Grace and Compassion Acrylic and mixed media collage on canvas, 24” x 30”, 2021. Todd Berman

There has been quite a bit of messy discourse about the San Francisco school district and how it responded to the pandemic over the last year. In my role as a non-profit arts educator, I attended a series of Community Partners Forums with the school district that were not a part of any media coverage.

When I am in meetings, I take sketchnotes to stay focused and process what I am learning. I have combined these sketchnotes into a painting to show how SFUSD worked through a pandemic.

The people I met in these meetings are deeply committed to equity in education with the understanding that when we focus on serving the needs of students from the most marginalized communities, we create environments where the needs of each individual student are recognized and addressed.

The values of “grace” and “compassion” came up repeatedly. The culture I saw at SFUSD was all about being nurturing and respectful. The notion of compelling teachers, staff, or anyone to gather in person before any vaccines were available would be anathema to this sense of safety and caring the district has been cultivating.

The painting, “Grace and Compassion,” is above, and the sketchnotes I used to create it follow. This artwork shows how this little window into public education administration in San Francisco during a pandemic felt for me.

You can find more of this work, including a painting about arts education policy at SFUSD, on the Inquiry Paintings page of my website,

Photo of a sketchnote drawing in progress during the April 27 SFUSD Community Partners Forum.  By Todd Berman.
Sketch of deputy superintendent Myong Leigh inviting community partners to a budget meeting. You can see how drawings on paper are cut out and collaged onto the canvas. Todd Berman.

Sketch of LaSaundra Owens talking about the importance of building relationships of trust to combat racism and sharing stories about young Black women in SFUSD. Todd Berman.
Sketch of Chief Academic Officer Dr. Nicole Priestly who spoke about using these partnership meetings to build connections and the importance of scaffolding lessons to support all students. Todd Berman.
This section of the painting with the words “Connection and Relationships” includes quick sketches of some of the people I met during small group discussions. The organizers were very good at moving people between Zoom meetings and breakout rooms, shared Google docs and padlets, so that we all had a chance to discuss big and small issues with colleagues from other organizations. Todd Berman.

Sketch of Sherrice Dorsey-Smith who is deputy director of the SF Department of Children Youth & Their Families (DCYF) giving an update about the community learning hubs that they coordinated in partnership with schools and many organizations. While many were lamenting that the lack of in-person schooling was harmful to young people, DCYF and its partners were providing space and support to the students who needed it most. Todd Berman.
Sketch of a participant quoting author Sonya Renee Taylor that it’s time to “stitch a new garment.” This represented a common sentiment that the pandemic reset could be an opportunity to remake some of our systems in better, more just forms. Todd Berman.
This detail of the lower left corner of the painting includes my big coffee mug and my sketchbook. You can also see some quotes from participants, “See the power of what you are doing every day,” and, “Even ‘How are you doing?’ is a more complicated question.” Todd Berman.
Sketch of Chief of the Student, Family, Community Support Division of SFUSD, Mele Lau-Smith talked about the daunting task that the district took on to conduct wellness checks with every family of SFUSD students. Even making sure that all families and students were able to access classrooms via Zoom was complex. Todd Berman.
Another drawing of Lau-Smith expressing how all of her colleagues were “maxed out capacity wise” but they were, “working toward Yes.” Todd Berman.
This painting detail features the words, “District Wide Family Wellness Check.” It’s notable that the school district decided that during the pandemic, their first responsibility was to look after the safety and wellness of every family in their community. Had other entities taken on the responsibility of providing food and support for so many thousands of San Franciscans, maybe the school district could have shown greater accomplishments in education. Todd Berman.
Talking with Fenicia Jacks, a health outreach worker for SFUSD, had a big impact on my thinking. Fenicia told me that the main thing she wants for the teens she works with is for them to, “name the feelings you are having. It’s okay!” Todd Berman.
I was inspired by Jacks’ advice to paint this as a backdrop for my webcam. Todd Berman.
Detail of painting including drawing of Jacks. Trauma and resilience were important themes in all of our discussions. Todd Berman.
Sketch of Coordinator of Family & Community Partnerships Ruth Grabowski talking helping us “strengthen relational trust, deeper collaboration,” and Alicia Maldonado of SF Women Against Rape discussing the importance of “relationships with teachers” and issues with “privacy on Zoom!” Todd Berman.
I also observed zoom classrooms in action. This is a sketch of Lauren Goldstein’s history class at Rooftop Middle School discussing their interpretation of cave drawings. This is a topic that relates directly to lessons I have created for the Where Art Lives program. Marker on paper, 8.5” x 11”, 2020. Todd Berman.

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  1. This is bogus propaganda. All of these people pictured have participated in a conspiracy (with the teachers unions) to break state law and misuse state and federal grants over the last 16 months. As God as my witness, it will all come out…

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    1. Yeah. It makes me mad too. Many of these people he says deserve grace have extended zero grace to the community they serve. Myong Leigh has been doing what I consider to be questionable and lazy audits for 20 years and our kids have paid the price. We need completely new leadership at SFUSD.

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