Cutting Through the Red Tape

Our Stories Are Valid

November 16, 2015

By Victor Phu, 2016 SF City Hall Fellow. My name is Victor Phu and I am a second generation Vietnamese American from East San Jose. I am the first in my family to graduate from University of California, Berkeley and to step into the world of politics. As a City Hall Fellow, I am placed at the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) tasked to implement My Brother & Sister’s Keeper (MBSK), in which I will be enduring the challenge to ensure every African American student enrolled in SFUSD is tied to a postsecondary pathway to success. I am in a privileged position to be a City Hall Fellow and I would never have expected to be where I am today.

Growing up in East San Jose, I was always disappointed at the disproportionate allocation of resources to my community in Little Saigon as opposed to surrounding regions like Evergreen, Blossom Hill or West San Jose. I was always curious why Vietnamese students were seen as a model minority when the aftermath impacts of the Vietnam War still existed in our homes. I was always angry that my community always relied on food stamps and other forms of social safety nets, but it was never enough to address the financial needs of our families. I could not articulate what I was feeling or why I was so angry. I was not equipped with the adequate education, vocabulary or critical mindset to digest the systemic issues impacting my Southeast Asian community.

Despite all of the adversity, I was still able to come to Berkeley to pursue higher education. Berkeley is where I became aware of the historical and political factors contributing to my hardships, and where I became motivated to change these systems for future generations. My development as a community activist at UC Berkeley has shaped my perspective on how minorities are particularly affected by unseen public policies that negatively affect their everyday experiences and overall lives. I realized that the adversities that my Vietnamese immigrant family faced were due in large part to public policies that do not account for the daily struggles that members of marginalized communities face.

As a young Southeast Asian activist, I came to City Hall Fellows expecting the worst. As a person that was criticizing systems of power on the daily, it was a strange feeling to challenge the system from the inside out. I expected to deal with bureaucracy, unwelcoming work environments, and an incredibly non-diverse workforce. To be real, it all came true. As a Vietnamese American, I felt that I had to constantly share the struggles of my Southeast Asian community to my workplace because all the data on school achievements reveal “Asian” students were doing extremely well. As the only Asian American working in the Black community, it was an assumption that I was a Chinese American brought up in an affluent home. Just today, I had a community member who told me, “Your people don’t need help.”

This is a common challenge that many Southeast Asians experience coming into the public sector. Our stories become invalidated because we are constantly questioned whether we are a “Person of Color” or “White.” But, it was a necessary challenge to experience because young Southeast Asians are extremely underrepresented in government positions and positions of power. There is an increasing need to have our stories told and to disaggregate the data in all school districts and cities to paint the real picture of what is actually happening.

As I am learning and exploring my first career in the San Francisco Unified School District, it is always important to remember my journey leading up to today. My first blog post is a reminder about my identity as a Southeast Asian boy growing up in East San Jose. It is easy to get consumed in our career because we are thinking the next step. But we must always remember how our identity and journeys shape our sense of social justice and advocacy.

If you are reading, then I hope you remember to reflect on your journey as well. From what I learned from the Southeast Asian Student Coalition at University of California, Berkeley, our stories are valid and it will continue to shape our ideas and values of social justice and activism.

Public Transit as a Social Justice issue…

November 03, 2015

By Josie Ahrens, 2016 SF City Hall Fellow.

The first few months of the CHF fellowship have been a whirlwind at the very least! I’ve found having so many aspects of my life be new (new city, new apartment, new job, new schedule, new dance classes, new community, etc.) to be both exciting and exhausting. In order to center my thoughts, I’ve decided to focus my blog posts for the year on a topic I’m passionate about: public transit as a social justice issue. This year I’m getting first-hand experience with this topic by being a daily Muni rider and working in capital finance at the SFMTA (San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency).

For my first blog post, I’d like to start with an issue that grabbed my attention as soon as I arrived in the Bay Area: there are approximately 26 different transit providers for the 9 county Bay Area metro– all with different funding, staff, and schedules. This fragmentation was a big surprise to me as I just moved to San Francisco from Minneapolis, where a regional government body, the Metropolitan Council, manages and runs Metro Transit– the one transit operator for the 7 county Twin Cities metro area. There the same buses and light rail vehicles cross city and county lines so that the entire region is interconnected with the same provider and the same payment card (and where a transfer lasts throughout the whole region for 2.5 hours).

There have been (and currently are) discussions about creating a stronger form of Bay Area regional government so I’m not the only one curious about the possibilities. Right now ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) and MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) share regional responsibilities and are in the process of exploring a merger of their planning departments. The region’s various transit providers, like the SFMTA or AC Transit, also do coordinate with each other on some initiatives like expanding Clipper payment cards to work on 17 different providers and increasing bus service over the Bay Bridge when Trans-Bay Bart is shut down for repairs. Nevertheless, transit providers could and should coordinate a lot more to benefit those who rely on public transit the most: low income and working poor folks.

Low income and working poor folks on average live further away from their jobs and pay a larger percentage of their income to transit than their wealthy neighbors. They deserve a system that gets them where they need to go in a reliable, safe, affordable, and efficient way. This becomes even more urgent as low-income and working poor folks have to move further out into the edges of the region (where there are typically fewer public transportation options) due to rising rents and gentrification in city centers. For instance, someone who lives in Pittsburg, CA in the East Bay but works in San Francisco as a hotel housekeeper has to either drive (which would take 1 to 2 hours depending on traffic) or take public transit (which would take approximately 1 hour). Driving adds up with gas, insurance, and paying for parking in San Francisco. Public transit adds up with paying for each transfer between different providers (the cost for just Bart would be $6.30 one way).

While the Twin Cities’ Metro Transit isn’t necessarily the best transit system– it has its challenges (and equity concerns) too– it nevertheless is able to provide comprehensive public transit across the region. The Bay Area is a region, not a cluster of isolated cities. Bay Area residents take Bart, ferries, buses, cars, and bikes in and out of San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley and other job centers every day. We need more coordination and partnership between regional providers and a more comprehensive and robust regional transportation system in order to streamline movement, access, and equity across the area.

The Intercity Commuting Conundrum

October 30, 2015

By Aman Falol, 2016 SF City Hall Fellow
“We are the largest employer in the city with over 36,000 people employed by the City and County of San Francisco. In addition, we are the largest employer of middle income employees in the city.” These were the proud words uttered by several high-ranking officials leading the city’s main financial institutions and our CLDP sessions. But after 8 weeks into a fellowship meant to inspire a workforce committed to localized public service, I am trying to understand how so many of these middle-class civil servants do not reside within the local population they serve.

During an informational interview with two City employees, they exchanged the following banter:

Employee 1: “The number of employees not living in the city? It has to be around 50%.”
Employee 2: “I would say it’s like 60%. A bunch living in San Francisco probably rent a shack for thousands.”
Employee 1: “All I know is if my agency was representative of the entire workforce, they might as well replace “City and County of San Francisco” with “City of Oakland”.

Both my academic and lived understanding of local politics, municipal agencies, and their core functions asserts that frequent and direct contact between civil servants and the public is essential to local governance’s purpose. By having constant engagement with the outputs of their institutions and the local population, local civil servants should be better equipped to solve, communicate, and reevaluate the needs of the locals. Someone working on behalf of the national government should at least have residency which is earned through residing in the country they serve. Someone working within state government must have residency which is earned through residing within the state they serve. Thus, why are San Francisco’s city agencies unable to enact the same principle?

The variables that allow this question to arise create no clear picture. Affordability made me opt to continue living in the East Bay during my fellowship year. I felt guilty at first due to the points I raised. But after unexpectedly conversing with dozens of City and County of San Francisco employees during morning BART rides, many whom occupy managerial positions that pay six figure salaries, I realized I am not an outlier and my colleagues share the same sentiments. I am entering a workforce that desires to live amongst those they serve but cannot push back with their own purchasing power against the forces of gentrification, displacement, and lack of affordability. So, I thought to myself, why don’t we pay city employees more? A quarter of the city workforce makes over $100,000 without overtime and city workers on average earn 20% more than their private sector counterparts. The benefits packages are fantastic. 1,500 employees earn more than State Attorney General Kamala Harris ($151,127 salary). She is now making less than the local lawyers she used to oversee as San Francisco District Attorney. This muddle my understanding as to why San Francisco is not capable of housing many of its civil servants.

During my conversations surrounding housing, gentrification, and displacement with city employees, the cohort and I have been offered comments such as:

“If you’re waiting for the return of a middle class in San Francisco, keep dreaming.”

“A new child is sadly the unofficial evictor of new and old families in this city.”

In order for local agencies to operate effectively, like the Board of Supervisors or a City Council, they must engage the local population outside of work to skillfully adapt to changing needs. Otherwise, the implementation agents risk disconnection, are not much different then contractors operating with an outsider’s perspective, and this disconnection may give birth to long-lasting repercussions. I understand the concept of city governance I speak of is the ideal. I also acknowledge that cities are constructed differently to meet a variety of needs. But, when half my office comes in late due to an hour long medical emergency delaying BART trains from the East Bay, we have strayed too far from some of the mechanics that make this institution purposeful.

Data, the new cornerstone of decision-making…

October 21, 2015

By Quinn Leong, 2016 SF City Hall Fellow. My first day on the job, my supervisor sat down with me to go over all of the projects that our team would be working on in the upcoming year and what kinds of roles I might play in them. The common thread running through all of them was data. As a recent sociology major and researcher on a number of quantitative projects, the prospect of using these skills in my work was exciting. But even more so, I was excited to be embarking on a year of learning how government (and more specifically, the transportation agency) uses data to evaluate past decisions and make better ones in the future.

I joined City Hall Fellows because I wanted to do work that used my study of sociology in the service of something that would have a direct and tangible impact on people and the place around me. Doing the work I have begun with the SFMTA more completely fulfills that goal than I could have imagined. Every day on the job I’m using my knowledge of data sets, statistical significance, relationships between variables, and analytical skills to wrangle huge sets of data into visually-appealing and easily-readable graphs. The Performance team does this so that people throughout the agency can use the evidence of what has happened to make decisions about what might happen moving forward, and so that information on how our public transportation agency is doing is readily available for the public, holding it accountable. Most recently, I’ve been focused on how patterns of passenger complaints about ADA violations can inform transit improvement to better serve people with mobility disabilities.

Quinn - blog 1 dashboard economic impact

(One of the public interactive dashboards that I’ve contributed to)

It’s certainly not glamorous work. I sit in a cubicle behind a computer or in meetings all day. But I know the work to be meaningful and impactful – and especially critical during this turning point for the agency, as we are shifting from strong reliance on anecdotal evidence to the use of robust and meaningful datasets. I am really excited to be a part of the team that supports the agency as a whole in using data to make Muni and all of the other arms of this transportation system move better.

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