Earlier this week the fellows journeyed to San Francisco to learn about empathy. We spent six hours exploring the often-avoided Tenderloin neighborhood to talk to people and to hear stories in order to better understand homelessness and some of its causes. As a native of Petaluma and frequent visitor of San Francisco, I was somewhat familiar with the neighborhood before this exercise. I walked through it several times week during the summer months, though admittedly, I never took the time to truly see who and what I walked past.
During the two hours I spent in the plaza, I had conversations with several individuals. Cliff talked about how he dropped out of high school to join the Merchant Marines at 16, and went back to school to earn his GED when he was 32. Ernest expressed frustration at the Social Security offices for not helping him and a local shelter for not admitting him because he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.
While processing these stories, I walked through the plaza and read the preamble of the United Nations Charter engraved in the center of the walkway. One excerpt from the document caused me to stop and really look at my surroundings. It cited a purpose of the UN to be the promotion of “social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” This admirable vision immediately contrasted with the evident poverty in and around the plaza. Standing in front of this quote, it didn’t surprise me that San Francisco is the “Homeless Capitol of the U.S.”. There were dozens of homeless people in the park, and hundreds more around the Tenderloin. The juxtaposition of the polished white marble of city hall with the rusty shopping carts and urine-stained walls of the United Nations Plaza struck me as an unlikely paradox. In this exercise, GCY facilitated my recognition of inequity within my own community, and I will carry this understanding of what inequity looks like as I travel to a country with one of the highest levels of wealth disparity in the world.