By Ben Clarke
A Perspective on the Tenderloin Reflection Education Center
In 1981, a group of activists associated with the Franciscan peace and justice movement came together in San Francisco’s Tenderloin to create a reflection and education center that would “take into account the perspectives of the underside of history, the experiences and struggles of the ‘jagged edge’– all those in our society who are not treated as full human beings.” Beginning with a Bible discussion group organized on the model of liberation theology activists in Latin America, the Tenderloin Reflection and Education Center has evolved into one of the Bay area’s longest lived cultural and spiritual organizations of and for homeless and dispossessed persons.
For fifteen years, workshops in spirituality, writing, music, drama, cultural history, visual arts, and dance, have been offered free of charge to neighborhood residents and homeless people in search of self-expression and collective collaboration. Publications, including a quarterly newsletter and a book series, as well as performances in neighborhood parks, senior centers, universities and radio programs, have projected the voices of the people of the Tenderloin into wider forums.
In the course of this history of doing cultural work with the dispossessed, we hear an oft repeated question: “Why art and culture, when people need food, housing, health care and jobs?”
Troy Spurlock, musician and writer, a homeless member of the TREC community responds as follows:
“TREC allows people a space to create. There’s a need to create, because, you know, even though we don’t have anything economically, or we’re homeless… we still have the need to feel that we are in control of our lives, which is difficult when you wake up in the morning in a shelter. You’re walking the streets every day; you have to stand in line to get meals, clothing, all of the basic necessities, which are not at your ready disposal–that’s enough to depress anyone. And here’s this little place where you go and get rid of that. Release it. It’s very important. What we do is nothing more than allow people to look into that mirror of reflection and see what’s not wrong with them. They can look at that good in them and say ‘How can I magnify that and use it?’” (Creativity in the War Zone, Ken Butigan)
Despite the aggressive marketing of entertainment in this society, art and culture are not commodities but processes. When we support cultural work with the dispossessed, we are not purchasing a product but rebuilding the basic networks and social fabric that make life worth living. So the question we ask of ourselves is: how can this social restoration be done?
The core of TREC’s process is the workshop. Groups are formed on the basis of natural affinities such as Tenderloin women writers; men on the street who want to read the Gospels; homeless musicians putting blues into song; activists seeking connections between art and social justice movements, or seniors in search of a place to recount life stories. The groups are facilitated by resource people drawn from the Tenderloin and the wider community.
Caroline Heller, author of the new book, Until We Are Strong Together, spent three years studying TREC’s Tenderloin Women Writers Workshop. She describes the role of the facilitator:
“With a light touch, commitment, humor and friendship the facilitators ‘accompany’ the members of the Tenderloin Women Writers Workshop. They become involved in the community; give support, information, writing tips and criticism when needed; hold back and let the group do a lot of its own work together… And though they energetically respond to the members’ work, they listen with an engagement and urgency many teachers reserve for talking.”
Listen, I hear
many murmurs of a long-gone people,
Ohlone Indian families
lived in neat low tule tents,
round, well made, in rows
between fertile marshlands where now
condominiums throw tall dark shadows.
The emphasis on the listening role of TREC goes back to the earliest days of the Center when the first staff organizers, Gisela Merker and Laura Magnani, accompanied innumerable community organizations (such as the Tenderloin Self Help Center, the crime abatement committee, St. Anthony Dining Room, and others) and lent an ear and a hand in helping organizations become more responsive to the concerns of neighborhood residents.
In the process, the organizers listened to stories of evictions, hospitalizations, protests, arrests, incarcerations, celebrations, breakups, marriages, births, and deaths. And as they listened, a central question emerged: What are the images and ideas that inspire us to fight against overwhelming odds for renewal in ourselves and our community?
This urgent and engaged listening, not to the clamor of cars and the buzz of what’s happening in the television world, but to the small sound of the creator spirit in human lives at the disregarded margins, led the Reflection Center more and more in the direction of using cultural forms as ways of creating and sustaining community.
In the mid-eighties the Center began to hold something called ‘annual meetings’ of the reflection circles which were active at the time. Peace activists protesting at the Concord Naval Weapons Station, seniors in the quilting circle, hotel residents in the Bible discussion group and various guest artists, joined together to tell each other stories, sing songs, ‘do social analysis’, and above all to celebrate the joy of being alive, together.
“You probably know a poem which was too superior to be just a man’s pencil scribblings. And what I want to experience is this mystery, this creation that explodes in my soul to be shared with others.” Alice Olds Ellingson, 1987
Caroline Heller describes some effects of TREC’s 1988 annual meeting on the members of the writing workshop.
“It was not just the numbers that made it a success. Ties between workshop members who had read or gone to the event strengthened and so did a general feeling of viability of the writing workshop.”
Several articles, stories and poems in December 1996 issue of Street Spirit emerged from this year’s ‘annual meeting’. This one day experience of creating art, story, spiritual reflections in workshops, celebrating in community, performance, and publication, follows the cycle that has evolved and grown at TREC for the past 15 years. TREC strives to “see what’s not wrong” as Troy described it earlier–to reflect back the kernel of hope, the artistic gift, the gentle insight.
Ken Butigan, in “Creativity in the War Zone”, takes a closer look at the process beneath the surface of these communal celebrations:
“At TREC, people may discard the roles which have been foisted on them and the string of forbidding adjectives that get attached to those paralyzing identities…[Lazy, bum, etc.]. They are offered the time, place artistic media and collective energy with which to recollect, remember, evaluate, see things from a new perspective–discover the spark of humanness within and without.”
Troy Spurlock, describes how important the performances of the music group were to him.
“When [we put together the music workshop] the results were good. We were doing performances in Boedekker Park, we were doing performances at the Roxy. People in the neighborhood were telling other people they see everyday, ‘Wow man, you’re good. I didn’t know you could do this!’ And that showed a person, ‘Okay, I have something to contribute.’” (From Creativity in the War Zone)
Post-performance feelings of success often allow participants to open up to others with greater confidence. Again Caroline Heller on the Writing Workshop.
“Throughout their work, participants reveal details of their lives normally reserved for conversations between very close friends or, in more affluent settings, often in the closed quarters of therapy sessions… Conflicts do emerge–personality conflicts, conflicts over individuals’ differing goals, and conflicts over how to put these differing goals into action. But with few exceptions, these conflicts are absorbed into a sense of community that doesn’t just ‘accept’ diversity, but whose very vitality is built upon it.”
The dynamic intermingling of participants from cultures as far apart in place and background as a Boston waterfront Irishman and the black great-granddaughter of a Mississippi slave, make the challenge of sustaining a diverse community very immediate. Tensions arise between the housed and unhoused, those educated in the university and those educated on the streets. Personal attacks, violence, and insults sometimes surface.
Poverty is the smell of a man’s crotch
‘cause he blames you, ’cause he has been
wearing his pants three weeks, you have been
wearing yours a week and five days
and he wants what you got, and is larger.
Poverty is a cig butt stuck in your chest
through your shirt on another man’s turf
at one o’clock in the morning, and he is smiling into
your face, backing himself
off, for arms length sake, from your peaceful self.
The empowerment process sometimes inflates a participant’s self-concept out of proportion with reality. As if looking into funhouse mirrors, unbalanced personalities can inflate into ego monsters, convinced that they are about to ‘make it big’, then, when confronted with the miserable reality of the streets, crash and burn. Members sometimes drop out angrier than before; depressed people disappear to state asylums beyond our reach; jail and drugs reach out again and clasp the broken in their secure grip.
strength doesn’t lessen pain
only sees you through it
Despite these risks, and the risk of the facilitators falling into the heroic/demonic projections of the participants, significant positive changes often become visible.
“The jarring, explosive, tender, straining cooperative rhythm of group interaction permits a kind of messy authenticity to emerge, a kind of group compassion. This does not mean it achieves tranquillity of some ideal peace. This is a compassion that, in the midst of conflicting visions, nevertheless understands and protects the unique inner sacredness of those who come to TREC.” (Ken Butigan)
Many participants become confident of their own artistic and personal voices and strike out in new directions in their lives, with friends and relationships that will last a lifetime. Mary TallMountain, a twenty year Tenderloin resident and noted Native American poet, refined work in the TREC writing workshops that has been reprinted throughout the country. Jerry Miley published two chapbooks of poetry with Manic D. Press.
“In the Tenderloin Women Writers Workshop the personal and the political increasingly intertwine. The texts the workshop members read, as well as the women’s growing alliances, lead to discussions that include powerful forms of social analysis, invariably springing from very personal concerns. These discussions frequently inspire social action, which takes several forms, ranging from the personal–helping one another find housing, assisting each other in times of illness–to the artistic expression of the political, taking more political writing and the workshop itself out into the world–to the overtly political, participating together in demonstrations and fundraising for individual social action projects.” (Caroline Heller)
TREC’s goals and practice have always had this aim, to enable our emerging community to confront the power structures which create the dehumanizing conditions in which the artists, musicians, writers, dancers, children and elders are struggling. As one group fades away as members move on, another group: children dancing; elders telling stories; woman learning drama improvisation; emerges. The music workshop performs at a demonstration against welfare cuts; the children’s dance class performs at the opening of the Museum of Modern Art; a group of middle class high school students create a musical composition based on the poetry of a homeless writer. Through acts of beauty and experiments in cooperation we manifest and expose the ordinary ugliness that is happening every day. One hundred and fifty people died on San Francisco streets last year. At TREC, we strive to reveal the depth of this suffering and to strengthen the transforming power of collective resistance.
Whether we are working in academia, non-profits, straight jobs or on the streets of the Tenderloin, the obstacles which prevent us from taking collective action are often internal to our own groups, or internal to our own selves. The intimacy and immediacy of working in cross-cultural, cross class partnerships confronts us with our own demons, shadows and projections and has tremendous power to unleash effective change.
“To enter TREC and its practice, then, does not mean slipping into a comfortable and narcotizing fantasy world that pretends that hardships are not real. On the contrary it means turning ones face toward them and staring them directly in the eye.” (Ken Butigan)
Denial of unpleasant realities is what keeps homeless people ‘disappeared’ from the policy agenda and mainstream media. When the dispossessed are portrayed it’s often as objects–especially in the holiday season–objects of pity–year round, objects of scorn.
The celebration of our collective spirituality–our experience as human beings–is an essential element in reclaiming the dignity which precedes, informs and inspires the ability to ‘get up stand up for our rights’. It is dignity which provides the ground on which we stand.
Before I go away from the mind’s
seascape, I utter surprise testimony
that I can still see one ocean’s special
lightshow, all my own like a daisy
field with an audible laugh.
Alice Olds Ellingson
Despair leads to unfocused destruction of self and others. By participating in the workshops, people from diverse classes, cultures, and ages uncover and affirm the spiritual and cultural values in ourselves, in our neighbors and in the renewed sense of community that comes from participating in collective expressions of creativity.
Experiments like the Tenderloin Reflection and Education Center reveal that gains of jobs, housing, health care are of course critical, but that the quest for human liberation is not limited to ‘bread alone’.
“Why art and culture, when people need food, housing, health care and jobs?” TREC’s response can best be summed up by this quote from Amilcar Cabral, “Culture contains the seed of resistance which blossoms into the flower of liberation.”
Ben Clarke is writer-in-residence at the Oakland Museum of California and a long-time member of the Tenderloin Reflection and Education Center.
Caroline Heller, 1997, Until We are Strong Together Columbia University Teachers College Press, New York
Ken Butigan, 1996, Creativity in the War Zone, from Walking on Water, Pace e Bene, Berkeley.