African Americans are leaving San Francisco at an alarming rate. They make up just six percent of the population, down from over 13 percent in 1970 and have a higher unemployment rate than whites and other minorities.
Meanwhile, San Francisco has the fastest growing income gap in the country. In a region with so much wealth and innovation, a significant part of the population is getting left behind.
So San Francisco mayor Ed Lee has launched a series of “mayoral forums” to improve the city’s engagement with the minority and lower-income communities in San Francisco.
By 8am at the first forum, about 100 people gathered to attend “The Mayoral Community Stakeholder Forum: Diversity, Innovation, and Jobs of the Future.”
Theodore Miller, a policy advisor to Mayor Lee, laid out the goals for the forums:
“One, highlight what works in the name of diverse and disconnected communities. Two, collaboratively connect those diverse and disconnected populations to the efforts that work. And three, in the processes, we change our city, strengthen our diversity, and include more folks in these rising tides.”
These might seem like ambitious goals for a series of half-day conversations, but Miller was very clear when he said, “we are not here this early morning to just talk, we are here to move forward in action.”
One person who was not in action was Mayor Ed Lee himself. He showed up, but left very early, due to a reported illness. That left Bernard Tyson, CEO of health care titan Kaiser Permanente, as the big draw.
Tyson is a Vallejo native and is African American. He shared stories about his personal encounters with President Obama and about his experience being unemployed as a young man.
“If you don’t have a job, if you don’t have income coming in, it overshadows everything else,” said Tyson.
Tyson said Kaiser pledged to award $1 billion in contracts to minority and women-owned businesses. Ultimately, they exceeded that goal last year.
“It is not a social welfare program,” Tyson affirmed. “What I mean by that, these are businesses who are providing business to Kaiser Permanente.”
Whether or not Kaiser’s model works, everybody here isn’t part of a $50 billion company – and San Francisco has unique challenges.
Angela Benton, CEO of minority-focused venture capitalist group NewMe Accelerator, said African Americans aren’t just struggling with the high cost of living here, but that the city can simply feel unwelcoming.
“Where do I go for soul food? Where do go to the beauty supply? Everything is very isolated into Bayview,” Benton pointed out. “I can’t necessarily live in SOMA, and have the same experience as I would in a city like DC.”
The panelists did bring up possible solutions. Like Renee Navarro, Vice Chancellor of Diversity and Outreach at UCSF Medical School.
“We’re putting up a $1 billion hospital in Mission Bay. We’ve built 10 buildings over there in the last 10 years,” Navarro said. “Again, partnering with the city around making sure that people from San Francisco have access to a job, that’s a huge amount of workforce needed there.”
Most attendees were paying rapt attention – many were scribbling notes or typing furiously on different devices. Around two thirds of the attendees were minorities, members of the “diverse and disconnected” communities everyone was referring to at the forum.
After the panel, I talked to Hilary Byrde, who works in Community Outreach at First Republic Bank. She said she had a lot of takeaways from the forum.
“The importance of inclusion when we’re having a diversity conversation,” Byrde said. “We really need a diverse pull at our table. And we can’t just be about talk; got to put talk into action.”
After the panel, attendees broke up into smaller groups to share personal challenges and successes. LaShon Walker, President of the Bayview Merchants Association, took part in one. Walker says her group started to have important conversations, but ran out of time. She wants these conversations to continue, but she’s realistic.
“We got to do it fast. See, there’s momentum toward the end of the day like this and then you go away and you go back to your work,” said Walker.
The organizers know this. That’s why it’s just the first in a series of Mayoral Forums. The Mayor may or may not be at the next one.