On Being an “Ally” During Pride

By Jessie Petrow-Cohen

 

“Just this past month while taking AP exams at my high school I was filling out the student information section of the test when I came across a section with two boxes.  One said, “fathers information” and the other said “mother’s information”.  Used to this by now I crossed out the word father and wrote mother next to it.  The proctor of the test, while going around to check that everyone had completed the section made me erase the word mother I had written in because it was an “irregularity” on the paper.  

Now, the fact of the matter is, having two moms is irregular.  However, it is an irregularity that I could not possibly be more proud of.  It is not something that I want to erase or hide, it something I want to write everywhere in sharpie and let the world read.  That is really what this day is all about, not just looking for acceptance under the law but looking for Pride.” 

This is an excerpt from a speech I gave at North Jersey Pride as a senior in high school.  At the time my understanding of pride involved telling everyone I met that I had two moms.   It meant wearing “Love=Love” shirts and my personal favorite “Got Moms.” shirt to school without a second thought.  Pride meant never saying “my parents” but instead boldly stating “my moms” and then explaining to the questioning looks that sometimes followed.  

In essence, pride meant claiming my stake in the LGBT community out loud, for the world to hear, in sharpie. 

This past weekend was Pride in San Francisco.  Trans March, Dyke March, and the all famous San Francisco pride parade.  An entire weekend filled with people determined to graffiti the world in sharpie, claiming their pride for their sexual orientation, gender identity and allyship.  

I want to focus in on that last term.  Allyship.  Ally.  Me. 

LGBT. LGBTQ. LGBTQQ. LGBTQQI. LGBTQQIA. 

You have to add a whole lot of letters to this acronym before you get to the A for “Ally”.  

(Fun fact: that last one stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, ally.) 

Since I began working at the center this summer I have felt myself reassessing my role as an ally.  I have tried to understand the nuanced situations in which I can and should use my privilege to advocate for the more oppressed, and the times in which I can and should step back, understand that this isn’t always about me.  

I’ve kept some notes on coworkers who have questioned my sexual orientation and gender identity, who have questioned my commitment to the LGBT community.  I have often felt as though those around me were determining if I was worthy.  If they were gonna take the time to write what has got to be the world’s longest acronym to get all the way to the A.  Deciding whether I was truly a part of the community, or instead an outsider looking in.  

“Jess, are you queer? I’m not judging I’m just asking. I have always assumed you have to be at least a little queer to work here…” 

“So are you yourself gay? Or would you say it’s more of a family affair?”

“Get ready Jess, coming out as straight to this office is like coming out as gay to your catholic grandfather.”

I used to be so sure that I was a part of the community.  So positive that because I cared so deeply, felt so strongly, and felt so closely tied, largely because of my moms, that there was no question as to whether or not I truly belonged.  Now, I’m not so sure. 

Last week I attended “Musical Mondays” at Edge, a gay bar here in San Francisco.  The Edge caters to an audience of older gay men.  Standing there, surrounded by my DukeEngage cohort of 8 other people my age, we stood out like a sore thumb.  There is no way that the men in the bar could’ve known we were in San Francisco working directly with the LGBT community.  No way they could’ve known that among us we had three gay men, a bisexual woman and several other “allies”.  No way they could’ve known that I have two lesbian moms.  That I work at the LGBT Center.  

No. To the men at The Edge, I was a straight, white, cis gendered girl infringing upon their territory.  And they let me know it. 

“You don’t belong here.  Just go home.”

One of my bosses owns a gay bar, not The Edge, but his bar services a similar clientele.  At lunch yesterday he told me that this weekend his bar was packed to the brim with young, white, straight girls, drunk of their asses and dressed in rainbow.  He seemed so frustrated, to the point of being disgusted that those who were not truly a part of the community were making the weekend about them. 

I told him about my experience at The Edge.  I could actually see the wheels in his head back pedaling. “Well, um, no, not you! You would’ve been welcome, of course!”

But just from looking at me, I don’t belong at a gay bar.  Just from looking at me, I could be a straight girl looking to be liberal and trendy, spend a night not getting hit on by sweaty strangers, and flaunting my rainbow colored spandex on Instagram with a caption titled “SF PRIDE!”

I have spent a large part of my life defining myself by my work with the LGBT community, my investment in the fight for same sex marriage and involvement with various pride festivals.  I am someone who defines myself largely by my passions and equality has been the pinnacle of my passions in life.  

It is a difficult position for me to be in.  Realizing that what I have defined myself by for so long may not be an identity that I can fully claim.  Because I am not gay, I have not experienced the oppression, discrimination, and harassment that accompanies such an identity.  Sure, I have had some second hand stuff. Peers who disapprove of me having two moms, and let me know it, but never have I faced the direct oppression that accompanies an LGBTQ identity.  Instead, I am privileged enough to receive only the second hand burns that come with an LGBTQQIA identity, emphasis on the “A”, and in truth, those don’t even compare.  

So I’ve realized that some spaces are not for me to occupy.  No matter how deeply invested I feel, or how passionate I am.  Some spaces are not for me.  As an ally, there are times where I can speak up, use my privilege to the advantage of the community I care so deeply about.  But there are other times, where I have to step back. 

This past Friday was Trans March, a day dedicated specifically to transgender pride.  I spent the day in Dolores Park, tabling for the Center’s Trans Employment Program.  I had my elevator pitch down pat and it was beautiful out, a perfect day to celebrate one of the most overtly marginalized communities that we serve here.  

About half way through the day a newscaster approached our table.  He held the microphone up to me and asked what we were here for.  “Hi! We’re here with the SF LGBT Center tabling for our Trans Employment Program,” I responded.  

I was surrounded by about 6 coworkers, at least 3 of whom were trans themselves.  

The newscaster pulled me aside, “I’d love to ask you a few more questions.” I told him my colleagues would be better equip to answer, I was just an intern.  

“Ah, but you’ll be the most digestible to our audience, people will want to hear from you more.” 

I declined to comment. 

I felt guilty as I walked back to my table, as if everyone else knew exactly why the 60 year old, white, male newscaster had chosen to speak to me.  

I look back at my speech from 2014 Pride. I see a me, wracked with anxiety about AP exams, brimming with excitement about prom and graduation.  I see a me, that was brazen, bold and proud.  Who would’ve jumped at the opportunity to speak to a newscaster.  I would’ve thought to myself “Hell yeah! We’re getting the word out, our message is going to reach more people… and if I get a little airtime while we’re at it no complaints there!” 

I wouldn’t have questioned the message that is being sent when in an entire park of transgender individuals of every age, race, and gender identity, the white, straight, cis girl is the one on the news.  It wouldn’t have even crossed my mind.  I would’ve been off, sharpie-ing the world with my Pride.  

But now, I think sometimes us “allies” have to know when put our sharpies away.  We have to know when it is no longer our time, or space, to be the ones writing.  

Hidden Gold at Larkin

It was at Duke Engage Academy when I first found out about my placement this summer at Larkin Street Youth Services off of Golden Gate Avenue. I could not have been more thrilled to be spending my summer in San Francisco on Golden Gate Avenue. I had it all already pictured in my head (with a little help from YouTube travel vlogs). The stunning view of the bridge. Exquisite shops on every corner. The smell of seafood blending in with the misty fog. I did not expect to be disturbed by San Francisco’s culture. I thought I would be in the comfort zone of the paradise that I envisioned.

Within the first week, it was clear that the image I drew up of San Francisco in my head was not at all what it was like on the streets. Men were shaking pill bottles and shooting up as I walked by. Urine trickled down the seams of the sidewalk and dominated the smell of fresh air. Numerous men and women slept near the entrances of abandoned buildings on just a single piece of cardboard. I have never come close to experiencing this way of living and it was clear that this lifestyle was not one made by choice. Coming from Matthews, North Carolina, where there is one homeless man that stands on the street corner with a sign, this new culture shook me. These were not the golden streets I had imagined.

Centered in the Tenderloin – notoriously the roughest neighborhood in SF – it was evident that we were in the right place for what we came here to do. Within the first days of our arrival, T, one of the front staff that works directly with the clients, greeted us with open arms and no hesitation, unlike many of the clients. It was very clear that the sooner he showed the clients that he was comfortable with us and that he could trust us then they could too. I could see in this man’s eyes that this is exactly what he wants to be doing. The clients recognize this and they can tell that he is definitely not working for the paycheck. He comes into work and immediately brightens everyone’s mood. Clients go to him all the time for any kind of support, from a quick chat to searching for permanent housing options. He once told me something that I would never forget during my stay this summer: everyone at Larkin is a family, and sometimes we are all the support and encouragement they need that will help them reach their goals.

Another staff member that inspires me is the strong woman who works alone in the kitchen. The chef, M, inspires me by working mercilessly in the kitchen serving two meals every day to any client that walks through the doors of Larkin Street. She once told me that if she wouldn’t feed it to her own kids, there is no way she would feed it to any of the clients. Larkin Street isn’t just another shelter for homeless youth, but rather it is a family built on love and respect. She ensures that every client has had a serving before even considering saving herself a plate. I try to model her selflessness into my experiences this summer and from here on out.

During training, I was told by a coworker that regardless of how bad of a day I am having, it is guaranteed that the clients have experienced worse. That message stuck with me every morning when I stepped through the bright yellow doors. I immediately try to imitate T’s energy, sometimes disguising how ridiculously tired I was. It did not take long for me to realize the true gold that hid in this neighborhood, the staff at Larkin. The staff at Larkin is incredible and truly inspirational. They care greatly for the youth, and they want to see each one of them move on and become successful. They are phenomenal, and have taught me so much during my time at Larkin. I hope I was a fraction of help to the clients as they were to me. Over the course of the summer, it then became apparent that sometimes all you have to do to get someone to succeed is to make them believe in themself. Keith from Almost Home – a book assigned to us during our time in San Francisco – said, ”I just wish everybody that was in my situation had somebody who said, ‘You can do this, and I’m going to believe with you.”

With Seven Days Left…

Jailene Vazquez

July 24, 2016

With seven days left in this wonderful city, I find myself wanting to go back to the beginning of the program. Back to when I still committed the faux pas of calling San Francisco “San Fran”, couldn’t figure out which side of the bus to get on, and had two months of adventure waiting for me. Some days I want to go back to the first time I walked through Larkin Street Youth’s doors, energized by first day jitters and the air of pleasant uncertainty. But when I reflect on the past seven weeks, I couldn’t go back and risk changing any part of this unforgettable, wild, and significant summer.

Before arriving in California, I was skeptical about the impact eight weeks could have on the clients at Larkin or on myself. How much could the clients benefit from another intern sharing their space? Could I really change my world in two months? Would my time at Larkin accomplish something meaningful or just be another line on my resume?

That skepticism was silenced when an autistic client I have tutored since the beginning of the program successfully completed 4-digit regrouping without needing me to walk him through the problem. Thinking back to when he couldn’t complete single-digit subtraction or addition on his own, I was forced to choke back tears as I congratulated him.

That skepticism was silenced when the clients began to look for me in the mornings, versus me forcing conversations with people who rightfully considered me a stranger. When conversations with them were just as natural and appreciated as conversations I have with old friends. When I, notoriously bad with names (for reference, there was a period in high school when I spelled my own last name wrong for two weeks), could look around the ECC floor and confidently remember each of the client’s names.

I look back to my first week at Larkin and remember a conversation when a supervisor told me that he didn’t like to use the word “clients” because he considered the people at Larkin family. I couldn’t relate or fully understand him then, but I do now. The staff at Larkin is a group of incredible humans who work through their lunch breaks, stay late, and come early every day with smiles on their faces. The work done at Larkin is tiring and can be physically and emotionally consuming, but the Larkin staff continue to seek out excellence in clients. That being said, Larkin is not just the staff and tutors and volunteers. The clients at Larkin are equally responsible and to thank for the center’s heart and spirit. The clients have gone through more struggles in their 18 to 24 years than most adults will ever know, but they persevere. They have not given up on themselves, and their participation in the Larkin program is testament to that. They come in for the meals, the showers, the educational programs. They come in so that their situation is not a permanent one. They come in to prove that hope can exist even in the darkest of situations.

It has been an honor to be able to spend my first summer in California with the Larkin Street Youth family. The people at 134 Golden Gate Ave. are incredibly strong and caring, and I am fortunate to have been able to teach just as much as I was taught among them. I will never forget the experiences, conversations, and happiness I was gifted at the center this summer. I don’t wish to go back to the beginning of the summer. I just wish to finish my last seven days with the Larkin family with as few tears as possible.

13 Things I’ve Learned in San Francisco

Kevin Mutchnick

July 11, 2016

  1. It is COLD in San Francisco. But sometimes it’s hot. But sometimes it goes from cold to hot in 15 minutes. Basically what I’m trying to say is that it’s a real challenge to know how to dress everyday.
  2. Speaking of the weather, Mark Twain never actually said, “The coldest winter I’ve ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” (But I sure did.)
  3. A homeless young person can beat you (me) in 4 moves despite them telling you (me) they’re “just okay” at chess. (I’ve thought a lot about why I initially expected to win and have realized that my preconceived notions about what it means to be homeless and what it means to go to Duke gave me a bit of a superiority complex. Losing that game so badly was a huge lesson in humility. Shoutout to Nick for starting an awesome chess club at Larkin Street.)
  4. Homeless youth CAN and WANT to learn to code. (As a student of engineering and computer science, it has been a blast supporting the Tech Learning Center’s Coding and Robotics classes at Larkin and finding a common language with youth whose circumstances are different from my own through technology. In a world where technology pervades and younger generations are so comfortable with it, I’m thrilled that Larkin realizes the importance of providing clients with education that is so relevant and interesting to them. This is a step in the right direction toward breaking the barrier between San Francisco’s homeless population, and even those with stable housing, with the “tech elite” who breed resentment among locals for gentrifying and pushing them out of their neighborhoods.)
  5. Every homeless person has a different story. (Working in the Community Center at Larkin has shown me that our clients are not their stereotypes. Everybody has arrived in the Center by such drastically different circumstances that it is honestly hard for me to tell you what they all have in common other than their current housing situation. It’s too easy to see a few homeless people, not talk to them but judge them for what you see at a glance, and through confirmation bias, push them into your often misinformed generalization of homelessness. These are people with stories and experiences we can all relate to. One non-trivial commonality I’ve found, though, is that every client I’ve met wants to be recognized as a person and as an equal.)
  6. The locals call it DP, not Dolores Park, as confirmed by many a client. (This has been a point of longstanding debate among the interns! Also, DP is my favorite place in the city.)
  7. The smallest, most hole-in-the-wall restaurants are where you get the best, most authentic food. (We’ve had some great Chinese and Mexican food in Chinatown and the Mission, respectively, for example.)
  8. About 33% of homeless youth identify somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum, which is significantly higher than the 10% estimate for all Americans. (And based on my conversations with clients, being rejected by family for being open about a non-heterosexual or cisgender sexual orientation or gender identity is a real threat. It’s important to remember that LGBTQ individuals still have an uphill battle to face despite marriage equality being legalized last year.)
  9. People of color, especially Black and Latinx individuals, are disproportionately affected by homelessness as well. (This means, and I’ve witnessed it myself, that queer clients of color face compounding systems of oppression and are dishearteningly all too common among youth at Larkin Street.)
  10. Whether it’s singing along to Defying Gravity in the Castro, taking that cliché pic in front of the Golden Gate Bridge for Instragram or your next Facebook profile picture, voluntarily locking yourself in solitary confinement at Alcatraz, or just having a picnic and people watching in DP, there’s always something fun to do in San Francisco. (To be clear, I’ve done all of those things and more and would recommend them all!)
  11. My peers and fellow interns are some of the greatest and most supportive friends. (Thanks Jailene, Savanna, Nick, Nina, Claire, Julia, Jessie, Jasmine, Jeff, and our site coordinator, Sarah, for being so open and vulnerable at our weekly reflections, so inclusive on our excursions, so fun to be around, and such great coworkers.)
  12. I have to remind myself of my privilege every day and commit myself to using whatever advantages I have been afforded to advocating for and supporting marginalized communities. (Our clients navigate devastating realities including but not limited to familial rejection, severe mental illness, being HIV positive, sex work and survival sex, substance abuse, and far too often, not just one of these, on top of their homelessness. Even though I’ve been fortunate enough never to have to face them, I need to fully listen and support our clients who do daily. This can so easily translate into my life next semester and beyond—working with and listening more to cultural affinity student groups as a Senator for Equity and Outreach on student government, learning about the state of homelessness in Durham (something I’ve never considered before), and just sharing my experiences and the lessons I’ve learned with my peers who aren’t here in San Francisco this summer.)
  13. Although challenging, working with homeless youth is incredibly rewarding. (I’ve been completely shut down by clients and struggled with finding my place at Larkin. However, as time has passed, some of those same clients have approached me with crucial and deeply personal updates about their lives. For example, a client who recently began her medical transition was truly elated to tell me about starting her hormones and how they work. I love working regularly with a small group of clients as we, myself included, learn new programming languages together in Coding and I have to consciously refrain from intervening too much in Robotics because it’s so much fun to help build and control them. This summer has been a fantastic experience and my work has been so meaningful.)

 

Balancing Act

Julia Nicholas

July 7, 2016

Volunteering at Larkin Street Youth Services is a balancing act, and the seven of us interning there this summer are still finding our footing. As we interact with the Larkin Street youth, most of whom are older than us, we walk the line between professional and peer. We juggle openness and relatability with boundaries and humility. 

I find that most of these moment-to-moment balances align naturally with a little bit of practice. Yet, I continue to struggle with one of them. How do we encourage clients without getting too emotionally invested? How do we offer support without suffering from compassion fatigue? How do we cope with secondary trauma without becoming calloused? Our ability to serve hinges on the balance between helping and hoping. Unfortunately, detachment and realism have never been my natural tendencies. (Fun fact: my a cappella group gave me the superlative,“Most Optimistic.”) So, despite many warnings from past DukeEngage participants, professors, teachers, family, and friends, I dove into the summer with all of the optimism in the world.

During our first week here, I met several clients who were about to get housing in one of Larkin Street’s Transitional Living Programs. I was absolutely ecstatic about their progress and plans. I thought something was finally going to work out for them! Then, suddenly, the plans fell through. Some decided to leave for other cities. Others got in trouble and lost the progress they had made in the housing process. I was heartbroken that, yet again, things weren’t going to work out. Meanwhile, no one else seemed surprised. “It is what it is,” someone sighed when I expressed my disappointment. This frustrated me even more, as it reminded me of the apathy and cynicism Larkin Street strives to counteract — These kids never change. Helping them is a waste of time. 

I guess I reacted a bit prematurely. Ever since, I have come to appreciate Larkin Street’s philosophy that we cannot help people who do not want to help themselves. First, we have to show them that they can help themselves. I now focus on empowering, rather than guiding, the clients I meet in the community center. I asked myself, what empowers me? Well, my friends ask me for advice sometimes, and many of the people I admire treat my voice and opinions with value and respect. On the flip side, our clients have people telling them what to do all the time, and adults rarely ask for their opinions. How can you believe in yourself when no one else seems to care what you believe in?

So I started asking the clients for their opinions, on everything from coffee to GED tutoring to fashion to literature. Nothing seems to surprise them more than a staff member asking, “Hey, can I ask your advice?” or “So, what do you think about…” And, unsurprisingly, they have a lot to say! I cannot pretend that boosting clients’ self-confidence is The Solution to youth homelessness. But maybe these conversations help clients realize that they are worthy and capable of helping themselves. Then, Larkin Street can begin to help them with housing, education, employment, and health. 

My fellow interns and other Larkin Street staff empower client voices in other ways. For instance, not only does Jeff’s creative writing workshop give participants the opportunity to share their stories and ideas, but it also asks clients to offer constructive criticism on each other’s writing and performances, giving them a chance to lead. Likewise, over the past few weeks, Jasmine and I have been working on a health education project. With the help of some artistic clients, we created an anonymous Q&A box for the front desk, where clients can submit their health-related questions anonymously. The Larkin Street Academy health class researches and writes the answers to their peers’ questions, which we post in the community center every week. These students are applying their enthusiasm for health, their new knowledge, and their researching skills to improve health within their own community.

Many of the events in the community center also highlight youth voices. We have been lucky to attend two of the Larkin Street Academy programs’ graduation ceremonies, during which every graduate shared their personal story and their path to success. Others got to take the mic during a recent radio show, which featured interviews with several clients about their perspectives on San Francisco’s homeless crisis. Programs like these show clients that they have experience worth sharing, and that they can take part in changing their own lives and communities.

I know that we cannot expect to “save” anyone, let alone San Francisco’s entire youth homeless population, in the eight short weeks we are here. Still, if some of our clients have to move on to other programs, I hope each of them can walk away with a little bit more confidence in their ability to create the lives they deserve.

Over the past five weeks, I have learned that blind optimism and overflowing empathy will crush me — and our clients — just as much as cynicism would. Nevertheless, even if it is optimistic, I have to believe in our capacity to help. I’d like to revise the statement from earlier in this post, that we cannot help clients who do not believe they can help themselves. We have to believe we can help, too.

When/Why/How so Skeptical?

Jeff Feng

June 26, 2016

I’ve been skeptical of DukeEngage. Those Chronicle articles about the ethics of the program seemed pretty spot on for me. For all the resources Duke has fueled into this summer of civic engagement, are we really prepared to do this work? I, for one, have never worked with people that are homeless. So no, absolutely not, I did not know how to tutor students with developmental impairments or do intakes for many young people facing severe mental illnesses. Yet Duke is upfront about that and sports its nifty tagline, “Challenge yourself. Change your world.” Wait a minute… civic engagement is supposed to assist and empower communities to seek the change they want.  Here we have Duke telling us that the summer’s supposed to be about us? It always seemed to me they were sending a mixed message.

Maybe I and some other folks have gotten on a slippery slope. The other interns and I are here, on DukeEngage San Francisco, working with nonprofits that assist youth that are homeless. On the surface level, that sounds pretty good. “Hey,” you might clamor, “you’re not corporate; you’re not after the little guys. You’re making a difference.” But what are we getting into by attributing moral values to the work that we do? Is it better to take a marketing internship or work here?  Is it right to preach restorative justice or adopt a more punitive stance, or even strike a compromise? Am I doing this for myself or kids who are persecuted for being LGBTQ, homeless, both, or more?

The thing is… I don’t know. Working at Larkin Street Youth Services has been a roller coaster of positives, negatives, and everything in between. The youth that come in are either the same age as me, or a few years older. With Larkin’s continuum of service, youth are able to seek out the services they want on their own terms, whether that be through housing, employment, or educational assistance. I’ve been simultaneously learning and providing general counseling or tutoring for the youth. There are days when I wonder if I am causing more harm than help as a relatively untrained intern. I couldn’t tell you if what I’m thinking or doing is right or wrong, if I’m actually “Challeng[ing] [my]self. Chang[ing] [my] world.” Maybe there are better questions to ask myself without spinning out of control.

But what I do know is the privilege to even ask these questions. To write this blog post. To rely on my family, friends, and fellow DukeEngage participants for emotional support. To reflect on the morality of my thoughts and actions. Every Tuesday and Thursday, I teach a creative writing course. Some days, I have a couple students, and then over days, no one shows up. On those empty days, I doodle on my paper, and mope about the fact that no one wants to write; that I spent time putting together lesson plans for nothing. The youth have far more on their minds than attending a creative writing course. They need to think about surviving the streets, finding their next meal, and finding jobs and affordable housing in a city and society that largely looks down at them. So, is it right to work at Larkin Street, participate in DukeEngage, or debate the philosophy and ethics behind service? Get back to me, because that’s as difficult and confusing as this blog post.

The Real World: San Francisco

Hannah Hewitt
July 30, 2015

The other day as I looked back on my time in San Francisco, I couldn’t help but compare it to a TV show on MTV called “The Real World”.  Mostly because there are seven of us just like the show states in the intro and because we got to spend an unforgettable summer in an unreal city with unreal experiences. Though our time in San Francisco wasn’t taped and wasn’t about scripted dramas between house members (which there was none of), our time spent here was definitely real and definitely something that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

This blog documents the true stories and beliefs held by seven Duke students picked to work at non-profits that serve homeless youth. This is the theoretical “episode” where I tell you about the adventures that led to self discovery, a public policy memo, and raising $120,000 to go to the work that ATC does with its clients; along with anything else that comes to mind.

Back in February when I first found out that I would be embarking on a life changing adventure to the Bay Area, I had no idea what San Francisco would have in store for me. Unfortunately, no one read me the quote by Mark Twain in which he says, “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” and instead I only thought about the lyrics from the Beach Boys song “California Girls” that talks about sunshine and getting tan. Needless to say, I went out and bought multiple sweaters to carry around with me because it wasn’t till I experienced microclimates that I actually believed that there was such a thing as microclimates. And for those of you who don’t know much about San Francisco like I didn’t, a microclimate is when the weather changes at from 60 and foggy in Inner Richmond to sunny and 70 in the Mission.

Anyways besides learning how to dress and carrying around an entire closet suitable for any climate, somewhere between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge I discovered myself. I have become a friend, a confidante, a hike coordinator, a passionate advocate for social justice, a photographer, a motivator, and a more confident, more independent me. And lastly, I became a crucial part of a great community at At The Crossroads.

Working at ATC has taught me a lot of things. It has taught me to appreciate my situation and to never take a single day for granted because I don’t want to be defined by my situation but by who I am as a person. It has also taught me to speak up when I think something can be fixed and that I have the ability to make a difference in the lives of others. It is also the inspiration for my public policy memo that I have to write to graduate in the Spring, which is extremely scary to think about! I would tell you more about it but it’s still a work in progress. Let’s just say my memo might be about the government and the role it plays in nonprofits for better or for worse. Hopefully, my academic advisor, Elise Goldwasser, will like it.

Let me tell you a little about this amazing organization and its mission. ATC is a non-profit organization that works with homeless youth to build outstanding lives on their own terms. They allow them to pick their own paths and decide what is important for them to accomplish during their one on one meetings with ATC counselors. ATC is unique because they don’t force their clients to conform to a standard of what society thinks it takes to escape homelessness.

ATC was co-founded by Rob Gitin in 1998 when he was 22, which is crazy because I’m 21 now and don’t think I could start a non-profit. I don’t even know what I’m going to eat for breakfast tomorrow…well that’s not true; I plan on going to Tartine because it has over 5,000 ratings but that’s beside the point.

The ATC staff is made up of some of the bravest and most inspiring people I’ve ever met and to top it off, they are super chill. Watching them and listening to them fight for their clients’ everyday is awe-inspiring. They are truly amazing people. They are also awesome because they let a couple of interns help put together one of their biggest sources of income.

ATC is not a government funded nonprofit, which means that though they are able to serve their clients at a much deeper level, it also means that they are a much smaller nonprofit. That’s where the Summer SunDay Hike comes in. The hike is a main source of revenue for ATCs programs. Over the past 8 weeks, I have stewarded around 100 hikers and given them the tools necessary to raise money for ATC. It has been a lot of long days staring at a computer screen and talking on the phone but in the end it was all worth it because I know that my efforts will impact the lives of countless clients while also helping support some of my new heroes.

To finish it off, after listening to my fellow DukeEngage members talk about their time here, I think that it’s safe to say that this summer in San Francisco has been a summer of firsts, a summer of discovery, a summer of fun, a summer of music, a summer of growing, and a summer of friends.

Freedom Calls

Written by Ji-Ho Park
July 10, 2015

Another week in San Francisco meant another suite of events and activities happening around the city. This past weekend was the 4th of July, which following SF Pride, dare I say, felt like a bit of a let down? The pride flags are still hanging from people’s windows and banners are still screaming for equality, and they definitely outnumber the Stars and Stripes I see as I stroll around. But the combination of the SCOTUS decision, Pride, and Independence Day had me reflecting on freedom. “Freedom” is used rather liberally in San Francisco, used to describe the atmosphere, the people who live here, and the sort of hands-off attitude the police force can have when dealing with people who are homeless. But it really makes me wonder how my “freedom” differs greatly from someone else’s, especially the youth we’re working with this summer.

I happened to be around in Dolores Park on a sunny (yes, actually sunny!) Sunday afternoon, when the San Francisco Mime Troupe (SFMT) performed a show titled “Freedomland.” It focused on police brutality and institutionalized discrimination, aimed at people of color (PoC) and undocumented immigrants. The SFMT doesn’t hold back during their 90 minute show, making a mockery of an “up-and-coming cop” whose unwavering belief in the fairness and righteousness of our legal system made most people in the audience giggle (or groan). I won’t ruin how it ends in case anyone plans on watching, but in general, it begged the question of me, just how free are we in the US, when people of certain demographics are targeted and persecuted more harshly than others (and this isn’t simply limited to law enforcement)? Can we consider ourselves to be free when others are unjustly persecuted, or are we to ignore those and live our lives because we’re afforded the privilege of doing so?

The statistics of homeless youth tell a very similar story. Youth who are LGBTQ-identified are at a far greater risk of experiencing homelessness (~40% of the youth that Larkin Street services are LGBTQ-identified). Youth who are Black or Hispanic are also at much greater risk. And what’s important to note is, these youth are often not to blame for their homeless. People who are homeless are stigmatized and often blamed for their situation. But that’s exactly what it is. A situation. A moment in their lives, and is not an indicator of what’s to come. And I think many of us on DukeEngage San Francisco have learned that this summer. We’re working with a population very similar in age, which has made me reflect on how I’ve come to this moment; to be a rising senior at Duke, to be on DukeEngage, and to be more worried about where I’m going to apply to graduate school or for a job, than I am about where I’m going to eat or sleep tonight. Is this a freedom I “deserve” more than the youth I work with? Is it fair? Sure, people in San Francisco are free, and San Francisco has a different way of dealing with those who are homeless, but just because you’re allowing them to be homeless and not punishing them for it doesn’t mean we’re actively doing anything to help people off the streets.

People here discuss San Francisco as a “housing first” city, but I’m still not seeing much of it. We continue to hear about housing is such a problem for people who are homeless in SF, but I see very little being done to help them. Larkin Street offers great services to help youth get themselves back on their feet, but what young 20-something year old is going to be able to get a job within 2 years (how long you’re allowed to stay at a LSYS transitional living program) that is enough to sustain a living wage in San Francisco? Affordable housing is so hard to come by, but as I write, there’s a 6-story mall near the UN Plaza going up.

On a brighter note, there’s been a lot going on at Larkin Street Youth Services and At the Crossroads this week! Larkin Street has been preparing for their big Graduation, for students who have received their GED, their high school diploma, or have graduated from college. It’s an opportunity for LSYS to recognize their own youth, who have already come so far, and hope to continue moving forward. At the Crossroads’ Summer SunDay, Hike for Homeless Youth is this following weekend, and so Hannah and Madison have been working hard to make sure that everything is in place there. We’ll all be volunteering at that event come next Saturday, which will involve an 8 mile hike up Mt. Tamalpais! Stay tuned for another exciting installment of DukeEngage San Francisco, Year 1.

Pride and Spex and Ripplez

July 2, 2015 | Maurice I. Dowell

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Greetings reader of this blog.  I hope this note  finds you well and that my colleagues and I are painting as vivid a picture of San Francisco as it deserves. As aphoristic as it may be to think so, this summer I am repeatedly reminded of the smallness of my place in the world – the vast amount of it I have yet to see and the insignificance I sometimes feel in relation to the overwhelming amount of life simultaneously happening  around me. It’s inexplicably unsettling to realize that I’m not a part of all these lives that I stand next to on the bus or nudge around on Market Street  as the 42nd SF Pride Parade rolls towards City Hall. I’m only my body. I’m only this experience. This one set of eyes and opinions and perceptions. SF can feel ginormous because there is so much to see and judge and only begin to take in here. This place is an enigma of shiny tie-dye and residual 1967 Summer of Love vibrations. I find that my favorite cities (SF has quickly joined the list)  are those detached islands of cosmopolitan color. Like New York. Like Hong Kong. The places in which the proximity to waterways settle a land that inevitably becomes a melange of mixing  peoples. And because somewhat removed from convention, these places exist as a haven of sorts; a destination that the (seemingly) lost seek out and run to in search of community, in search of themselves.

If what you seek is stimulation (in all senses of the term) San Fran abounds. Over and over again. There is a freedom here that is both alarming and inspiring. The drugs, man, are plentiful and way too easily accessible. And people buy them. The people you might picture buying, but also the unsuspecting. It’s sometimes hard to tell the dealer from the user. But I believe this awareness falls in line with my thinking at work. It’s hard to tell the homeless from the home(-with). Group sentiment will echo that we always thought we knew what homeless people looked like, what strung-out junkies looked like. And trust there are examples of you’re thinking, but I find more and more that I truly know nothing about anyone, which is why I find it so frustrating to metaphysically consider my existence and my own story. What qualifies my life experience as better (or worse) than the experience of anyone I meet at at work, or see sleeping in Golden Gate Park? I only conclude (though unsatisfied with its simplicity) that only  circumstance is what separates us.

Freedom. Wow, that tangent. This weekend was Pride! My first. And it was awesome. With the decision from SCOTUS ruling in favor of national marriage equality only a day before festivities began, the city pulsed with anticipation. We began early on Saturday morning by bussing to Dolores Park to check out the fever. I’ve visited that park pretty often since we’ve been here and there are always a good amount of people getting into too many things. But on Saturday you could not walk. It was a beautiful, gay mess. We hung out for a bit, enjoying the energy and the music pumping from the barge on the blocked-off street, before heading to Civic Center to volunteer at Larkin’s Queer Youth Space they annually set up for the duration of the weekend. There were carnival games and cotton candy and prizes and families and little boys in rainbow tutus. The Queer Youth Space is the only space provided for youth and their families during the festival, which I think is pretty admirable seeing as how the weekend can feel pretty rated-R otherwise. After work we headed to Castro for the Pink Party! It’s crazy actually, the way the celebration inadvertently pops up all over the city. I left one space expecting the next to be less populated and less excited. Only to find more crowds! More live music. More nudity. More festivity in the spirit of love – all while considering the history of a special pink triangle or Rosa Winkel in German. The triangle badge was worn by Nazi concentration camp prisoners who had been identified and sent to the camps based solely on the premise of their homosexuality. Heavy.

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Sunday brought the parade and lots more people! We stood along the route pretty close to work before heading to Golden Gate Park to hear the only American Idol that truly matters, Kelly Clarkson, belt her heart out for us. I think we all appreciated spending and experiencing all of the craziness together. It can be overwhelming. For me, at least, there was a constant state of awe and constant spurts of over-emotion as I looked around to see so many people who just wanted to sure, party hard, but also support a population of people who history books will refer to as marginalized. It’s powerful and would be amiss to stand amongst all that energy and not feel like you’re standing with history. And all at once you consider: though yes, you are a small, useless speck of sand on the cosmic beach of San Francisco, everywhere you turn there are specks just as strange as you. Sifting around on this bizarre little peninsula nestled into the hills of the bay. And so you realize it’s okay not to be everywhere experiencing everything. Yours is important enough and the ripples you create while you’re here you may not ever see. But you definitely made them.

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Look Again

Written by Stephanie Wu
June 26, 2015

During my first week walking through San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, I often looked down. Largely due to practical reasons, I liked to believe. I looked down to make sure I avoided the puddles of urine, to make sure I avoided the used condoms and syringes strewn on the ground, to make sure I avoided stepping on the sleeping bodies resting against the side of brick buildings. I had my reasons—reasons that masked underlying excuses. Now in retrospect, I realize that despite all these reasons I created, I looked down mostly to avoid making eye contact with the homeless people I encountered on the streets. I must have innately understood that making eye contact was the precursor to potentially undesirable interactions.

By looking down, I silently maintained all the negative stereotypes commonly held about the homeless. The deceptively simple act of looking downward was an outward manifestation of an ingrained, internal fear that the homeless might aggressively seek the cash in my pocket, or stain my clothes with the diseases, stench, and filth they carried on their bodies. Put simply, I feared the potential consequences that inherently accompany such stereotypical portrayals of homeless individuals. My judgment was clouded with unfounded fears, grounded in nothing more than the inaccuracies of societal gossip.

The homeless youth I have met and worked with at Larkin Street Youth Services have since made it impossible for me to continue to look down, in not only the literal sense of the phrase, but also the idiomatic sense. Unsuspectingly, I quickly began to look up. Unconsciously, I quickly adopted a new sense of normal.

I have enjoyed a humbling yet exhilarating time physically looking up and initiating interactions, breaking down all the stereotypes I have long-since carried within me regarding homelessness. The homeless youth I have spoken to are people who have effortlessly become my role models. They are young people who have become some of the individuals for whom I have the most respect. Their passions, talents, sensitive humor, and sense of responsibility for themselves and others are so admirable that I cannot help but to look up to them. These youth are some of the most non-judgmental, resourceful, forward-thinking people I have ever met. Never ceasing to amaze me, they are people who I have much to learn from.

The science underlying the formation of memory dictates that creating groups based on similarities—on a societal level, stereotyping—is necessary in order for us to keep track of new memories in relation to old ones. From this perspective, it is in our nature to think in stereotypes. However, a natural tendency to label “the other” does not validate the act. In order to stop creating boxes based on singular stories and portrayals, we need to delve into those communities in which we initially don’t belong. In order to discover the differences between one’s truth and the reality, we must immerse ourselves into these communities, leaving our presumptions and assumptions far behind.

The sun is on its way to meet the earth as we walk as a group back from the Haight neighborhood after a reflective session. I look up towards the sky, not having to look far to see the rainbow colors soak the clouds with undeniable passion, love, and life. The beauty of the scene washes over me, and I internally thank the youth at Larkin Street who have given me the chance to look up, rather than down.