Guardian Voices: My San Francisco

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I’ve spent the last 12 years learning to love and sometimes hate San Francisco, and I’ve made it my home. A few months after my 31st birthday, I drove out here from the midwest to contribute to social change in a place where I could be Black, LGBT, and a community organizer – and not be forced to have my dyke identity matter quite so much. (More on that history somewhere else...) While doing grassroots community work in this city, I found love, made life-long friends, started a family and developed an incredible multi-ethnic community that has deeply enriched my life. Over the years, we’ve shared moments of tragedy and the sweetness of victory, and all of it together has defined a “San Francisco experience” quite different from what I expected. And quite different from what the tour guides sell.

Over these years, I developed an analysis of the political, economic and cultural life of this incredibly contradictory city. I’ve come to understand the structural roots of gentrification, the nature of corporate elite rule in a supposedly progressive town, and the challenges white activists face dealing with the complexities of politics in a “majority minority” city. But most of all, it’s the people in my particular San Francisco who I’ve come to love, and I’m now carrying all of their stories with me as I move in new directions. 

My San Francisco is the people rarely quoted in the local media and most often mentioned only in the context of one social problem or another. They are the mostly poor and working-class families of color I’ve been learning from all these years, people whose daily suffering goes mostly unnoticed, whose political leadership is rarely respected, and whose view of San Francisco is rarely taken into account. This is the San Francisco largely off the political and geographic map, where neither tour buses nor politicians tend to go.

My San Francisco has been in the southeast quarter, the Frisco where people work hard and do whatever is necessary to feed their families, have loud family BBQs in the park, and rock their Giants gear as much and as often as possible. The folks getting evicted, foreclosed on, and displaced by being priced out. They are Black and Latino folks who’ve joined grassroots organizations -- mostly women -- who make incredible daily sacrifices to change the world. They are volunteer community organizers, who might go to school or take care of other people’s children during the day, and organize for change one meeting at a time, at night. They face the threat of deportations, police harassment, and stressful low-wage work. When they join a membership-based organization, they get a community with shared values and support, but they don’t get money, status or personal power. The Frisco families I know and love don’t identify as "moderate" or "progressive," but they know that rich people don’t have the right to rule the world, that public education and decent housing should be basic human rights, and that it makes no sense, in the middle of such deep unemployment, to raise bus fares and make it more expensive to take the bus to work. They have compassion, common-sense, critical thinking, and courage. They should be running the city.

The grassroots leaders, activists and organizers who’ve become such an intimate part of my life and whose stories now make up “my San Francisco” don’t align nicely with most dominant ideas about this place. They are not cool, cosmopolitan and carefree. But neither are they simply victims of downtown’s political power. Their leadership is the only hope for this city that I have.

It’s the young Black women with heartbreaking stories of brothers and cousins lost through gun violence, and with less public but equally horrifying private horrors of sexual violence and abuse that have traumatized them to their core.  But they are proud to be born and raised in this city and are leading community meetings, developing campaign strategies, educating their peers about Prop. 13 and their right to quality education. I have their tears, their youthful giggles, and their dreams for the future, all here in my head. 

I have the stories of undocumented Latina immigrant women, who too suffered sexual abuse when crossing the border, but now here in the US take incredible risks and do practically everything in their power to ensure their children have a better life than their own. I have the sound of their laughter together, often in Spanish --  of  these mamas, as they make plans to call 100 people for the next meeting, and the shaking in their voice when they rise to speak out in public against the racism they witness in our public schools. These women in my San Francisco have knocked on thousands of doors, talked to tens of thousands of people about the pressing issues of our times. But they are ignored on the streets of our city and in the halls of power, invisible to so many middle class, often white, professionals and activists who just don’t know, understand, or appreciate this ‘other’ San Francisco.

I love this San Francisco, and my hope is that this column can lift up these stories in coming weeks and months. San Francisco will never, ever, become the city of our dreams until the people doing the hard, often invisible work of grassroots organizing in the communities most impacted by city’s contradictions, play a more central role in defining the city’s politics. There is new leadership emerging in communities of color, and the future of San Francisco lies in their power.