What are your first impressions of the space and place that you find yourself?
To answer this question most adequately, I must reflect to you, my reader, the thoughts that I have on the two separate places/spaces that I will inhabit and be creating change within over the course of the next fifty-three days. The first of these spaces is Apartment C on 271 Stardust Place in Alameda, which resides on the grounds of Alameda Point Collaborative, a multi-faceted non-profit organization that provides transitional housing, educational assistance, and locally grown produce for those in need. The second space is located within the building that houses the General Assistance Advocacy Project, a non-profit organization situated in the Tenderloin of San Francisco on the ‘200’ block of Golden Gate Avenue.
Another important distinction that should be made is my own personal belief that spaces and places are not always tangible. They are not always readily seen. Spaces and places also connote reference to the mind, the spirit, the soul, and one’s psyche. The way that I currently feel about myself in my physical body houses potential for dramatic shifts, changes, and evolution. The space that my mind is in, the place that my spirit is at in my soul’s current path of lifetime evolution, and where my psyche resides in terms of my own personal perspective, are also areas that I have the ability to reflect upon in the context of ‘first impressions.’
With that, I will reflect to you my feelings on the topic of my roommates, our current place of residence on Stardust Place in Alameda, and the emotional bond that I feel to all five of them. I should preface this portion of my reflection by informing you that I went into this program knowing that I was already very close with four of the five Micah fellows that I am serving alongside. Two of them, Emily Klingenberger and Kaitlin Roth, are individuals who I had previous experience serving with for an entire month in Colombo, Sri Lanka this past January when we conducted our community engagement Jan-Term class there with the Lasallian Christian Brothers and immersed ourselves as informal instructors to children within their educational institutions in that area of the country. I had known Ari Alvarez and Rachel Gacerez from a class that we had taken together on the SMC campus in the Fall semester of 2013: Youth Cultures and Identities. It was within that class that our friendships flourished, and we each kept a strong connection to one another outside of the classroom up until this summer. Lauren Lorge, one of the two individuals serving/working on the farm at Alameda Point Collaborative, was the only person I had not met prior to coming together for our collective service work this summer. However, when I met Lauren on May 17th for our group pre-orientation to Micah, I knew that our entire group would have impeccable synergy, and that we would all merge together very, very well. This set the tone for one of the most awesome first impressions of community that I have yet to encounter.
Moving in together on Saturday and Sunday this past weekend was a fluid experience. We immediately made our apartment on Stardust Avenue a home. We set up colorful decorations, and fortified the space with our loving energy. With regard to the greater community around us, my first impressions were good! There are 300 children living in the area, a playground right behind the apartment, and such a beautiful garden that is only a few blocks away from where we live. Something I find interesting about Alameda Point Collaborative is that it is positioned directly across a housing community that holds million-dollar homes. They are very cookie-cutter looking without any back yards, but they are absolutely indicative of economic privilege. While I know nothing about the families that live within them, I find it incredibly interesting that a single road, or street, separates that nicely groomed, wealthy-looking housing community from our own. Driving into Alameda Point Collaborative, there is a distinct difference between that community, and the one that we live in. APC and its housing units have been transformed from the housing units that were used by military personnel during the time that this area was in operation as a U.S. Naval Base. As such, many buildings are abandoned and boarded up. There are ‘NO TRESSPASSING’ signs on many windows, and there are no nicely groomed lawns in front of the apartment buildings. In fact, we live right across from a big abandoned building! The paint is worn off and chipping, and its perimeter is entirely gated.
What I love about this area is how simple it is. I cannot tell you how appealing that factor is alone. Being raised in an upper-middle class family in the suburbs, I was isolated from community – at least, community like this, here in Alameda. My neighbors didn’t really do much to create community, and the area I lived in wasn’t conducive to creating support or a loving social foundation upon which I could come home to. Alameda Point Collaborative’s community, however, is just the opposite. People are riding bikes everywhere; there are community gardens; parents or siblings who come out of their homes with the intention of gathering their children for meals who say, “Hi” if you’re near. Interaction within this housing community is not foreign. Individuals are not preoccupied with their busy schedules or the intricacies of privileged lifestyles. It’s organic here. People are authentically who they are, and I love it. There is no façade of superiority or superficiality within this human community. And that is what I can’t get enough of: the real, true nature of people whose lives are rich, deep, and beautiful. I love that I can finally see that richness. It’s a privilege to be immersed within, and one that I haven’t gotten to live beside much until now.
My first impressions of G.A.A.P. in two words are: wow and busy. My first two days serving have been all of the following: jaw dropping, overwhelming, (sometimes) triggering, heart breaking, and frustrating. Walking into the building, there is not a lot of splendor. For a non-profit, that’s to be expected. There are turquoise walls, a waiting room, a front desk, the advocates’ areas and their respective desks, Kendra’s office, and Gary’s office (which is upstairs with a window overlooking the advocates and clients waiting in the front-desk area). There is a small break-room area upstairs outside of Gary’s office, and a quaint little kitchen adjacent to that. I will call this place home. This is the area I will implement radical objective to the best of my ability within the frustrating logistics of bureaucracy that functions within this country. I embody service within this space, as do my three other volunteer-advocate colleagues (not from Saint Mary’s) who will also be conducting advocate work beside me throughout the next fifty-three days. Our workstations are not big, but the work, itself, is. In only two days I have had some of the most interesting encounters I’ve had thus far in my life. Three, in particular, hit home for me. While I wish I could go into detail about them, I can’t, primarily because that information is confidential on the clients’ behalves, and also because I’m already writing so much here in this first response. All I can tell you is the broad context of these three encounters: domestic violence, trans* identities and non-cisgender non-heterosexual marriage partnership, and one’s release into society after over a decade of incarceration. These circumstances are incredibly close to my heart. These issues are SERIOUS, and after only two days of working at G.A.A.P., it doesn’t seem that our U.S. government feels the same way.
With regard to my first impressions of the Tenderloin—yes, it’s a little nerve-wracking to be walking around near visible drug use, drug dealing, and to not feel completely, 100 percent safe. However, I know I’ll get used to it. I know that I’ll adjust and learn to merge within this community of people with whom I am in solidarity. I love them. I do. I know they live on the margins of society where nobody seems to give much of a crap about their lives or how to help them, but I do. I want to provide them with as much justice, service, and support as I can—as do my G.A.A.P. intern-colleagues. We are here because we want to help. We are here because we love. We are here because we care—with passion, dedication, and heart. No one should have to live with feeling like their lives are not valuable—I will listen. I will be present. And I’m ready. These feelings are my first impressions. Love is my first impression. Patience is infused in my drive and the sincerity of my will. Love—my love—it’s unconditional.
What have you already learned about yourself and others?
I have learned that I am very comfortable living and working in highly impoverished areas. Not only this – I thrive greatly in communities who are working together to lift themselves up to a greater quality of life, or who are simply trying to get by to live as aptly as possible for themselves, no matter where they’re at. I have learned that I’m an incredibly emotional person, and that it is not easy for me to shut off when confronted with other individuals’ struggles. It has been very hard for me hearing of all the stories I’ve encountered while working the front desk at G.A.A.P. I am unlike others in that I outwardly show in my face the empathy that I feel for them. My heart aches to offer others what they need. That is what I’ve learned to recognize about myself. Compassion, understanding, tolerance, patience, solidarity, and self-care are all things I’ve learned that I need to sustain completely when working in the field that I am, because that is how I will prevent any potential activist burn out. Learning to pace my work, acknowledge that I can’t help everybody this exact minute, and that legal matters happen over the course of time are all things that I am learning to accept. The struggling and suffering of others (and within myself) is not something I can assuage instantly. It takes thorough work, and a multifaceted understanding of all of one’s underlying issues. In just several days, I have come to see that any inclination I may have had toward wanting to resolve problems in an organized or neat manner is most likely not going to happen. In the context of a non-profit direct services drop-in clinic, there is no assuredness as to the consistency of a client being able to come in as much as possible. I have learned that no social change can be made without the good intentions of a whole community all focusing on serving for the good of others. It’s truly surprising how much government institutions and other organizations (mostly for-profits) could give less of a crap about anyone else but themselves. I truly can’t believe how many individuals are left to fend for themselves when society has already pushed them to exist uncomfortably into the margins.
What do you hope to learn in the weeks to come?
I hope to learn how to acquire more and more patience over the coming weeks. Patience is a key component required in the work I’ll be doing while at G.A.A.P., particularly when it comes to pre-legal matters, or having to work with state or county policies and legislation in order to get my future clients their benefits. I hope to learn more details and experiences about the lives of those in and around the Tenderloin. This is the greatest gift I could receive during my work, and a critical part of any service or community engagement work – just being able to listen to others. Listening to one’s lived truth is a fundamental part of compassionate service, and it is an essential element of simplicity.
I also hope to learn how my service work intersects with the service experiences had among my other Micah fellows. Each day that we serve at our separate agencies and then come back home to our Stardust apartment to live together in community is a special and unique learning experience. It will teach us in a much richer, more growth-inspiring way than a typical classroom or lecture based experience, which is what we usually experience during our academic semesters. This way, we can hear about and understand the similar problems we encounter and what we believe the root causes to those problems may be with respect to our greater Bay Area community.
What are your thoughts about the value of simplicity, and how do these connect with your summer experience?
The value of simplicity is incalculable. Simplicity can be understood in so many varying ways that it is hard to give my thoughts about it in the most general sense. I see simplicity as a mindset. One with a simplistic mind can help to deconstruct the most complicated problems of our time period. The capitalistic nature that our country was founded upon has created a web of inconvenience and a lack of empathy for others. Simplicity is the opposite of what our country believes is best for its economic growth and development. Technological advancements and the insensitive competitiveness that provides inauthentic momentum for some of the most monolithic corporations currently active and functioning in our country provide the least amount of simplicity for the people who act as consumers.
There is also a stark contrast between simplicity and the glorification of poverty. There are many folks who come from privileged backgrounds who believe that they can put a stop on the amount of money they spend, or how much or what types of food they consume, and that those experiences will give them a sense of what it’s like for those who live in extremely impoverished areas who have been marginalized as a result of systemic discrimination in our country. What is most striking about this “decision” to live “as a poor person would” is that it is not true solidarity. What they are doing is trivializing the lives of those who suffer because of the oppression they face due to mental health, stigmatization of some aspect their identity, eviction, joblessness, or otherwise. Why? Because these people from privileged backgrounds can just as easily return to lives of affluence and of material goods. This is absolutely not the same as “living simply.”
What our 6-person service group is doing are consistent acts of sincere solidarity. We go to work every day with the collective intention of serving not only holistically but physically beside those whom we hope to affect change for. What’s best is that we serve not with money, but with a mindset that nurtures and incubates a critical consciousness both in ourselves and in those whom we serve. This is what allows for the mindset of simplicity that will deconstruct the complicated and complex nature of the structures of our society that have got our population into such a hierarchical, stratified system of existence that perpetuates disadvantage.
I am so incredibly excited for what’s to come.