The 4th Annual Critical Diversity Forum, which was hosted by the new Critical Diversity Studies (CDS) Department on September 12, addressed the issue of displacement in San Francisco through a variety of guest speakers. These visitors included Gordon Chin, Adriana Camarena, and Rhodessa Jones, who are prominent socio-cultural leaders in San Francisco’s communities.
On the surface, the Bay Area and San Francisco’s “technology boom” has provided thousands of jobs and has brought millions of dollars into the economy.
However, with such a sudden surge of wealth coming into the City, there have been countless marginalized and underrepresented populations being forced out of the place they have called home for decades. These people can no longer afford to survive in a place with one of the nation’s highest cost of living rates, and consequently, are obligated to move elsewhere.
The program was commenced by USF Word! with a few short performances by students.
USF Word! aims to discuss social realities through the power of performance and poetry. The performances evoked a sense of nostalgia as they drew from the performer’s upbringings and the barriers that they faced along the way.
Evelyn Rodriguez, co-chair of the Forum and director of the CDS department, captured the message of the program and the CDS major, by stating, “Cultural Diversity Studies knows that true diversity is only present when a community is inclined and able to learn about its differences and history and hopes, especially to understand how we are connected and responsible to one another.”
Gordon Chin, a celebrated advocate for affordable housing and the founder of the Chinatown Community Development Center, was the first guest to speak. He discussed the alarming rate at which tenants are being evicted in San Francisco through the Ellis Act and other means.
The Ellis Act, which was enacted into legislation in 1985, is a state law that gives landlords the right to evict tenants in order for the landlords to “go out of business.” Accordingly, landlords must pay their tenants at least $5,000 to move out.
Oftentimes, once tenants are evicted, the unoccupied spaces are generally turned into condominiums or single-family mansions by wealthy developers.
Once the condominiums or homes are built, rent control no longer applies to the building. Rent control in San Francisco means that landlord can only increase rental prices by a certain amount each year and that landlords can only evict tenants for one of 16 “ just causes,” according to San Francisco Tenants Union’s website.
With the loss of rent control privileges, tenants often find themselves unable to afford housing in the City.
Chin emphasized the need for collective empowerment, saying, “The struggle of each of our communities is the struggle of all of our communities.”
Chin presented a few solutions to the problems at hand, including encouraging registered San Francisco voters to vote yes on Proposition G in November. If approved, Prop G would impose an additional 14-24% tax on multi-unit buildings that have been owned for less than five years, which would discourage land-owners from buying a property to renovate and flip it with the intention of gaining a profit.
Following Chin, Adriana Camarena, author of the book, Unsettlers: Migrants, Homies and Mammas of the Mission District, took the floor with a soft-spoken confidence.
Unsettlers is a compilation of the diverse experiences of residents of the Mission District. She touched on how gentrification has affected the working class.
Camarena gave insight to the vast economic inequality in the Mission, stressing that the neighborhood holds the highest number of displaced residents. Compared to merely a decade ago, the Mission is now a “hipster haven” filled with gentrified cafes and restaurants, Camarena added.
Finally, Rhodessa Jones concluded the event with The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women. Founded by Jones to prevent female recidivism in order to prevent women from returning to jail, The Medea Project creates performance pieces based on the lives of the incarcerated women.
Seven women involved with The Medea Project took the stage. Each had a deeply personal story to share. Two of the women wore shirts declaring HIV is living with ME. Through performance, one woman expressed her experience with being diagnosed with HIV and stressed the importance of reducing stigma behind the unforgiving disease.
After The Medea Project left the room bursting with emotion through its heartrending series of performances, the boisterous Rhodessa Jones jumped on stage dressed in a bright orange prison jumpsuit.
She gave light to her experiences working in women’s jails and the amount of anger these women harbored with them. She understood that these women needed a method to come to terms with their pain, so she introduced an arts-based approach of catharsis.
“Theater saved my life,” she explained, describing how it gave her an outlet to express her pain and sadness.
Jones even shared what she always told inmates before working with them: “Let’s step up and respect each other’s truths and each other’s pain.”
As San Francisco rapidly progresses, it is important that its inhabitants recognize the effects on all of the City and its residents.
“A place to call home, and a sense of security and peace, are human rights that all the world’s citizens deserve and have a right to protect,” said Rodriguez on the theme of the Forum.
Despite their different backgrounds and experiences, the event’s featured speakers shared something in common: a deep understanding of the marginalized human experience.
From community organizing in Chinatown, to learning the stories of the Mission’s people, to founding a theater for incarcerated women, each of them understood the dynamics of human suffering, and they aimed to bring justice.
The new CDS major aligns itself with the messages of the featured speakers and the Forum. A man may never truly be able to empathize with the life experience of a woman, a white person the experience of an African American or Hispanic, but people can listen to their truths, understand their pain, and attempt to view the world from a different perspective.
* The featured photo shows USF Word! member, Asia Wilkerson, performing a spoken piece. Photo credit: SHAWN CALHOUN