This year, the GLIDE Center for Social Justice (CSJ) along with our community partners at Skywatchers have been proud to create a new Leadership Academy with residents of the Tenderloin.
Skywatchers is an arts-based ensemble that has been working in the Tenderloin for eight years with SRO residents, centering performance-based and multi-disciplinary art and stories to highlight and address the concerns and needs of its participants. The Leadership Academy builds on Skywatchers’ and GLIDE’s mutual belief in art and story-telling as a powerful basis of community organizing.
“It’s using art as a way to get in touch with themselves and tell their stories,” GLIDE Advocacy Manager Ben Lintschinger explains.
“We’re showing a group of people how to do that with each other, so that folks can feel safe with each other and talk about their lives and what is important to them and also listen in a way that is nourishing and powerful. That creates the community to do the kind of work we need in order to make systemic change.”
I feel like I’m helping to heal, and I’m being healed at the same time, in this process with Skywatchers. — Shakiri
GLIDE CSJ staff co-designed the Academy’s curriculum along with Skywatchers founder Anne Bluethenthal and local artist and Skywatchers facilitator Shakiri.
“For me, prior to partnering with GLIDE, it seemed like an important piece of work both for raising the caliber of the art we were creating but also raising the discourse we were having in our circles,” says Anne.
“There was a need to contextualize our participants’ stories in a more social, political, historical and cultural frame. Several years ago, I started to write a curriculum for leadership training that would provide a venue in which we were not just making art but specifically in a process of learning together and thinking about our stories in a systemic way.”
Anne says she hopes that their training will help each cohort develop the skills necessary to help one another navigate systems that can often be difficult to navigate alone, and to become advocates for each other and for their immediate communities.
GLIDE and Skywatchers have already successfully run their first 16-week course, and graduated 10 people, most of whom are continuing to meet weekly to share their work and collaborate. The second cohort is currently in session.
Shakiri, who has worked with Skywatchers for the past three years, is a choreographer, writer and dancer, and greatly values the work being done through the Leadership Academy.
“As an artist, I feel that I’m doing something worthwhile and that’s important to me,” she says. “I feel like I’m helping to heal, and I’m being healed at the same time, in this process with Skywatchers.”
“The participants are moving on from the Leadership Academy to creating and participating—dealing with the issues that they are interested in,” Shakiri explains. “They all identified something they were passionate about and then were asked, What do you want to do about this passion? Then they had to figure out what that was, and they’re working on that now. I’m so happy and proud of them.”
Participants’ “passion projects” address a range of pressing issues faced by residents of the Tenderloin, from overcoming domestic violence, to homelessness and public health, including mental health and dietary practices.
I would like to teach people how to cook healthier meals in SROs using things like crockpots, hotpots and electric skillets. — Tony Page
Tony Page is an active Tenderloin resident who regularly eats at GLIDE in the Daily Free Meals program dining room, otherwise known as Mo’s Kitchen. He is now both a performer with Skywatchers and a graduate of the first session of the Leadership Academy. Tony identified his passion as teaching people how to eat healthier in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood notoriously known as a food desert within San Francisco.
“I am very, very passionate about cooking,” says Tony. “One of the changes I would like to see is access to healthier foods in stores, and more vegetables and fruits available in this neighborhood. I would also like to see our community take advantage of resources like food banks, community gardens, farmers markets and co-ops,” he continues.
Both Tony and his fellow Academy member Reggie believe that too many Tenderloin residents rely on corner convenience stores as their primary source of groceries in part because many people do not have a full kitchen in which to prepare fresh meals.
“These foods [in convenience stores] are foods that we really shouldn’t be eating. Reggie is a diabetic and I was born with heart disease, so food is a big deal for us. I would like to teach people how to cook healthier meals in SROs using things like crockpots, hotpots and electric skillets,” Tony explains.
In addition to their passion projects, enrollees did a lot of collective activism around housing, since everybody in the group identified affordable housing as a top concern.
“They’ve done marches to get people to vote, media interviews and community events,” relates Ben. “You need to have connection, be able to listen to and learn from each other, and feel comfortable being authentic with each other in order to do good community-based work.”
Skywatchers and GLIDE are excited about the future of the Leadership Academy, and similar programs in the Tenderloin, for what its graduates can foster in the neighborhood.
“My hope is that we keep finding more and more creative and professional development opportunities for the folks who are participating,” says Anne, “and for everybody who is struggling with housing and poverty and a lack of enfranchisement in this culture.”
“There are many leadership programs in the Tenderloin,” she continues, “a lot of great partner agencies like Hospitality House, the Coalition on Homelessness and Faithful Fools, who are offering different kinds of learning opportunities. My dream is that we connect all of these programs and have a kind of Tenderloin University!”
Stay tuned for more news about the Leadership Academy and its second cohort. In the meantime, to see Skywatchers in action, check out their 8th annual Festival, At the Table: Visions, beginning on Friday, May 17 and running until Sunday, May 19. All performances are free.