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A Report on the Tenderloin Reflection and Education Center
by Eric Robertson,
The Tenderloin Reflection and Education Center (TREC) has long been a model community organization for political activism and organization.
TREC was established in 1982 as a center for creative action and reflective thought to empower homeless and economically disenfranchised people of the Tenderloin. Based upon the liberation model of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, the program operated under the umbrella of the St. Anthony Foundation until it spun off as it's own entity in 1990. A unique grassroots community-directed center, TREC uses the arts to help transform local residents' lives, to inspire leadership, to build a platform for the voice of the excluded and alienated, and to form a cohesive community. TREC's program is workshop-based and centered around the idea of people coming together to create and learn from each other and themselves. By bridging communication gaps that exist in society, TREC seeks to help people overcome internalized stereotypes and those put on us by others. By providing a place for all people to be seen, heard, and felt, we work to challenge the political norm of the day and to influence social evolution.
TREC's Board of Directors, Staff, and Volunteers have great commitment to TREC and the community. As TREC's only paid staff member, I have lived and worked in the Tenderloin for over six years. As a reporter for the now defunct Tenderloin Times I learned first hand the needs and desires of the community. In the process, I felt I'd found a home that I was willing to fight for. On my second story assignment for the Times I was charged with covering TREC's 10-year anniversary. Overwhelmed by the sense of community I found here, I became a TREC activist. I began attending workshops and volunteering time in the library and work on Freedom Voices Publication - our literary press. In 1992, I was invited to join the Board of Directors and this past April I took on the position of administrator.
Collectively, TREC board of directors have over fifty years association with the organization and countless more with the community. Two of the eight board members live in the neighborhood and three work here. Mary Litell, one of TRECs original founders, recently rejoined after a ten year absence. Ben Clarke, co-director from 1987 to 1993, continues on as a vital, energizing force. Commitment and community rootedness extends to all of TREC's associates. Five of our six library volunteers and three of the workshop facilitators live in the Tenderloin.
TREC constantly strives to empower the people of the community by providing a place for their ideas to flower. TREC's workshops develop organically from interest coming from the community. TREC encourages leadership that is indigenous. The late, renowned poet and long-time Tenderloin resident, Mary TallMountain joined the women's writing workshop and eventually became its facilitator. Resident reporter and neighborhood activist, Sopath Pak brought his passion to TREC and established a tutoring program for high school dropouts. Street poet Jerry Miley extended his love of books by becoming TREC Librarian for four years. Development and training of TREC leaders most often comes in the form of mentorship of other facilitators. For this reason, TREC is by nature a place of trial and error. At TREC our leaders and members explore the relationship with themselves and that to the whole. Often, the role of leader in a workshop is traded among the members on a weekly or monthly basis. Other times, when a leader leaves, another from the group takes his or her place. TREC encourages people to take on roles they might have long forgotten or never really learned. Volunteers who have demonstrated sufficient self discipline and creativity are invited to assume leadership roles such as workshop facilitator, board member, Tender Leaves editor, or library staff. Volunteers usually undergo a period of mentorship with existing facilitators. Former TREC mentors include professional artists and activists such as Eric Ehn from the Iowa Writing Workshop and Theatre Artaud, Miya Masoaka, recording artist with Asian Improv Records, Lucy Jane Bledsoe, published novelist and writer for the East Bay Express, Pearl Ubungen, choreographer, and Maketa Groves, poet and published author at Curbstone Press.
Though TREC facilitators often engage in the activities they've developed in their own workshop, they often feel alone in the role of facilitator or "leader". In 1994 TRECinitiated a program called "Reclaiming Life" a self-reliance community leadership training program. In this, TREC established a coordinating council made up of the facilitators from each workshop. The coordinating council encouraged collaboration between programs and developed leadership throughout the organization. This intragency council brought group leaders together where before they had little contact with one another. A new awareness of all the opportunities at TREC was aroused. Interaction between group leaders allowed facilitators to gain support and understanding from their peers.
Through individual lives, TREC affects the greatest change in the community. A wide array of societal misconceptions and general distrust of homeless and marginalized individuals who live in the Tenderloin results in a community wide lack of self esteem and confidence. TREC battles the bombardment of negative imaging constantly thrown at the poor. Through support and encouragement of the community artist TREC instills in the individual a sense of worth. Through our belief in non-violent constructive action for the betterment of the whole, TREC gives people a positive community orientation. The change these factors make in people's lives may simply be a better foundation to deal with current circumstances. Or it may result in monumental change for the individual--getting off crack, finding work in the arts, going back to school or getting in a work training program.
In terms of institutional change, TREC is a constant voice that puts pressure on government and institutions both local and national. TREC called to question the library's practice of not allowing homeless people to check out books and, by opening its own alternative library, pressured the main library into amending its policy. TREC participation in a sleep-in protest with Religious Witness With Homeless People effectively had city government take a step back from it's increasing harassment of people sleeping outdoors. On a national level, TREC has participated in the Clinton administration's Interagency Council on the Homeless and TREC has been used as a model organization for Caroline Heller's book Until We Are Strong Together and for Pace e Bene's Transformational Groups Project, both formal studies of innovative grassroots community organizations.
Many of those that come to TREC find the voice and confidence needed to take their cause and beliefs to a greater public. TREC is a social center to which the fights of the poor and disenfranchised are given voice and power. A spontaneous protest arose when a local law passed to make it illegal to panhandle anywhere near a bank teller machine. Signs were made and taken to the streets. When officials threatened to do away with the Heart of the City Farmer's Market in Civic Center, TREC mounted a day of protests and staged readings. TREC has devoted entire issues of our newsletter to protest state legislation such as Propositions 187 and 209. During dancer Pearl Ubungen's tenure at TREC, a performance titled Refugee was mounted to protest the treatment of immigrants in this country. We have protested the slashing of social service programs and rallied locally against anti-sitting, anti-panhandling and all the other anti-being laws. TREC's Freedom Voices' most recent book, edited by Ben Clarke, is a collection of poems written and inspired by the depression era photographs of Dorothea Lange and contemporary Oakland photographer Scott Braley. This book is a powerful, local commentary on poverty and social injustice from a diverse group of Tenderloin, San Francisco and East Bay writers.
TREC's publications provide a place for the political convictions and passions of the people on the street. In addition, we often find that we are a support service for other political action groups. Whole issues of Street Spirit, a homeless advocacy newspaper, have been given to writings from our workshops. TREC members continually brace the hardships together with Food Not Bombs to be allowed the simple activity of feeding hungry people and of other activists to advocate the use of the Presidio for public housing. Whether by example or direct action, TREC continually puts pressure on government, politicians, businesses and city organizations to make policies for the people, not against them. And by providing a public forum for their voice to be heard, TREC has built a coalition of the poor and those that our leaders often try to ignore.
Many non-profit organizations make the Tenderloin their home. Most have strong political beliefs about poverty, crime, homelessness and other issues that affect the area. Unfortunately, the organizations that speak loudest are often least heard. They are overwhelmed on a daily basis by people with drug addictions, mental illness, negligent landlords and basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. Language barriers, lack of education and job opportunities are fundamental problems for many residents. Meanwhile, it seems the politicians turn their backs on those that don't pay the campaign bills. This is why it is imperative for community organizations to work together, not only to build a voice that cannot be ignored, but more importantly to find ways of helping each other to survive, to share ideas, to find alternatives to the common path. TREC continually strives to create this link, whether through joint protests, participating in local events at Boeddeker Park or the new Children's Playground, or getting Tenderloin writers published in the Street Spirit.
TREC has a long history of working in collaboration with other Tenderloin organizations including Hospitality House, the YMCA, Exit Theatre, the 509 Cultural Center and Luggage Store, the Vietnamese Youth Development Center, the Senior Living Room and many more. Beyond the Tenderloin, it is important for TREC to create links with organizations that have resources, abilities, and perspectives that differ from our own. It is too easy to feel stuck in the "poverty blues" and see little light beyond the 'Loin. For this reason, our literary endeavors, public readings, and events outside the Tenderloin are vital connections for support, as well as our yearly celebration, Spirit of the Streets, which brings in a an exciting mix of Bay Area residents.
TREC empowers the community through its inclusive educational methodologies. We empower through providing the opportunity for people to express themselves and by providing public forums for that expression to be seen. We realize that the greatest power is found in unity and that with this unity there must be a sense of justice for all. This is TREC's and the Tenderloin's greatest challenge, for although we are often unified in our needs, we are separated by our cultures and beliefs. No other neighborhood in the city has such a broad representation of people from around the world. In addressing the goals of social justice and structural change, TREC increases sharing between cultures and explores the boundaries that separate our communities. At TREC we believe this is done best by reflecting on ourselves. Only then can we find our place as people and be clear in what we must demand.
The Tenderloin Reflectiona and Education Center is the parent organization of the TallMountain Circle and Freedom Voices
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