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San Francisco Community Congress: background and update

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September 5, 2010
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(EDITOR'S NOTE: A very interesting grassroots development happening in SanFrancisco: The San Francisco Community Congress. The goal is to "devise practical, locally actionable proposals to shape and direct future policy affecting the local economy and the provision of critical human services." Their mantra, "another San Francisco is possible." If devil is in the details, then this appears to be beginning as a premier Solidarity Economy project.

GEO is following the SF Community Congress Blog and working with Steve Rice (volunteer with Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives [NoBAWC], Poonam Whabi (Design Action Collective), and Rick Simon (Just Alternatives for a Sustainable Economy) who are keeping us up to date on how this plays out.

We usually try to limit our postings to articles of 1000-1500 word length at most. Since this is a rather extraordinary project, we are giving it an in-depth report at this time. We are posting a collection of pieces to give you background information and the latest update on their August 14-15 conclave. There are five pieces:

1. their vision

2. an overview of their project

3. an historical perspective

4. the passion behind the project

5. report on the August congress


I will include editorial comments along the way to stitch the various pieces together.

Please know that you can access a detailed report on the Worker Co-op section of the SF Congress at

--michael johnson (mj)

1. their vision

Let's start with their overall vision. Here is a short excerpt from a long document (or set of documents) that will give you pretty much everything that they are thinking and planning for,

The San Francisco Bay Guardian also did an editorial that lays out the vision and also gives some historical background,


The Vision: A New Deal for the 21st Century

· We support the democratization of the market by making developers and corporations responsible to community, and by ending the unilateral control over investment by real estate interests.

· We believe in subordinating the profit motive to a more encompassing vision of all-sided social and economic development.

· We envision a new conception of government as the nexus for effecting a major reallocation and democratization of investment. We seek not more roads and bridges, but more childcare, more arts programs, film centers, urban gardens, schools, alternative health care, local history projects, libraries.

· We seek to re-distribute income by putting additional financial resources in the hands of local government, together with reforms of the allocations process to insure greater opportunities for local constituent involvement in the local budgeting process.

· We support massive undertaking of publicly financed investments to reduce our dependence on auto transport and unsustainable energy sources - for instance, through public transport projects and high speed light rail transit.

· We seek the dedication of city streets and neighborhoods to the arts; to theater; to music, to performance. We aim to reclaim the urban street as a public space. We believe culture (in the broadest sense) is central to any system of alternative economic development.

· We seek to actively foster local permaculture and other forms of local, ecologically sustainable urban agriculture.

· We seek to actively promote alternative systems of more worker-controlled, (potentially) democratically controlled worksites such as work cooperatives and worker collectives, local trade associations that provide local markets and mutual support; and the use of the technical capacity of local government to provide shared administrative overhead.

· We seek to foster spaces dedicated to learning and intellectual and creative development through expansion of support to local writers, musicians, and artists.


2. an overview

First here is an opinion piece published in the July 6, 2010 SF Bay Guardian: that gives an overview of what has been happening there. I believe it was a team effort by Karl Bietel, a worker advocate; Fernando Marti, a community planner; and Calvin Welch, a balanced growth and affordable housing advocate.


A new New Deal for San Francisco

San Francisco is no longer the employment center of the Bay Area, but the high-end bedroom of a commuting workforce based outside the city.

On Thursday and Friday, July 8 and 9, San Franciscans concerned about the future of their city will have a unique opportunity to devise practical, locally actionable proposals to shape and direct future policy affecting the local economy and the provision of critical human services.

On July 8, starting at 3:30 p.m. at SF Lighthouse Church (1337 Sutter at Van Ness), a New Deal for the City economic development summit will be held to address set of issues ranging from municipal reform to community-based economic development proposals. A copy of the draft positions can be found at

The next day, the San Francisco Human Services Network, a 110-member organization of human and health service nonprofits, will host its New Realities summit starting at 9 a.m. at the McClaren Center at the University of San Francisco. More details about topics at the summit can be found at

The results of these two summits, along with proposals on Muni reform and affordable housing, will form the basis for a citywide meeting of "The New, New Deal for San Francisco" Congress, scheduled for Aug. 14 and 15 at USF.

The summits and congress offer a chance to discuss, adopt, and plan the implementation of a comprehensive response to the assault on the provision of critical public services and the clear failure of the local economy to respond to the current and future needs of San Franciscans. Over the past decade, San Francisco has lost, and never replaced, more than 70,000 permanent jobs as first the dot-com bust and now the implosion of the financial sector have shredded the city's "new" economy. In a total reversal of its historic role, San Francisco is no longer the employment center of the Bay Area, but simply the high-end bedroom of a commuting workforce based outside the city.

This historic shift has meant that the primary form of development in San Francisco has gone from commercial, employment-based enterprises to high-end residential development - development that, because of Proposition 13 limits on local property taxes, simply fails to pay for the city services needed to support the existing and new residential population.

San Franciscans built a system of local governance that was unique in the state, and not often matched in the nation, in providing a level of municipal services based on the premise that we share a special place and a common future. These services were provided by a robust mixture of traditional public sector departments and innovative, community-based nonprofits. That system was itself based on an economy that mainly employed San Francisco residents in a diverse mix of economic activities with opportunities open to a wide array of people.

That economic base has been reduced to a mere shell of its former diversity, with few opportunities for even fewer people. Our current mayor has no desire to address this historic shift; instead, he is content to endlessly campaign for other offices, issue press releases on mythical achievements, and pit one portion of San Francisco against another in hopes that all forget the decline of the city under his leadership.

Progressive forces cannot again allow needed changes to be held hostage to the election of a particular candidate. We must put on the table a comprehensive, integrated set of locally actionable policies that make sense in the realities we face in the second decade of the 21st century - no matter who wins. After all, it's our city.


3. an historical perspective

The next piece is from the SF Community Congress blog that puts this second SF community congress in an historical perspective. Here's the link


It's time for a new Community Congress

Tim Redmond

Every poor and working class community in San Francisco has learned the hard way that its interests are at the bottom of the list as far as City Hall is concerned. At the top of the list are the banks, real estate interests, and large corporations, who view San Francisco not as a place for people to live and work and raise families, but as a corporate headquarters city and playground for corporate executives. By using their vast financial resources, they have been able to persuade local government officials that office buildings, hotels, and luxury apartments are more important than blue-collar industry, low-cost housing and decent public services and facilities.

Sound familiar?

It's more than 30 years old.

Back in 1974, more than 50 San Francisco community groups - from Bay Area Gay Liberation to the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center, from the Federation of Ingleside Neigbhors to the San Quentin Six Defense Committee, from the Golden Gate Business and Civic Women's Association to the Socialist Coalition - started meeting to develop a plan to take back the city.

It culminated with a Community Congress, on June 8, 1975, at Lone Mountain College (now part of the University of San Francisco). More than 1,000 people attended, and they drafted a remarkable 40-page document that outlined an alternative political, economic, social, and environmental agenda for San Francisco. The movement led, among other things, to

* the advent of district elections of supervisors (a key element in the platform) and
* the rise of active community-based organizations in this city.

Calvin Welch and Rene Cazenave, the veteran activists who run the San Francisco Information Clearinghouse, were among the organizers. They found the old manifesto recently and sent it out to a few of us by e-mail. I've posted it on the Politics blog. It calls for rent control, a sunshine ordinance, a health commission, full-time supervisors (who were to be paid $20,000 a year, the equivalent of $86,000 today), cable-TV coverage of the supervisors meetings, a mandate that developers build affordable housing and a feasibility study on public power. In fact, much of what the left has achieved in San Francisco in the past three decades is outlined in the Community Congress document.

(The congress also called for decriminalization of victimless crimes, including public inebriation, a guaranteed annual income, the abolition of the criminal grand jury, and some other things that didn't quite come to pass.)

I mention this not only because it's a fascinating historical document but because Welch and Cazenave think it's time for a new Community Congress. Their draft agenda refers to a New Deal for San Francisco, and they're talking about holding a series of meetings culminating in a major session sometime next year.

It's tough to get the San Francisco left to come together on issues, even harder to build a broad-based organization that can push an agenda. Sup. Chris Daly tried several years ago, but the San Francisco People's Organization never got the traction many of us had hoped for.

But although the progressives have accomplished a tremendous amount in this city, and have come a long way since 1975, the need is still there.

"San Francisco's downtown corporate and banking interests and their representatives in city government are attempting at a local level to shift the burden of the current economic and political crisis ever more fully onto the backs of the poor and working people of San Francisco."

That was then. Today, Welch and Cazenave write,

"San Francisco stands at a crucial junction brought about by the collapse of the real estate based speculative bubble and the related steep reduction of city revenue resulting in cuts in funding important programs and services ...

There needs to be a general coming together of community groups to articulate a set of policies able to be implemented at the local level which seek to maximize community control over the provision of critically needed health and human services and beneficial community development and to maintain a vital public sector."

Sounds like a plan. *


4. the passion behind the project

The next piece is by Karl Bietel, Calvin Welch, and Christopher D. Cook and was posted on the project's blog, 10 days before the August 14-15 Congress.


Reinventing San Francisco

Posted on August 5, 2010 by sfcommunitycongress

It's hard to trust hope these days - to imagine that our world, or even our city - could be different. But for the next 10 or 15 minutes, as you read this, we invite you to suspend the cynicism and disbelief that hangs over contemporary life, and allows your mind to imagine that, yes, a different San Francisco is possible. Just for 15 minutes, although we hope this helps kick-start a much longer-term revival of hope and urban reimagining.

It's time to create something new in San Francisco - a visionary movement for constructive change that's bold and unapologetic. Imagine, for instance, if San Francisco became a national model for how cities can reinvest local profits (public and private) and assets to expand economic opportunity and social equity. Imagine if, instead of promoting a dispiriting and volatile blend of corporate development and Darwinian "free-market" anarchy, San Francisco transformed how American cities define success by creating concrete alternatives to the chaos of capitalism.

Now imagine that San Francisco had its own public bank - a fiscally solvent, interest-generating financial force (potentially a half-billion dollars strong) dedicated to public financing and economic stimulus, that functioned as a vigorous incubator for homegrown industries and sustainable, true-green job creation.

We are proposing no less than a reinvention of San Francisco - a dramatic shift in priorities, resources, politics, and culture that marries the very best in both creative innovation and urgently needed reforms to make our city socially equitable and sustainable, both ecologically and economically.

Toward this end, the Community Congress, Aug. 14-15 on the University of San Francisco campus, will stimulate ideas, discussion, and planning to reinvigorate civic engagement and inspiration and create a concrete, locally actionable agenda for reshaping the city. You're invited. (Visit for more information.) The congress is a conversation starter and idea incubator - an opportunity to begin reimagining San Francisco as a socially equitable, racially inclusive, ecologically sustainable city that grows its own food, supplies its own energy, and is an affordable haven for working-class people, immigrants, artists, and creative folk of all stripes.

We humbly propose a city that embraces cosmopolitanism and international exchange while empowering its residents to achieve a decent and livable quality of urban life. We are not trying to turn back the clock; we are trying to create new forms of social and economic value that give people meaning and sustenance, and hope.
Why A Community Congress-Why Now?

Couldn't we save such sweeping aspirations for a rainy day? The sky isn't falling yet, is it? Not quite, but the present constellation of crises San Francisco is ensnarled in - massive and rising structural deficits, a boom/bust economy that's profoundly unstable and inequitable, deepening economic and social divides that destabilize communities, to name a few - is simply unsustainable.

San Francisco's economic and fiscal crisis is not a passing moment. Rather, it signals long-term structural flaws in the city's economic policies and planning. San Francisco has lost roughly 45,000 jobs since 2000, and each "recovery" is marked by steadily higher unemployment rates (currently resting at 9.2 percent). More critically, as jobs and wages have grown more precarious and housing prices have steadily risen (over the long term), thousands of San Franciscans have been displaced.

Any serious vision for change must incorporate race and class dynamics.

Consider the economic evisceration of much of the city's African American population, which has plummeted from 13.4 percent of the population in 1970 to just 6.5 percent today (more than 22,000 African Americans left the city between 1990 and 2008). The gutting of communities of color is intrinsically intertwined with issues of job and wage loss and soaring housing costs. This is particularly acute in the geographic and political dislocation of African Americans in San Francisco. Add to this picture intense overcrowding and poverty in Chinatown and in Latino and immigrant communities, and you get a set of inequities that are morally unacceptable and socially untenable.

Like other major American cities, San Francisco faces a crucial historical moment. Global warming and fast-dwindling oil supplies require a transformative shift in how we conceive (and implement) economic development far beyond the city's current piecemeal approach to "green procurement." The Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force, appointed by the Board of Supervisors in 2007, concluded that a full 86 percent of San Francisco's energy use comes from fossil fuels, primarily petroleum and natural gas, and a small amount of coal. Given the world's fading oil supplies and mounting climate chaos, this is simply unsustainable.

The specter of a looming energy and environmental crisis, combined with economic instability marked by persistently high unemployment, rising income inequality, systemically entrenched homelessness, consumer debt, and the deepening crisis of cutbacks to critically needed human services and affordable housing call for a radical shift in how society - and San Francisco's economy - are run.

Transforming San Francisco into a truly sustainable city will mean dramatic shifts in what (and how) we produce and consume, and aggressive city policies that promote local renewable energy. Our economy - how our food, housing, transportation and other essential goods are made - will have to be rebuilt for a world without oil.

These and other limits mean we must redefine growth and profit-fast. Work and sustainability must become fully intertwined, and we must think creatively about how jobs can produce social and community value, instead of profits concentrated at the top.

Creating truly sustainable and equitable cities for the 21st century will also mean dramatic shifts in how we produce and consume. There is no better place to begin than here in San Francisco, long an incubator in progressive thinking and genuine grassroots action and innovation. In an earlier Community Congress in 1975, residents and groups from across San Francisco united in a movement of ideas and organizing that led to district supervisorial elections and successful campaigns to stem the tide of downtown corporate development, helping to democratize politics and economics in San Francisco.

The 2010 Community Congress is aimed at reinvigorating local movements for lasting change, both on the policy level and in the relationship between people and their government. We hope to inspire a spirited and creative shift in the city's culture and politics - with concrete, politically actionable policies to democratize planning and development and a more sweeping transformation of our expectations - toward a far richer and deeper engagement of people and communities in their own governance.
A New Framework For Urban Development

What would this City of Hope look like, and how would it work? Consider what we could accomplish with a municipal bank. The City and County of San Francisco currently has almost $2.6 billion in highly liquid reserves, about $500 million of which could be used to fund a Municipal Bank of San Francisco. Once established (and federally insured), the Municipal Bank could take additional deposits and use this to issue more loans.

The bank could promote economically viable worker-run cooperatives that produce goods and services addressing community needs - be it day care, urban gardening, or ecologically sustainable light industry that creates meaningful employment for local residents. The bank could provide competitive small-interest loans to help stimulate small-business development - the key economic engine of the city. Currently, access to credit is one of the primary impediments to small business growth in San Francisco.

The city could also start a Municipal Development Corporation to produce goods and services that meet essential needs, boost local employment, and generate surpluses that would be available for local reinvestment. San Francisco could launch itself on the path to local energy self-reliance with funds from the Municipal Bank, together with revenue bonds-raising large pools of capital to finance large-scale alternative energy investments such as solar panels to generate energy for sale to local businesses and households.

The proceeds could help subsidize community-based development such as urban farming projects that could grow food for our public schools. The Municipal Development Corporation could explore other initiatives like large-scale medical marijuana cultivation and development of a commercial fiberoptic network. Other ideas can be developed; we need to engage our collective imagination to envision what can exist if there's enough people power and political will.

By expanding access to credit, municipalizing a chunk of the city's assets, establishing an economically viable municipal development enterprise, and democratizing city planning and development, San Francisco can enable long-disenfranchised communities to create sustainable and diversified development - instead of fighting over "jobs versus the environment" and other false choices and getting nowhere for decades.

It's time for proactive, community-led economic development that addresses urgent needs, from local hiring and training, to creating a diverse base of neighborhood-serving businesses, to ecologically sustainable and healthful development and planning that is driven by communities and residents.

San Francisco's job creation policies can be transformed to prioritize community needs over corporate profits by linking major development contracts to strict local hiring and training, community benefits agreements that invest in social goods like childcare and in-home health services, and ensuring dramatic increases in the city's stock of affordable housing.

We need to build new forms of public participation in local government in ways that address people's everyday needs. For instance, the congress will propose a new partnership between residents and Muni to make Muni work better, involving current riders and drivers in a new, more powerful role in how Muni lines function.

We need to find better ways to sustain a diverse population of working-class, people of color, artists, writers, musicians, and others. We need to make sure development isn't just code for finding new ways to gentrify neighborhoods and displace existing residents.

Specific proposals will address how the city and community-based nonprofits deliver critical health and human services to our neediest residents. We propose making this an integrated part of the budget process, not a last-minute afterthought. Toward this end, the Community Congress will present actionable proposals to create innovative "resident/government" partnerships to improve local government responsiveness and efficiency.
Raising-And Spending-The Benjamins

One of the keys to unlocking the city's stagnating economy is progressive revenue generation and more democratic participation in budgeting.

We must enlarge the public pie while reapportioning it in a way that stimulates job creation and shifts the tax burden onto the large businesses that reap vast private benefits from public goods and services. The city's budget process must be dramatically reshaped and democratized. Communities need a seat at the fiscal table when the budget is being crafted - instead of lobbying tooth and nail at the end of the process just to retain funding that barely keeps programs afloat.

How can we build a participatory budgeting movement that brings residents and communities into the process? For instance, community budget councils composed of elected and appointed residents from every supervisorial district could assess neighborhood needs and incorporate them into drafting the budget. Whatever form this takes, the goal is to put the needs of residents at the forefront of how the city spends its resources.

The Community Congress can also help redefine fiscal responsibility. Taxing and spending must be accountable and transparent and respect the fact that this is the public's money. Let's be honest: much of what passes for government excess is due to management and executive bloat at the top, not salaries of frontline workers like bus drivers, social service providers, and hospital workers. True fiscal responsibility also means investing in prevention: education, healthcare, and services that help people build their lives.
Reclaiming Hope

It's time to reclaim the public sector as the sphere of our shared interest. Rather than thinking in terms of the old paradigm that counterpoises "government" and "the market," let us envision a new citizen movement to create a more participatory, democratic, and accountable system of self-government.

The San Francisco Community Congress is about bringing people together - community activists, those working in the trenches of our increasingly strained social services, our environmental visionaries, our artists, the urban gardeners and permaculturists, poets, bicycle enthusiasts, inventors ... in short, assembling our pool of collective knowledge and wisdom, and yes, our differences - in a forum to discuss, debate, share concerns and viewpoints, and ultimately produce a working template that is both visionary and can be implemented.

The Community Congress will create a space for all of us to participate in defining our own vision of San Francisco. It is a first step toward reasserting popular control over economic development. It is an invitation to be visionary, rethinking in fundamental ways what it means to live in the 21st century city, and a forum for creating real, practical platforms and proposals that can be implemented using the powers of local government.

We want to propose a new vision of urban governance. Not more bureaucracy, more commissions, more departments, but the creation of new institutions that are democratically accountable and place new kinds of economic and political resources in the hands of ordinary citizens.

We don't have any illusions. There are limits to what local government can do. Ultimately, deep change will require actions by higher levels of government. More profoundly, it will require a deeper change in citizen awareness, a rejection of life dominated by the pursuit of narrow self-interest, in favor of a more ecologically sustainable, socially just, and more democratic way of life.

But we can begin at the local level, here and now, to envision and implement the kind of changes that will need to take place if we want to insure that our city, our country, and our planet will be the kind of place we want our children to live. Please come. Bring your hopes, passions, and ideas. This is our collective project, our shared wisdom, our joint vision of the kind of city and society in which we want to live.


5. report on the congress

Here is the San Francisco Bay Guardian's report on the August congress,


Community Congress convened

Local progressives adopt policy platform they hope will inform future elections and agendas

By marke

Created 08/17/2010 - 3:58pm [1]

News Volume 44, Issue 46 Alex 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 ( [2]) 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."

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