How to be a more engaged citizen in San Francisco

Michael Rhodes
Jan 20 · 13 min read
Flickr

San Francisco is a city of many layers. Whether you’re new to the city or a long-time resident, there is always more to discover and understand. If you’re looking to deepen your engagement in the city and expand your orbit, here’s a short guide to getting involved in local issues, making a difference, and gaining a deeper understanding of the city.

The city is divided in many ways today, but by engaging with our fellow citizens of all backgrounds, seeking a deeper understanding of our home, and being open to new people and experiences, we have the capacity to address the city’s current challenges and find more enjoyment in living here.

This guide isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but I hope to inspire people (including myself) to continue to dive deeper into this resiliently diverse city that we call home.

Know that not everyone in SF is in tech (most people aren’t)

The tech industry is a major presence in San Francisco and the Bay Area, more so than ever. But San Francisco and tech are not synonymous. Fewer than a quarter of San Francisco’s employed residents work in tech, and only 38% of its residents are between 20 and 40 years old¹. In other words, if everyone you know is in tech and 20- or 30-something, you’re missing out on most of the city.

If you’re in tech, try getting to know people and neighborhoods outside your sphere. The city still has strong communities of artists, musicians, architects, teachers, non-profit workers, public servants, healthcare workers, students, merchants, and many other groups that aren’t developers or product managers. Volunteering is a great way to meet new people from different backgrounds (more on that later). City College classes are free if you live in SF and tend to attract a broader array of the city’s residents. Or get involved in a cause you care about (more on that later as well).

And if you are a long-time resident or native, especially one who isn’t in tech, consider getting to know some newcomers and sharing your depth of knowledge about the city. Many newcomers I know would love to meet more long-time San Franciscans.

Visit neighborhoods you’ve never been to

Clement Street in the Inner Richmond. Flickr.

Take a look at a map of San Francisco (the official Muni system map is my favorite). How much of the city do you know well? Are there areas of the city that are less familiar to you, especially outside the northeast quadrant of the city?

One of the most rewarding parts of city life is to go places in your own town that you’ve never been to before. Try going on urban walks to less familiar places. For example, if you’ve never been, visit Mission Street in the Excelsior, San Bruno Avenue in the Portola district, or Ocean Avenue in Ingleside. The Chronicle recently developed an updated 49 Mile Drive that covers most of the city, but unlike the original 49 Mile Drive, this one is made for walking. Try taking on a portion of the route in a new neighborhood. Another great way to see new neighborhoods is to attend Sunday Streets events, which are held all over the city. You can also try taking a Muni bus or train to the end of the line and see where it takes you.

Or take a walk with a guide. A great one is Thinkwalks, which are “roving, dynamic discussions for locals & curious visitors” led by the informative and entertaining Joel Pomerantz.

Support — and pay for — local news

The Chronicle newsroom. Flickr.

I grew up in a family of journalists, so one of the first things I do when I visit a new city is to find and read a local newspaper. It’s a great way to start to learn about a new place, or even a place you’ve been in for a while. If you read the national news, consider doing the same for your own city, where decisions will affect you far more directly than most national policymaking will.

San Francisco has a broad range of news outlets, ranging from its flagship daily newspapers (the Chronicle and the Examiner) to a slew of local neighborhood newspapers and blogs. Most of these outlets are free or offer a free version, but in an era when local media outlets are in crisis, shedding staff and even closing down, it’s worth subscribing or donating.

The Chronicle is the only (non-free) major daily paper covering the city of San Francisco. Everyone in San Francisco should subscribe to it. There’s also a free version, SFGate, but it doesn’t offer as much local news coverage. Its opinion section generally lines up more with the city’s moderate Democratic bloc (more on that later).

The Examiner is also a must-read. It’s a free paper, with thinner staffing than the Chronicle, and the headlines are at times a little on the sensational side, but their breadth of coverage of the city is hard to match.

SF Weekly is a free alternative weekly newspaper. It is now owned by the same company that owns the Examiner.

KQED is a local NPR affiliate with several programs that focus on local news and issues. There’s also KALW, an independent public radio station.

Mission Local is a non-profit that started with a focus on the Mission, but has expanded to cover political, housing and policing issues around the city as well.

SF Public Press is also a non-profit, which publishes quarterly, and often has more in-depth coverage than other local outlets.

More outlets to explore: sfbay.ca, SFist, San Francisco Business Times, Bay Area Reporter (focused on the GLBT community), SocketSite and Curbed (both offer real estate and development news), neighborhood papers (most neighborhoods have one), Streetsblog (transit and bike issues), Hoodline, TheFrisc, 48 Hills (a progressive outlet carrying on the tradition of the now-defunct Bay Guardian) and The Bold Italic.

A few suggestions to get started on following local journalists on Twitter: Joe Eskenazi, Joe Fitz Rodriguez, Rachel Swan, Heather Knight, 48 Hills, Michael Cabanatuan, John King, Jerold Chinn, Caille Millner, Kevin Fagan, and Soleil Ho, just to name a few. Conor Dougherty also writes insightfully about San Francisco and California for the New York Times.

Volunteer your skills to a cause you care about

Tree planting with the Friends of the Urban Forest. Flickr.

San Francisco can be frustrating. Housing is insanely expensive, which is pricing people out. There’s a deeply troubling crisis of homelessness that is getting worse. Getting around the city can be a serious challenge. It often feels like the soul of the city is under attack. The good news is you don’t have to watch passively — there are many ways to get involved in solutions, regardless of your skill set and background. The antidote to cynicism is rolling up your sleeves and joining the city’s long tradition of dedicated people working to make it better.

A few examples:

This Bold Italic article has more inspiration, and there’s far more info available at Volunteer Match and Hands On Bay Area.

This is just a small sample of the types of opportunities that are out there to make a difference and learn more about the city. Have more volunteer ideas? Let me know.

Engage with local politics

A San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting. Flickr.

If you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet that you have a strong grasp of national politics, probably voted in the last election if you’re a citizen, and have opinions about who should be the next president. But far fewer people pay attention to politics at the local level, where it has the most direct impact on your day to day life.

The elections that shape San Francisco are often decided by an incredibly small margin. The 2018 mayoral race was decided by just 2,546 votes out of a quarter-million. District supervisor elections can be even closer. Don’t just blame City Hall for the city’s problems — the opportunities to shape what happen are very real.

First, if you do nothing else, vote, if you’re eligible. Register to vote by mail if you haven’t already. Encourage your friends and roommates to do the same. The next election is March 3, 2020, and the deadline to register is February 18.

All of San Francisco’s elected officials are Democrats, so it might seem like it doesn’t matter how you vote in local elections. But the truth is, San Francisco Democrats have sharply divided views on the issues that actually affect people locally. Sure, their viewpoints all look fairly similar on big national issues like gun control, abortion access, and immigration, but on local issues, the differences are stark.

There are two major camps in San Francisco politics: “moderate” and “progressive” Democrats. Moderates are generally more pro-growth, supportive of both market rate housing and affordable (below market rate) housing, and friendly to tech. The progressives are less receptive to market rate housing, preferring higher rates of affordable housing instead, are less receptive to office growth, and are more skeptical of tech.

Individual voters may care more about how responsive their supervisor is to neighborhood issues than an ideological split, but it’s good to understand where your elected officials stand on local issues. To quickly find out who represents you in local government, visit the Department of Elections website.

San Francisco voters have a lot of choices to make. There are many guides out there to help you research how to vote on issues based on your own values. For a more moderate (business-friendly) Democratic perspective, there’s the SF Chronicle guide. For a progressive viewpoint, there’s the League of Pissed Off Voters guide. The League of Women Voters of San Francisco also publishes a guide. For an urbanist perspective (that is also generally pro-development), the urban think tank SPUR publishes a detailed guide. If you want to see more market rate housing built, there’s the YIMBY guide. If Democratic Socialism is more your speed, DSA SF makes endorsements. Organizations like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition also make endorsements.

To get a deeper sense of how the City’s government works, consider attending at least one meeting of the Board of Supervisors, which are held every week at City Hall (room 250) at 2 p.m. Alternatively, check out a meeting of the San Francisco Planning Commission (which weighs in on land use decisions) or any number of other city boards and commissions. Going just once can be enlightening. Archived and live video is also available online for most board and commission meetings.

Want to take your involvement in politics a step further? Consider volunteering on a local political campaign, at least once. Most campaigns can use help in numerous ways, from door knocking to writing policy position papers to website design. There are few better ways to learn how city government works and meet a lot of people in the process than joining a campaign.

Finally, be aware of your company’s role in the city and the world and whether it’s a good corporate citizen that acts in accordance with your own values.

The bottom line is that in San Francisco, a small number of people can make a big difference. It takes time to learn how the system works and how to have an impact, but by getting involved and becoming an informed participant in local politics, you have a real chance to make a difference.

Support arts and culture

Lindy in the Park. Flickr.

Rising rents have pushed many artists out of San Francisco, but a strong arts and music scene still remains in the city. If you’re a music fan, find out what is going on locally and attend shows. The Bay Bridged is an excellent resource to discover upcoming concerts and follow local independent music.

If you’re into dance, there are excellent studios in San Francisco, like ODC and Dance Mission Theater as well as many free events like Lindy in the Park. In addition to the big art museums (the de Young, SFMOMA, Asian Art, and the Legion of Honor), there are many small studios and galleries throughout the city, such as the Minnesota Street Project.

Whatever you’re into, there’s a local scene in San Francisco for it, so go discover it. Many museums also offer educational programs and opportunities to meet other members. There are also affordable art classes through Sharon Meadow Studio in Golden Gate Park.

Learn about the city’s history

The San Francisco skyline in 1952, from the Charles W. Cushman collection. The Pacific Telephone Building, the only “skyscraper” South of Market at the time, is now dwarfed by buildings like the Salesforce Tower.

San Francisco’s history is quite dramatic and fascinating, with no shortage of natural disasters, political bosses, labor revolts, and tragedies such as the assassination of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Reading up on the city’s history is essential to understanding the city as it stands today.

A few suggestions to get started: Season of the Witch, Imperial San Francisco, Cool Grey City of Love, City for Sale, Infinite City, The Mayor of Castro Street, and The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906. There are also many great documentaries — including this one about Mayor Moscone’s short but impactful time in office. FoundSF also has many interesting historical essays. Lost Landscapes of San Francisco features home videos of San Francisco from bygone eras at the Castro Theater, often from different perspectives than you’d see in a history book. There’s also the Chronicle’s Vault. Or buy Carl Nolte a coffee and just listen — the guy has been covering San Francisco for the Chronicle since Moscone’s days.

Shop locally when you can

City Lights Bookstore in North Beach. Flickr.

Don’t like empty storefronts? Consider spending a little extra money and time to support businesses in your neighborhood. This doesn’t have to mean giving up Amazon or Target completely, but shopping in your own neighborhood a few times a month can make a big difference to local merchants. After all, what would the city be without its neighborhood main streets?

Consider how you get around

San Francisco’s many modes of travel. Flickr.

Are you getting around the city in a way that aligns with your values? Consider the environmental impacts of how you travel, and whether it’s isolating you from the city you’re moving through. Walking, biking and taking Muni or BART are the best ways to get around with minimal carbon footprint while also being engaged in the world around you. Your travel mode is ultimately a political choice. It may not work for every trip, but consider taking a sustainable mode when you can. And as the Chronicle’s Carl Nolte recently put it, taking Muni is the best way to really get to know San Francisco.

Donate

To the arts, to non-profit organizations, to political causes that align with your views locally. But do some research first to make sure the cause you’re contributing to genuinely align with your values.

The next level

If you really want to go deeper, consider taking a job (or creating one) that will improve the city. Consider working for the city (there’s even a specific page for people looking for tech jobs with the city), for Code for America on a project that is focused on civic issues, for a company focused on civic issues, or for a local non-profit organization. If you’re interested in starting your own company focused on addressing civic issues, make sure you spend some time truly understanding the needs that exist before jumping into product development. Many of the challenges that exist in the city are as much bureaucratic as technical, but there are many ways that better tools can help city government work better.

Finally, be curious about the city. There are always new layers to discover, just when you think you’ve seen everything. Stay open to meeting new people and having new experiences, whether you’re taking a class, walking in the park or on Muni. It’s natural that most of us have our guard up when we’re moving about the city, but try to keep your eyes open to the intricate sidewalk ballet happening around you as well.

Spread the word

If you find some of these approaches helpful, let your friends know too. This is just a start, and not in any way meant to be comprehensive. Please share your ideas for more ways to get engaged.


[1] United States Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2017 1-year data. Note that tech employment is difficult to identify precisely, because it’s grouped together with several other industries in Census data. The number is therefore somewhere under 25%.

Michael Rhodes

Written by

Transportation planner in San Francisco. All opinions are my own. @michaelprhodes

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