Solving the Bay Area’s Problems Means Embracing the Collective Us
October 23, 2019

On October 22, 2019, SPUR’s new president and CEO, Alicia John-Baptiste, gave her first address at the Silver SPUR Awards, our annual celebration of civic achievement.


It is such a pleasure to be here with you all today to celebrate the impact of four truly remarkable people. Spending time with this year's Silver SPUR honorees has put me in a frame of mind to focus on what is good. And this is a little unusual, to be honest, because I, like many people, spend far more time thinking about what’s wrong than thinking about what’s good.

I truly love the Bay Area. It is my home. But in fairness, it’s easy right now to focus not on what I love about it but on its problems, because they are just so tangible. 

In fact, I am willing to bet that over the course of your day today, you had at least one reminder of the problems we are facing as a region. Maybe it was leaving your house before your kids were awake so you could shorten your commute, or maybe you walked past someone on the street who is clearly in need. Maybe you experienced the quieter desperation affecting so many people in our region right now — that razor-thin financial edge many are walking, knowing that one unexpected expense could result in having to leave the region altogether. The quiet fears we usually don’t share.

In whatever way you experience the Bay Area’s challenges, the reality is that, no matter how perfect and protected our own homes and communities may be, the inadequacy of our collective social systems — housing, transportation, education, mental health, economic security, climate — is impacting us all.

In some ways, it’s a confusing state of affairs. Because politically, the Bay Area is a progressive region. We consistently vote to support affordable housing and public transportation. We pass cutting-edge environmental protection and anti-discrimination laws, and our governments establish offices of racial equity and inclusion. We declare our communities to be places of sanctuary for all comers, whether they’re new or many generations established. We hold lightly to the establishment, ready for our norms and our technology and our pronouns to take us in an expansive direction at any time. And we are proud of our willingness to change and adapt. 

We are oriented toward taking action to solve our social challenges. But as those challenges persist despite our best efforts, we start to introduce a new question. We start to ask, “Who is to blame?”

And this is a trap. Because when the problem stops being a thing — for example, we don’t have enough housing — it starts to become a they. And then we have lost us. We can’t build enough housing because they don’t want us in their neighborhoods; they are just in it for the money; they are trying to take us over. Whatever the reason, the only solution is for them to stop being so wrong. And once we have made them wrong, it is a long way back to them being part of us.

But the only way we actually solve our problems is if we understand that the progressive ideal for which the Bay Area is famous is an ideal of a collective us, an us that encompasses everyone. 

This is a missing piece from our progressive playbook: We haven’t yet scaled our strategies to include the big us, the everyone us.

Imagine if we started to ask not, “Who is making things bad?” but “What would it take to make things good for all of us?”

Because if we’re honest, our embrace of progressive ideas and new social norms has not always translated into an embrace of all people. San Francisco’s first zoning laws criminalized Chinese Americans. The region’s racial covenants and redlining confined African Americans to specific neighborhoods during the Great Migration. And today, our cities may be sanctuaries, but they’re sanctuaries that offer no place to live. And that — the fundamental difficulty in finding a place to live — also means that for many long-time residents, staying here is harder and harder to do.

This tension between our ideals and our feelings impacts our ability to create the space for the collective us

At each growth point in our history, we’ve started to feel elbowed. We’ve started to feel like maybe there isn’t enough room on the roads for all those cars and there isn’t enough space in the classroom for all those kids and there isn’t enough sunlight on our roof decks and — fundamentally — maybe who I was when I got here doesn’t matter anymore, and maybe now there’s not any room for me. 

And isn’t this our deepest fear: That we cannot belong, or be safe, or be loved?  That we are not seen or accepted? So, when we feel loss coming, we strike out in self-defense.  We see the crowded classroom and ask, “Whose fault is it that this is broken?” And we answer, “new people,” when we could look at that classroom and ask, “What would make this good?” and answer, “more teachers.”

Today in the Bay Area, despite our great financial wealth and our incredible environmental and social riches, we are living in a scarcity mindset. Because we don’t have enough housing, for example, we’re forcing a choice about who housing should be built for. And by doing so, we’re creating conflict between people who most want housing for low-income people and those who most want housing for middle-income people and those who most want housing for homeless people.  These are false choices.

We are scrambling over and around each other trying to get our little piece of security as the goalposts keep marching away from us. Because the scarcity we feel is real. 

But consider this: We are living in one of the wealthiest regions, in one of the wealthiest countries, in one of the wealthiest eras in history. How can it be that we don’t have enough? If we don’t have enough — here and now — who in the world does, and who ever has?

So, what would make it good?

What would nourish us?

What would allow us to live free from fear?

These are the essential questions that we must answer. 

I believe that human nourishment is actually pretty straightforward. We need love. We need community. We need shelter. We need safety. We need food and water and clothes and trees. We need meaningful relationships and work that is fulfilling. We need to be able to express ourselves and to grow. And we need to both be seen and heard for our own truths and also hear and see others for theirs.

Those things would nourish us. But to live free from fear, we also need for everyone else to have those things, too. 

I have nine-year-old twins and they are at a stage at which everything has to be extremely fair. There’s one cookie left. One person cuts it in half, the other chooses which half they get. Harmony is maintained only when there is an absolute guarantee of complete fairness.

We get older and we accept that “life isn’t fair.” That there are haves and have-nots. That there’s a short end of the stick. That our dreams as children were childish dreams.

But why? Why do we accept this? We are collectively creating the world in which we live. We set up rules and decide to follow them. We make up laws and HR policies and social norms and bank lending regulations and tax codes and then say, “Well, that’s just the way it is!” But we made the rules — and we’re writing new ones every day. So why can’t we change them? Why can’t we say, “I do not accept a reality in which thousands of people are homeless in the wealthiest region in the nation. I do not accept a reality in which poverty is not only expected, it is locked in”?

I do not accept a reality in which basic human nourishment is denied and likeminded people are forced to fight over scraps.

I want security for myself and for my family. But I also want security for my kid’s teachers and my BART operator and each of you here today and the people sleeping on the street tonight.

It is time for all of us to reckon with what we’ve been willing to accept. It is time for us to start writing new rules. Fundamentally, it is time for us to turn toward each other, to embrace the collective us and to recognize the degree to which scarcity has unnecessarily divided us. And from this place — a place of embracing our shared connection — it is time for us to create a region in which all people are nourished and in which we replace fear with hope. 

There is power in collective action. At SPUR, we’re working to map out solutions to some of the biggest challenges we face — challenges that have divided us but could bring us together. Join us in this work — or start your own conversation. But let’s take our collective power, and let’s use it to make things good for all of us.

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