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Of Innovation and Power: On Mission and Chavez


“Facebook IPO Slightly Down.” “iPhone Prepaid Plans Coming Soon.” The usual cast of headlines streamed onto my Google news feed. Scanning down the screen, I noticed a New York Times piece that stuck out like Debbie Downer at a Columbus Day Party: “New San Francisco Tech Boom Brings Jobs But Also Worries.”

The article reveals another side of the tech boom story. It tells of Jenny Liu, a 41-year-old restaurant owner whose landlord is raising the monthly rent on her small business from $8,000 to $12,000 because Twitter is moving its headquarters into her San Francisco neighborhood: “Of course, Twitter is good for the city, but how about me?” Liu laments in the Times article.

From Twitter, which is headquartered in San Francisco, to the Facebook/Apple/Google private corporate shuttles that run between San Francisco and Silicon Valley (spiking rents and spitting fumes), tech corporations are changing the landscape of the City by the Bay.

Two months ago, the San Francisco Muslim Community Center held a community meeting to talk about this changing landscape and what it means for its members. At the front of the crowded mosque sat community leaders and the San Francisco Supervisor of their district, John Avalos.Toward the end of the gathering, Aïdah Rasheed, a 27-year-old graduate student pursuing a Master of Fine Arts at the California College of the Arts, SF Campus, stood up to the podium to share her story.

“Good afternoon, my name is Aïdah Rasheed and I am a community leader here at the Muslim Community Center of San Francisco.

“Last summer, after being on the East Coast for undergrad and an internship that followed, I was excited to move back home to the Bay Area for a summer job and graduate school here in San Francisco. I was fortunate to find a room to rent from a family friend in the Hayes Valley neighborhood close enough to my school that I can ride my bike, since I don’t own a car. It’s been lovely.

I began meeting other community members here at the mosque that were participating in a congregational listening campaign. I listened to countless stories of families being priced out of neighborhoods they have called home for decades. In the middle of our listening campaign, we received news that after 30 years in the Fillmore District, our mosque was losing its space. We mourned this loss. People were used to going there for services, to break fasts, and to hold community meetings. We had a great relationship with the previous landlord, but when he sold the building, the new owner spiked the rent to a price we couldn’t pay. This is how many families are displaced here in San Francisco, and now it has happened to our congregation as a whole.

Aïdah continued, “With lots of prayer and patience, our community found a new home in the Excelsior District. We remain hopeful, and there is a lot of potential for this new space.

“Even as our community settles into our new home, I am preparing to leave mine. My time has ended with the family friend that has generously allowed me to rent a room out of her home, and I am facing the possibility of having to move across the bridge to Hayward, a two-hour commute from my school. “I’m hoping the long daily commute into the city will not affect my graduate school work or my volunteer commitments in the community. I’m optimistic, and I have faith I will be able to move back someday, but for now this is my reality.

Aïdah concluded, “Grounded in our personal narratives and inspired by our faith, our community has the innovation needed to solve these problems of inequity, and now we’re organizing the power to implement them. We’re asking you to partner with us, Supervisor Avalos. This is our community, and it’s our responsibility.”

The San Francisco Chronicle recently published an article noting that San Francisco has the lowest percentage of children out of any major city in the U.S. The article noted, “The flight of families with children—particularly middle-income and African American families—is leaving San Francisco older, richer, and whiter”. While only recently making big news, this actually isn’t a new trend for San Francisco. Redevelopment projects, urban renewal plans and other forms of government and corporate-sponsored avenues to gentrification have displaced working class families and people of color from San Francisco neighborhoods for decades.

Historically, blatantly racist policies have come straight from the power of the U.S. Government, causing, for example, the displacement of many African Americans from the Fillmore District (see PBS documentary, The Fillmore). More recently, however, special tax breaks have made it easier for corporations like Twitter to reside in San Francisco, while Aïdah and many others (students, artists, workers) are getting priced out. 

Well-organized, corporate-political money means San Francisco will continue to become a city of the One Percent. However, there are those out there, like Aïdah and her fellow Mosque members, who are acting in prophetic courage, organizing their friends and neighbors to create change for their community. This is innovation beyond blue thumbs and iClouds. It is innovation used to reorganize the avenues of power in San Francisco. And that’s a big job—bigger than that of CEO Zuckerberg or Mayor Lee or Supervisor Avalos. It’s a job for the community; a job for the members of the San Francisco Muslim Community Center; a job for Aïdah.

Unfortunately, for now she’ll have to commute two hours each way…

—Geoffrey Nelson-Blake, M.Div., lives in San Francisco with his wife Natalie, and works as a congregation-based community organizer with the San Francisco Organizing Project, a part of the PICO National Network.

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