On March 14, thousands of students participated in a national school walk out to demonstrate their support for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students after a shooting occurred at their high school in February, in Parkland, Florida. The survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting have demanded change in gun regulations and have inspired youth around the country, including those at our very own San Francisco State University. Continue reading Students Walk for Gun Control
Open relationships are a lot like pineapple on pizza – people either love it or hate it. But as all new and different things, maybe don’t knock it until you try it. First things first – what does an open relationship entail? Continue reading Opening Up About Being Open
Seniors of the Women and Gender Studies department at San Francisco State University slowly filtered through the door of room 131 in the Humanities building. Most of the tables and chairs were pushed towards the walls of the room, leaving only two tables in the center. The seniors took their seats around the classroom and chatted with each other. As the room filled with more people, the volume grew and the atmosphere transformed from dull to lively.
The last senior walked into the classroom and Julietta Hua, the W.G.S. department chair and the class’ professor, considered it a que for her to take her position in the center of the class. Her outfit—a blue-knit sweater, a black a-line skirt, and thin-framed glasses—and confident stance displayed her authority over the class.
Starting with the student closest to the door, Professor Hua asked each student how their week went. The class only met once a week on Wednesday afternoons, so she decided it was important to start it by checking-in with each person to see if their physical and mental health improved or diminished from the prior meeting. Her goal is to make sure they felt included, a theme that not only ran the class, but also the entire department.
Although the class is taught around the idea of inclusion, its overall focus is on the creation of a publication that reflects what is taught in the W.G.S. department.
“Early on there is the collective brainstorm of ideas, themes. And then they decide, sort of what they want to contribute, what role they want to play,” shared Professor Hua. She does not contribute anything to the publication, but she acts as the managing editor by making sure students stay on task and create a piece they are proud to publish.
The department chair has taught the class for a couple of years, but the department started the publication long before she was hired in 2006.
Throughout the years the publications became a combination of informative and personal pieces that showed how the students dealt with their own experiences and the experiences of the public, whether it was from a political or social perspective.
“It’s a research based article or its more of a conventional news piece or research piece, but the purpose of the collaboration is to reflect together with a group of your graduating classmates and to think about what-what is a feminist intervention,” explained Hua. “What does it look like and what does it look like when you have to think about it with other people, like collectively.”
Professor Hua continued asking around the room, finally landing on Shonnon Gutierrez. She perked up, pushed her hair behind her ears and shoulders, and recounted how she felt over the previous seven days. Many of the responses Professor Hua received from her students were short or delved into hardships, but Shonnon was more positive. She explained how happy she was because she had the chance to go dancing the night before, something she could easily be caught doing when she was not commuting or doing homework. With all the adversities that the average American could face, she was glad she woke up to see another day.
At forty-seven-years-old, Shonnon is finishing her last semester at SF State. As she grew up in Los Angeles, she never finished high school and started having children in her early twenties, eventually having a total of two sons and one daughter. When 2014 rolled around, her two older children moved out which left her with less responsibilities and more free time. She knew it was her opportunity to start her academic career again, but she was unsure of how difficult enrolling into a community college could be.
“I didn’t have my GED [General Education Development Tests] and I didn’t qualify for a Pell grant due to that,” shared Shonnon. The fear of being academically held back because of past decisions pushed her to work hard for her GED diploma. She received it in May of 2014 then started community college shortly after that.
Her perseverance did not end with the start of community college. She was able to graduate in the spring of 2016 and was even asked to be a commencement speaker.
When she began attending SF State, she knew majoring in women and gender studies was the right choice for her.
“My parents are from Mexico and my mother had to deal with a lot of machismo from my father. My mother divorced my father and got citizenship on her own,” expressed Shonnon. She continued, saying that her mother’s struggle to be successfully independent and finding her identity guided her to the W.G.S. department and helped her choose a topic for her piece going in the publication.
“On my own, I’m going to do a piece on identity, on claiming identity, and what that means whether it be gender identity, cultural identity. I identify as Chicana and what does that mean by claiming Chicana, what does it mean by claiming an identity,” shared Shonnon. She decided to format her piece as a letter to her daughter that touches on President Trump and America’s current political climate. Shonnon is also collaborating with other students from the class to create a feminist horoscope.
“I feel like my piece is important for the publication because it gives voice to those that are hidden and are denied the claiming of their identities because of the binary systems, because of the gender norms, because of race,” said Shonnon.
Shonnon is not the only student to decide on personal pieces that surround controversial topics. Twenty-two-year-old Ines Diot graduated from SF State in December with a bachelors in women and gender studies. She contributed a piece to the fall 2017 publication that was written as a creative essay.
“I was sitting in my house one day and started reflecting on myself,” explained Diot. She shared that she wanted her piece to be personal by writing about abusive relationships, but it still touched on some heated subjects, such as the monuments of Confederate soldiers being removed. Her essay followed a theme of “out with the old and in with the new.”
Diot not only wrote a piece for the publication, but she also created a video and helped draw the cover while laying out the cover and everyone else’s work. Every publication has followed the idea of being completely student ran. The only part of the process that the students do not work on is the printing—which costs about $200 in total so each student can receive a couple of copies of the final product.
Diot is glad she has a tangible representation of her work at SF State. “I was really, really happy. I loved how it turned out. I keep looking at it because I’m really proud of the work we did,” exclaimed Diot.
As Professor Hua continues teach the class, she pushes her current students to create a piece and publication that is unique to their personal experiences and opinions.
“I think it’s important that at the end of your degree, you’ve had a chance to really take time and reflect on what that degree has meant or the journey you have taken, right? All the different classes, the things you’ve learned and to think about what you’ve taken away from it,” Hua stated.
While the end of Shonnon’s time at SF State draws closer, she plans on going back to school to get a master’s in social work to help survivors of domestic abuse and those that are in need.
She shared some advice for the students taking the senior seminar class next semester. “I would say to really get to enjoy the time with your senior class, seminar class, and make those bonds because I know that a lot of the friendships that I made are going to carry on. But also to take a moment to not only focus on getting work done, but to really enjoy it because this is your last semester and it’s the journey that really counts.”
Previous publications from the class can be found online or in the Women and Gender Studies department. The spring 2018 publication will be available in the fall.
An inbound Muni Metro T train whooshes past the cross-section of 3rd Street and Palou Avenue. A brown paper bag containing an empty Steel Reserve beer can sluggishly drags along the sidewalk like an urban tumbleweed. Three older men sit on a layered red brick square, that houses a palm tree almost as tall as the street light on the corner. They seem to be discussing current events.
There is something to be said about the Bayview District. It may be rough around the edges. It may have a bad reputation. But the sense of community is unmatched.
A beige concrete building with red accents is visible behind the palm tree. The vertical sliding metal door at the entrance is halfway open. Inside, it feels somewhat crowded but not claustrophobic, thanks to a high ceiling. The white epoxy floor illuminates a room with three cars. The oldest is a 1972 blue Ford pickup. Bright yellow automated car lifts suspend the Ford pickup and a 1965 white Mustang convertible. Under the pickup lies the hollow shell of a 1967 grey Mustang Fastback. This is Project Wreckless.
Twelve youth participants ranging in age from thirteen to twenty-one have been given the opportunity to repair old muscle cars, like the 1965 white Mustang convertible, at Project Wreckless. The program is designed to mentor and reinforce positive values for those who are considered “at-risk.” An at-risk youth is defined as a juvenile who finds it difficult to successfully transition to adulthood and the Bayview is a district with demand for such a program.
“About four or five years ago, I had this overwhelming sense of wanting to do more in a positive way,” explains Project Wreckless founder, thirty year old Jordan Langer. “And then one day it kinda hit me like a ton of bricks. Cars… Motorcycles… Things that are loud and go fast have always been a driving force of mine.”
He is particularly upbeat, comfortably sunken into a black couch upstairs in the lounge. “We are doing a very abbreviated version of the full-program because we need to learn ourselves,” he admits. The full program will launch in June. For now, Fridays are reserved for test trials. It is a learning process for both volunteers and participants.
One of the participants, Vince, arrives up the stairs towing a bike by his side. “Do you want any chips?” inquires Tori Freeman, the program manager and mediator, in a motherly tone. She assists participants who are in difficult situations and provides as much support as humanly possible.
The same can be said about everyone at Project Wreckless. The program is built upon a strong support system.
“Some of the kids are from foster families, and others are from broken homes,” Tori explains somberly.
A man with salt and pepper hair and stubble on his chin sits on a different couch and pulls out his iPhone 6 Plus. Lud Dawson has been around since the inception of Project Wreckless three years ago. He has been repairing cars for as long as he can remember. He uses his index finger to thumb through the Microsoft OneDrive he has created. He has created a complex, yet user-friendly, business model that can be applied to future non-profit auto body shops like Project Wreckless.
“We want to show what the expenses are like, so they don’t overspend or underspend,” explains Lud with controlled excitement. He even has vehicle sub-categories depending on the continent. And as he begins to dig even deeper, he displays a step-by-step tutorial for a 2009 Jeep Wrangler manual transmission. That is his expertise.
“The only thing missing is the curriculum. That isn’t my department,” he adds with a chuckle.
Joe Toomey has been part of Project Wreckless for almost a year. He has a Master of Arts focused in Counseling Psychology from the University of San Francisco. He was also born and raised in the City.
“I’ve always worked with kids, and I’ve always had a passion for helping other people. Therapy is kinda awkward. It can be really stale sometimes, and a lot of kids don’t like it or get it. There is a lot of stigma around therapy. Culturally, there is the idea that if you need therapy there is something wrong with you. I see [Project Wreckless] as a therapeutic tool. When I’m here I’m not acting as a therapist, per se. I’m acting as more of a mentor and a coach,” shared Joe.
His therapeutic skills are applicable to the Project Wreckless setting. It is a more hands-on approach that resonates with participants enrolled in the program. The cars are used as a platform to bond and connect. “Sometimes just working on the car itself can be therapeutic. I wanted to figure out how can I do therapy and work on cars with kids.”
The goal is to become a safe space within the community and for participants to eventually transition to mentors. Bayview residents have expressed gratitude for a program like Project Wreckless. The reception has been tremendously positive.
“We have a lot of kids right now that are either currently or have been in the criminal justice system,” Joe adds halfheartedly. “All of our kids are at-risk of substance abuse and getting involved in the criminal justice system. The kids that are still in school are at-risk of dropping out – not necessarily because they’re not capable, but because of the external factors that are getting in the way of them going to school every day.”
Helping a parent complete a job is an external factor. Mental health issues coupled with a lack of health insurance is another. Many qualify for Medi-Cal, but parents and legal guardians may be unaware. Others become involved in gangs and criminal activity.
The rest of the participants trickle in. There are five today. Every Friday at 4 p.m. their time at Project Wreckless begins with reflection. They head up another flight of stairs into a room about the size of a large walk-in closet. This is the War Room, as Jordan symbolically named it. Before class begins, it is encouraged to share thoughts, feelings, doubts, and everything in-between. A faint scent of fresh paint lingers in the room. Which stands to reason, given that the walls are literally wet with fresh white paint. The room is narrow, but perhaps that is the point. Everyone in the room is in close proximity, creating the sense of a safe and intimate environment. The table appears to be comprised of two retrofitted brown doors with chicken-wire glass in each of the centers. They are being held together by blue duct tape.
Everyone goes around the room to discuss a variety of topics, many of which come from a vulnerable place. Many are too personal to repeat. It is reflection without judgment. Trust is paramount. This is a family.
Vince mentions that his phone is broken. He can make calls, but texting is impossible due to a shattered screen. Jordan addresses the issue and asks to speak with him after to further remedy the problem. He’s made it clear he’s available long after the shop closes. The positive influence of Project Wreckless extends far beyond the confines of the building.
The discussion ends. It’s class time.
Everyone slowly makes their way to the ground floor to begin instruction. Participants and volunteers alike are decked-out in grey Dickies mechanic coveralls. The back reads “Project Wreckless.” The word “Wreckless” is in a much larger font, stylized with a wrench in the “k.”
Edwin, thirteen, grabs a wrench from the tool bench and shuffles toward the white convertible Mustang. He’s clenching a salmon-colored rag in his left hand. He also happens to be the youngest in the program.
He is accompanied by his friend and teammate Christian, who is fourteen. Thick black grease begins to form at Edwin’s fingertips as he turns the wrench near the rear left wheel.
“My passion for working on cars and finding out more about them. And being able to fix them… just having a hands-on experience,” Edwin expresses, explaining his interest in joining Project Wreckless.
He transitions to the front of the car and slides under. He’s removing the front bumper. His black Air Force Ones squeak against the white epoxy floor as he rearranges himself. He seems unsure about something. Trent, one of the volunteers, is there to provide valuable information about the next step.
Across the room, Lud is giving Vince, Joseph, and Sheldon a transmission lesson. They are working with a Ford C4 automatic. They are in the disassembling stages. Vince appears to have broken a segment of the transmission. It’s their first time doing this.
“That’s okay,” says Lud. “It’s part of the learning process.”
A light draft blows through a window reinforced by a metal barrier. Fragments of cracked concrete line the window shelf.
“[Project Wreckless] has definitely helped me stay out of trouble because we can’t be on anything. They’re not kicking us out, we’re the ones kicking ourselves out. We’re the ones making the choices, not them,” Edwin asserts as he reflects on the program. “I had a smoking habit, bad grades, and I had bad anger control. That’s what I’m working on… anger management.”
The day ends with dinner around 6 p.m. It includes pasta in a tomato sauce, meatballs, bread and a salad.
When the full-program launches in June, Jordan expects the shop to be open on a car-to-car basis. Time spent will largely be dependent on the car’s level of difficulty. Sessions will also rotate every seven months, with a new group overlapping into the last month of instruction.
“Most of the cars are from Craig’s List, some of them are donated, but the white one is a personal one of my cars,” Jordan explains.
All cars will be auctioned upon completion with one-hundred percent of the proceeds funneling back into the program.
“That’s what kinda sets Project Wreckless apart from a lot of other non-profits and NGO organizations,” expresses Jordan. “They don’t have avenues to generate revenue. They just count on fundraising dinners and individual donors and grants and all that kind of stuff. And Project Wreckless has the ability to actually sell a good, which is the car the youth work on for seven months, and the proceeds from that car go right back into the program. I think this is the first of its kind anywhere. You can write that down.”
It was the coldest day of the year in San Francisco. A low pressure system off the coast sent frigid winds and dismal surfing conditions to the shores of Linda Mar beach in Pacifica, California.
In the parking lot, older surfers declare victory-at-sea from the confines of their cars. Many will retreat home with the heater dial turned all the way up. The waves whimper in the stiff northwest breeze. “Hardly worth a paddle,” a local mutters to his friend.
A van pulls into the lot with surfboards stacked towards the heavens. It is the City Surf Project, a non-profit organization that teaches inner-city kids to surf, and they are paddling out regardless of the wild weather.
Today’s charges are from Mission High school and despite the cold, rough seas, they clamber into wetsuits. It is the day they have been waiting for. Offered as a 7th period P.E elective, the City Surf Project meets with the kids three times a week.
Mondays are for the classroom where they’ll learn more about the sport, culture, and etiquette.
Wednesday, they swim for conditioning and to get more comfortable in the water. Friday, they hit the beach with volunteer surf coaches who will help push them into waves so that they can learn the ancient Hawaiian past time.
For most of the students, this is the only opportunity they’ll have to access the beach. Before the City Surf Project, some had never seen the ocean before.
Surfing is a giant metaphor for life. It teaches perseverance and patience, as well as respect for nature and oneself. The lessons learned from the ocean are instilled into the City Surf Project by its founder, Johnny Irwin.
“The three pillars to the City Surf Projects Philosophy,” Irwin says to a circle of a diverse group of smiling faces, “are to respect nature and our fellow surfers, health, and personal growth.”
Irwin was inspired to start the City Surf Project by his father, late SF State Sociology Professor, John Keith Irwin.
Each beach outing begins the same. First, the students circle up in donated wetsuits and begin a series of stretches and exercises. Then, they go over safety precaution, with the more experienced students pointing out the rip currents and how to avoid them. Next, they talk about their goals, each student desires to progress.
Each student goes around and explains one example of each. Kevin Campos, a Mission High student who commutes from Oakland, California, suggests not eating McDonald’s and playing soccer, when asked how he was going to maintain a healthy life. In the parking lot, he goes over his soccer drills to warm himself before the plunge.
Irwin’s goal is to spread the gospel of surf to those who otherwise would never have the opportunity. His father surfed without the luxuries of wetsuits and leashes in what was called the Bonfire Era of Ocean Beach because surfers had to stoke a blaze on shore to fight off hypothermia. The City Surf Project is Irwin’s way of thanking his father for passing the love of surf onto him.
Many of the students say they joined the City Surf Project because their friends were enrolled and it sounded fun. The program is offered at Mission, Leadership, Independent, and Lowell High school. By the end of the semester, the students have the knowledge and experience to begin surfing on their own.
Not all of the volunteers are experienced surfers at the City Surf Project. SF State Brenda Gonzalez had never surfed a day in her life before signing up to intern.
“As an environmental science and sociology major, I wanted an internship that would encompass both,” Gonzalez said.
In the shorebreak, Gonzalez clutches onto a Gopro camera tightly. Today, her job is to get photos for the City Surf Projects Instagram. Hailing from Monterey Park in Los Angeles, Gonzalez has never been in water this cold before.
“Just like the kids, my parents didn’t go to the beach so I’d bus it to Venice and spend the day there,” says Gonzalez.
After her job is done, she gets a surf lesson of her own. With a bit of instruction, she’s surfing in no time. And just like the kids, she’s hooked on the free thrill of riding waves.
“Humans! Listen to my face hole!”
Tony Sparks has been on stage long enough to know how to capture attention. He stands behind the mic at a sparsely occupied bar on a Monday night. He is two acts into an open mic show.
“Hey, humans!” Sparks shouts from inside the spotlight. “Even y’all in the back at the bar, ignoring the shit outta me. I need for everybody to give this next guy the big love.”
Sparks hands it off to the next comic. Slowly, people are drawn in. The bar fills up. Some people even come to sit around the stage. Two hours later, just before the show ends, the place is hopping.
Sparks is known as the “godfather of comedy” in San Francisco. He has run comedy events throughout the Bay Area for years. He came to San Francisco in the early 1990s, enticed by the city’s reputation as a nucleus of the comedy scene. Instead, he found himself ostracized from the prominent clubs and people of the day.
“This town was a piece of shit,” Sparks says. “It was really cliquey. So I don’t ever want to be that way with people. Hopefully when people hang out with me they get a sense of, ‘okay, I feel accepted and I can do this.’ I don’t want to do to other people what was done to me.”
Sparks set out to develop a more welcoming community of comics. In April of 1999, Sparks started hosting shows at BrainWash cafe and laundromat in South of Market. Calling the place an eclectic venue would not do it justice. The stage was set up against the huge, wall-high windows of the front of the building. The food line cut right through the tables, so most of the audience was separated from the direct vicinity of the stage. People usually talked at the bar, ignoring the show completely. And people were also there to do their laundry.
“It was more of a social hub than a great comedy spot,” comedian Hunter Stoehr says. “It was not a great place to do comedy, but it was a great place to hang out.”
“For people that were just doing open mics, it was the place you could go every single day,” comedian Graham Galway adds. “For people that were more established, it was a place to get an early set in. It was always a pretty large crowd, and it was a good place to meet people.”
Over the years, the strange hybrid establishment became a fixture of Bay Area comedy. BrainWash held open mics five nights a week, most hosted by Sparks.
“It was a great place. It was the foundation for the community,” Sparks explains. “If you needed to know what to do, and to grow, and where to go, you went to the Brainwash. The staff there was wonderful, the people were nice. They really took good care of me. It was like my family. I mean, c’mon, I spent nineteen years with them.”
In December 2017, BrainWash abruptly shut down. The cafe had been struggling to deal with a decline of customers caused by a large construction project next door. It closed with no fanfare, just a note on the locked door. It had been in business for more than thirty years.
The comedy community has been reeling ever since. There are other places that hold open mics in the city, of course, but none of them with the frequency that BrainWash did. Stoehr and other comedians describe the scene as “decentralized.”
“There was a huge gap, a void that opened up once BrainWash shut down,” Billy Catechi, manager of the bar Il Pirata, says. “That was a real shame. The place was one-of-a-kind.”
For the past twelve years, Il Pirata hosted monthly stand up shows. After BrainWash closed, said Catechi, Il Pirata decided to turn their monthly shows into weekly events. They asked Tony Sparks to host. The shows have been running every Thursday since early February.
Il Pirata sits on the corner of 16th Street and Potrero Avenue. Around 5 p.m. on a Thursday evening, Catechi brings a couple rows of chairs into the cleared-out lounge space and assembles a short wooden stage. In the room are several large booths, a spotlight, and a sound station with mixing boards and a big bank of speakers. This is the setup for the evening showcase of more established Bay Area comedians, which starts at 8 p.m.
Until then, there’s open mic out on the patio. The prep work for this event is less elaborate. Catechi pulls one table back a couple feet then plops a mic and speaker in front of the Jack Daniels dartboard. Mere feet away, traffic barrels by on 16th Street.
One-by-one, the comics come in and sign up for their four minutes behind the mic. Everyone who performs that night is a veteran of the process. Many of them know one another from the BrainWash. They mingle out on the patio until Sparks arrives just before six o’clock to kick the night off.
In addition to Il Pirata, Sparks also hosts a regular Monday night show (along with free pizza and videogames) at Milk Bar on Haight Street. The gigs he runs now don’t come close to matching the sense of camaraderie of BrainWash. Still, he continues to host shows, passionate about preserving venues for burgeoning comics to perform.
“What else am I gonna do?” Sparks says. “I’m an old man. I been doing this since I was 16 years old. I don’t know anything else to do.”
An open mic can be a brutal thing. A show is the only place for an aspiring comedian to hone new material. So they go out on a weekday night and try out their budding jokes in front of an audience made up mostly, if not entirely, of fellow comedians.
“There’s a lot of open mics where there’s no audience, there’s just other comics who have already seen most of your jokes,” comedian Travis Thielen shares. “And you only have a couple new things, so it can feel kind of disheartening.”
At Il Pirata, some do better than others. One comic’s tale about hiding pot from his parents as an adult garners some earnest chuckles, while another’s rant about millenials falls flat. Admittedly, the latter scenario is more common.
This is why the geniality of Tony Sparks is such a key to the success of the night. Even when he delves into darker personal topics, there is a buoyancy to him. Sparks has a way of delivering jabs that feel like both a roast and encouragement.
During a recent show at Milk Bar, Sparks addressed a comic who had just performed a set that was met with silence from the audience. The main factor for the icy response, perhaps, was a complete lack of discernible jokes anywhere in the routine.
“That was beautiful, although I didn’t understand shit you was saying,” Sparks said as he took back the mic. “Don’t feel bad. The rest of them,” he gestured toward the audience, “they were ignoring you very openly.” Then he turned on the audience: “You guys are bullies. He poured his heart out and you shit all over him.”
The ribbing is anything but discouraging. Comedian Tammy Clarke works at open mics and with Sparks to hone her craft. In August she will be opening for shows headlined by comedian and actress Mo’Nique.
“Honestly, I’ve gotten nothing, but love and support in this comedy sector,” Clarke says. “It feels good.”
The moment each comedian finishes their set, Sparks belts out an enthusiastic “Yaaaay!” and prods the room to break into another round of applause. When a brand-new comic comes up, Sparks leads the audience in a short chant of “lots of love” to build up the energy in the room.
“Sometimes there’s one thing that you do in life that just makes you so fucking happy,” Sparks explains. “When I host these shows, or when I get on stage, I’m so happy. I’m so incredibly happy. I have so much fun.”
Still, there’s no filling in the hole that the loss of the BrainWash created in Sparks’s life. His discontent about living in San Francisco hasn’t abated in the nearly three decades of his residency.
“I don’t trust the city, I don’t like it,” Sparks admits. “I don’t like the people. I hate everything about it. Everything. The only thing I loved about it is gone; that was the BrainWash.”
Sparks says he has gotten invitations from venues in other cities to go create his own BrainWash-type establishment. Still, there is something that, for now, keeps him in San Francisco.
As the open mic wraps up at Il Pirata, Sparks thanks everyone for coming out and congratulates them on their performances. Then he goes inside, hops up on the stage, and launches into his next comedy showcase.
“Hey guys, should I go broke and buy food? Or should I go hungry during class?” Someone behind me proposed.
No answer. Just footsteps beside him as they exited the Humanities Building.
“GUYS. Should I buy food or go hungry?” he demanded. After a couple of moments he grumbled to himself, and parted from the group.
I understood this student’s “hangry” frustrations. I wake up and scramble to get to class on an empty tank. As the day goes on, I regret not packing that banana with me to have it as “lunch.” Though I do have some money to spend on food at the student store, I often experience buyer’s remorse for spending more than three dollars on a package of Pop-Tarts.
I am one of thousands of students in college dealing with food insecurity, in addition to trying to maintain an organized adult life. Recent studies conducted by the California State University system concludes that 41.6 percent of students in the system have reported that they are experiencing food insecurity. But it doesn’t stop there.
A closer look at this statistic reveals that this number is divided between two categories: 20 percent reported they are experiencing low food security, while the rest of the 21.6 percent have reported really low food security.
Food insecurity and hunger are not the same. According to the USDA, low food insecurity is described as “reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.”
So schools are just starting to figure out we are all starving and we suck at eating healthy. What else is new.
Upon transferring to San Francisco State University from a small cozy town, I realized how much I took food for granted. I never noticed how much my parents shelled out to buy food for my family.
The first time I went to the grocery store, I was stoked. I went down the shiny aisles at Costco, filling my cart with whatever my heart desired, as well as eggs and orange juice to make an effort to stay healthy. But as I saw the items add to the total during checkout, I felt my wallet shrink with each scanned item.
Shit. Not only was I tight on cash afterwards, but at this rate I would have to figure out how to eat less to make ends meet.
Some of us have heard the phrase “Freshman 15,” meaning gaining fifteen or more pounds as a common result of going away to college during the first year. However, this isn’t about getting fat. The bigger picture is poor nutrition amongst the student population.
Rather than having Mom’s hearty home cooked meals to satisfy that pang during dinner time, it is usually suppressed with something small grabbed on the way to class or something cheap.
“So- I see a lot of Starbucks,” reported Wanda Siu-Chan, Dietetic Internship director and lecturer at SF State. She states that there is little nutritional value in drinks like boba or coffee, so allocating that money towards something more wholesome like soup, will give you much more energy than a temporary caffeine high. “I hope that people are eating rather than just drinking their lunch.”
In LA, I never spent much more than five dollars buying street food. With meals costing an average between eight and sixteen dollars in San Francisco, it makes spending four dollars on a bag of chips worth putting off my hunger that way instead of “treating myself” to a meal out in the city.
Skipping meals seems harmless at first, but this habit can have long term effects besides lack of energy or not being able to focus in class.
“We [dietitians] see some of the obesity- hunger paradox, where people are maybe eating enough calories or excess calories but not the nutritious ones.” Wanda explained. She pointed out that student stores have a variety of sugary and salty snacks that are full of empty calories that can contribute to weight gain. “So over the long term, those [eating habits] can increase risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.”
The picture of malnutrition varies, just as eating habits vary. “Alot times when we think of malnutrition, we think ‘underweight and very thin’,” Wanda commented. “But malnutrition just means ‘poor nutrition’. You can be over nourished in some ways, and under in others”
With college students reporting their current experiences with food insecurity, they are starting to become a growing “at risk” population. So how did we get here?
A further look into the CSU Basic Needs Initiative reported that the combined top reason why students are struggling with food is we are broke, and we do not know how to cook. Brilliant.
The 70.4 percent that fall into this category gave the following reasons for being food-insecure:
- 31.1 percent don’t have access to desirable food
- 19.2 percent were unable to prepare a well-balanced meal
- 10.2 percent forgot to eat
- 10.2 percent were dieting
As much as I needed to eat, I hated going to the grocery store. Since I was getting accustomed to the city life, I wasn’t working, and so I pulled twenty dollars here and there to pay for the basic fridge staples.
Whenever I spoke on the phone with my mom, I avoided talking about what I ate because it was upsetting to know I was totally letting myself down. I did not think moving away would be like this. The hunger just added to the feeling of being homesick.
My mom, for as long as I can remember had always gotten up earlier than I did, and made me breakfast, had my lunch ready, and dinner on the table after a long day at school. It was not until I started trying to cook for myself that I realized how endless a mother’s love can be.
Finally, I fessed up to her that I was tired of eating the same cereal every morning, packing peanut butter and jellies, and choosing either chicken or beef to go with my rice.
“Mija, apply for food stamps,” my mom pressed. “There’s no shame in it. It’s there to help you pay for food. Your aunt has one.” She had been pushing for me to apply since I moved to San Francisco, but this was before I realized how much buying groceries would eat away at my savings. I just didn’t think I would need it.
The Human Services building in San Francisco is much like the DMV, with the exception of the metal detector. When you enter you grab a number, sit with a bunch of annoyed people, and wait until your number is called.
The first time I went, I had to gather documents I never heard of before, which made me nervous. Once I sat with my caseworker, fortunately I was eligible except for one little thing. I was not working the minimum of twenty hours a week or part of the work-study program on campus.
What the fuck.
My heart sank. How was I supposed to find a job right now or figure out if I can be a work-study student?
I thanked the case worker, and left the beige building defeated. When I called my mom and told her I was rejected, there was nothing she could say because, she didn’t know what to do from there. I was on my own to figure this out.
I took in the big skyscrapers around me and could not help but feel so small. My health was a bigger concern, so there was no way in hell I was going to keep paying for my food. I was simply a few hoops away from getting what I needed to become eligible.
After a series of emails with student services on campus and submitting more paperwork, I was given the thumbs up for work-study. Within that same week, I was practically skipping down to the Human Services building assured that would be the day I would get approved.
To my surprise, I received not actual stamps, but a plastic card that looked like an ordinary debit card that I could spend at places where it was accepted. So I was not limited to grocery stores like Safeway but, I could go to Costco again with some piece of mind that my wallet would suffer no more.
Studies show that less than half of CSU students are eligible to receive food stamps after factoring in dependency status, household data, federal work rule, and exemptions. Although there is a small number of students that qualify, 39.5 percent have never heard of this service, while 19.6 percent were convinced that it did not apply to them.
Max Schroder, President of the Student Dietetic Association at SF State took it upon herself last semester to help students apply for CalFresh, a federal program formerly known as “food stamps” that helps people with paying for groceries.
“I would actually do the application for them,” Max informed. By taking students information over the phone, the process of applying was reduced to just waiting on a phone call. “Just that extra push of having someone do it for you is signing a lot more students up.”
The service has changed since then and people can no longer directly call and help students on campus. So students must find out on their own time, if they are eligible.
Unbeknownst to a lot of students, there are other ways to receive help with buying groceries. Reports from the CSU system state that about half of the students either did not know that their campus had a food pantry or that information was not offered.
“Students were the ones to figure out they were hungry, not the school system.” commented Horace Montgomery, the programs and services director of Associated Students Inc. at SF State.
Every Monday about two thousand pounds of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other random goodies like cracker jacks or waffle cones are delivered to SF State’s Pop-Up Food Pantry by the SF Marin Food Bank.
Food pantries are a relatively new thing, however Associated Students members had their student body in mind when it came to health. “What do you call food insecurity at the time? They just want to be able to help their students” Horace answered.
Before the food pantry, there was the beginning of the AS all-organic farmers market established twelve years ago by Jeremy Nicoloff, a graduate representative on the board of AS. “He was hell-bent on nutrition and the importance of how we were able to eat and that affects how we learn,” Horace recalled.
Jeremy had gone out of his way to purchase a license to operate a farmer’s market on campus, as well as make it all organic.
“That was the first time that AS noticed that food was important to the education of this campus,” Horace added.
The idea of a pantry was introduced by Associated Student President, Phoebe Dye back in 2016, and the goal was to give students in need accessibility to fresh food. Once they partnered up with the local food bank they were able to launch in spring of 2017. Now having just completed a year of servicing students in February, their numbers have gone from 50 students to over 200 being served about twenty pounds of food.
Although students come and leave, there is a lot more going on behind the scenes that is incorporated into making this program successful.
“How do we figure out what need is?” questioned Horace. With some planning, a survey was created that is filled out when people sign up to self-report their needs.
Kevin Tan, a twenty-year-old biochemistry and Chinese double major, had just started using the food pantry this semester. With fruits and vegetables being so expensive, this service has made an impact on his savings as well as his overall eating habits.
“Before the food pantry I used to skip out on breakfast,” said Tan. “Right now the food pantry gives out some really neat snacks where I can actually eat some right before class starts.”
For Horace, fighting food insecurity through providing is only the beginning of the battle against hunger. “It’s a real thing,” Horace concurred. “It’s going to take a long-term effort, and a multi-pronged effort. The food pantry to me is just one way”
He believes that it is not enough to simply provide the food, because some students don’t know how to cook.
“I think we are only doing half of it,” admitted Horace. “Providing you all this stuff, but if you don’t know how to cook a damn Brussel sprout then who cares how nutritious it is, you didn’t get to eat it!”
We laughed at the thought of how much people struggle to cook the simplest things, but this is the reality of it.
In my short couple of years living in SF, I have seen some interesting alternatives to cooking. I thought back to my roommate who tried to cook a plain old potato by microwaving it in water, but then took it out and placed in the oven first without preheating it. She waited about an hour before it was done cooking.
And then there was my roommate a year and a half ago who got too lazy to cook what she had in the fridge–that is if you consider heating frozen food “cooking”—and decided to eat a whole bag of cuties for dinner.
Good lord, do we need knowledge more than ever.
Food pantry volunteer, and a member of Student Dietetic Association, Rebbeca Wan helps students get creative with the choices they’re given at the pantry.
“I share recipes on how to cook these items, and not just using one item per dish,” she mentioned. “Kind of variate it to not just make it lunch everyday, but you can make it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
The conclusive page of the CSU Basic Need Initiatives carries a list of what needs to be done in order to improve the current hunger situation on campus. One big point is to basically utilize our on-campus resources more until they come up with a long-term solution.
Well, thanks for shining the light on the obvious for fifty-three pages in a row.
The bottom line is that getting food is not enough, spreading knowledge of how we can eat, and eat better, is one of the few ways to fight off hunger, and conversely food waste.
“We have gone and said ‘hey providing this fresh stuff for you. This is important to eat this fresh stuff—but you don’t know how to prepare it.” acknowledged Horace. “We need to find ways to get to their level so they understand where we’re trying to go with it.”
With the help of others actively sharing tips or helping cook we can prevent malnourishment in students and enlighten people, like my roommate, on how to properly cook a potato.
“We have to fight for everything we have in addition to the scholarship itself.” Dr. Ifetayo Flannery talks about one of the ways Africana Studies is such a unique discipline.
Fighting for rights and acceptance is no new concept to African Americans, or the achievements they work for the benefit of their culture.
Africana Studies has not been given a break in the fight to exist and to stay above water here at San Francisco State University and throughout the world.
Dr. Ifetayo Flannery is an Atlanta born professor of Africana Studies at San Francisco State University. Stoked about teaching on the same campus that 50 years ago created the very first Ethnic Studies concentration, Flannery reminds students in each class session that they’re in for a treat this semester.
As an undergraduate at Georgia State University, Dr. Flannery was encouraged to take an Africana studies class and according to her, “That one class had fundamentally changed so much.” From that point on, then Maria Flannery, started on an important journey.
“I learned that I wasn’t thinking on my own behalf as much as I thought I was.”
Flannery described one of the reasons that Africana studies appealed to her.
“To be able to understand who I actually was as an African American in the larger context, as an African person in the world, and all the contributions that people had made for me and others based on my lineage, shifted everything else.”
Africana Studies, once known as Black Studies, was the aftermath of civil rights movements in the Bay Area that eventually boiled over right onto our campus. Civil rights encouraged a broader perspective and a new way of thinking.
“The American story was different, my identity was different, how I perceived others was different, how I perceived problems and solutions in community was completely different based off my exposure to information that was actually coming from the Afrocentric perspective.” Ifetayo explains, reflecting on the the previously stated perspective through the lens of Africana studies.
“Without Africana Studies I’d probably, no, I’d definitely be a completely different person.”
Dr. Flannery reflects on her journey, “My exposure to Africana studies influenced my success and my choices about graduate level education all the way up to terminal degrees, the PHD.”
In summary, the University of Kansas explains, “What is Africana Studies?”
In their statement, “Black Studies, or Africana Studies more broadly, is an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approach to studying and understanding the experiences of African people and African-descended people across the Diaspora.”
K-12 programs teach history through one general perspective, that being the Eurocentric perspective. The University of Kansas’ African and African American Studies added, “…the goal of Africana Studies was to transform higher education… altering traditional curricula limited by Eurocentric paradigms.”
Those same paradigms were challenged in a boycott that shut down SF State for five months just 50 years ago. SF State’s current Africana Studies department chair, Dr. Dawn-Elissa Fischer, highlighted the battle fought right here on campus.
“We (Africana Studies Department) were born out of the longest student strike in history on a four year university campus.”
Although we are approaching the 50 year mark of the concentration, maintaining and expanding has been an ongoing conflict. Throughout Flannery’s higher education, she has observed the ups and downs of the concentration.
“Scholars in Africana Studies tend to have to work harder…” she pointed out, “We’re a very select group of people who tend to be extraordinarily committed and constantly bombarded with racism, underfunding, always threatened with reduction, offerings, all the things that you could imagine that people in other departments are not familiar with, particularly at the graduate level.”
In addition to underfunding at campuses out of state and the universities Flannery has attended, issues of underfunding and reductions occur here at SF State.
Dr. Fischer uncovered background from the 2016 hunger strike here at SFSU.
“It was essential for us to be able to hire Flannery; previous to professor Flannery’s employment with our University, we lost many professors; due to death, retirement, or leaving for another job.”
“Late March into April, even into May, I still wasn’t certain if I was going to receive the job officially because of a sudden budget crisis when it came to hiring two new hires.” Dr. Flannery reflects on the issues behind the hunger strike.
Although a number of professors were leaving the department, a balance was not created in the number of faculty members coming into the program. Fischer pointed out, “had we not been able to hire Dr. Flannery, we would’ve been without that faculty line… these are our permanent faculty lines and if they are not replaced when faculty members die, then it is an assault on the department and it is a disservice to students’ degree completion.”
So the students went on a hunger strike…
Although Flannery was not in San Francisco, during the hunger strike, she recalls, “…people had to protest, people wrote letters all the way up to the chancellor’s office about my hire, so it’s not a normal hire.”
“It’s definitely in the tradition of black studies,” she says excitedly. “Having to fight for any and every resource and expansion that we have. So it’s my great honor that they won…”
The battle was once again fought, and more importantly, it was won.
“Africana studies is so important to me.” Flannery expressed. “It touches me at the core level. To me it has meant a freedom, a liberation of the spirit of the consciousness of myself and other people. Africana studies means better lifestyles, enlightenment, liberation to all African people, and by extension, people all over the world.”
Dr. Ifetayo M. Flannery is a marker of the Africana Studies discipline. Having double majors as an undergrad, focusing in psychology and African American Studies. She went on to earn her Master’s in Africana Studies and most astoundingly, she earned her PHD at the first campus to offer such a high degree in Africology, Temple University of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Dr. Fischer shared her appreciation of Dr. Flannery.
“We are very lucky to have professor Flannery, her PhD is in Africology and African American studies from Temple, therefore she is an example of the triumph of this discipline.”
Dr. Flannery shared her own appreciation of her position here at SF State by confessing, “I’m so grateful to be here and the significance is that, San Francisco State is ground zero for black studies, it is the institution that created the first black studies department in the world and in the academy.”
She concluded her reflection by saying, “It’s a dream, it’s an honor, and we had to fight for me to be here so I don’t take it for granted at all.”
As a journalist, as a writer, you get used to the questions. Constant, prying, queries.
Who are you? Who do you work for? Where are you from? What did you do today?
Why does your voice matter? Who are you to tell me what to think?
Do you trust yourself?
If you take these questions, and examine them at their core- these are the thoughts that haunt us all. They are insecurities about our self worth, about the value of each individual thought. They are not bad questions to ask, but they aren’t necessarily direct. These questions provide solace from the qualms of being truly human, and to question everything- as well as ourselves.
As a publication, however, we are not here to answer that particular set of questions.
Instead, we would like to offer you a proposition: you ask, and we will answer.
Those curious about Veteran Healthcare in the United States, we will answer.
The filmophile who breathes for the freedom of film, we will answer.
For those who live for musical nostalgia, we will answer.
To the paw protectors, the Dogs’ best friends, we will answer.
Lovers of the spoken words and velvet curtains, we will answer.
The students who are struggling with the hull of university stress, we will answer.
For those who have gone through hell and back, we will answer.
XPRESS is a multifaceted, diverse, literary conglomeration of news and culture. We are writers who are defining our voices, writing for students who are finding their voices.
And what we ask of you, our readers, is the opportunity to be your eyes, your ears. To transport, to educate, to uncover.
We are here for you, and cannot wait for this new adventure.
The clock lingers at 1:49, the deep breath before students are finally granted their freedom. It is the last class of the day and the only thing that sounds bearable is just, getting outside. Whether a windy trip down to Ocean Beach, or a hike at Fort Funston, located just across from Lake Merced. The sun is beating down during the San Francisco heat in the middle October. Blood pumping and fresh air sounds like the only thing that can relieve the pressure of school.
Classes are starting to get out of control with non-stop papers and uncomfortable presentations in front of groups of eighty odd students floating in the same boat as you in the abyss of stress.
Passing by people walking their dogs or flying their model airplanes, it seems they have their lives all together which feels like a slap in the face with all of the stress from school. However, the smell of the ocean and autumn leaves counteracts this effect. Finally having some time alone to think while walking up through the old army base covered in colorful graffiti, an eye-catching hole in the fence near the edge of the hiking trail starts to infect the mind with curiosity.
“It seems silly, but this hole in the fence changed my perspective on life and how to go about it,” chuckled Nick Marnocha, a 23-year-old business major at San Francisco State University. “I seemed to have stumbled upon what would be my sanctuary for the rest of my semester and the next.”
Marnocha steps through the rusted fence thinking nothing of it as he starts to creep down the side of the cliff until he reaches a steady platform of sand, salted rocks, and a patch of sea foam green grass just the perfect size for Marnocha to sit on and gaze out on the uninterrupted masses of blue. This is where water meets the sky. The Pacific Ocean rolled in and out creating intricate designs of white water marks grazing the shore and after a few moments of cloud surfing he shuts his eyes. Marnocha began to meditate for the first time in his ripe age of 23.
“I just began to breath and listen to the ocean, the wind and the birds,” Marnocha said with a smirk. “I thought I was sitting there for about ten minutes, but when I finally opened my eyes almost an hour had slipped by my mind. It felt amazing and helped me from that moment on to always stay present with what I am doing in school–or anything for that matter.”
According to a French study done last year in January by the Frontiers of Psychology, who took a total of 483 students and ran tests on their mental health and stress levels, they found that 79% of them were suffering or showing signs of anxiety, depression, as well as low self-esteem and little optimism.
“I believe in pronoia,” explained Christopher James a graphic design major. “It’s just the opposite of paranoia where your perspective includes the universe always being in your favor with what you do in life, no matter how much it doesn’t seem like it’s going your way. This helps me with my stress, since I know whatever I do has a beneficial reason for what I am trying to accomplish.”
Be that as it may, factors of stress are not all as tangible as one would assume because there is something in our body that everyone has, but is frequently forgotten.
“Energy, like with chakras, can also be thought of like the flow of electrons traveling through the nervous system. I don’t truly believe in chakras, but I do think it is a helpful way for people to understand how to deal with stress,” explained Mark Wilson, graduate of Cognitive Science from SF State. “Similar to a chemical imbalance in the brain, I could see where chakras and their concept are very much alike.”
Indeed, we are living, but more than that, there is a life force within in us that has everything and everyone connected. Unfortunately, for the freaks and the geeks, we’re not talking about Star Wars and lifting rocks, but something less extreme, or even more impressing, depending on whom you talk to. Our bodies have energy coursing through us at all times, like snow melting from a mountain, turning into water. This water rushes down the streams and rivers for which, we drink, as snow again builds on top of that same mountain. It is truly a circular pattern that connects one to the top of this mountain.
“What helps with the flow of energy being transferred through our bodies does have to do with seven chakras located in different areas, including the mind,” Mya Ranngi explained, who has been based in West Portal as a spiritual consultant and adviser for over five years. “People who go through traumatic experiences or large amounts of stress are highly likely to block one of their chakras, which in the end creates blockage for the other six.”
Let’s take the analogy of the water flowing from the mountain again and compare it to one of the many students at SF State struggling with stress from their full time schedule. A massive tree falls from the side of the stream and ends up blocking a part of the river and begins to back-up all the “energy” that started from the top of the mountain. This resembles the stress of a test, or a roommate that you just can’t seem to get along with, and this can slowly intoxicate your body.
“Depending on what one is experiencing will affect a specific chakra. The first chakra is the root chakra at the base of the spine,” Ranngi noted.
Like any teachings of mindfulness, energy is similar, but also different in every single sentient being that lives on our planet. There is no direct way in finding out what will mostly benefit you on relieving stress, and theories range among thousands of different techniques.
“I don’t know too much about chakras, I’ve been going to a specialist for acupuncture ever since I graduated from SF State”, Campus Counselor Jenna Tomsky insisted, who gained her diploma in 2014. “My specialist has spoken to me about energy flowing through the body and how blockage is a main cause of stress as well.”
So where can find the other locations to the remaining six chakras?
“Moving up to the sacral chakra right below the navel, the solar plexus chakra in the stomach, the heart chakra in the chest, the throat chakra, the third eye chakra in the forehead, and finally the crown chakra at the top of the head,” Ranngi listed. “Emotions are extremely influential to all these areas and having control of your emotions is a huge step in gaining balance from within.”
Physical health is important, but with all the stress us students face, it’s just as important to keep yourself balanced with the energy flowing through your body, so that massive trees don’t clog up the water traveling down the mountain.
Everyone will always tell you to “do what you love”.
Whether it’s to be a tax attorney or Instagram model, someone will make sure to tell you to get a job that never seems like work. The students of the San Francisco State University Theater and Dance department live by this motto, and exemplify what it means to pursue passion, and wave away the confines of a mundane nine to five.
In the middle of campus sits the creative arts building, a treasure trove of performance spaces and thespians working to to master their craft.
“Our students are really open to constructive criticism, getting better, and checking their egos at the door.” says associate professor Laura Wayth.
Professor Wayth has been tasked with directing the department’s spring production of Hair, the revolutionary, counter-culture musical depicting the turbulent times of the Vietnam, hippie era.
According to department director, Todd Roehrrman, “This department always specifically chooses productions that looks at what’s happening in the world currently and speak to what’s going on socially and politically. Hopefully our productions hold a mirror up to our audiences and ask them to examine what’s going on in their own world.”
Though the department is eager and excited to premier their production, there is a shadow cast upon this joyous occasion.
During the winter recess, one of the department’s most beloved and skilled professors, Mohammad Kowsar, passed away.
Dr. Kowsar was a seasoned actor and professor, having earned his PhD in acting from Cornell and having taught at San Francisco State for 30 years.
Kowsar was noted for his passionate teaching methods and love for theater and students.
“My office was directly across where he taught the Theater Backgrounds history class,” explained Professor Wayth. “Sometimes I would be sitting at my computer, typing, and ask myself ‘What is going on in there?’ He would be shouting, singing, and standing on his desk, it was really amazing. I would always sit here and think ‘I want to take that class!’”
Even without the presence of Professor Kowsar, the community of the theater and dance department is still lively and still looks forward to what they have in store for the future
The San Francisco State Production of Hair is set to premier in the Little Theater April 26th
In 2014 there was a big scandal at one of the VA Hospitals in Phoenix, Arizona. The staff there were accused of falsifying appointment records to make it look as though patients were properly meeting their doctor within two weeks of their appointments. The F.B.I. and an internal investigation showed that the hospital had operated maliciously by lying about appointment wait times, and forty patients are said to have died waiting.
“When the news of a VA in Phoenix, Arizona first came out I remember my coworkers and I to be very shocked,” says Claudette Araula, who is a registered nurse at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “We were already overworked and constantly understaffed because we could not get new staff due to budget issues and another VA was trying to earn more budget by manipulating information.”
Together, veterans and nurses are saying that the Veterans Affairs needs to make changes in order to insure that wait times and access to their hospitals are up to standard. Not all veterans use their VA hospital because most are still young, live far away from one of the 170 medical centers in the country, and some veterans opt for private healthcare through their work.
It’s true that hospitals had financial incentives to decrease wait times from the administration, and falsifying those reports left some veterans and nurses to question the integrity of the system at the time. While there was good being done to make veterans feel welcomed and have their needs met, there was a possible schism.
In 1968 Earle Conklin, a United States Army veteran who fought during the Vietnam War, enlisted and traveled the world. Today he is retired and lives in Portland, Oregon. He was one of the originators of the “Take the Rock Veteran Swim Challenge” event, which is a combined swim meet that prepares veterans and their families to swim from Alcatraz to the beach. This is one of the joys Earle has after retirement, and he laughs at people who think it’s too cold to swim.
Healthcare, Earle iterates, has changed a lot since the 1960s. Communication and technology then was not as streamlined or as fast as it is now. While Earle remembers working in helicopters and helping soldiers get out of harm’s way and to medical assistance, he realizes how different the struggle is for him and his peers to find the best healthcare.
He stresses that “it is more of a question of economics than politics. Politicians will use this for politics.” Earle continues to express what a terrible situation 2014’s VA scandal was, and laments by saying, “I don’t know if it’s ever been cured.”
“Some of them, not all of them, are in it for themselves. A few people at the senior level of Veterans Affairs gained the system for only personal gain. And this happens in banking too and what you see happening at Wells Fargo creating fake accounts for profit,” shared Earle.
In response to the 2014 scandal, Congress implemented the Choice Program, which offered patients assistance with transportation and even helped patients find a hospital close to them.
“The choice program is actually a good idea,” stated Claudette. “We have several vets who live very far away from any VA facility and can’t travel by themselves and this program helps them connect to a specialist or primary doctor faster, but it needs to be better regulated. I have heard vets complaining that the MDs they go to try to ‘make money off the VA’ by sending them to specialist of getting test the do not need. Wait times today is still long due to having to many vets and not enough VA facilities and staff.”
The Choice Program, which can help patients find private doctors, has already exhausted its funds twice since August of last year and Congress provided 2.1 billion dollars of emergency funding for both incidents.
There is a mixed response about the program and towards any privatization of services that are offered by Veterans Affairs. The problem some have is that the Choice Program would take away monies that would be appropriated to Veterans Affairs.
Michael Blecker is the executive director at Swords to Plowshares, a non-profit group that specializes in the counseling, housing, and job training of veterans, and he cannot be more clear about what he sees as an attempt by President Trump’s administration to privatize healthcare.
“The V.A. shouldn’t pay them for private care and I worry about the veterans in the VA who are seeing money being taken away.” Michael expressed. “Right now the Choice Program is taking 200 to 400 million dollars a month in funding.”
Michael has his own opinion on the scandal that happened at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix. Although it was sad, he thought the scandal was blown way out of proportion and used by some to vilify Veterans Affairs while creating the Choice Program in response to the outcry.
“Money shouldn’t be diverted from the VA but the media and others got it twisted.” Michael continues to say that the news coverage about how patients were dying waiting for their appointments was sensationalized.
Veterans and nurses like Michael and Claudette both praise how healthcare has stepped forward to treat those with post-traumatic stress and depression, even if they were a veteran who never experienced combat.
“We provide service to vets from WWII, Korean, Vietnam war- during these times mental health was not a main concern when the vets retired – they are our sickest patients and at times with multiple chronic illness,” Claudette explains. “The focus on mental health started more during the Iraq and Afghanistan War, this patient population are hit most with the wait times and connecting them with primary physicians. There are also those vets that are from non combat times.”
Michael sees better preparation happening for the veterans who have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. He especially sees that colleges like San Francisco State University and student veterans are starting clubs on campus for veterans.
He views these outlets as one of the best ways to return service people to finding the resources while seeking higher education. Again, he says the awareness of the stress that this population experiences has been more proactive than it was in the 1980s. He still is weary about the funding from Congress to the VA and about what he sees as money being taken away by The Choice Program. He also sees that responsibility falling on the current presidency.
“I am disheartened by what the Trump administration is doing“,” Michael lamented. “It’s death by a thousand cuts.”
Richard Hui is both a Marine veteran and a registered nurse at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He knows both how to be a patient and a caregiver, and also sees a lacking of available hospitals.
“You can tell by the wait times,” Richard explains. “Palo Alto and San Francisco’s medical centers for veterans are very busy. Every time I pass by there I see it’s very packed. With long lines I can say there needs to be more hospitals.”
He’s familiar with wait times and how they often happen. Sometimes, he says, a patient will come in scheduled to be treated for one problem, but when the patient sees their doctor they can also say they are needing other treatment for other conditions they have. This is a common scenario that can increase wait times.
Richard details that appointments are sectioned, but that the appointments are not timed, however, fifteen minutes is sort of the average goal he says is given to each patient, and of course he says no one is turned away because they may have more problems after walking into the doctor’s office.
“I have the greatest respect for the physicians, and all the negative news we hear is usually about the administrators,” Army veteran Earle Conklin argues. “The care is exemplary, and it’s high quality.”
“As far as now, a lot of the Vietnam veterans, because of our age, are dying off,” Barry iterates “So now we’re looking at veterans after Vietnam.”
Barry never needed assistance from a VA hospital himself. Like many others he found healthcare provided through his work. As a San Francisco police officer, the department’s insurance paid for his medical treatment and the treatment for his daughter’s mitochondrial disease. He is thoughtful about the healthcare system today and only knows what he sees.
“They’re never the same when they come back. The entry back into society, you have to have a lot of counseling for veterans. And that’s expensive, so the VA is the one that has to do it,” the Army veteran affirms.