Tag Archives: SFSU

Should we put Woke to sleep?

The past tense of awake is woke, obviously. “I woke up,” is what someone could utter any given morning. The word has also been adopted as a slang word with a meaning that is ever expanding, but generally entails being in the know when it comes to social and political enlightenment. A word with such subjectivity allows people to feel a sense of “wokeness” when it comes to just about anything.

Has anyone ever told you to #staywoke? The term has existed for a while, and now got a brand-new make over with its existence on social media. Its social media presence is what caused many to refine or narrow down its meaning.

Many people have various interpretations of the word.

San Francisco State University biology student, Rosa Gutierrez, thinks “…it is when someone is enlightened, or trying to learn about something that is going on around them, and not ignoring the issues that are going on around them.”

American-Indian studies major, Shawnee Sample, believes that, “It’s about seeing different perspectives and different sides to everything, just being able to recognize what’s going down whether it’s political, educational, etc.”

“I think it means being aware of situations and problems that people aren’t aware of,” shares computer science major, David Harvey. “I feel like it’s being overused for now, but with time it will be used less.”

The great thing about social media is that it can get information to circulate on a broader scale. People all over the world can get a laugh from the same memes at the same time! And while that is amazing it’s important to realize that not just memes are being rapidly spread, so are these trends of activism.

We live in a time where big social movements involving hashtags can catapult through the likes of social media. Take #BlackLivesMatter for example, the entirety of that movement started on social media and without social media it would not have spread as widely as it did.

With that being said, even though a social movement as such holds much more value than a trend, it is treated the same when it comes to having a shelf life, which brings me to the topic of being or staying “Woke.”

Even though it has taken off on social media, the term has been around for decades in the Black community. Although not the most reputable source, The Urban Dictionary satirically describes it as “a state of perceived intellectual superiority one gains by reading The Huffington Post.”

A lot of people think that because they were there first they get to delegate what the meaning is and how others should be regarded within that term,” says Ghila Andemeskel, former executive coordinator for the Black Student Union. “In general it does open doors for discussion.”

At the peak of its existence in the world of social media, “woke” seemed to bring a lot of awareness to issues. It also became something that people were striving to be a part of because it was highly looked down upon to be considered not “woke.”

With that popularity arose various problems. On one hand people were beginning to just start calling themselves “woke,” unjustly throwing around the word like Northern Californians throw around the word “hella.” On the other hand, people began to develop this unwarranted sense of intellectual superiority, and additionally it led to a lot of talk of issues, but no action.

“Media is a tool that can be used positively and negatively,” explains Hanna Wodaje, an Africana studies Alumna who currently works at the Black Unity Center. “The word can be like a double-edged sword obviously if it’s used inefficiently.”

The overuse and misuse of the word by people wanting fit in led to a lot of folks misconstruing the meaning. While it is great to care for these issues and give them more attention, the only thing this superiority does is create a divide between people, as opposed to spreading awareness which was the goal from the beginning, which in my opinion is the cause of this dwindling trend.

Often people think that a simple double tap on someone’s “woke” post or a simple retweet is enough and that is as far as their wokeness goes.

“Social media things like hashtags have been an amazing way for people of color and marginalized groups to reclaim their spaces and their platforms,” Wodaje points out.

Even singer and Bay Area native, Kehlani, sported the word as a tattoo in giant letters gracing the back of her hand, which she had covered up at the beginning of this year.

“When I got the ‘Woke’ tattoo at twenty-years-old I thought I was the smartest cookie in the jar,” shared the now twenty-two-year-old in an Instagram post. “I was so ready to declare my intelligence to the world.”

Someone who is truly about that life, lives it everyday. It shows in the company they keep, in them standing up for themselves and others, and it shows in their active activism—not including “Twitter activism”, which is not necessarily bad, but it is not enough to make an actual impact in the community and the lives of others.
We should stop looking at it like it is a finite state of being. There is no end to learning, growing, and becoming better versions of ourselves.

It is wonderful to spread awareness about social issues, the feeling that comes from doing such feels amazing, but anger or bashing should not stem from a difference in thoughts of opinions regarding various topics. I couldn’t decide whether something like this needed a different title like ‘socially conscious’ or maybe we should eradicate titles all together and let our actions speak louder than or words.

Let’s put the focus we have on the term to sleep and wake up our potential to be the catalyst for positive change in our communities. At the end of the day, that is what it is all about.

The Loud Voices of a Quiet Print

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.

Black is the New Black

According to a well known saying, “______ is the new black.” Black is the standard of fashion. Clothing trends come and go, but recently pressure is being put on the fashion industry to let more go then just last season’s wardrobe go.

The lack of diversity in the fashion world goes far beyond the runway. Without cultural representation in major studios there are a great number of problems looming.

For too long designers have not had someone push back on styles and looks that disrespect various cultures. The fight for plus size models, for example, is a story within itself.

Fashion Design Student, Chrystlan Morehead – Tucker at SF State in the design room located in Burk Hall on March 8, 2018. (Kyler Knox/Golden Gate Express).

Skin, body type, sexuality, and culture are all being put into a senior fashion line produced by Chrysalyn Morehead-Tucker. Chrysalyn is a 24-year-old fashion student at San Francisco State University. It was her plan to study fashion at SF State.

“If I was gonna progress in the idea of bringing communities that aren’t represented in the fashion industry to the forefront, it would make more sense to come to a school that has those same views,” she shared.

Chrysalyn’s goal in the fashion industry is to change “the norm.” She explained that giving credit where it is due is the first priority on her list.

“Understanding some of the things that black culture has brought to the fashion industry but has not been given credit. I would love to say that this is something a black person did, this came from the black community,” Chrysalyn shared.

Changing how fashion is interpreted is an important aspect for designers like Chrysalyn, who use their talents to create a dialogue that shifts thinking. She explains that “being a fashion student at SF State kind of opened my eyes to more of what the fashion industry needs rather than what the fashion industry is asking for. I think the program here definitely emphasizes more on being able to change the industry for what it is.”

Chrysalyn is working on various projects that reflect her goals of including communities often overlooked by the fashion industry, such as her senior line that focuses on Afrofuturism. Chrysalyn describes Afrofuturism as “the idea of having black bodies in a futuristic setting and futuristic places.”

Inspired by Star Trek at a young age, Chrysalyn explains, “I’ve always been fascinated with the art form of Afrofuturism… ”

Chrysalyn’s idea is to concoct a combination of sustainability, futuristic settings, and Afrocentricity. She walks through the process and explains that she is “taking traditional African garments like Dashiki and repurposing them for my fashion show.”

She explains why sustainability is an important portion of her work by adding, “consumers are understanding that we need to be more mindful and conscious of what not only our clothes are made out of but what we do with our clothing once we feel like they reached the end of their cycle.”

Chrysalyn explained that sustainability was a process in Africa that was almost second nature to textile producers.

“There’s so much spiritual connection between African weaving, and African dying, and African printing, that means more than just aesthetics. There’s spiritual connections to it and I want to do it justice by showing the prints and the colors that makes Africa stand out from everyone else,” she expresses.

The fashion show put on at the end of year by fashion students is no small project because it pushes students to take everything they have learned and incorporate it into three to six pieces to display in front of their immediate community.

Dr. Dorie, the instructor and an alumna of the program, gave insight on what designers face for the fashion show.

Dr. Dorie explained, “We’re really trying to prepare them to go into the fashion industry and have a strong design aesthetic, so they leave understanding the elements of design and how to execute them,” Dr. Dorie explained

She jokingly added, “[The designers] won’t sleep all semester.”

She gave the timeline of the tireless semester and narrowed it down.

“If you think about a look for one model, that’s about three garments for one model it’s a lot of work.”

Even though the sleepless nights and the ever-changing fashion world, Chrysalyn sets her sights on creating a space in fashion for all people who do not feel like fashion is for them.

Behind the Filters

What filter will it be this time around? What is trying to be “corrected” today? Skin texture? Skin tone complexion? Eyes? Nose? Jawline? Face structure? Double chin?

Today, anyone has the power to alter what they look like on social media. Some use apps and filters for fun without thinking twice about why they use or post them. Others, however, overthink how they look and need apps and filters to enhance their appearance because of deep-rooted insecurities. Many of these insecurities stem from the unrealistic Eurocentric beauty standards that are portrayed in the media, but also through apps and filters.

San Francisco State University ethnic studies professor Wei Ming Dariotis, who is also the Associate Professor for Asian American Studies, is not surprised that filters and apps are geared towards Eurocentric beauty standards. In fact, Dariotis is disappointed.

“We might say it’s not overtly racist because they weren’t necessarily trying to exclude people of color,” Dariotis expressed. “But it ends up being racist because it’s so Eurocentrically focused that people of color are excluded by default.”

Filters are notorious for lightening people’s skin tones and smoothing the skin. Many filters tend to lighten skin, slim the face, enlarge the eyes, and even create a bridged nose. But are those who claim that filters are pushing Eurocentric beauty standards looking too deep into it?

Dariotis brings up the start of beauty pageants for Japanese-American women. Growing up, she considered herself a feminist and would think of beauty pageants as sexist, oppressive, and overall a waste of time. But with time, she realized that it was a way for ethnic communities to express and showcase their own beauty standards and values. She thinks it’s a beautiful thing to have a group of people embrace their culture, after being told by society that they are not good enough and “ugly.”

The ethnic studies professor does not think Eurocentric beauty standards just stop at filters and apps. She points out that surgeries are also done to live up to these unrealistic standards. From eyelid surgery, to nose jobs, breast implants, the list continues. Dariotis believes it is deeply damaging to not only an individual’s psyche, but also for everyone collectively. In a way, she believes people’s minds are “colonized.”

“Colonial mentality is: you’ve been colonized, and instead of fighting back, you kind of believe what your colonizer believes,” Dariotis explained. “As other ethnic groups in the U.S., there’s a strong tendency to succumb to that mindset, and that allows us to look at ourselves as ugly when we’re really not.”

SF State student Trysha Luu admits she uses filters often. She thinks they are fun and she feels generally positive about them. However, she does see the deep-rooted issues in their features and the impact it can have on the youth.

“I don’t think that filters themselves are racist, but they do strengthen the negative stigma around dark skin and people of color in general,” Luu said. “It simultaneously reinforces a Eurocentric vision of beauty already instilled in adults and teaches this vision to younger generations.”

But what if this idea of “white” beauty standards in photos and media never crossed your mind? This is true for Mimi Sheiner, an SF State design professor. She admits that her being Caucasian is probably why it has never been in her consciousness, and she says that in itself is an issue.

Sheiner edits photos to make meaning clearer. She has never altered anyone’s skin tone, body type, or facial features. She enhances photos and only removes blemishes when they are distracting to the point she is trying to get across. For example, she may remove dust or a crease on an old photo, or add some trees to the background of a photo where the main focus is the person.

But other than that, Sheiner thinks its “creepy” to alter images to the point where they are unnatural. She believes that it damages people’s minds.

“The whole super manipulated beauty thing is damaging,” Sheiner explained while cooking her dinner. “People have terrible self-image because no one can live up to it. Not even those models live up to it. It’s so manipulated. It poses a standard of beauty that makes everyone feel bad about themselves and makes everyone envious. And I think that in a way it’s the theme of our culture.”

Even though Sheiner never really thought of Eurocentric beauty standards being pushed on people through filters and apps, she does believe that people need to look deeper. She thinks users should not think it’s “all fun and games,” because it is not, and altering skin tones is a serious issue.

Skyline College graduate Armani Fuller has noticed how filters lighten the skin, but he never thought about it from a racial aspect. In fact, Fuller thinks it’s a long shot to say that filters and apps are being “racist.” He is confident that it has more to do with people being insecure, which is why they turn to filters and apps to “fix” what they want.

“Filters are like a temporary high to make someone feel good about themselves,” Fuller explained.

He knows that filters can be fun, but if someone is relying on them to feel and look better, the real issue is that they don’t accept themselves for who they are. Fuller stresses that there were “filters” even before the filters. He uses the example of people saying “get my good side” when taking a photo.

Even though our technology is advancing, there has always been a standard and look that people try to achieve.

Of course everyone wants to look their best when they are in control of what images get uploaded. Most people will not upload a photo of themselves where they believe it makes them look unflattering. Social media sites are just a curation of one’s life, and just because someone posts photos of themselves all dolled up and snazzy, doesn’t mean they look like that every day.

Alaysia “Frankie” Brown, a student at SF State, admits that filters give her confidence. She sees nothing wrong with using filters, editing, or adding things to give her photo the look she wants.

“I guess it’s just a way of seeing myself in a different way,” Brown said casually. “I’m okay with it. I like editing photos, putting cool stuff on my photos, so it’s fun for me.”

Brown does not think it is an issue of her being insecure, but does see an issue with the people who have comments about her usage. Brown questions why people are so judgmental towards her when they find out that she looks different in person than what her social media pictures show. To her, “a picture is a picture,” and should not be taken so seriously.

It has gotten to the point where Brown had to disable her comments on Instagram because people would comment about her appearance. She has people leave comments like, “But you don’t look like that in real life,” and the only fix is to restrict the option to comment on her picture all together.

Brown says it’s very common for people to get rejected in real life when they finally meet someone they met online. She explains how a friend of hers recently went out with a guy she met online. When they met in person, the guy told her friend that she did not look the same as she did in her pictures and he did not like the way she really looked. So he left.

Brown is convinced that people who regularly use filters and apps get cyberbullied more. She is disappointed that something that originally came from a positive fun place, turned into something negative.

“If you decide to post what you post, and if you feel beautiful with what you post, then it shouldn’t matter what anyone says,” Brown said.

However, she knows it is easier said than done. It has crossed Brown’s mind on why she uses filters. And she confesses that she has seen it from the race and insecurity point of view, but chooses to embrace filters and apps because they make her feel beautiful.

The “white beauty standard” is part of our history of colonialism. It tells us that white is the default, and what everyone should strive to be. Dariotis suggests that we do not wait for Hollywood to make these more diverse images, and that we make them ourselves. Whether that be making custom filters, or embracing one’s own culture and beauty.

“Filters are not in and of themselves evil or racist,” Dariotis said. “But the way the technology is focused right now, and the people that are making it, they need to be conscious of the fact that it can be used in a way that is harmful.”

Not My President


There is no question that politics and ideas concerning our new president have been the main topic of conversation of millions of Americans. You hear the opinions of people in your classes, overhear it during your commute to school or work, on social media, and even during award shows.

The November election was the first presidential election in which millennials made up the same proportion of the U.S. voting-age population as the baby boomers according to an analysis of U.S. census data from the Pew Research Center. Both generations are roughly 31 percent of the overall electorate. It’s understandable since there is now a lot at stake like the fate of immigration, international relations, contraception, and other important social issues. There is a lot citizens have to be outraged about, a lot to fight for and fight against.

Protests are not only growing nation-wide but globally. Take the Women’s March, for example. A total of one hundred thirty-seven cities outside the U.S. were in support of the march back in January, protesting various issues such as women’s right, reproductive reform, LGBTQ rights, and more.

I attended the protest in San Francisco back in November the day after Trump won the presidency. Thousands of people were in attendance. SFPD was there to monitor our demonstration that started from Powell street, through the Mission districts and all the way back to City Hall at Civic Center. Intersections were blocked. Cars that passed by honked their horns in solidarity. It was a peaceful protest, but no one there had peace of mind concerning our new president.

It was a beautiful event, nevertheless. The streets surged with a mass of people as representatives of the true United States– one that accepts and respects all genders, religions, and race– all came together in positivity.

We chanted for equality.

We chanted for human lives.

We chanted for love. We smiled, laughed, hugged, and commended each other on clever slogans and signs like “Pussy Grabs Back”.

It was a sea of love and determination, and as much diversity as you could possibly dream up, all moving as a unit towards a common goal—to bring awareness to some of the social and political issues the government should be addressing to accurately represent the public.

“That’s the power of peaceful protest. That’s our First Amendment right–our right to freedom of speech that is enshrined in our Constitution,” says Ana Brazaityte, a San Francisco artist based in the Mission and avid protest attendee, “This doesn’t go for this particular protest alone, but for all protests that have sparked and spread like wildfire all around the world.”

We are living in a new sort of America where activism gets a rebrand: “Protests are the new brunch!” It shows up on protest signs, tweets and is even the title of the January 30 episode of Jon Favreau & Co’s podcast “Pod Save America,” where Guardian reporter Sabrina Siddiqui explains that for a lot of young people protesting has become the new normal. For example, more than half a million joined the Women’s March in Washington DC in what was thought to be the largest inauguration protest ever, dwarfing the 20,000 when George W. Bush took office in 2001 and the 60,000 who protested against the Vietnam war before Richard Nixon re-took office in 1973. Instead of gathering with like-minded people having bottomless mimosas, we are gathering to call-out the bottomless injustice.

Not only people who oppose these protests, but also the government especially as well, should be taking this these countless protests not as another trend but as a massive gathering of people showing concern about the state the country and even the world is in.

No matter what cause you are fighting for in these protests, the issue doesn’t necessarily have to relate to you personally. The protests at the airport, for example—you don’t have to be an immigrant to be able to empathize with people being detained for hours with no access to counsel, their rights being completely violated–people who are coming into the country legally with proper documents but are still being detained. Just like in the women’s march, you don’t have to be a women to recognize and stand up to the fact that the rights of women have been under attack for ages.

Some wonder if these protests are even effective to create social and political change. An analysis by economists from Harvard University and Stockholm University found that protests do in fact have a major influence on politics. Research shows that protest don’t work because big crowds send a signal to policy-makers—rather, it’s because protests get people politically activated. Larger turnout for the initial protest had lasting effects on voting, political contributions, ideology, and future participation in the Tea Party movement.

“There is not enough data to correlate that knowledge of protests lead to tangible change,” says Argie Hill, a student at UC Berkeley and another avid demonstrator who has attended about 50 to 60 protests.

“As a person with marginalized identities I always question the motives of protesters. If they couldn’t see my humanity before, I sincerely doubt they see it now. But numbers lead to tangible change and as such, protests are important, however, organizing is the key.”

Though it might seem that way, Protesting is not a fad. New protesters might have been distracted or uninterested in the past when other people have been in the fight for a long time before picketing became popular. It’s a valid argument to criticize new protests, but no matter how long you have been protesting—whether you’re just starting now or have been doing so your whole life—it’s all part of a movement toward a better future. Americans are waking up and expressing the outrage they always knew they had, but felt they never had the courage to express.

“In many ways it’s intrinsic to a capitalist system to reform itself with the life blood of the working class and adapt to challenges against the status quo,” says Hill.

There’s definitely a lot more work to be done and protesting is just one of the first steps to eventually make a difference. “Protesting is war. We are not really fighting to be heard, we are fighting to exist,” says Hill.



Everybody Must Get Stoned

Jimi Woodliff, known as “Jimi McMenace,” (right) and Joel “Joe Killmeister” Pacheco (left) are put into a headlock by Dustin “Rick Scott Stoner” Mehl during a practice wrestling match at the Victory Warehouse in Oakland. Photographs by Ryan McNulty

Story by Zak Cowan

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t was the first Friday of the month and metal was blaring from the speakers of the Oakland Metro Operahouse. Hoodslam occupied the space for the night, bringing with it everything you’d expect from professional wrestling: choreographed bodyslams, acrobatic combat and, perhaps an expectation held for this particular event, plenty of pot smoking.

The performers gathered backstage as the start of the event neared. The members of Stoner University, a faction within Hoodslam that also runs a training school for up-and-coming wrestlers, stood in the center. They continued to go through the feats planned for the night, cramming in every strategy and marijuana hit they could until the venue’s doors opened for the public.

This is Stoner University’s main event, and they’ve been preparing for it all week.

The Stoner Brothers from Ryan McNulty on Vimeo.

Away from the Metro, Stoner University, named after founders Derek and Dustin Mehl’s on-stage moniker, the “Stoner Brothers,” helps conceptualize the characters its dozen-or-so students hope to step into when they’re ready to take the stage. In addition to coaching beginners, the university’s senior members use the week to continue to develop their Hoodslam act.

For Derek and Dustin, training wrestlers at their school is not just a hobby they do in their spare time; this is their career.

“We eat and breathe and sleep and shit and smoke wrestling,” Derek said. “A lot of smoke,” Dustin interjected, pausing, “and wrestling.”

Each brother measures in at 6 feet, 300 pounds, and sports straggly dark hair which has grown past their shoulders and beards which are completely unkempt. The massive brothers own the stage at Hoodslam.

They literally do. They brought it from home.

For the majority of the month, the stage sits in the middle of Victory Warehouse, just a mile from the Metro. Graffiti similar to that found in downtown Oakland covers the walls, and, along with the stage itself, supplies for the show – musical instruments, discoballs and a Hoodslam banner which looms above the stage – are stored in the space where Derek and Dustin have held their lessons for two years.

“It all started because we wanted to train all the time and to better ourselves,” Dustin said. “People have seen that and want to jump in the mix.”

“Stoner U,” he stated intensely, as if on queue. “Home of higher learning.”

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  • Dustin Mehl, known as “Rick Scott Stoner,” pins down Joel Pacheco, known as "Joe Killmeister."
  • Derek Mehl, known as “Scott Rick Stoner,” gets passed a joint during a break from wrestling practice.
  • Dustin Mehl (center) flips Aaron Mitchell, known as "Big B," (left).
  • Dustin Mehl, known as “Rick Scott Stoner,” smokes a blunt before a wrestling practice at Stoner University’s Victory Warehouse in Oakland
  • Students of Stoner U practice taking a kick to the head.
  • From left: Joel Pacheco, Dustin Mehl and Derek Mehl discuss the wrestling routine they are going to do together.
  • Brittany “Ultragirl” Wonder (left) and Christina “The Patron Saint of Filth” von Eerie (right) clothesline each other during their match at Hoodslam.
  • A.J. "Broseph Joe Brody," Kirsch, the announcer of Hoodlam, pours alcohol into the cup of an attendee at the Oakland Metro Operahouse. The wrestling show is a 21 and up event where one of the mottos is "Don't bring you F'n kids."
  • The crowd surrounds the ring while wrestlers perform at Hoodslam.

Throughout the week, Derek, Dustin and the rest of the university host sessions at the warehouse. Tuesday is beginners day, Wednesday is for more intermediate wrestlers and Thursday is match night. Match night is the time when wrestlers experience the most growth as performers.

“You can’t really prepare for wrestling by doing anything but wrestle,” said Aaron Mitchell, a student under the Stoner tutelage for over a year.

Mitchell, 32, has been training to be a professional wrestler since mid-2012 and has bounced around the Bay Area’s different wrestling schools.

“If you want to get into wrestling at all, you have to go through a school,” Mitchell said.

The learning trajectory at Stoner University fits into this philosophy: wrestle, then wrestle some more.

“If they want to go do cardio and run miles, go to the gym,” Derek said. “When you’re here, you go to the ring. We’ll teach you how to wrestle, and that’s it.”

Focusing on wrestling allows the performers to learn at their own pace and grow in the areas most beneficial to their prospective career paths.

“They gear the training to each individual,” said Chris Crotte, 35, a military veteran who travels to the university from Sacramento. “It’s all wrestling.”

Dustin Mehl, known as “Rick Scott Stoner,” (left) and Derek Mehl, known as “Scott Rick Stoner,” (bottom) work together to slam “Cereal Man.”

Along with being one’s best route to success, being a part of a wrestling school has given this group unity and a sense of inclusion they haven’t found elsewhere. For Crotte, who went through two tours of duty in Afghanistan, “it’s therapeutic. It’s a good outlet: slam things around and get slammed yourself.”

“I never had that acceptance in life,” Crotte said of the camaraderie at Stoner University. “Everyone wants to be a part of something and feel like they’ve earned it.”

Hoodslam’s wrestlers are the main attraction, but there are other characters of the show that are vital to its continued success. The Stoner Brothers and their team hope to contribute to all of it and are providing training for individuals interested in any part of the show, including referees.

During a wrestling match at Hoodslam, the referee plays the part of a semi-involved mediator, but behind the scenes they prepare just like the other performers. They learn the same stunts as their counterparts, such as flying kicks, leg drops, knee drops, moonsaults and shooting stars. A referee knowing all of this, and being able to perform it, is a vital part in the show as it allows them to know when something goes wrong and react accordingly.

For aspiring performers, learning the art of professional wrestling from those that have extensive experience can be the difference in a bad situation. Shane “Wiggles” Wignall, 24, has been training to be a referee at Stoner University since February.

“If you try to train yourself or if you’re working with people who are untrained, you take the chance of hurting someone,” Wignall said.

In addition to finding an outlet and space for camaraderie, the dozen or so students have found mentors in the Stoner Brothers.

“It’s a family atmosphere,” Crotte said. “It’s like being in a room with brothers; it’s my new brotherhood.”

Brothers Dustin (left) and Derek (right) Mehl celebrate together after slamming one of their opponents during Hoodslam.

This inclusive, inspirational atmosphere creates the sort of learning environment the Stoner Brothers hope will elevate their students to where they strive to be.

“We are highly motivated to make pro wrestlers out of our students,” Dustin said, but the brother’s students are getting so much more out of their experience than that.

“When I’m there in the ring, nothing else matters,” Wignall said. “It doesn’t matter that I missed my deadline at work. It doesn’t matter that I’m late on my rent payment. The only thing that matters right then is what’s happening right in front of me.”

A Family That Grows Together

With her son’s hand on her arm, Leah, owner of a Trinity County farm, presents her family’s crop.

A Rockwellian portrait of the new American farm.

Photography and story by David Henry

Editor’s Note: To protect the identities of the sources interviewed for this story, last names have been omitted and pseudonyms have been used.

Before sunrise, the house stirred. Two young boys sat at the dining room table as farm fresh eggs and sausage patties cooked on a cast iron skillet. Mason-jarred, raw milk from a neighboring farm was poured into glasses for the boys and coffee for the parents. By the time a rooster called out in the distance, the five-year-old and Jerry, his father, were off on their daily school and work-week commute down the mountain.

Leah, the mother, made her morning rounds, feeding the pigs, dogs, kittens, turkeys and chickens. As Leah headed back inside, she stopped to greet the international crew of trimmers as they rounded the orchard toward the driveway.

Onboard the trucks were two Australians, three Brazilians, one Spaniard and a Parisian. It was early autumn, harvest time was just a few weeks away and the crew of young men and women was set to spend the daylight hours pruning the story-high, story-wide marijuana plants rooted in the garden just up the road.

In the emerald triangle, which consists of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties, family-style marijuana farms are not uncommon. This is a contradiction to what most may envision, vagabond-hippie-based operations, for example. However, life on these family farms mirrors that of small, traditional farms in the U.S. The cash crop is unorthodox. But factor out the crop and the lifestyles adequately resemble one another.

  • Jerry crouches in his medical marijuana garden in Trinity County, California.
    Jerry crouches in his medical marijuana garden in Trinity County, California.
  • Jerry walks with Leah's dog through his medical marijuana garden in Trinity County, California.
    Jerry walks with Leah's dog through his medical marijuana garden in Trinity County, California.
  • Young marijuana plants fill a room at Emerald Family Farms in Humboldt County, California.
    Young marijuana plants fill a room at Emerald Family Farms in Humboldt County.
  • Bryan, a grower with Emerald Family Farms, checks his indoor garden with a green LED headlamp as the plants "sleep" in Humboldt County.
    Bryan, a grower with Emerald Family Farms, checks his indoor garden with a green LED headlamp as the plants "sleep" in Humboldt County.
  • Elliot assembles a machine used to extract Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in Humboldt County, California. Elliot: “I am motivated by the healing potential of the plant. Personally, I am following through on a passion that was sparked by my mothers battle with cancer and my desire to find a way to heal oneself outside of western medicine.”
    Elliot assembles a machine used to extract Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in Humboldt County, California. Elliot: “I am motivated by the healing potential of the plant. Personally, I am following through on a passion that was sparked by my mothers battle with cancer and my desire to find a way to heal oneself outside of western medicine.”
  • Leah smokes a joint in her dining room in Trinity County, California. Leah is a medical marijuana patient. She has rods in her back and suffers chronic pain, the result of a life-changing injury.  She uses marijuana to alleviate her discomfort and finds that there are less side effects than prescription drugs.
    Leah smokes a joint in her dining room in Trinity County, California. Leah is a medical marijuana patient. She has rods in her back and suffers chronic pain, the result of a life-changing injury. She uses marijuana to alleviate her discomfort and finds that there are less side effects than prescription drugs.
  • Bryan and Jerry talk inside of an Emerald Family Farms greenhouse in Humboldt County, California.
    Bryan and Jerry talk inside of an Emerald Family Farms greenhouse in Humboldt County, California.
  • Bryan shows Jerry one of his signature strains in his greenhouse at Emerald Family Farms in Humboldt County, California.
    Bryan shows Jerry one of his signature strains in his greenhouse at Emerald Family Farms in Humboldt County, California.
  • Mike plucks leaves from a mature medical marijuana plant in Trinity County, California.
    Mike plucks leaves from a mature medical marijuana plant in Trinity County, California.
  • A beer and an American flag rest on a stool in the middle of a medical marijuana garden in Trinity County, California.
    A beer and an American flag rest on a stool in the middle of a medical marijuana garden in Trinity County, California.
  • The top colas of a large marijuana plant soak in the late afternoon sun in Trinity County, California.
    The top colas of a large marijuana plant soak in the late afternoon sun in Trinity County, California.

Many newcomers in the trade start as trimmers. During harvest season, trimmers looking for work line many of the public squares and main streets in the emerald triangle. According to Leah, they come from all over. The Midwest, the South, Europe, Australia and Vietnam are common locations of origin.

“We call them trimmigrants,” Leah said. “Many come here to work, fall in love and never leave.”

Other trimmers, like Mike, a Bay Area-based musician, traveled north for the harvest in order to make extra money and catch up with old friends. During Mike’s visit, he, Jerry and Leah spent evenings socializing, smoking, drinking local rum and eating meals comprised of fresh-picked ingredients from the garden.

One evening, Mike took it upon himself to subject Leah to the popular tastes of the outside world. He screened a number of popular music videos for her. Trap music, such as Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” and Sophia Grace’s “Best Friends” blared out of Mike’s smart phone. At the conclusion of Mike’s presentation, all Leah had to say was, “I am so happy I’m not raising a daughter.”

Will, a native of Australia, heads operations in Leah and Jerry’s medical marijuana garden. After starting out as a trimmer, he worked his way up through the ranks. He now handpicks the strains, fertilizers and workers for the farm.

Two of the trimmers working under Will, an Australian man and a Parisian woman, spoke of their dream of starting a farm in the south of France. The couple met in Barcelona and immigrated to Humboldt in search of work. While working, the trimmers occasionally passed the time by poking fun at their host country and imitating American accents.

“Why Bessie, it’s as American as apple pie,” the Parisian women drawled in a Southern-belle accent, while the men held up their Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and called out, “‘Murica! Fuck yeah!”

Their sarcastic patriotism could have easily sounded anti-American to an untrained ear, but there was no denying that they appreciated the opportunity that America provided.

“There’s no other place I’d rather be right now,” Will said.

The future for these farms is unclear. Growers in the emerald triangle have been preparing for the day that recreational use is legalized. The prospect of increased competition, supply, lower prices and demand makes legalization a serious economic matter for growers. Marijuana legalization initiatives are gaining momentum in California. In fact, Governor Brown recently signed three bills into California state law, that have been seen as stage setters for legalization. The reality that one of the initiatives will be on the November 2016 ballot has growers considering at least partial overhauls of their operations.

Jerry and Leah are taking steps to create a bed and breakfast, as well as a recording studio and mountain biking trails throughout their square mile of land. According to Jerry, hospitality would take priority in the family business but weed would still have a presence.

Will said growing high-quality, pure strains is key to the industry’s future. He welcomes legalization and believes it will wipe out the amateur operations as well as the Mexican cartel grows. Will believes the triangle’s climate, reputation and quality of product is unparalleled, making way for what he calls the “Napa Valley” of weed.

An Uncertain Move for San Francisco’s Sex Workers

Marion Pellegrini, core staff member at St. James Infirmary, poses for a portrait in the lab where he draws blood for various tests for patients. The clinic provides healthcare and social services for current and former sex workers of all genders and sexual orientations. Photo by Emma Chiang


By Sean McGrier

There’s no sign on the door. One has to be told about the place to know it’s there and, even then, they’d probably walk past it a few times before realizing they had reached their destination. The clinic is discrete; its whereabouts spread mostly through word of mouth. Its modest front door leaves little hint to what goes on beyond it. The work St. James Infirmary does for the community it serves is shielded to ensure that work can continue, which is partly due to the taboo nature of St. James’ clients’ jobs.

St. James is a peer-based health clinic for sex workers located on Mission Street in the South of Market neighborhood. Pretty much all of its staff and all of its patrons are either current or former sex workers – that is, they have either stripped, prostituted or done some job that falls under the “sex work” umbrella, if not a number of jobs involving erotica. The clinic also services the immediate families and primary sexual partners of sex workers. St. James is the only for-sex workers, by-sex workers free health clinic in the country.

But the clinic is moving, and its staff is not sure where. The SoMa building it has been in for the past 13 years of its 16-year-history is up for sale, and a new lease will not be granted. Moving an operation like St. James is a sensitive undertaking, one that poses big problems for the clinic, according to executive director Stephany Ashley.

“Across the city right now, private landlords are not too motivated to rent to non-profits,” Ashley said. “The real estate market right now is money, and most property owners that own commercial spaces in San Francisco are trying to see how much money they can make. Renting to a peer-based clinic that provides social support services for a community in poverty is not gonna make them a lot of money.”

The move also has St. James’ staff worried about client trepidation. Ashley said that’s because some of the clinic’s current visitors might not go to St. James if it moves to a different neighborhood.

“Here, we are right equidistant from Sixth Street and 16th Street,” Ashley said. “If you think about those two corridors, there’s a lot of folks that would access our services there. And this is a space that is accessible from those places. It’s close enough that you could walk here in 10 minutes, but also kind of far enough to where you could get a bit of distance from some of that.”

Dr. Pratima Gupta is St. James’ medical director. She started volunteering at the clinic while doing a fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco in 2005. Two years later, she stepped into the clinic’s medical director role, which is also a volunteer position. Dr. Gupta echoed Ashley’s unease about the move.

“In terms of our clients and the participants who receive our services, we’re seeing concern about the safety of some of the places we’re looking at,” Gupta said.

Proposed locations include spaces in the Tenderloin and Mid-Market neighborhoods, both of which have reputations, earned or unearned, for being dangerous. Neighborhood safety concerns could mean increased police presence around the clinic, which is bad news for many sex workers. According to Gupta, overinvolvement with police could jeopardize the safe-space atmosphere St. James wants for its patients.

“We strive to provide non-judgmental healthcare for sex workers and their families,” Gupta said.  “For somebody to fear coming to our clinic because they fear persecution due to our proximity to law enforcement would really be a detriment and completely go against our mission.”

Law enforcement’s interest in St. James’ operations may seem like a given. After all, prostitution is illegal in San Francisco. It’s also one of a number of jobs that can qualify a man or woman for St. James’ services.

Tony Flores is an inspector sergeant with the San Francisco Police Department. The 33-year SFPD veteran is currently assigned to the human trafficking division of the department’s Special Victims Unit, where he mostly focuses on commercial sex and forced labor. Flores said having institutions like St. James actually makes his job easier, but not necessarily in making arrests.

“We focus on victims and victimologies and having victims taken care of,” Flores said. “The only way we can do this is by understanding the victim’s needs. This is where (St. James) and all the other NGOS and non-governmental agencies or victims services will actually assist us in getting those victims their wants and needs.”

Both Ashley and Flores said they have recently sat on community panels together, discussing ways to better serve the sex worker community. Flores said he isn’t a stranger to working with sex worker advocacy groups in an effort to better the lives of what he views as an exploited demographic. The Standing Against Global Exploitation Project was a San Francisco nonprofit the department worked with closely. The organization has since folded, and Flores said losing SAGE meant the department had lost “some really good advocates,”  and he doesn’t want to see the same fate for St. James.

As for its medical offerings, Gupta said St. James is no different than any other health clinic. According to her, St. James’ peer-based approach to serving sex workers is really the only thing that makes it unique.

“We do offer HIV and STI testing like any other clinic,” Gupta said. “But the rate of STIs that we are picking up are equivalent to other (demographics). They’re not any higher”

They treat people for coughs, colds, rashes and high blood pressure. St James offers free therapy and case management on Monday mornings, and hosts needle exchanges every Tuesday afternoon. These scheduled events appear on St. James’ online schedule well through the clinic’s projected early January move-out date, underlining an intent to being on call for a community in need.

The clinic is both publicly and privately funded. St. James gets over $250,000 annually through various contracts it has with the City of San Francisco, according to Ashley. Private donors also help fund the clinic’s operations. Ashley said those private donations have increased since news of St. James’ displacement became public in October.

“We hit our $25,000 mark in three days,” Ashley said, referring to a recently-launched GoFundMe campaign. “I was surprised by how quickly it happened. But I was also surprised by the reach of it.”

Ashley said a lot donations came in from people who she had never heard of before, people who don’t have any direct connection to St. James or the sex industry that she knows of. Other names, she said, were more familiar.

“We got a lot of messages saying, ‘Oh my gosh, one time St. James really saved my ass. Thank you so much, and here’s $100. Hope you land on your feet,’” Ashley said. “I think there are a lot of people who are just tired of hearing that things are closing and were like, ‘Alright. Let’s rally. Let’s keep something here. These services are important.’”

When Preparation Becomes Risk

Michael Slater, 27, presents his Truvada pill – a medication that prevents HIV by 99 percent. Photos by Martin Bustamante

By Carlos Mendoza

Two and a half years ago Michael Slater, a 26-year-old homosexual, received the worst news of his life. While supporting a friend who was afraid that he was exposed to human immunodeficiency virus, Slater decided to get tested too. When he received the results Slater had tested positive for HIV. Living with the results for an agonizing week before hearing word that it was a false positive left him speechless.

Shortly after, Slater’s father introduced him to Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, otherwise known as PrEP. PrEP is a new HIV prevention medication, that, if taken daily, can have a 99 percent protection rate. After being sexually active for 13 years with men, and occasionally engaging in condomless, “bareback” sex, Slater took initiative and asked a doctor about PrEP.

In the handful of times Slater has participated in unprotected sex since he started taking PrEP his mind was more at ease.

[pullquote]”People finally feel safe when having sex for the first time in their life.” – Dr. Robert Grant [/pullquote]

“The few times that I’ve had bareback sex and said ‘fuck it’ this is something that I want to do right now, yeah there is a lot of comfort, it is like I am wearing a condom already,” Slater said.

The active drug in PrEP, Truvada, has stirred a cultural shift on the gay community on both sexual protection methods and condomless sex, according to Slater.

Knowing that a social stigma of promiscuity is attached to being on PrEP is apparent to Slater, but HIV is something that people don’t want to talk about whether you are practicing safe sex or not.

“Is it worth some people thinking that maybe you’re a little irresponsible about it, or very irresponsible about it, fine,” Slater said. “But if it means you are protecting yourself and making good choices so be it.”

Michael Slater, 27, in his bedroom Tuesday Nov. 17, 2015. Photo by Martin Bustamante
Michael Slater sits on his bed for a portrait.

This medication could not have been possible without the efforts made by Dr. Robert Grant, a UCSF professor of medicine and senior investigator at the Gladstone Institutes.

Dubbed the “father of PrEP,” Grant used Truvada very early on when it was just used for Post-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PEP, a pill in which you take after exposure to HIV. This led to a large study on Truvada for pre-exposure usage.

From 2007 to 2009 Grant conducted a large study on Truvada, which included 2,499 high risk men throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America and North America taking either a placebo drug or Truvada.

After four stressful years of observation, Grant and his team at Bridge HIV, a clinical trials unit, discovered that Truvada showed a 44 percent reduction in risk of HIV, according to operations director Aliza Norwood. This was a groundbreaking discovery for HIV awareness prevention, according to Grant.

“People finally feel safe when having sex for the first time in their life,” he said.

In 2012 Truvada was approved for PrEP and places like Bridge HIV, along with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, are responsible for furthering knowledge on prevention care.

“It is so important to do this research because it is providing an avenue to provide the drug to people,” Norwood said. “That’s what gets it approved, that’s what gets insurances to pay for it and that’s what gets people access to it.”

Approved for all genders and sexual orientations, but it is highly encouraged for high risk males (men who have sex with men) and transgendered women, according to Norwood. Anyone who has had condomless anal intercourse once in the last six months, exposed to erectile STI’s in the last year or has had sex with two partners in the last six months is strongly encouraged to begin PrEP.

“The people here have been so active and asking for it, asking for research, asking for treatment and asking for PrEP,” Norwood said.

This fairly new medication is on the rise within the local gay community, but the number of people taking action and using this drug is low, according to Norwood.

“In San Francisco, where PrEP knowledge is way higher than most places, most people or a lot more people, are on PrEP than other places,” Norwood said. “Still we are only meeting a third who are on PrEP, so about two-thirds of people who should be on PrEP are not.”

To qualify for a prescription people have to go through quarterly HIV/STI screening tests, urine tests and blood level checks for blood count and kidney function, according to Norwood.

Side effects begin fairly early in what Norwood calls the “startup syndrome.” Nausea, vomiting and kidney problems may occur, but fades within the first month according to Norwood. Kidney monitoring is important for everyone who is on the medication, and if problems arise the medication has to be stopped.

The graph shows the numbers of people in San Francisco who have contracted HIV from the years 2006 to 2014. The number of men who have sex with men, transfemale and females with HIV have lowered due to advancements made with HIV prevention medication.
The graph shows the numbers of people in San Francisco who have contracted HIV from the years 2006 to 2014. The number of men who have sex with men, transfemale and females with HIV have lowered due to advancements made with HIV prevention medication.

Taking PrEP has proven effective, and if taken every day it has a 99 percent reduction in risk according to Norwood. If days are missed taking four to five pills a week would provide 96 percent reduction in risk. Despite the drug’s effectiveness, taking PrEP should not be the only means of protection when people are engaging in sexual intercourse, according to Norwood.

“PrEP should not take the place of condoms,” Norwood said. “Look at this as a tool box, you have all of these different ways of protecting yourself from HIV and this is an additional way, it can be extra prevention.”

For Matt Bradley, a 28-year-old homosexual, safe sex is important, and using both the medication and condoms is the number one method for preventing HIV and other STI’s.

“It’s not worth just doing PrEP, and then waking up and all of a sudden you have something awful going on down there,” Bradley said.

Bradley believes that the naysayers discouraging condoms and engaging in condomless sex in an effort to preserve the romance are wrong.

“If you need to fuck bareback in order to have romantic or passionate sex, then you don’t know what you are doing. You are not doing it right,” Bradley said.

The social stigma from being on PrEP does not affect Bradley, but it does have an effect on his sexual partners.

“I feel more pressure that declaring my status on PrEP from other guys means that they expect that I am going to have unprotected sex with them,” Bradley said. “I feel like that is a bigger problem.”

Overall, Bradley acknowledges the good that PrEP has provided to the gay community in San Francisco regardless of stigmas, and encourages others to get medicated too.

“I feel like every man who is physically able to take it, should be taking it,” Bradley said. “Because we have a chance of eradicating HIV.”

Instead of looking at the downside to PrEP, Norwood is looking at the positive aspect and is hopeful for the future.

“This is an epidemic and we need to treat this epidemic,” Norwood said.

Between the Old and New School

Photographs and story by Alex Kofman

Coffee shops, bars and restaurants are typically places people have in mind when considering where to meet their friends. They want a place where they can all come together to catch up, share a few stories, and spill the latest gossip. The barbershop, just like these other institutions has served as a communal gathering spot for decades, especially for ethnic communities who historically turned to the barbershop as a place to collectively converse.Two barbershops in particular, Chicago’s and Sperow Hair Gallery, have maintained their own unique styles over the years and continue to be popular amongst barbershop enthusiasts.

Chicago’s barbershop, originally a sister of a three-shop franchise that began in the 40’s, is located in the Western Addition. Although Chicago’s has been around much longer than a majority of San Francisco barbershops, the barbers working there take a more new school approach to cutting hair and keep up with the trends that are constantly changing. 26-year-old Eshawn Scranton, a barber from Chicago’s, has been cutting hair for four years and has witnessed a huge transformation in not only haircut styles but barbershop culture.




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“When I was in Barber College, shorter hairstyles were in style,” Scranton said. “It was really cool to have a dark Caesar, or a taper or a bald fade and then the longer hairstyles came into effect so I had to learn a lot about the different textures of hair and how to do a lot of styling like comb overs and switchbacks and pompadours so there was a lot that had changed from when I first got into the barber game. I would also say there was a change in the industry. It’s a lot trendier now.”


In the Outer Sunset District is Sperow Hair Gallery, first opened in 1973 by owner and barber of 45 years, Anthony “Tony” James Sperow. When walking through the front door of Sperow Hair Gallery, your eyes are greeted by a mishmash of vintage collectibles. Walls of posters, photos of Sperow and his clients, stacks of marvel comic books from the 60’s and a large wooden cabinet full of odds and ends collected over the years fill the space. Although his barbershop only has one chair, it is almost always filled by a client from the time he opens shop until closing. Sperow is not your average barber. At 84 years old, he has seen the evolution of the barbershop and barbershop culture over the years, but continues to cut hair the same way he did back in 1951. Tony’s “old school” approach to cutting hair differs greatly from the styles of more “up to date” shops. He likes to keep his hair cuts simple, but appreciates the trends that other barbers are implementing.


“There’s a lot of different barbers, there’s a lot of classic barbers. These new barbers today, they cut beautiful hair, they cut a lot of lines in your hair, they put X’s and O’s, they put their names in it, and I just give a good old fashion hair cut.,” Sperow said.


Although Sperow and Scranton’s styles of cutting hair differ from each other, they both view the barbershop in the same light; as a community and haven for people to gather and enjoy each other’s conversation and presence without the disturbance of the outside world.

“Being a barber means salvation to me,” Sperow said. “Meeting and talking to people is the most satisfying thing about being a barber.”


Hotel of a Different Feather

Birgit Soyka, owner of the San Francisco Bird Hotel, kisses Amy, one of the hotel’s guests. Photographs by James Chan


By Jenna Van De Ryt

When entering the San Francisco Bird Hotel, the first thing to hit you is an unexpected wave of madness-like volume palpitating your eardrums. The echoing of calls, mixed with the repetitive off-keyed songs of exotic birds, colored the hotel. The constant beating of wings against each bird’s chest produced a low pitched thunder that served as a bass note within the chaotic tune the birds created. Cages of different sizes and colors, named after prominent wonders of the world, lined the walls of the bird hotel.

The San Francisco Bird Hotel was established in 2006 out of the home of bird owner, Birgit Soyka, in San Francisco’s Sunset District. Soyka, a tall, gentle spoken, middle aged woman holds two passions in her heart: birds and motorcycles. Her blue eyes continually flickered when she spoke about her love for birds and her journey of building the bird hotel.

“I went for it,” Soyka said.

The bird-lover attests that she had a very adventurous life before opening the hotel. Soyka said she could have never fathomed ending up in a business where she had to live permanently, but her love of birds convinced her to give up the nomad lifestyle.

“This is kind of like settling down,” Soyka said. “I cannot go on vacation right now, that’s for sure.”

Soyka, a native of Germany, found herself transferred to San Francisco from Miami for work in 2004 and quickly needed to find a permanent home for her three beloved Amazon birds. At the time, The Caged Inn was San Francisco’s only bird-friendly boarding service. The Inn was run out of a woman’s home in Noe Valley. Between 2004 and 2006, Soyka’s feathered companions comfortably resided in the Noe Valley shelter until the inn’s owner fell ill and needed to close down her bird hotel. Soyka informed the inn owner that she would like to take her business over.

Kelsey Placek stands aside Diamond, a Blue and Gold Macaw, at the San Francisco Bird hotel. (James Chan/Xpress)
Kelsey Placek stands aside Diamond, a Blue and Gold Macaw.

The Caged Inn’s owner immediately gave Soyka 10 of her customers, along with her extra bird cages. Soyka began constructing the early stages of her soon-to-be bird hotel. She began posting flyers throughout the city, advertising that she would take in birds.

In October of 2009 Soyka, a full-time director of global accounts in San Francisco, was laid off. She later decided to quit completely.

“That was the happiest day of my life,” Soyka said. “The bird hotel was at the cusp of either being a hobby or a business.”

By 2013, Soyka got rid of all of her home furniture and added more cages to furnish the space.
“By the end, there was only a bedroom and a bathroom that were bird-free,” Soyka said. “Even the kitchen had birds. I had a breakfast area that was filled with only birds.”

Throughout the year, Soyka watched her hotel flock grow to be larger than her home allowed.

“It was a neighborhood,” Soyka said. “You cannot do that sort of thing here.”

After eight years of her personal home serving as a temporary bird hotel, Soyka could not believe how many bird owners came to drop off their beloved, exotic pets. She soon realized that the size and location of her transformed home-to-hotel space was no longer fitting. She found herself at a crossroads of either closing the hotel completely, keeping the guest occupancy at a smaller number or putting everything she had into the business.

Soyka flew her old coup in January of last year and signed the papers on a new unit on the corner of Utah Street in South San Francisco that would serve as a more comfortable nest for the San Francisco Bird Hotel. Birds flocked from throughout the Bay Area to stay at the new 5,400 square foot location and, in December alone, the hotel housed 95 birds.

The San Francisco Bird Hotel now serves customers from Marin County to Gilroy, with more than 780 bookings in 2015 so far.

San Francisco resident Lindsey O’Connor has brought her cockatiel, Pearl, to the bird hotel several times.

“They treat their guests as individuals and really cater to their needs and personalities,” O’Connor said.

Lily, a cockatoo, sits on Birgit Soyka's hand in the San Francisco Bird hotel Wed November 4. (James Chan/Xpress)
Brigit Soyka presents Lily, a cockatoo and guest of the hotel.

Soyka said the cage amenities are not the only perks of booking at the San Francisco Bird Hotel. Guests are able to customize their daily meal plans and enjoy the hotel’s entertainment program.

The hotel’s entertainment program includes listening to music, dancing and participating in “flight hour” for guests to stretch their wings.

“We let the birds out in the play area to hangout and listen to music,” Soyka said. “They all have rhythm and a feeling for music.”

As soon as the radio settled on a clear station, Green Day’s “American Idiot” blared through the hotel speakers, and the dance party was on. Birds were shimmying, bouncing, poorly twerking and squawking along to the catchy lyrics of the 2004 punk rock single.

A white cockatoo named Triton wowed the crowd of other bird guests when his yellow mohawk flared up as he headbanged to the high-energy song.

Dancing isn’t the only party trick Triton can impress on fellow bird hotel guests. As an avid talker, the cockatoo repeatedly shouts, “go get me a beer, go get me a beer,” to anyone who walks or flies by.

Cheryl Tamburri brought Lelilani, her Umbrella Cockatoo, to the San Francisco Bird Hotel for a week-long stay in May. She said the search for a safe, bird-friendly care service while she vacationed was “traumatizing” until she found the bird hotel. The vacation seemed to be more nerve wracking for the owner rather than the animal.

“Like sending my kid off to camp for this first time, I probably called too much,” Tamburri said. “But I received daily 411’s plus pictures of my Cockatoo.”

This year has brought the bird hotel 788 bird bookings.

Soyka said her main business goals are to create a clean, roomy, beautiful space for birds, accompanied by trustworthy and reliable service. She believes she has been successful thus far in creating a bird paradise.

“Some birds don’t want to go home after their stay, they won’t get out of their cage,” Soyka said.