Community Congress convened

Pub date August 17, 2010
WriterAlex Emslie

About 60 San Francisco citizens voted just before 1 p.m. on Aug. 15 to adopt a progressive platform of approximately 100 policy recommendations they hope will define the agenda of candidates and elected officials in coming years and offer a contrasting vision for the city to that of downtown corporate interests.

Sunday’s culmination of the 2010 Community Congress represented almost a year’s work by some 400 San Franciscans and dozens of community-based organizations, according to the Congress’ draft recommendations. The congress convened all day Aug. 14, at the University of San Francisco’s Fromm Hall, where participants engaged in breakout groups aimed at addressing four distinct local policy categories: health and human services; Muni and public transportation; affordable housing and tenant rights; and community-based economic development.

Recommendations in the four areas were drafted prior to the congress and published by the Guardian (see “Reinvention of San Francisco,” Aug. 4 and “Ideas that work: a plan for a new San Francisco,” Aug. 11), but planning group coordinator Calvin Welch said between a one-quarter and one-third were rewritten and amended during the breakout sessions on Saturday and by the congress as a whole on Sunday. Representatives from the breakout groups are working to finalize all the last-minute amendments and hope to post a final document by on the congress’ website ( by Aug. 20.

“This is a group of left-progressive people trying to articulate a left-progressive view for the city that is distinct from the cynicism of the [San Francisco] Chronicle and [Mayor] Gavin Newsom’s message,” Welch told the Guardian after the vote.

Gail Gilman facilitated the final adoption session on Aug. 15, passing a microphone to those who wished to speak or propose amendments while pushing the group to stick to the schedule. “I think we produced a solid progressive platform that will gain traction in the upcoming supervisors race,” Gilman told the Guardian outside the congress. “We’re hoping to have actionable items implemented over the next five years.”

Some of the congress’ ambitious agenda had to be put on hold, either because consensus couldn’t be reached or groups simply ran out of time. The Muni group’s recommendation to delay the Central Subway Project and use those funds to address “Muni’s backlog of operating, maintenance, and capital improvement needs” was tabled, as was decentralizing control of expenditures in health and human services out of the mayor’s hands. However, several agencies that the congress hopes to create, including a “canopy” entity to manage San Francisco’s public health system, would have direct budgetary control over city departments.

Health and human services group coleader and Bayview-Hunters Point Foundation Executive Director Jacob Moody told the crowd about a question posed early in the congress that informed his group’s recommendations: How do we create a city where people can live, work, and prosper together?

Welch admitted that some of policy recommendations would be difficult to realize and would draw the ire of powerful political groups in San Francisco, but he insisted that creating a municipal bank, an economic redevelopment agency, and a health and human services planning agency, and implementing several of the Muni group’s recommendations, were actionable in the short term.

“Some others would need to wait until the election of a new mayor,” Welch said. “I hope we can get some mayoral candidates to endorse some of these proposals.”

Sunnydale/southeast neighborhood community organizer Sharen Hewitt said that although there were often disagreements at the congress, the most important aspect of the event to her was that everyone learned from the perspectives of others.

“Tension is not always bad,” Hewitt told the Guardian at the event. “Everybody came here with biases and interests. Everybody needs to leave here with more. I’m damn near 60 years old and I grew half an inch today.”

Sunday’s congress and policy platform were modeled after San Francisco’s first Community Congress, which took place in 1975. But Welch told us this congress was entirely new. “To the extent that there is a historical aspect, 35 years ago we tried to figure out a way to bring people together. And 35 years later, young people want to do the same thing.”

“Diamond” Dave Whittaker, a modern Emperor Norton-esque San Francisco personality, closed the congress with a poem. “The basis of real social change is happening here,” he said. “And we need to continue casting a wider net, finding the thread, and letting it flourish.”