On Friday, I went to the monthly civic love meetup in San Francisco. It was held in the beautiful Friends of Boeddeker Park facility next to kids playing in the newly renovated park and playground.

I must admit it would not have occurred to me to wonder what happened to the people who used to frequent this park. Someone had remarked at how nice it was to see all of the kids playing in the park. One of the Faithful Fools, a Tenderloin non-profit, said he remembered this place as kind of a living room for adults — the neighborhood is mostly Single Room Occupancy (SRO) apartments, and people would come to the park and do the things that other people get to do in their living rooms. He wondered, where is that happening now? Those people have been displaced. Of course this safe, kid-friendly space is wonderful, but it displace a different sort of community center.

Wow, this stuff is complicated.

Sam Dennison, chief financial officer for Faithful Fools, mentioned that he was on KQED’s forum: Are Tenderloin Tech Firms Being Good Neighbors? The representatives from the tech companies seem earnest and a few employees are getting actively involved, but after hearing from homeless activists and a longtime tenderloin resident, I can see how far apart these worlds are.

On the KQED show, Zendesk mentioned that at their current size, they could sustain one employee volunteering once per week, but with 500 employees, that would mean that just 10% volunteer once per year (if I’m doing the math right). It seems like they could give everyone more than one day per year. Nonetheless, I liked how Tiffany Apczynski, director of social responsibility and public affairs for Zendesk, presented their community involvement. It was good to hear about Twitter’s plans too, since I hadn’t heard anything since they first moved in. They are planning to build a $6M center across the street from Twitter where employees can volunteer. I admit that I love Twitter as a service, but have yet to see the positive community impact that I think they could have. Again they face that tough challenge to cross the culture chasm between Twitter engineer and long-time Tenderloin resident.

More links from this fabulous group of people:

  • Faithful Fools Street Retreat a guided process for being part of this city, spending time on the streets
  • Planter Box Project creates a partnership between residents and business owners around growing something beautiful, small havens of life in the midst of our city
  • Hand Up let’s us donate directly to a homeless neighbor in need. Like an Indiegogo or Kickstarter for basic human needs to help someone step up
  • Project Homeless Connect
  • lava mae: Mobile Showers for the Homeless

I talked about my dream of bringing RailsBridge workshops to people who desperately need jobs. I don’t think everyone wants to be a software developer, but I do believe there are quite a few people on the streets who would be brilliant coders. I’d like to find them. MichelleGlauser is way ahead of me on that idea, but it was inspiring to hear about some places that are teaching computer skills:
* The Learning Shelter teaching skills to people in need
* Tenderloin Technology Lab
* Hospitality House

NCWIT Scorecard has great statistics and references. While the report’s title is “Why is gender diversity important in computing?” much of the supporting research references different kinds of diversity. Here’s a high level snapshot:

Diversity

  • Expands the Qualified Employee Pool
    We’re not taking advantage of our diverse population. The industry is failing to attract
    this talent. Indeed, those women already employed in the technology industry are
    leaving at staggering rates, so we’re not retaining either.
  • Improves the Bottom Line
    Technology companies with the highest representation of
    women in their senior management teams showed a higher return on equity than did
    those with fewer or no women in senior management.
  • Enhances Innovation
    A large study spanning 21 different companies showed
    that teams with 50:50 gender membership were more experimental and more efficient.
    Extensive research has found that groups with greater diversity solve complex problems
    better and faster than do homogenous groups. Culturally diverse teams have been shown
    to generate a wider variety of possible strategies when setting a course of action.
  • Promotes Equality
    With technology playing an increasingly crucial role in all of our
    lives, having more people from different backgrounds participate in its creation can help
    break down gender and racial economic inequalities.
  • Reflects the Customers
    Most companies serve a variety of people, so it makes sense then to have a variety of intelligent, skilled people working on services and products.

Read the full report

William Gibson said “the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” Likewise that the past is still alive today. I deeply appreciate people who tell their own stories, so that I may understand, like Hamden Rice’s story of his father who grew up in the south. I don’t have relatives who experienced what it was like to be black in America before Martin Luther King. I have a different family history that I see in reflected in events from the past year.

A Story from the Past

“You must go visit your great aunt Miri” said my grandmother, telling me of her cousin for the very first time. I had planned a trip to Spain and Miri lived in Portugal. I was 17 when I learned that my Unitarian grandmother’s Christian Scientist parents, had converted from Judiasm. The second World War that I learned about in history class was about to feel eerily close. I had learned German on a whim, wanting to acquire a third language, never realizing that it might connect me to my heritage.

So I found myself, walking the streets of Lisbon, chatting in German, learning about my not-so-distant relatives. There had been three brothers — my great-great-grandfather travelled to America long before the troubles started, Miri’s father had married a Catholic and was able to be anglicized. Uncle Kurt had been handsome, never married, and had not left soon enough. He was taken to Auschwitz and never seen again. Miri had fled Germany during the war. She travelled through eastern Europe meeting André, who had been raised to be a Hungarian count, both fleeing for the lives, eventually finding their way to Portugal.

I asked my grandmother later if there was something they could have done. She told me that the brothers in Germany wrote letters asking to send money so that they could travel to America. Her father refused, with fresh memories of the Great Depression and his own wife and daughters to care for. He didn’t believing that they could really be in such danger, until it was too late to get anyone out.

Sitting on Miri’s back porch, sipping gin and tonics, Miri said “We would never have named our daughter Sarah.” She had been telling me about settling in Lisbon and raising her own family. She went on to tell me something I’ve never heard before or since, perhaps too every-day an occurrence to record in our history books. She said that all of the women had to sign their name with Sarah before their actual name, and for the men it was David. So at the bank, and anyone you did business with, could easily identify you as Jewish. Slowly, bit by bit, the state took away their identities, their heritage as Germans, and made them strangers to their neighbors and friends.

Creating the Future

I don’t know what it’s like to be black in America today, any more than I know what it was like to be Jewish in the 1940s. I do know that if I do nothing, the world could easily slip into a reality where I don’t want to live. Now and then, I can do things that make a difference. I believe the small things that each of us do every day change our reality. By deciding what small actions we take or ignore, we create the future.

Yesterday, instead of posting this story, I first spent time to write a few small things that I think we can do to be allies to our friends and colleagues who experience the terror of being black in America today.

“Through our scientific genius we have made this world a neighborhood; now through our moral and spiritual development, we must make of it a brotherhood. In a real sense, we must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools. ”
— Martin Luther King, Jr., Lincoln University 1961