The Free University of San Francisco kicks off teaching -- to a lot of white people

An earlier Free University planning meeting held in the basement of Viracocha

“A piece of blank paper means anything you want can happen,” SF beat poet laureate Diane Di Prima was imparting a rare free lecture on shamanic poetry, the marquee event of this weekend's popular first Free University of San Francisco teach-in at Viracocha. She had a packed the antique store-community center's first floor showroom, encouraging in regards to the FUSF collective's run at making free education available to all. But if the Free University wants to teach the world, why are the vast majority of its students – let's not parse words here – white?

“Diversity outreach, that is absolutely one of our top priorities,” says FUSF organizer Alan Kaufman when the point was brought up in a phone interview with the Guardian yesterday. “We're one of the most racially polarized cities, even in the progressive community. It's something that needs to be explored and discussed.” Kaufman said that as the collective that runs the university moves forward, FUSF is actively working to involve minority community members – especially undocumented immigrants, one of SF's populations who surely are among the least-served by the town's would-be progressive creative institutions. 

It does seem like FUSF has the capacity to be a source of radical academia and community in the city. This weekend's teach-in (which continues through tonight, Tues/8) attracted capacity crowds to many of its popular hour-and-a-half long courses: Di Prima's “19th Century Visionary Poetry,” Kaufman's “Jack Kerouac, Thelonius Monk and Jackson Pollack,” and David Cobb's “Abolishing Corporate Personhood to Create Authentic Democracy” among them. Though FUSF's plan for six to eight week classes in the future and another teach-in may be a stretch to replace the value of an actual university degree for students, the success of its initial weekend course schedule does say that some people in the city are ready to rethink the way we view teaching. After all, as Kaufman reminded us, the cost of a four year degree at Stanford is now pegged at a quarter of a million dollars. “That can't last.” 

But if it's going to be SF's new center of alternative, cost-free education, FUSF has to appeal to more than just the aging hippies and earnest intellectual young people who attended this weekend's teach-in. 

How? Well, that's the question, really – one that many creative institutions in San Francisco have yet to resolve, if they've tackled it at all. “We're going to need to come up with new answers because the new answers are not working.” Kaufman mentioned that he is particularly impressed by the way SF's queer community has celebrated its diversity.

“I feel like there are reasons why different groups don't get involved in the beginning of these things.” Writer Maisha Johnson is one of the only African Americans who has been involved with the Free University planning meetings since she heard about its first get-togethers through her involvement in literary events like Quiet Lightening. “For me, living in San Francisco, it's hard to find out where the black community gathers. A lot of the time, the assumption is you go to Oakland for acitivities with people of color.” 

“If you're looking at organizational power in San Francisco, it usually runs along lines of whiteness, maleness, and straightness. The only way to break down those social divisions is for people that don't feel like they're that similar to collaborate,” says Mumbles, a spoken word poet who is helping to organize an artist resource center called Merchants of Reality. 

Mumbles says that the goal of Merchants of Reality – which plans to operate out of SoMa's Anon Gallery and Climate Theater -- will be “to help artists commercialize themselves so that others don't do it for them.” Its a pragmatic mission, one that will even involve what Mumbles refers to as the “realty community” in order to help artists find studio space in the abandoned buildings that dot the SF landscape. The center will also include darkroom facilities, digital video setup, screen-printing equipment, help finding studio space, and a possible performance venue, all for use by artists who normally don't have the opportunity to use professional-grade equipment and materials, presumably many non-white artists and performers. 

Kaufman and Mumbles think that Merchants of Reality and the Free University can benefit from each other. “Space sharing is one way community can be developed,” says Kaufman, who told us the two groups are looking at ways to overlap each others' missions in the hope of broadening the community of both organizations. 

Of course, its about more than organizational partners. "It requires more of an explicit effort to reach out to other communities," says Johnson who will be a part of FUSF's outreach committee and, adding that she's heartened by the university's chances to diversify itself. "Right now it's really open to people to come in and work on their own vision." Kaufman agreed that expanding FUSF's audience means working towards a curriculum that everyone finds useful and illuminating, incorporating classes and promotional materials in different languages, and connecting those typically excluded from professorships in the United States teaching positions. “There's whole areas of education that others might know about that we might not consider,” he said.

“I believe our university will become famous among universities – come to be known as the 'Zorro' of universities,” said Kaufman in an address to the university community. (Printed copies of his four addresses were available by the class sign-in sheets at this weekend's teach-in.) High hopes -- but if the school is meant to make a real difference in progressive education, it'll have to find a way to bring its message to everyone.  


Free University of San Francisco's first teach-in

(Started Feb. 5)

Tues/8 classes:

6-7:50 p.m.: "Critical Thinking (Introduction to Logic)"

w/ Jordan Bohall and Elena Granik

8-10 p.m.: "Introduction to Nietzsche"

w/ Evan Karp and Andrew Paul Nelson


998 Valencia, SF