Surviving the Dance Floor

In our FUSE Corps training they taught us the concept of the balcony and the dance floor. In short, to lead change you need think of yourself at a healparty. Spend some time up on the balcony, look out over the crowd and assess the whole situation. But to make it happen you actually have to get on the dance floor, build relationships, and get stuff done. That makes good sense.

So far this dance floor smells a lot like pee. Each morning I take the BART from Oakland to Civic Center in SF and walk a few blocks to my office. These three blocks are home to Twitter, Square, and Dolby but the sidewalks also serve as kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms, and bathrooms to hundreds of homeless people. As a result, there’s trash and pee and poop everywhere. And it stinks.

Week 1. I tried to stay open and positive — thinking, ‘Well, this is good to be so in touch with the community. People in government should see where things aren’t working — and homelessness in San Francisco is an area where things are definitely not working.’

I deliberately tried to see the environment, to look at the problem head-on so I might be better able to understand it. But it turns out my skin isn’t so thick and I found myself nearly shut down by the suffering I was seeing. I hadn’t seen this extreme contrast between rich and poor since my travels in India.

Week 2. I’m outside talking on the phone when helicopters appear overhead. The Mid-Market chaos had escalated into a full-on lockdown. Dozens of police officers in formation and yellow tape everywhere. Something big had gone down but the crowd chatter was vague. Later that afternoon I learned that a man had attacked a police officer and was killed one block from where I stood. I was definitely not on the balcony anymore.

Today I’m still trying to make sense of this crazy corner of High-Tech and Homelessness. But, try as I might, there’s no making sense of it. San Francisco is an incredibly wealthy city with extreme poverty, mental illness, and drug abuse in the streets. For every article you see praising this worldwide innovation hub, there are hundreds of people just trying to make it through the day. Nowhere is this more visible than Mid-Market.

Department of Public Health Director Barbara Garcia has said of the downtrodden, “These are our patients.” She’s right. They are the people our public health systems need to serve most. In marketing lingo, they’re part of my target market. I can’t ignore them. I have to see them in order to know how we can serve them.

But I won’t get the job done if I feel overwhelmed by the environment. So after a couple weeks of confusion and a little bit of “what the hell have I done?” I decided it was time to move past the initial shock of the dance floor.

I started watching people — particularly my new Health Network colleagues — for inspiration. I work with incredibly smart people who have worked in public health for 10, 20, and 30+ years. They cure sickness, deliver babies, and comfort people on their worst days. They show up early, stay late, and come back the next day to do it again. How did they do it and stay so positive?

One thing that struck me was their shoes. They were all wearing thick soles, sneakers, clogs. I was still wearing my business-lady shoes, sometimes even heels. It hit me. Maybe I didn’t know how to rock this dance floor yet, but I was definitely wearing the wrong shoes.

That weekend I visited my fashion godmother Kristine who outfitted me with a hand-me-down wardrobe of thick-soled shoes — pink sneakers, suede brogues, black leather Adidas with leopard print. I don them like armor every morning before I head into the city. They allow me to walk fast, run for the bus, pivot when needed. I call this look “sporty doctor” in recognition of my new colleagues, and I think it’s working.

Week 4. I’m adapting. I plan my walking routes more deliberately. And, truth be told, I don’t look as closely as I did on Week 1. I won’t defend this as the most compassionate approach, but for now it’s the only way I can stay on the dance floor long enough to help.