Usulutan, a Salvadorean restaurant on 24th Street, welcomed a particularly diverse and determined crowd Monday night. Swapping business cards over pupusas, third-generation Mission residents, tech start-up founders, nonprofit professionals, recent transplants, activists and more all gathered to do the simple, but challenging, work of meeting new people.
The dinner was the first public event hosted by Engage SF, a new organization committed to bridging the gap between new and established neighborhood residents in an effort to enhance diversity and build community. By the looks of the assembled crowd — about 50 people — Engage SF was so far doing a pretty good job.
As the crowd mingled, Laura Yanow, a native San Franciscan and former teacher at Horace Mann Middle School, explained to two twenty-something tech workers about the importance of salsa music in the neighborhood’s history. The twenty-somethings listened intently.
“It’s so important that this is happening,” Yanow said about the event. “We need more positive conversations because we’re all meshed together.”
“I hear about all this conflict in the news,” said Thomas Devol, a recently-arrived programmer. “Whenever it’s more antagonistic I want to question it… It’s been great to be at this, I’ve love meeting new people.”
Engage SF formed, in part, out of response to the perception that the public conversations about tech workers and longtime residents had gotten too polarized and overly simple.
Most of the long-term Mission residents who attended have deep roots in the Mission and were not part of a group that came later in the 1990s in a more recent wave of gentrification. New residents included employees from Facebook, Google, start-ups and recent transplants interested in learning more about their new neighborhood.
“It’s time for all of us to start engaging, put a human face to these groups we’ve been talking about, because there’s been so much antagonism,” said one of the event’s organizers Christina Olague, a former planning commission member and city supervisor.
Started originally through informal conversations between Olague and Chris Murphy, co-founder of the start-up Zoomforth, Engage SF has had three previous private dinners that brought longtime community activists together with new residents who work at tech companies. The group plans to host a large dinner like this one on the second Monday of every month.
“We really want to build community from the bottom up,” Olague said to the crowd at one point in the evening.
Engage SF hopes to educate the two distinct communities about each other and promote neighborhood institutions and organizations as avenues for deeper community involvement. On Monday night, that educational effort meant a tour of the mural organization Precita Eyes, followed by a question-and-answer session about the longtime neighborhood institution.
After guests at Usulutan filled out name tags, they then crossed the street to the mural nonprofit headquarters where Precita Eyes business director Cory Devereaux was on-hand to lead a short tour.
Neighbors new and old asked questions such as how much the murals cost to produce, what the process is like to produce them and even the elemental question of why the murals are even important for the neighborhood.
“We love doing this,” Devereaux said, as the group filed out. “We’re very enthusiastic about reaching out to new communities.”
The main aim of the night was to introduce neighbors to each other who may have been strangers before. As the group filed back into Usulutan, a short presentation had different members of the community, as well as event organizers and Supervisor David Campos, sharing some words.
As part of the evening’s structure, Mission artist Carlos Gonzalez stood before the crowd and told his story of growing up in the neighborhood, his work painting murals with at-risk youth, and his friendship with the beloved, recently deceased salsa DJ Chata Gutierrez. He explained that he was at the Engage SF dinner in part to help raise support, and funds, for a mural he hopes to paint in honor of Gutierrez on the corner of South Van Ness and 24th streets.
Gonzalez explained that the departed DJ was a beloved member of the community and an early champion of salsa music, with several people in the crowd adding admiring details to his descriptions.
Erick Arguello, president of the Calle 24 merchants and an Engage SF organizer, then asked a member from the tech community to volunteer to introduce themselves to the group.
Thomas Devol volunteered, saying that he’s been in San Francisco for two years and works for Rally.org, a crowdfunding site for social causes and nonprofits. He turned to Gonzalez and said he’d love for his company to help organize the fundraising campaign for the proposed mural.
“It would be great for the tech community to give back,” Devol said.
“There’s been some tension because we’re not talking to each other…it’s easy to dehumanize each other without knowing each other,” Campos said to the crowd. “For us to move forward, it’s not what happens at City Hall, it’s what happens on the ground.”
After the organized remarks, the gathered group was encouraged to order food and introduce themselves to new people. Many lingered over their meals of tamales and pupusas and chatted with a previously unfamiliar neighbor for well over an hour.
“What I’m finding is people really do what to contribute,” Olague said as the crowd started to disperse, explaining that she thought the night went well. “You just need to provide people a place to plug in, a way to get involved.”
Miguel Bustos, a longtime political organizer whose family has lived at the corner of 24th and Harrison for three generations, gave Olague a hug as he was leaving, but expressed some skepticism.
“You have some people who come to the Mission like they’re Christopher Columbus and they’re discovering it,” Bustos said. “I’m sure everyone wants to be an ally, but it’s how you follow through… Having these conversations is very easy, it’s how they’re going to be received that matters.”
For Oli Medina, who came to the Mission from Mexico 18 years ago, the Engage SF event was nothing but a positive step.
“This is a beautiful evening, because maybe we can do something from it,” Medina said. “I’m Mexican and the Mexican community always opens it heart to everybody. You come to my house, I’ll make you a tortilla, that’s just what I do.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Laura Yanow’s name, it has since been corrected.