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



Diversity is not just about skin color. It's superficial and simplistice to think so, as well as dangerous.

Posted by Guest Dana on Feb. 08, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

"Call me insensitive, accuse me of lacking awareness of my own privilege as a straight white male, but i find the notion of a free, democratic university with a wide-open door needing to specifically seek out and recruit minority communities for the sake of putting a checkmark in the 'diversity' box extremely patronising toward those recruited, and even a bit disingenuous."

Not to mention lamentable.

No name-calling from me, but I do have questions that I hope you won't find cheeky: Do you know any people of color who share your political views? Are you friends with them?

I ask because Republicans/conservatives seem to be able to rustle up some diversity in their leadership. Michael Steele was a token and a dunderhead, but still, chairman of the RNC is no laughing matter. Powell and Rice also come to mind as examples of how Republican culture, however hostile it is toward many of the interests of people of color, can still invest a great deal of power and authority in people who are not white men. I ask myself how this happens, and I imagine it must be a matter of espousing the same political values sometimes trumping racial divides, and of ... social amicability, maybe? I mean, a certain amount of friendliness is necessary in political dynamics.

Obviously, Republicans have a ways to go in getting popular support from most poeple of color, but it all leads me to wonder why it is so difficult for progressives on the ground to connect with people of color, when the right *at the very top* can be inclusive? What's happening between people, culturally, socially, politically, that keeps the left segregated?

*There's only so much that can be done, short of twisting people's arms, to foster diversity, and twisting arms would rob the result of its authenticity.*

I think the progressive left should be diverse in all its strata right now, in 2011. Why is solicitation, arm-twisting, even how we frame approaches? When we share the same political aims and views, why is the progressive left still missing the mark on meaningful inclusiveness?

Posted by Guest Gingery1 on Feb. 08, 2011 @ 4:30 pm

of progressives.

If you are talking about these free classes, I believe there is still a free manure day at the zoo, do you ever go get some because its free? Perhaps the progressive are putting the cart before the horse on this free classes thing.

I don't know if progressives know this, but maybe people are not interested in this boring shit.

As to why minorities are not interested in the whole progressive "theory of everything," I have some ideas. It might be because people are individuals and don't need a theory of everything, or maybe they have one of their own and don't need yours. Maybe they don't like white liberal asking "why don't you like us?" Maybe a narrow ideology fomented on college campuses 40 years ago is dated and not valid today to some people.

Posted by matlock on Feb. 08, 2011 @ 5:27 pm

And deserves a little credit for his posts here. So dead on, and so obvious to anyone who isn't headless. Stop teaching/sharing/discussing boring shit and maybe people will show up, even non-whites!

Posted by Sambo on Feb. 09, 2011 @ 9:40 am

Q: Why are the vast majority of its students white?
A: Because white people are interested in education. Duh.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 08, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

When was the last time that a progressive organization achieved a positive goal by first worrying that its members are of the wrong skin color?

Our society will never improve as long as appearance holds primacy over the issues to the working class.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 08, 2011 @ 4:13 pm

included appreciation of shamanic poetry.

Posted by matlock on Feb. 08, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

The name of this organization, the Free University of San Francisco (FUSF), is too similar to the name of the University of San Francisco (USF). It leads me to think that the free university is trying to gain quick notoriety by exploiting the rich history and the reputation of a long-established institution that has nothing to do with it. If the free university wants to provide a new model for education, it should start with a sound foundation that doesn't include plagiarizing someone else's name.

Posted by Xoco on Feb. 08, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

"People of color are marginalized by society and are often subtly shunted into working class jobs from a young age by high school teachers, parents or just by the opportunities available."

True, but people of color are also marginalized by progressives, who can be deeply paternalistic, patronizing, and hostile.

"Did you ask each participant how they identify their race or ethnicity? Sometimes you might be surprised, many Latino and Hispanic people appear "white" to many people but don't identify as such."

Yes, to this as well. But doesn't this still suggest that this circle is inhospitable to people of color, regardless of how many white Latinos are in the mix? It's kind of disingenuous here to imply that skin color isn't a factor here, or that it isn't what we're talking about.

San Francisco attracts artists and intellectuals of every stripe. There are people of color who are SF natives, raised here in the very home of the American counterculture, who would have an affinity for this. If the FUSF didn't have many on board from the get-go, that says an awful lot about what SF progessives, after many, many years, are still failing to get right.

"I know sometimes there is an impulse to criticize the more radical fringe of the left wing for being exclusive or somehow not reaching out to diverse audiences."

Point is, it shouldn't be so easy to do so.

Posted by Guest Gingery1 on Feb. 08, 2011 @ 3:24 pm

rhinokitty tapped the nail home in calling this a "'drive by' on the subject."

While i'll concede that yes, the Free University's complexion is collectively a rather pallid one at present, Donohue's cynically-titled article dismisses the truly grassroots effort put forth by participants, and the extremely democratic, inclusive nature of the planning process from the very beginning; instead choosing to focus on an aspect of this experiment which is realistically beyond anyone's direct control, and one that i would hope she realises, as a journalist, is an immediately polarising issue in a city like ours. My first reaction upon reading it was that it's a cheap shot.

While i won't put words in FUSF's collective mouth (these are my opinions only), the issue of diversity was brought up in the very early discussions about starting a free school, and i can say confidently that agreement is unanimous on the subject of diversity being crucial to the fulfillment of this experiment's purpose. After all, the genesis of the Free University was, as i understand it, a result of privilege being both endemic and highly exclusionary in higher education, and thus every aspect of the planning for FUSF leading up to this first teach-in was as inclusive as possible. While the extent of individuals' efforts and contributions vary, there are no 'leaders' per se, and it's been profoundly reassuring to my egalitarian sensibilities to see how truly democratic and astonishingly inclusive the planning process has proceeded. All meetings and discussions have been open to the public, and it seems everyone has bent over backwards to accommodate as many different individuals' ideas and contributions as possible.

But in spite of all that, Donohue's drive-by assessment of the crowd indeed reveals there aren't enough people of colour. While i'll agree that more can be done to solicit the involvement of non-white people, let me focus on that word 'solicit'. Call me insensitive, accuse me of lacking awareness of my own privilege as a straight white male, but i find the notion of a free, democratic university with a wide-open door needing to specifically seek out and recruit minority communities for the sake of putting a checkmark in the 'diversity' box extremely patronising toward those recruited, and even a bit disingenuous. To make that as clear as possible: the door is open, and it's up to individuals to choose whether or not they participate. There's only so much that can be done, short of twisting people's arms, to foster diversity, and twisting arms would rob the result of its authenticity. One would be hard pressed to find someone with divisive, intolerant or exclusive intentions among this group of people, and i'm confident also that we're all aware of the obvious; that diversity makes the experience all the richer for everyone.

Posted by J. Brandon Loberg on Feb. 08, 2011 @ 3:19 pm

'checking a box' has zero to do with the attempted liberation of oppressed people everywhere.

Posted by mumbles on Feb. 10, 2011 @ 11:30 am

I agree with pretty much everything you're saying (besides the drive by thing, I've attended a planning meeting, the teach-in, and have spoken with FUSF organizers on various occasions).

But it's not enough to leave the door open. What's inside the door needs to be inclusive, and empowering, and engineered with the people you want to be a part of it.

I might not have written this article if I didn't think that
a. FUSF is an idea worth critiquing and working on to make the best it can be
b. The organizers involved are aware and actively looking for answers to the issue (which I think is the most interesting part of this article, although the commentors so far seem to find the title more worthy of discussion)
c. Inclusivity all across the socio-economic oppression matrix is an problem all over this city (the world!) and its most well-intentioned institutions

Posted by caitlin on Feb. 08, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

Why are the few women in our local progressive sect so timid in dealing with the huge gender imbalance in the sect's leadership?

Why do they make excuses for progressive patriarchs like Chris Daly and Bruce Brugmann?

Is it something like the Stockholm Syndrome?

Posted by Arthur Evans on Feb. 08, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

When the progressives took over the board of supes in 2001, there were ten men and one woman. Previous boards had a majority of women.

Today, the gender balance has improved somewhat among the progressives at the board. There are four men and one woman.

At this rate, the progressives at the board will achieve gender parity in another ten years.

Moreover, the progressives are unable to come up with any woman as a credible standard-bearer for mayor.

There was once a woman mayor - at the same time that the pre-2001 board had a majority of women.

What happened?

When will SF progressivism cease to be a Guy thing?

When will SF progressives stop being in denial over this problem?

Shouldn't they clean up their own act before throwing stones at everybody else?

Posted by Arthur Evans on Feb. 08, 2011 @ 1:59 pm

Hi Arthur, I do not agree with everything you've said in your post, but I am glad you raised the issue of why we have yet to see a progressive woman running for mayor. In the months leading up to the appointment of Mayor Ed Lee, that was my burning question: Why am I not hearing any progressive women mentioned as mayoral contenders? I'm not sure I understand how your comments relate to Caitlin's post, however.

Posted by Rebecca Bowe on Feb. 08, 2011 @ 5:09 pm

Rebecca, few understand how Arthur's comments relate to articles. Though in this case I fully support both of you when it comes to the question of why we did not and continue not to see a woman as a candidate for mayor.

Posted by Ian Waters on Feb. 08, 2011 @ 11:20 pm

would call "working-class" jobs "limiting." FYI - there are a lot of people who would be happy to take one of those "working class" jobs vs. attending elitist "freeducation" seminars on hipster poets and dead German philosophers.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Feb. 08, 2011 @ 1:55 pm

The above critique is premature in, as far as I can tell, observing only 2 of the 12 courses FUSF has unrolled thus far. Coming into its fourth day, the FUSF student body has proven to be wholly diverse. Last night's seminar on Labor, Time and Fantasy by Shin Hee Park drew a hell of a lot more than "aging hippies and earnest intellectual young people."

The FUSF student body is as diverse as the content it offers.

This is not too say that minority populations within FUSF are not representative of national trends in higher education. It seems to me that the problem of access to education has rooted itself in our national consciousness and that the FUSF faces not a problem of diversity outreach but of breaking through existing cultural norms on all sides of the debate; confronting the too long held myth of Academia as ivory tower.

Yet, the word seems to be getting out.
PEOPLE are coming and FUSF isn't turning anyone away.

Posted by emptyhandedarmy on Feb. 08, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

i happened to notice that shin hee park agrees with the sentiment of the article. from FUSF's facebook group:

Susan Shin Hee Park: The article was fair and on-point. There's not enough racial/ethnic/sexual diversity and the gender power relations are very asymmetrical.

Susan Shin Hee Park: And... instead of taking a defensive stance (which is offputting to POC), the more productive thing to do would be to brainstorm on how to generate diversity.

how does this defensiveness look. well, tokenization is a good example. to use my psychic paraphrasing skills: "we aren't all white, look at shin hee park" or pretending to be race blind.. "PEOPLE are coming and FUSF isn't turning anyone away" people come in all colors. for a long long long time people was actually synonymous with white people. so to say that PEOPLE are coming obscures the racial question (the original point of the article) and has no place in an institution intended to liberate.

Posted by whitenoise on Feb. 09, 2011 @ 10:51 am

I know sometimes there is an impulse to criticize the more radical fringe of the left wing for being exclusive or somehow not reaching out to diverse audiences. But I think it is a weak critique to just do a "drive by" on the subject and say, "Hey, look how many white people."

Did you get their enrollment numbers? Did you ask each participant how they identify their race or ethnicity? Sometimes you might be surprised, many Latino and Hispanic people appear "white" to many people but don't identify as such.

Even so, if there are far more white people than people of color, what conclusions can you really draw? That they aren't "diverse?" I think by definition this type of social project is pretty non-diverse -- not racially or culturally -- but in that it is such a specific focus. It isn't a nursing program or a green construction degree track. Those programs would be more diverse because they appeal to working people who want jobs in the trades. People of color are marginalized by society and are often subtly shunted into working class jobs from a young age by high school teachers, parents or just by the opportunities available.

Other people of color might want to get a prestigious university degree because they were the first generation who actually have the opportunity to go to Harvard, Yale, or what have you etc..

The white people who are attending such a program as this might be consciously trying to grow beyond their class or race privilege, giving some of it up at the same time. That shouldn't be casually dismissed. Nor do these people need special recognition. Let someone else get in the spotlight.

But we don't need to look down our noses at (white) people for trying to learn and do something different. A little understanding is deserved.

Posted by rhinokitty on Feb. 08, 2011 @ 11:37 am

I love your user name. Thanks for commenting.

We are stoked about the FUSF project, that's why we're looking at the challenges it faces in the days ahead.

Our "diversity" conclusion was actually reached after speaking with Alan Kaufman, one of the school's organizers, who engaged in a great conversation with us about ways the free university will be working to expand its community in the future -- by his count (and I say this in the article) one of its top priorities. We also spoke with other FUSF folks (again, article) who said the same thing.

People of color shunted into working class jobs = limiting. I think this project's goal is to work against that kind of thing.

No enrollment/ethnicity numbers. Maybe next time? What say you, FUSF students and teachers?

Posted by caitlin on Feb. 08, 2011 @ 12:00 pm