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"Culture contains the seed of resistance which blossoms into the flower of liberation." Amilear Cabral

Government funding for arts and education work with the homeless and low-income residents of San Francisco has decreased markedly over the last decade. Yet cultural sustenance for those living in poverty is critical in providing the spiritual and personal resources necessary to survive life on the streets and to conscientizing the public in order to reverse current political and economic priorities. The Tenderloin Reflection and Education Center (TREC) is committed to providing essential human services to the underserved people one of San Francisco's most diverse and economically challenged neighborhoods and to bringing the voice of the marginalized into public consciousness.


A homeless Vet looks at a photograph of a family in Guatemala. He touches his hand to his fabric headband and begins to cry. The jungle behind the family's house reminds him of Vietnam. A young African American woman who he's met only this afternoon, moves quietly across the room, bringing him a box of tissues. He's not going to write his story today, but in his silent eloquence he's brought a piece of his life into the dialogue at one of the Tenderloin Reflection and Education Center's writing workshops.

This is the 'work' at one of the Bay Area's longest lived arts and culture centers for the homeless and dispossessed: telling stories, making dance, singing praise, crying blues, printing books; providing gentle, persistent, mutual aid to the survivors of the streets of the Tenderloin.

TREC, as its known in the neighborhood, has practiced it's singular approach to grassroots education and empowerment for 16 years. The Center is a unique community-based learning and resource center that works with homeless and residents of San Francisco's inner-city. Our programs are successful examples of how creativity can break down isolation, empower participants and challenge social oppression. 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 an independent non-profit in 1990. 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. TREC helps 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 break the silence of about communities on the margin and to work non-violently towards a more cooperative society.


At TREC we articulate the following goals.

Create community across boundaries of race, class, national origin, immigration status, gender and sexual orientation.

Celebrate the artistic cultural and spiritual values of our members and constituents.

Relate the struggles of homeless people, immigrants, residents, elders and youth of the Tenderloin to wider cultural, social and political issues of our times.

Integrate the insights and struggles of our daily encounters into a non-violent practice that challenges the marginalization of our constituents.

The programs have three primary parts: workshops, performance and publication. The three facets of the program work together in a cycle that knits together individuals and their creations into a stronger fabric of urban community.
TREC offers four to six free ongoing weekly workshops in writing, drama, spirituality, dance, music, and visual arts; organizes performances of workshop members and guest artists at venues throughout the San Francisco bay area; hosts readings and publishes books
The workshops are places where things are made, relationships formed, insights won, friends and enemies measured. They are the creative wellsprings that overflow into eventual performances. In the workshops individuals in moments of vulnerability reach through pain to the deeper reality of connection to their origins and their neighbors. A central element in the success of the program is a welcoming environment that encourages diversity.

The Peoples Library: The Peoples Library housing over 2,000 books provides a friendly alternative to the public library which is often unwelcoming to poor, homeless street people. The Peoples Library provides a safe haven from the streets for people to read, rest and reflect and is staffed by volunteer homeless Tenderloin residents. As a drop-in program it often forms the entry point to the more structured workshops, publications and performance groups. Jerry Lebsch, Janet Powell, Roy Furniss, Steve Kaslikowski and Denise Dee are the librarians.
Women's Library Drop-in: Each Friday from the library is reserved as a place for women to come read, write, and reflect.

Each quarter the Program Committee of the board evaluates proposals for the establishment of new workshops that have been submitted by staff, facilitators, or members of the community. Some groups, such as the Bible Discussion Group, have developed into relatively permanent fixtures of the community. Others like the Music Workshop, are operated in shorter term cycles based on the boards evaluation of the balance between the needs of the community and the resources available.

Bible Discussion: For 16 years, TREC has facilitated a weekly discussion on the application of faith to the individual struggle for justice. For the past six years Barbara Graves has been the facilitator. Most of the discussion group participants are homeless.

Creative Writing: Exercises are used to inspire hands-on creative writing. Participants are encouraged to participate in round-robin readings after each exercise. Facilitated by Eric Robertson.

Tenderloin Older Writers Network: This project promotes story telling, writing, and publication of the elders of the Tenderloin. Kali Grosberg coordinates the network.

Women's Writing: This TREC workshop was founded in 1987 and provides not only artistic inspiration and instruction to women living in the Tenderloin but also emotional support. A workshop anthology of participant writings was published under the title Goddesses We Ain't. In its current incarnation the Women's Writing Circle meets on Friday afternoons with facilitator/neighborhood resident and activist, Denise Dee.

Visual Arts: TREC has a long history of providing instruction and studio space for the visual arts. In the spring of 1997, we offered classes that used the visual arts as a means of cultural and self-exploration. Alice Gould and Bill Swanson are the visual arts resource persons.

Teen Writing Program: This TREC project created a teen writing workshop that published a youth magazine aimed at teen residents of the Tenderloin. The youth involved received training in the use of computers and instruction in desktop publishing. (The workshop is currently not meeting) Dan Fields is the facilitator.

Children's and Adult Dance. Through the Tenderloin Dance Project TREC co-sponsors classes with the Pearl Ubungen Dancers and Musicians for children and adults each week. Classes take place at the Vietnamese Youth Development Center and various housing complexes in the neighborhood. Children from TREC's dance classes performed together at the January, 1995 opening of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Music: TREC has sponsored music workshops in forms ranging from blues to jazz to funk, rap and hip-hop. On special occasions, the music workshop alumni, (the workshop is currently not meeting) perform in such gathering places as Tenderloin parks and homeless shelters.

Performance programs and workshops are a vital factor in building the self-esteem of participants, attracting new members and facilitators to the workshops, enhancing the sense of community among participants and to educating the wider public to the realities of life in the Tenderloin. In 1995 TREC co-sponsored the workshop group which provided raw material for the Pearl Ubungen Dancers and Musicians performance Refugee, which has been seen by thousands of people in the Bay Area as well as audiences in St. Paul, Minnesota and New York City.
Many smaller public performances, such as readings at local bookstores, on KPFA radio and in university auditoriums also serve to educate the community about the vital concerns of the people of the Tenderloin.
Two current workshop programs are specifically geared toward performance outcomes:
Women's Drama Improvisation: This workshop utilizes classic theater games and exercises to develop a sense of self-esteem in its participants. It is a gender specific workshop that affords its constituents a sense of emotional security during their creative explorations.
The Theater Workshop writes and stages works reflecting life in the Tenderloin and addresses issues of communities in crisis.

The publications programs at TREC are well developed and have been well received throughout the Bay Area, and the nation. Freedom Voices books have received favorable reviews in the Bay Guardian, the Bay Times, Tenderloin Times , Street Spirit and newspapers and academic journals in Virginia, Chicago, New York and Hawaii. Mary TallMountain, former poet in residence was an activist in the Tenderloin for many years and is the pre-eminent Freedom Voices writer. But others, including Marsha Campbell, Maria Rand, Margot Pepper, Jerry Miley, and Rhett Stuart are frequently published in the small presses. The publications programs, like the performance work, strengthen the participants self-esteem, build community to community links and educate the wider public about the realities of poverty, homelessness, and human and civil rights issues.

Tender Leaves
: TREC regularly publishes this periodical featuring the poetry, prose, thoughts and art of Tenderloin residents.

Freedom Voices: Publishes and organizes public reading for writers from the Tenderloin. Freedom Voices has staged readings at theaters, book stores, radio stations, community centers, and Tenderloin parks. Freedom Voices has recently published its eighth volume of works that speak to and from communities on the margins.

TallMountain Circle: After Mary TallMountain's death in 1994, TREC established the TallMountain Circle to continue publication and distribution of the noted Native American writer and poet Mary TallMountain. Mary TallMountain's writings are used in Native American study programs throughout the United States, and Bill Moyers (who interviewed TallMountain for his Power of the Word series) included a number of her poems in his companion book to the series.

The primary source for TREC's evaluations is the feedback we receive from program participants. They determine what pieces will be performed, what passages will be studied, what sort of musical form will be pursued. Members attend periodic program committee meetings where workshops are approved, organized and supported and sometimes phased out.

On a more customary level, there are quantitative methods of measuring participation in TREC's programs:
Workshops: twenty five patrons per week use the library, five to twenty members in four to six weekly workshops provide feedback and peer support to one another.

Performance, three to five hundred people per year participate in public events. Sometimes thousands see elements of work produced at TREC as in the Refugee Dance Theater performance.
Publication: eight books of writing from workshop participants have been published, they are distributed nationally by Small Press Distribution Inc. Tender Leaves is distributed to hundreds of readers quarterly.

However, evaluating the effectiveness of TREC's programs can be more accurately evaluated through qualitative studies. An ongoing study by Ken Butigan, of the Franciscan Nonviolence Center Pace e Bene, documents the TREC process using interviews with participants. Preliminary aspects of the study can be read in the Pace e Bene booklet, Experiments in Group Transformations. Another qualitative study is that of Caroline Heller, Ph.D.. She has completed a study of TREC's Women's Writing Workshop, Until We All Stand Together, that was published by Columbia University's Teachers College Press in 1997. This four year study, backed up by hundreds of hours of tape recorded workshop sessions, interviews and field notes, demonstrates the potent community building results of the TREC educational process. These documentary portraits of the process are now beginning to reach a wider audience and alumni of TREC workshops use the skills they have gained in organizations such as the Coalition on Homelessness, the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy for the Homeless and Berkeley Oakland Support Services. It is our experience that as Amilear Cabral the educator from Guinea Bissau says, "Culture contains the seed of resistance which blossoms into the flower of liberation."


Freedom Voices publishes works that speak to or from communities on the margins. FV has published books by Marsha Campbell, Janice King, Margot Pepper, Rhett Stuart, and anthologies including Goddesses We Ain't and Image and Imagination. as well as two volumes by MaryTallMountain; and has sponsored readings in homeless shelters, at college campuses and cafes and on KPFA and KPOO radio. In 1997 FV formally joined forces with the TallMountain Circle (founded in 1994) which produces, promotes and distributes Mary TallMountain's literary works.

Freedom Voices' most recent book, Image and Imagination Encounters with the Photography of Dorothea Lange, is a collection of poems and essays written and inspired by the depression era photographs of Dorothea Lange and contemporary Oakland photographer Scott Braley. This book is a powerful, commentary on poverty and social injustice from a diverse group of Tenderloin, San Francisco and East Bay writers. Using poetry, personal essay, rap and contemporary photography, the artists explore the intersection between Lange's documentary photography and current realities.

Image and Imagination includes over 50 photographs by world renowned photographer Dorothea Lange, spanning her entire career, including: A Hopi reservation in the late 1920's; Family photographs from the early 1930's; Long suppressed photographs of the War Relocation of persons of Japanese ancestry; Images from the Oakland streets and criminal justice system in the 1950's; And of course Lange's well known Depression era documentary work such as the iconic photo known as Migrant Mother.

Freedom Voices publications provide a place for the political convictions and passions of the people on the street. Whole sections of Street Spirit, a homeless advocacy newspaper published by the American Friends Service Committee's Homeless Organizing Project, have been devoted to writings from our workshops and publications.

Freedom Voices/TallMountain Circle is also dedicate to producing, promoting and distributing Mary TallMountain's literary works. The Circle carries on the work that Mary TallMountain embodied by supporting those who give voice to the experience of Native Americans and the dispossessed in this society. Each year the Advisory Board selects recipients of the TallMountain Award for Creative Writing and Community Service and conducts public readings of award winners work. All of TallMountain's book length works are distributed by the Circle as well as broadsides, chapbooks and anthologies in which she is prominently featured.

The TallMountain Circle has reprinted her 1991 collection A Quick Brush of Wings (Freedom Voices 1991) published the posthumous collection Listen to the Night (Freedom Voices 1995) and issued a chapbook of previously unpublished poems of Haiku and other poetic forms. Listen To the Night; Poems to the Animal Spirits of Mother Earth was compiled and arranged in the last year of Mary's life, when she told us she wanted to gather all her old friends in one volume. It brings together her many tributes, protests, laments and prayers written for the animals and the earth.

[Index | Catalogue | Order Form | TallMountain Circle | TREC | Essays | Poems | Stories | Photos]