the specific timing of the economic crash in 2008 had important implications for President Obama’s agenda. Had the recession started sooner, unemployment would have likely bottomed out before the president assumed office (rather than in October of his first year). In that scenario, the Tea Party summer might have never occurred and John Boehner is still Speaker, if not Nancy Pelosi. Alternatively, had the recession started just a few months later (unemployment began rising in May of 2008 before spiking between the election and inauguration) most certainly the 2008 election would have been closer and the Democrats would likely have gained far fewer seats in the Congress. In other words, a later recession, and there is probably no Affordable Care Act or second Obama administration, an earlier recession, and there is likely no Tea Party revolt. In either case, Obama still wins the 2008 election, but the meaning of that election – the size of the mandate, the context in which the new executive takes office and governs – is quite different.

So what does this have to do with San Francisco?

Next week, somewhere between one third and two-fifths of San Francisco registered voters will participate in a municipal election. It’s a sleepy election. Of the five citywide races, three involve incumbents running unopposed, the mayor will win re-election easily against underfunded challengers, and one race, the election for county sheriff, is considered competitive, though it likely won’t be close. Instead, most of the attention on election night will be focused on a single supervisorial district (which will reportedly exceed $1 million in campaign spending) and a handful of hotly contested ballot measures. You might suspect that San Franciscans overwhelmingly approve of the job that Ed Lee is doing as mayor and endorse his policies, and surely his supporters will make that claim next week, but that would ignore the context of the election.

Make no mistake, Ed Lee will win handily and his supporters will declare it a clear affirmation of his policies. But the reality is that San Francisco voters remain conflicted. While the mayor is credited for presiding over a sustained economic boom (unemployment fell from over 9% to a shade over 3% during his five years in office), San Franciscans remain deeply troubled by the skyrocketing cost of living, the displacement of lower and middle income residents, and a general loss of community. They are dissatisfied with the state of transit and infrastructure and the failure of the city to adequately address homelessness.

Just over ten months ago, when leading contenders to challenge the mayor contemplated taking the plunge, the mayor’s solid poll numbers and extensive (some might say excessive) campaign war chest dissuaded entry into the race. He was coming off a successful fall election and about six months of good press. But since that time, it’s been anything but smooth sailing. One of the unforeseen consequences of the shift from a majority runoff to a ranked choice election is that a late insurgency (like that waged by Tom Ammiano against Mayor Willie Brown in 1999) are all but precluded. It’s not enough for someone to hold the mayor under 50% and take a shot in a runoff. Instead, an insurgent candidate would have to win outright in November, a tall task. But were the election six months from now, I wonder if the mayor would face a far stiffer challenge. And, as is always the case, his detractors are likely to claim some victories of their own in down-ballot contests and on some of the ballot measures.

“Elections Matter”

To quote president Obama, “elections matter”. But our interpretations of election results are typically vast overreaches that depend too much on the randomness of the timing of an election. And if history is any guide, the battle over which faction “won” is likely to be as hotly contested after the results are announced as before. As Bernstein writes, “if we see (election outcomes) as registering the preferences of voters on the issues and regard them as definitive, then we weaken democracy.” While those candidates who emerge victorious on election day have earned the legal mandate to govern, let’s not presume that voters have endorsed the victors’ positions on every issue and embrace the simplistic notion promulgated every four years that we have effectively “handed over the keys of the car.” Democracy demands much more than that.