One line I often hear around town is San Francisco is a (fill in the blank) town. Some folks say we’re a tourist town, others say we’re a restaurant town. I think, however, that we’re really a college town.
Think about it. In almost every part of our city there’s some form of major academic institution. To the southwest is the venerable San Francisco State University (SFSU or SF State) with its 35,000 students. Just to its east is City College of San Francisco (CCSF), which has been building satellite campuses all over the city during the past few years. In the North is the renowned University of San Francisco (USF) and a stone’s throw away is the world-famous University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and its 28,000 employees and city-wide network of offices, hospitals, and research facilities. Toss in the art schools, small policy schools, and other boutique academic institutions and you have a multi-million (if not billion) dollar operation in our own backyard.
The reality is that this city is yet to fully leverage this asset. The academic community is San Francisco’s biggest untapped resource.
Sure, City Hall has an ongoing stream of interns and the occasional high-profile initiative as evidence of collaboration with the academic community, but in all honesty we’ve only scratched the surface.
A few years ago, when the NEN was moving out of its conceptual phase and into implementation, a daunting challenge faced us. On one hand, we believed that the work that needed to be done was at the neighborhood level and would require an army of passionate, well-organized individuals. On the other hand, we were forming this view during one of the largest public worker staff reductions in San Francisco County history. In fact, over the past three years the programs that met their demise were often the ones that were community-level focused.
One day, while I was mulling over this predicament with fellow community advocates in City Hall, someone remarked that the way she came into the building was through an internship set up by the Institute of Community Civic Engagement (ICCE) at SF State and that I should go out to their offices and see how we could partner.
After a few phone calls, we presented to ICCE an early incarnation of the NEN. After an energized 45 minutes, they looked at us and said “So you’re saying that the City wants to develop an institutional partnership at the highest level to support communities as they take a leadership role in achieving their goals” We provided an emphatic “Yes!” They responded with, “Interesting, let us talk about this amongst ourselves and we’ll follow up with you.” Which is Academic for We’re pretty sure we’re in. We just need to process this data and make an informed decision.
A few weeks later, ICCE’s Director Jerry Eisman emailed me saying that he had dedicated much of his academic life to service learning in San Francisco’s neighborhoods and it had always been disappointing that the City seemed reluctant to partner more consistently with the academic community. In his capacity at SF State, he understood the assets that the school had to offer San Francisco’s residents, but that such assets needed to be connected with the policies and initiatives coming out of City Hall. If what I was proposing was real and had the buy-in of City Hall’s leadership, then this could be one of the most exciting partnerships not only in the Bay Area, but in the entire nation.
Jerry seemed to have been waiting for this day to arrive because he soon had a much more ambitious plan on the table. Sure, SF State was an amazing resource, but there were at least a half dozen other academic institutions active in San Francisco that should be brought in on the opportunity.
Leveraging his network of service learning professionals at UCSF and USF, Jerry convened a meeting early in 2009 and proposed that they form an coalition to leverage the tens of thousands of students and faculty and their institutions to create something that had never existed before: A platform that focuses local academic institutions assets to support communities to become more resilient.
That coalition is now called NENu.
Today, a charter developed over the last year holds NENu together. Its tenets focus on the values of service-learning and on the need for reciprocity in the communities that NENu serves.
Already, the coalition is engaging neighborhoods in collaboration with City agencies and elected officials all over San Francisco, often with a multi-year commitment in place.Â In some cases, schools have invested over $100,000 in soft assets with over 125 students in the field.
NENu has given San Francisco one of the most powerful and sophisticated resources ever created to engage communities in meaningful transformative work.
Perhaps one day I’ll hear someone at Philz Coffee say “San Francisco has never been a better place in which to live, it’s lucky to be a college town.”
Daniel Homsey is Director of the Neighborhood Empowerment Network.