(Photograph by Nita Winter)
Leadership San Francisco is a year-long program sponsored by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce that promotes civic engagement, made up of participants from the nonprofit, for-profit, education and government sectors. Our forty-member class spent a day experiencing the crime-ridden San Francisco district known as The Tenderloin. Besides the proliferation of adult bookstores, strip clubs, bars and a significant amount of homeless people milling around the filthy streets, what struck us was the number of young children we saw using these streets, sidewalks and storefronts as their playground.
Motivated to do something, a couple members of our class met with San Francisco School Superintendent Ramon Cortines. He advised that "the most pressing need for these inner-city children was a safe, quiet, creative place to go after school." We then approached Brother Kelly Cullen, Executive Director of the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC), a non-profit provider of low income housing, which owned a building on Eddy Street, dead center in The Tenderloin. Leasing a portion of the first floor of this building was Connie’s Bar, a seedy, prostitute-laden establishment with the sign posted prominently on the front door “No one under 21 allowed.”
I proposed to our class that we take over Connie’s Bar and turn it into a free educational, recreational and cultural center for the children of The Tenderloin. It was an idea so large and so ripe with challenge that it took nearly 5 meetings for our class to agree that we just had to do this. As the loudest proponent of this outrageous idea, I was chosen to spearhead the endeavor.
First we formed a partnership between Leadership San Francisco and TNDC. Seeking a prominent leader of the San Francisco business community, we enticed Holger Gantz, general manager of the Hilton Hotel and Towers, which bordered upon The Tenderloin to join our partnership. Holger enthusiastically led the fundraising drive which attracted Pacific Telesis, Koret Foundation, Gap, Bank of America, Wells Fargo Bank, PG&E and many others. Additional members of the hospitality and construction industries and members of the general community rushed to join the effort. Together we did what no one thought was possible - in one year we raised over $200,000, secured the lease on Connie’s Bar, completely renovated the space, built a small children’s library, computer room, director’s office and play room. On July 13, 1993 the Tenderloin After-School Program opened.
Along the way, an astonishing level of media coverage and diverse public support was received - all on a volunteer basis. An editorial in the San Francisco Examiner summed it up nicely: “In the real world…progress, if any, is measured inch by inch through gauntlets of frustration, bureaucracy, broken promises and, of course, lack of money. So let’s congratulate the enthusiastic people of Leadership San Francisco ’92…and all who made this dream come true.”
President Bill Clinton, Senator Dianne Feinstein, San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan and many others wrote letters of commendation. President Clinton wrote, “These kinds of bold initiatives require a partnership between business community resources and local nonprofit experience.”
And today, rather than using peep show signs as their jungle gym, the children of the Tenderloin have a clean, safe place to go after school. That’s the very great news.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for this project was bringing together a highly diverse partnership team. The Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation owned the building that housed Connie’s Bar but was unable to provide further financial support. The Leadership San Francisco class of 1992 was a small volunteer group of young men and women who could work hard but who also lacked the financial wherewithal to undertake such a costly project. The low-income community surrounding the proposed after-school program strongly favored the opportunity to provide a safe, off-the-streets place for their children, but could not financially support the project.
The challenges of the Tenderloin After-School Program point out that there are often distinct differences between the business practices, philosophy and personalities of each person and each sector. Indeed, organizations and individuals coming together will have personal agendas that they bring to the partnership. These personal agendas can sometimes be negative. However, in most cases, addressing and respecting individual agendas and objectives can be quite positive for the partnership.
Please visit www.bruceburtch.com for more information.