Guardian Voices: My San Francisco


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.


There is new leadership emerging in communities of color, and the future of San Francisco lies in their power."

Ross Pak?

Posted by Guest on Jul. 12, 2012 @ 6:40 am

is my San Francisco, and I've never hated it for a minute.

Posted by Chromefields on Jul. 12, 2012 @ 7:01 am

I'm just wondering why N'Tanya's San Francisco does not see itself as N'Tanya's San Francisco politically according to the election results?

It seems that for almost every identity where an activist stakes a claim on their community, not just N'Tanya, the community is not exactly on board with that framing of their experience.

This does not mean that the problems that the activist claims to be representing to solve don't exist. It means that there does not seem to be the connection between the community and the activist that the activist asserts.

This is why we lose elections. Instead of trying to identify that common ground and exploiting it on common terms, we either see the activist digging their heels in and demanding the community comport itself correctly or we see the activist abandoning progressive values in order to comport with power and appeal to what they see as an inherently conservative community.

The SF Rising Action Fund is an example of this "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" phenomenon. There have to be other options than "my way or the highway leftism" and "let's morph into our opponents to keep our seats at the table."

Posted by Guest on Jul. 12, 2012 @ 8:19 am

N'Tanya, it is about time we heard 'your voices' here. I hope it wakes up many in the 'progessive' movement who have remained on the sidelines as 'communities of color' have been systematically neglected for decades. It is sad that SFBG's comments feature has become an outlet for the hateful voices of so many nameless racists, homophobes and T-party trolls, but the on-going struggle for justice and equality drives many of these creatures out of the shadows when their power and privilege is threatened, like roaches running from the light.
Stay strong, speak truth,no retreat-no surrender.

Posted by Patrick Monk RN on Jul. 12, 2012 @ 8:39 am

Right on, Patrick.

San Francisco is a city of colored people. A silent majority, unfortunately.

That majority needs to rise up and make its statements heard.

And Empowered Women like Natanya and Tiny Gray Garcia are the persons to make it happen.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 12, 2012 @ 9:45 am

I worry more about excessive race-card playing and the politics of divisiveness and stereotypes, than I worry about racial harmony in SF which, for the most part, seems very good.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 12, 2012 @ 10:56 am
Posted by Patrick Monk RN on Jul. 12, 2012 @ 11:04 am

and a female secretary of state and a black, a hispanic and a lesbian SCOTUS judge.

We've come much further than we still have to go, and the danger is that it is now only the troublemakers who seek to sew racial dissent and hatred.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 12, 2012 @ 11:25 am

Any faith that it does must be based on a deluded and distasteful sense that stereotypes are true.

For instance, yes we have a black SCOTUS judge, but Clarence Thomas does nothing for black people as a group, *or* the working class which makes up the majority of their number.

Posted by lillipublicans on Jul. 12, 2012 @ 11:52 am

Identity politics in general is a spent force, but that does not mean that people with "oppressed," for lack of a better word, identities aren't still getting screwed as minorities.

You would not know that from reading the SFBG or listening to the professional progressives, and to my mind, that focus on what divides us at the expense of what divides us is a major impediment to building majority coalitions.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 12, 2012 @ 11:59 am

the alleged "plight" of non-whites but they live in a "lilli" white world where they pretend black crime doesn't exists and we all share the white man's burden.

Liberal guilt has probably done more harm to blacks than the KKK. But somehow they're doing just fine anyway.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 12, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

Neither does Obama.

Posted by Michael W. on Jul. 12, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

Every black who succeeds isn't really black, right? Because he no longer acts like a loser and doesn't truck with being "oppressed".


Posted by Guest on Jul. 12, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

is not a San Franciscan.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 12, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

NTanya Lee shows immense courage as she writes about the complexities of
San Francisco's " have" and " have not" powerful and power seeking folks.
It is precisely because she dares to name the unsafe colors, genders, languages,
legal status, of her voices.

To make you hear those San Franciscans without power pedigrees which automate their place onto the public's agenda. Because she wants to put forth the questions of those who may not be known, but whose needs help frame critical institutions and debates.

To make the intelligent and concerned move in creative response to questions with robust solutions.

Oh, you can tell she is speaking brave, plain talk. Maybe its the whining wind of those who return her speak and miss her point like Serena's flying ace at set point.


Posted by DeborahG on Jul. 12, 2012 @ 11:10 pm

It is not like the voices of the poor are not heard in city government, has anyone ever been through budget season? It is as if government funding priorities are perfect except for a few social services nonprofits benefitting the very poor.

The current governing coalition appears to be dominated by the downtown corporations and the conservative rich on one hand, and to a much lesser extent by the public funded nonprofits advocating for the very poor on the other.

The voices that are not heard are those 2/3 in the middle who are hated by downtown as potential progressive voters and by the nonprofits as being super rich by the virtue of not being abject poor, the ones whose support is required to win elections. The voices not heard are of the economic demographic from many nonprofity and labor employees arise and the demographic that they are spending their adult lives rebelling against.

The mere presence of an individual employed by a union or a nonprofit does not make them a leader of a community or of workers, just an employee of that private firm. Leadership requires legitimation by a community and we're not seeing that kind of legitimation conferred on nonprofits or unions by constituencies they claim to speak for.

The sheer vacuum of civic society in the US means that the mere presence of a voice is easily mistaken for legitimate leadership, and that suits the corporate dominators just fine, as it does those "leaders" who collect paychecks.

Newsflash: speaking the truth to power does not tell it anything that it does not already know BECAUSE POWER MAKES ITS OWN TRUTH. There is no bravery in speaking that which is obvious to all. There is bravery in confronting that power with deeds that advance the popular interest at the expense of the particular, corporate interest. That is not happening.

Leaders are likewise able to organize and mobilize communities to MAKE THEIR OWN TRUTHS, thus, by definition and by the record, the professional progressives have accommodated themselves to corporate power's truth and are not making their own truth in their constituencies' own terms. Thus, there is no leadership on the progressive side and that is why progressives are marginalized and nearly extinct.

Just to save the crew the effort, this means that I hate women, I hate black people, I hate lesbians especially ones with kids and, of course, I hate N'Tanya particularly. So long as we keep it all confined to how we feel about the individual as proxy for the movement, instead of meta thinking of how to grow a powerful movement, we are toast.

Posted by marcos on Jul. 13, 2012 @ 6:07 am

In general means you have created a world view that you think every one else is too blind to see if they don't agree with you.

Every one is guided by self interest in some way, if the rest of us don't abide this view on self interest we are given the labels in your last paragraph. All this far left self examination is just book club self-help couched in community.

Posted by matlock on Jul. 13, 2012 @ 6:51 am

From what I see, LGBT don't buy the professional LGBT activists' portrayal of LGBT, women don't buy the professional feminists' portrayal of women, people of color don't buy the professional people of color activists portrayal of people of color and immigrants don't buy the professional immigrant activists portrayal of immigrants.

One leftie immigrant activist told me that it was important to focus on immigrants because they are potentially the most revolutionary segment of society. Really? Does anyone believe that, aside from Carlos Petroni, people take the risk to drop everything, up and move to another country and once arrived, they are going to take steps to overthrow that government?

The problem here is that I agree with the progessive/left on desired policy, but the data indicate that the professionals are not connecting with their asserted constituencies.

From the relatively politically powerless position of a middle class gay white male San Franciscan with no connection to corporations or nonprofits seeking government largess, I am speaking the truth to those more empowered politically than I yet who are effectively holding back any competent challenge to corporate power that they claim to want.

The question is whether they refuse to organize their claimed base because they know that their base has its own ideas that do not meet political tests, whether not organizing these constituencies is what they are paid to (not) do, or whether they are just incompetent at organizing?

Posted by Guest on Jul. 13, 2012 @ 7:53 am

It's about having a vehicle for the "activist's" own anger and inadequacy.

Someone like Sharpton thrives on the very racial divisiveness that he claims to dislike. And Sharpton no more wants to see a happy, successful, prosperous black than Redmond wants to see a happy, successful, prosperous anyone.

Misery loves to whine. The writer here comes across at angry at everything but, most of all, herself. Worthless, pitiful doggeral.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 13, 2012 @ 9:15 am

Any number of doctrinaire progressives can see the crazy in many fundy Christians, but when it comes to their own side there is nothing that is too crazy.

True believers thrive on their victim status. When the republicans had both houses, the supreme's and the oval office the radio gas bags were still touting how they are all victims. Steve Jones just complained that in SF the progressives have never had any real power, while his paper spent a decade proclaiming the greatness of the board progressive majority.

Posted by matlock on Jul. 13, 2012 @ 4:43 pm many of these operations turns off the general population.

The leadership of many of these operations seems to be the students who spent their years from 18 - 30 on campus out doing each other over how out-raged they are. The average work a day member of some identifiable group may agree in principle but get turned off by the extremism and narrow vision.

The progressives claim to want people of all races to move into all strata of work and class, and yet the leadership of all these groups insist that to be of a certain identity you need to conform to their view. For some reason this wallowing in class and status would turn off people who have actually taken advantage of the opportunities created.

Your last paragraph, I think much of it is just that when people are trying to get ahead and have the opportunity to, they don't want to be hectored by some professional victim.

as an example

I went to a few gulf war protests during the first gulf war outside city hall, some of the speakers off topic ravings made me not go back. Because I'm opposed to the gulf war doesn't mean I'm interested in some conspiracy around Israel. I quit going because the catch all ravings were tiresome, I never even bothered with the latest gulf war protests.

Posted by matlock on Jul. 13, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

for your thoughts, but please refrain from referring to our city as Frisco in the future.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 13, 2012 @ 8:06 am

As a native 'Friscan, I enjoy saying "Frisco" every chance I get, just to annoy those that hate the word "Frisco".

Posted by Richmondman on Jul. 20, 2012 @ 10:12 am

for the predicament we find ourselves in, stated above my marcos, is the abject failure of Unions to represent us. It is discussed in a recent episode on Bill Moyers program.

Posted by Patrick Monk RN on Jul. 13, 2012 @ 9:42 am

Unions should represent workers in disputes and negotiations with employers. They are not political leaders, nor should they consider themselves to be so. When they waste rank and file workers' dues on paying salaries to Chris Daly and the like, or get too caught up in politics, they subvert their own message.

Posted by Richmondman on Jul. 20, 2012 @ 10:15 am
Posted by Patrick Monk RN on Jul. 13, 2012 @ 10:10 am

I know that labor did not endorse Eric Quezada for Supervisor in D9 in 2008, but you'd think that the activisty laborists would have taken a hint from their trailing third place showing in the City's most progressive district, but apparently they just doubled down on the same old stupid shit.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 13, 2012 @ 11:17 am

I think it's very ironic that in a column where you complain about the invisibility of the racial demographics to which you personally feel loyal and identified - and manage to reference whites, blacks, and HIspanics ... while wholly ignoring and invisibilizing the Asian-Americans who make up a full third of this City. Have you encountered none of us in your southeast quarter (Asian-Americans were roughly 31 percent of the BVHP population in the 2010 census)? Why are they excluded from your discussion?

Also, you lost me at Frisco.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 13, 2012 @ 11:30 am

Wonderful introductory article. I was born and raised in FRISCO! People are acting brand new on this page. SF has long been referred to as Frisco.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 13, 2012 @ 11:36 am