Artists’ haven attracts hidden talent in troubled SF neighborhood

By Kimberly Izar, Kiva Intern


The Tenderloin is a San Francisco neighborhood that sits at the heart of an emotional struggle for the city. Within a few minutes walk you can spot new multi-million dollar offices of tech giants. At the same time, you can see heartbreaking evidence of the city’s battle with homelessness, drug use and mental illness.

But those who live and work in the Tenderloin know that it’s also a neighborhood filled with creativity, from vibrant street art to up-and-coming galleries.

Artists at work at TL Made

One organization, TL Made, saw great potential in the Tenderloin’s creative spirit and decided to turned it into opportunity for residents. The organization is a social enterprise that focuses on partnering with local artists to provide employment opportunities and resources in a safe working environment. TL Made received a $5,000 Kiva Zip loan from 68 Kiva lenders to help build their vision.

Issiah Johnson, a Tenderloin resident, is one artist who found a creative haven at TL Made.

At a young age, Issiah recalls his father would take him to school every morning passing by sleeping shadows in tattered clothing. Being raised in such a broken neighborhood, Issiah came to the conclusion that success was out of his reach and that this would be his story too.

“I found comfort in this place instead of branching out. When I stepped out of my comfort-zone, I felt weak and vulnerable,” said Issiah.

Like other residents in the Tenderloin, he felt neglected and trapped by the changing city but also confined by the Tenderloin’s reputation. It wasn’t until one of his teachers at San Francisco City Academy told him about “this new art thing” in May 2013 that he started looking at his future in a different light.

The art thing was TL Made. TL Made artists produce high-quality goods ranging from screen printed t-shirts to handmade leather journals, and 100% of the profits are recycled back into the business to create more jobs or programs that serve the community.

With the artists they collaborate with, TL Made moves past the social stigma often tied to the Tenderloin: a neighborhood driven by drugs and conflict. They see printmakers and sculptors. They see leather crafters and jewelry makers.

“The Tenderloin is deeply rooted in systematic issues that have existed for years. But there are still residents here who have a passion to pursue their dreams. TL Made strives to work side by side these residents to bring about lasting change,” said Pushpa Samuel, TL Made’s social enterprise manager. “Here, I am just as much an employee as any of our artists.”

The founders of TL Made started the organization after volunteering at San Francisco City Impact. Through their volunteer work they developed close ties with the residents and learned more about the needs of community, one of them being a lack of resources to create and showcase art work.

“We [then] hosted an art exploration, which is where we invited artists from all over the Tenderloin. We had people going out to each of the buildings asking, ‘Who’s an artist? Who has a past in doing anything creative?’” said co-founder Amanda Phelps. “We just started seeing these artists come out from the woodwork. They live in these rooms and do art out of these rooms, but no one knows about them.”

From these sessions, TL Made discovered extraordinary hidden talent. There was an obvious need for artist resources, and so, the founders established TL Made to fill that gap.

TL Made now serves as an innovative hub for artists to grow personally and professionally.

Since working for TL Made, Issiah now financially supports his mother and sisters. He also discovered a newfound love for poetry, which he now regularly shares on TL Made’s blog.


“We have to have the faith and believe that we have worth and there is a reason to endure and to push through no matter what the cost.”

- Issiah Johnson


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