The first dinner to bring the new tech workers and old-line Mission residents together “was sort of heavy and charged,” said Chris Murphy, a white, 20-something tech start-up founder. His cohort, a middle-aged Latina with a long record of community activism agreed.
At one point during that October dinner, held at Casa Sanchez, a young tech worker offered a conciliatory opinion saying, “We’re all human.” In the seat right next to him a longtime Mission resident said simply: “I’m f—– pissed,” recounted Murphy.
“That was like the first hour of this first dinner,” Murphy said. “What was heartening is that in the next hour everybody was talking to everybody.”
Murphy, along with former Planning Commissioner and District 5 Supervisor Christina Olague, are the creators of a new organization called EngageSF that aims to bring together two disparate communities: longtime neighborhood residents and newly-arrived tech workers.
The group, which in addition to Olague and Murphy includes about 15 other volunteers, will host community events, lead education efforts and organize volunteer opportunities all aimed at promoting more meaningful contact between the new, more affluent residents and old, often working-class communities of the Mission.
Olague said the group is asking basic questions of community. “How do you better identify or look at people you pass on the street, people you view as the other in some shape or form… How does a tech worker have a conversation with a Mission resident that’s been here their whole life?…We are looking for ways to better engage with each other.”
“You have a pretty polarized narrative,” Murphy said about recent public debates over tech buses and gentrification. “So rather than diving into any sort of political stand or issue-based stand, we’re more about identifying and focusing on the human aspect and getting people to know each other, have a conversation that centers on something real, not just these charged issues.”
To achieve these aims, EngageSF plans to host public dinners and presentations engineered to create interactions between the neighborhood’s differing groups. Their first such dinner is planned for February 10 at Usulatan, however they’ve hosted three previous, smaller events such as the October dinner in which neighbors were encouraged to share their feelings and stories.
At those Olague says, “There was a lot of anger expressed, but I don’t think it dissuaded anyone from being there.”
Nevertheless, she added, “Some people were surprised by the level of anger. No one held back, and that was encouraging…you can’t have those conversations without honest emotions being expressed.”
From that first event, Murphy and Olague hosted two more dinners made up of community activists, longtime residents and employees of Google, Facebook, Twitter and numerous tech start-ups. They began to see a shift in the conversation’s tone.
“People were curious about each other,” Olague said. “Sometimes, it does wear you down always having to be in an adversarial role…there’s no other place to go with this conversation.”
Olague had the opportunity to have a less adversarial role when she received an email one day last summer from Murphy, at the time a total stranger, asking her out to coffee.
“I wasn’t necessarily taken aback, I was more intrigued,” Olague said of the email from Murphy.
Murphy had moved to the Mission three years ago. As he was getting his tech start-up Zoomforth off the ground, he felt troubled by all that he read about gentrification and the displacement of residents. He wanted to give back in a more meaningful way to his neighborhood, but didn’t know how. When he saw Olague quoted in a New Yorker story about the role of politics in Silicon Valley, he decided to set up a coffee date.
The two had a long conversation and found that they shared many of the same feelings about community and supporting the neighborhood’s diversity. They also discovered they both had friends in the community-organizing world and in the tech sector who wanted to get in on the conversation. Their informal coffees turned into small discussion groups, which turned into more formal dinners, which turned into the organized effort now called EngageSF.
“There’s still a lot to figure out,” said Murphy about the structure and ultimate goals of EngageSF and explains that they’ve created subcommittees which are in the process of drafting a statement of values, plans for future events and how to thoughtfully connect new residents with volunteer opportunities. Its website is currently still in a bare-bones, developmental state.
Besides the dinner planned for February 10, EngageSF also hopes to host history tours of the Mission for new residents with the potential help of the neighborhood’s lowrider crews. Other than the general goal of coordinating deeper neighborhood engagement, the organization’s ultimate trajectory is still unclear.
“I’ve been very impressed by the mix of people, but it’s still very raw and it remains to be seen what the impact of all this will be,” said Jessica Weiss, a Mission resident and Google employee who is helping EngageSF organize its volunteer program. “I’d love to see community members and tech workers operate at a grassroots level…but I’m wondering if there is an opportunity to get our companies involved at a higher level?”
Murphy says that EngageSF is not a political group.
“We’re dealing with problems in our community that specifically have to do with folks being excluded,” Murphy said. “Obviously there are specific policy issues and perspectives that accompany conversations about residence in SF, and we’re trying to connect people who might stand on different sides of those policy issues and perspectives.”
Right now, EngageSF is focused on bringing people together, which in some ways it already has.
“We have had some of those uncomfortable conversations about displacement and gentrification, how far people ultimately want to get into those issues, we’ll see,” Olague said. “I’m still going to be at the protest, but I’m going to demonize people a lot less. I’m not going to put a blanket on this whole demographic, it will be more nuanced.”