Category Archives: Stories

Cancer and community

By Jeffrey Betcher

Maybe there should be a more uplifting title to this article, not just because it might be gentler on you, dear reader, but also because there is so much about “cancer and community” that is positive.

It’s a strange way to start a sentence, but…  The good thing about dying is how it can make a person feel more alive than ever, a phenomenon that can extend to the family, friends and community of the person dying.  Most of my relationships are healthier as a result, just as the hole my death will leave in my community has clarified.

When you’re sick, it’s hard to remember this:

Death isn’t just about the dying. It’s also about those left behind.  I’ll be pissed at myself enough to come back for a do-over if my friends and neighbors are shocked to learn of my death. Ideally, I will have included them in my journey so that whatever beauty there might be in my passing will help balance the grief.

In past updates about my own illness and how it relates to the community of place I love so much, I’ve talked about how those living in traditionally under-served communities like Bayview can be at higher risk for all sorts of diseases than those living in more affluent places.  That’s something communities can help address, primarily through education and advocacy.  More

I’ve also talked about how my neighbors have helped me in ways that only neighbors can, and how being part of a local community improves my odds. Wherever you live, when it comes to being sick, the closest support is next door if not in the house with you.  Clearly, being part of a community comes with benefits for the sick person.  More

We’ve lost two more neighbors to cancer here on my block of Bayview in just the past couple of months. One of them a relatively young long-term resident, something that may speak to the incidence of cancer rates here.  The community response as I’ve observed it speaks to the value of social networks to getting through tough times. While it may be impossible to understand loss suffered by others, folks in Bayview seem to understand that acknowledging it and reminding those in grief that they are not alone makes a difference.

Connecting with the people and physical environment where we live takes some effort. But I believe it’s important. A sense of community contributes to a better life for even the healthiest neighbors. And when a community member dies, the community context helps make sense of the loss.

I’ve come to think that a person with a life-threatening illness or injury has a unique role to play in their community that goes beyond being the receiver of help from neighbors.  Active awareness of death, something we will all grapple with one day, can be depressing. But it can also make each day more valuable.  Every word and act can be more compassionate, intentional and responsible.

Trust me on this: get a terminal diagnosis, expect to change in practical ways. No one could blame you if you lowered the blinds, powered-down your phone and burrowed under the covers. On the other hand, you could find yourself picking up litter in the SuperSave parking lot, waving at the person across the street who you had been angry at for some reason you can’t quite recall, seeing beauty in precisely those things that had made your life less beautiful the day before your diagnosis….

Folks have told me that by witnessing my journey (and by my willingness to share it) they are living life more fully and dealing with their fears more successfully. It seems that I am contributing to my community in a new way these days: by living with death, openly. Sometimes, building community is as easy as breathing.

Get a recent update on Jeffrey’s health and cancer treatment, and a whole lot more, by going to CaringBridge.org and searching on his name.

Jeffrey’s cancer and community journey

Mango Baby-eating panda by Rhonda Winter
Mango Baby-eating panda by Rhonda Winter

Jeffrey Betcher

The further from home my cancer journey takes me, the more I land right back at the gardens in Bayview.

While visiting Lex in Florida last week, I tried to sketch a panda which turned out no better than if a panda itself had done it.  When I returned home, a letter from Rhonda Winter, Latona Garden co-founder and now German resident, was in my mailbox.  It was exactly what I had pictured in my meditations about a mythical animal keen to eat a mango sized tumor stuck up my butt.

(Visit www.caringbridge/jeffreybetcher for gory (gorier) details. Point is, this daily sort of community synchronicity happens all the time.  It’s like dependable magic.

The connections between my unwieldy journey with cancer and the place I live, people I live near and others who have come through my life by way of the gardens emerge every day.

The experience so many have, that Bayview Hunters Point’s environmental and social history have bequeathed chronic and sometimes terminal health problems, has roots in reality. At the same time, I hope the internal strength of the social and cultural fabric here serves to make us healthier: a sort of karmic balance between adversity and folks coming together because life is just easier and more joyful that way.

In my reading about cancer and treatment, I’ve stumbled on serious studies and anecdotal evidence that social connections, like those that form around positive activities, can prevent disease and dramatically help those dealing with it.

Just across the Bay, in Alameda, a study by Peggy Reynolds and George Kaplan makes a case that people with the fewest social ties were three times more likely to die over a nine-year period than those who reported the most social ties. I’m not sure what that means about my getting this cancer, but it sure makes me value my neighbors as I deal with it.

And it makes me happy to share a bit of promising news with you, my neighbor near or far.  After a September diagnosis of a Stage IV “incurable” cancer, I’ve just met with researchers at UCSF Mission Bay who are conducting a clinical trial that simply didn’t exist that short time ago.  I’m not in the study yet, and there’s no guarantee (in life or cancer), but it’s hopeful.

For those of you who don’t know, Mission Bay is just up 3rd Street from where I live at Quesada Gardens, and includes a premiere cancer hospital that opened just in time to serve little ole me.  I’m privileged, and I’m grateful to be part of a caring community that is beautifully unavoidable.

Gardener’s guide to setting up a home office

Karl Paige's office was the Quesada Garden. Not much writing, but a whole lot of accomplishment. Photo: Footprints
Karl Paige’s office was the Quesada Garden. Not much writing, but a whole lot of accomplishment. Photo: Footprints

By Elizabeth Skow

I’m setting up a new office in my home to bribe my lazy muse. Setting up an office is easy. Here are directions in simple steps:
#1 Paint the room a lovely peachy color after filling in dents, holes and divots, sanding and smoothing them.
#2 Leave the paint to season for about a year – the only remaining furniture belongs to your cats (they love their new sun room). Your yoga mat sits in a corner collecting dust and claw marks.
#3 Spend spare moments for at least a month or two, browsing your favorite online stores for office furniture you can’t afford or even justify, really…. You will need a nice sleek desk for all those imagined future hours toiling away at the laptop… and a mint colored filing cabinet on casters that slides perfectly underneath.
Add a sofa bed and chest of drawers, ’cause you know, you can’t really have a room just for your office, right? I mean when’s the last time you actually made any money writing-or even wrote anything?  At least now you have a guest room.
Your budget (snicker … “budget.” Who are you fooling?)  Your quarterly taxes (ok you never really pay quarterly taxes) ruptured on the desk, chair and minty filing cabinet.
#4 Re-work your “budget” several times to see how soon you can afford the couch, dresser and printer cart. Think how cavemen used red ochre and cave walls, and their muses seemed to think they were just grand.
#5 Receive delivery of desk, cabinet and chair. Assemble them all in a hurry and then realize you’ve put the legs on backwards. Re-attach legs correctly. Find optimal position for desk. Set up printer, laptop, stapler and envelopes. Look at overall effect to see if it seems inspirational. Sit down on chair, open laptop …look out window the garden needs weeding. Go make coffee. Sit back down with coffee. Look out window…realize it’s a gorgeous day. Shut laptop.
#6 It’s a gorgeous day, go weed in the garden. Play some old funk and R&B, wave and smile to your neighbors, think how lucky you are to live here and how cool it is that you actually have some neighbors you like, and pull out weeds for several hours until you’re too tired to move, let alone write.

Realize that petty resentments, slights, real or imagined, all melt away when you are pulling weeds from the ground, shaking off the dirt, throwing them in the pile. Pulling weeds from the ground, shaking off the dirt, throwing them in the pile. Hmmm…maybe your muse likes gardening!

Walk up Bayview Hill with your incredible little dog, given to you by the lady who used to sit on your stoop (she was really nice!). Look at the beautiful view and think again how lucky you are to live here. Find a good walking rhythm.

Think about the garden. Think about all the new people in the neighborhood and all the people who have been here awhile. How much things have changed since you moved to the block seven (!) years ago, how much has stayed the same.

Realize that change is inevitable, always hard and drives people crazy. But change brings growth, and usually that’s good.

Think about the garden…the way it drew out Annette Smith and Karl Paige to tend it. The way they inspired their other neighbors…Jeffrey Betcher and Shane King and Edward Allen and James Ross and Linda Pettus to name just a few, and more and more people joined.

People in and around Quesada Gardens planted and lovingly tended this movement. It grew like the roots of trees, flowers and vegetables…to Bridgeview Garden and Latona Garden…throughout Bayview.

It all starts and ends with the garden. Let’s keep that in mind. THAT is what “COMMUNITY LOOKS LIKE.”

#7 Sit down inspired and write for a couple of hours. Your office has arrived!

Getting to know the neighbors: Rithy Chan

By Wei Ming Dariotis

Some people mishear his name as “Ricky,” but it is pronounced “ri-T.”

He was born in Battambang, small little town in northwestern Cambodia, in 1968. Rithy’s wealthy family was targeted by the Marxist Maoist-nationalist Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian genocide. Rithy’s parents and most family members were killed, leaving his older sister to take care of all their surviving siblings.  

WMD: How do you feel about being Cambodian American?

RC: How do I feel about my Cambodians roots? I guess when you are born somewhere you always feel connected to the place you were born. I love my culture and my roots, I am very proud of Cambodian heritage and culture, but at the same time, I am happy where I am now. Like my nephews, even though they were born in California and Hawaii, they are drawn, like I am, to go to see their family’s original roots.

Being Cambodian American to me means being my own person. We are such a minority and there are only one or two families in San Francisco that I know personally. I’m not so involved with the Cambodian community here. I try to blend in with my neighbors. I have gone to temples and community centers and I feel a little left out. I prefer diversity and integration. Since we moved to America, we settled in the middle of Harlem and lived there for two years with no other Cambodian families around and we integrated with many different ethnic groups all the time.  Surprisingly, I do still speak perfect Khmer, or “Cambodian.” When I come back to the US after speaking Cambodian for two weeks I can’t speak English because my tongue muscles won’t switch over.

English is an interesting language to me because it is non-hierarchical. “You” in English is just “you”—not upper or lower class “you” just direct simple “you.” That’s why when I speak to Cambodians who speak English I prefer to speak with them in English. Cambodian derives from the two main root languages of Sanskrit and Bali from India, where there was a caste system. So the language is hierarchical, like the society is hierarchical.

Being Cambodian means a lot to me. The culture dates back over a thousand years. For Southeast Asia, Khmer culture, art and architecture is as the Greek and Roman cultures are to Western culture. Everyone in the region tries to identify and associate with it and preserve it. Classical Khmer art and architecture were extraordinary achievement for any society, in any era. We have “golden proportion or ratio” just like the western world. I did a study and analyzed Angkor Wat, which was built in the 1100s, and the golden proportion or ratio is everywhere. Being Cambodian means a lot of different things. Even the Khmer Rouge [note: the nationalist socialist regime that massacred over a million Cambodians in the genocide often referred to as the Killing Fields] —it was a bad thing, but what I got out of it was that living through that drove me to be a better, tougher, stronger person and to have more tolerance.

My family was wealthy, but during the massacre both of my parents and two of my siblings were killed. In 1979-1980 was a desperate time. I begged people for food. We would go to the jungle where the Khmer Rouge was with land mines to pick fruit then walk for miles to the market to trade it for a little rice to survive.

My family escaped to Thailand and spent three years there in the refugee camps. We were the first ones there and almost the last ones to get out.  We waited for my older sister to be old enough to become our guardian.  We did not want to be split up to orphanages. My older sister is my hero, role model and also like a mother to all of my siblings.  She is so amazing and to this day, over three decades later she is still the most successful one. She is a single mom living in a brown stone in Park Slope, New York City. 

WMD:  You are working on a body of drawings; how would you describe your artistic style?

RC: I guess right now it is pencil: realism combined with surrealist and imaginary images. I don’t want to say just surrealist—maybe fantasy/Escher-esque. “Tricking the eye.” To me, artwork doesn’t have to be realistic because for that you can take photos–so you might as well have fun with it.

WMD: How would you describe the themes in your art?

RC: The stories usually involve figures in universal themes. For example, in the latest piece, the single figure is trying to help all the others stranded together below, but he is holding on to broken brick balloons, which don’t exist; they don’t make sense. The people below are being oppressed or massacred, and he can’t do anything to help them. Like the UN which was supposed to stop massacres after WWII.

A lot of times I try to juxtapose images that are transcendent—between the planes of this world and those of another world.

Humanity repeats itself all the time—look at San Bernardino recently—or Paris. It’s like WWII, Rwanda, or the Khmer Rouge all over again. This kind of trauma doesn’t seem real to the population at large, so I try to put it into my artwork. It’s an abstract concept until you have experienced it yourself. For example, what Donald Trump says about immigrants and refugees shows that he hasn’t experienced that kind of trauma.

For each person it’s different; I was younger than my older sister when we survived the Khmer Rouge. So, compared to her, it is much easier for me to talk about it because it seemed normal to me to see people getting killed. From the eyes of a kid, you think it’s normal and natural.

If you grow up in the ghetto, you would think that is normal life, too, unless you move beyond it. Some of my friends can’t understand why I live here in the Bayview, but I love it. I won’t say I’m not scared—I’ve been on the street when there have been gun shoot outs and it doesn’t matter who you are—Black, White, Asian, Muslim, Buddhist, rich or poor, you can get hit. Bullets don’t discriminate.

WMD: What do you like most about living in the Bayview?

RC: I love the weather, and the diversity of the community. All the houses are separated and you get a big garden.

WMD: Have you always been a gardener?

RC: No, after coming from Cambodia, our family lived in New York City; I never had a garden before. When I came to Quesada Street I saw the palm trees and they were the main draw. I love the palm trees and lots of wild life here and I especially love the parrots. And then I found out the neighbors were very diverse, which is a major plus that I didn’t know before. In my mind, since I knew I was going to make it my home, I just planned to get to know my neighbors anyway, so the diversity was a nice bonus. It is like a little paradise in the city.  

But it a paradise with garbage—I picked up three bags of garbage this morning because the people that come here to buy drugs just throw trash out of their cars. But even if you paid me to live in the Sunset or Richmond I wouldn’t live there—the summer is just depressing.

WMD: What do you think you’ve learned about yourself from living here?

RC: How to be tough and kind to the neighbors at the same time. It’s a balancing act. You have to respect the people you live next door to, and at the same time, some people are doing certain things that are destructive. I have to negotiate to make sure people respect my space like I respect theirs.

I also learned how to garden.  It’s a lot of physical work but it is sort of meditative for me. Weeding, I can let my mind go instead of thinking of the stress of the city. Seeing plants produce fruit or vegetables, taking care of them, seeing some plants succumb to disease—its all very challenging. It’s fluid—it’s the relationship between life and death. It’s like anything else—you have to take care of it to keep it surviving. For example, this year we really cut back water and a couple plants died. We learned what can survive in these drought conditions.

This yin and yang is also reflected in my artwork. You have bad people and good people working to balance each other. No matter how it is resolved, I think everyone has good intentions.

I wish we had better services—like a gym. Better stores. More restaurants. But on the other hand, house prices are lower because of that so I can’t complain. It would be nice for your neighborhood to be walkable. Homelessness in this city is just growing, and it makes me sad to see that.  It is one of the richest cities in the US and yet, the disparities are growing rapidly and the gap is getting wider.
Overall I feel lucky to have ended up in this neighborhood and community – the Quesada Gardens Initiative and the people here are unique and special.

Footprints is changing

Jeffrey Betcher

When you get a serious illness, what should you say to people?

As I’ve been telling family and friends that I’ve been diagnosed with cancer, questions about how broad to go with the news have come up. Some folks think it’s weird to share such personal news about a topic uncomfortable to many. Others say that illness isn’t just about the person who is sick, but also about all the people who care about him or have a stake in his work.

It’s been just a couple weeks since the actual diagnosis, and I’m still adjusting to what I’m learning will be a “new normal.”  But the need to whittle back my commitments is already here. If you read Footprints, that affects you.

Bayview Footprints Local News will not publish as often as it has in the past, at least for now.  I believe that, if I am to be a responsible member of the Footprints community, and if I am to honor Quesada Gardens’ principle of complete transparency, you deserve to hear that from me.

The future is always uncertain.  For Bayview Footprints, that future could include occasional special editions, collaborators building on the Footprints foundation, or some other reinvention.  Whatever happens, I will remain deeply grateful to the Co-Founders and early member organizations in the Bayview Footprints Network of Community Building Groups, our thousands of loyal readers, the hundreds of change-makers who have contributed content since 2008, and the advertisers who have cover some of our costs.

Fortunately, Footprints’ content (over a thousand posts) lives on at BayviewFootprints.org where Bayview’s longest-running blog makes its home.  If you haven’t visited this community-generated portal website recently, be sure to check out the updated resource hubs.

I feel great about what Bayview Footprints has accomplished.  It started as an expose that should never have been necessary: a revelation that the much maligned Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood is actually a nice place where nice people live, work, study and play.  That word got out, both through Footprints and through the journalists and academics who culled our pages looking for story ideas and innovations in community building.

Footprints has been both a celebration of grassroots, place-based, community-emergent change-making, and a call for restraint when, in the name of community benefit, external powers duplicate what locals should be empowered to do for themselves.

Why “Community Building?” And what does that have to do with cancer?

I chose the phrase “community building” in 2006 as I did research about why Quesada Gardens had been able to create rapid change when nothing else seemed to work. (Traditional community-based strategies such as Safe Block/law enforcement and Broken Window Theory/beautification approaches had produced such disappointing results.) I was drawing from Jamie Kalven’s work in Chicago.

Around the same time, Esta Soler, my boss at the national violence prevention organization where I worked, handed me a summary of a study by Robert Sampson as evidence of a connection between “social cohesion” and “community strength.”

Both at Quesada Gardens and through Bayview Footprints, converts like me have been preaching in those terms ever since … messages that have seeded digital and traditional media locally, and traveled across the country and as far as Europe and Asia.

Now we see the language of “community building” and “social cohesion” showing up everywhere. There’s no way to know the extent to which we led that change, but I’m sure we contributed, and I believe it’s something all of us involved in Bayview Hunters Point change-making can be proud of.  Whatever you call it, “community building” is in our DNA here.

Since I moved to Bayview in 1998, my house at Quesada Gardens has been in constant motion on the magnitude of Dorothy’s house spinning toward Oz, first with construction to keep the thing standing, then with orienting it toward community center functionality, and more recently with the launch of a small community-based apparel business.

Now I’m reorganizing the place again, this time around the needs of a guy in cancer treatment and the community offering to help get him through it (which is to say everyone I’ve told and a half dozen people who have already been helping out in practical ways).

Organizing work makes you good at asking for help.

By the way: donations are always welcome at BayviewFootprints.org and QuesadaGardens.org. Donations typically go to online costs, public space maintenance, and the purchasing of gardening tools and materials. Your donation implies faith in that Footprints and Quesada Gardens will go on, and will help out new leaders who are already plugging away at creating sustainable, socially-just grassroots change.

It’s still tough for a lot of folks in Bayview Hunters Point. But at least now Quesada Gardens and Bayview Footprints stand in evidence that change is possible. Now we know that strengthening the social fabric of our diverse community is as important as beautifying property, calling the police a million times, and signing off on every beautification and urban planning blueprint that external powers think is good for us.  (“As important,” if not a whole lot more so.)

Times are a little tough for me now, too, with this cancer thing. But I know I can turn to my neighbors any time I need help. And I believe there is a future for me, just as there is for the gardens, art projects and communications work I’ve been part of. I’ll get to that future along with the strong community I’m so blessed to be part of.

 

Jeffrey Betcher - headshot 160x160Jeffrey Betcher is an organizer, writer and entrepreneur.  After many years in the national violence prevention field, he co-founded the award-winning Quesada Gardens Initiative which builds community through art and gardens in the heart of San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood.  He is the editor and primary writer for Bayview Footprints Local News, serving the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood where he lives and works.  More recently, he co-founded PeopleWearSF, the region’s trade association for the apparel industry, and launched his own sustainable apparel business called YamStreet.  He believes that place-based change strategies that empower people and small businesses represent the surest path to a sustainable and socially-just world.  LinkedIn

My Quesada Saga: Another Connection

by Wei Ming Dariotis

Today, another member joined the planning group for the “JUST LOVE, on the block” celebration of African and African American music, food, and culture we are somehow pulling together for October 3rd here on Quesada between 3rd and Newhall.  Amongst those neighbors and community organizers gathered in a circle of chairs inside the African Outlet, our newest, Suaro Cervantes, announces he is from Precita Eyes, the muralists who have reshaped the Mission district through street art. I hear the name “Cervantes,” and I have to ask him, “Is Luz Cervantes your brother?”

I went to high school with Suaro’s brother, Luz, what feels like a million years ago, but was really only the ‘80s, in a place that feels a million miles away from the Bayview but was just Pacific Heights: San Francisco University High School, class of 1987.

The streets around that school—around that whole neighborhood—were always clean and empty. No traffic, no loud music, no trash. There were mansions all around us that looked like hotels, but only one family lived there. The views of the Bay could be called “million dollar” except none of those houses is under ten million these days. The sidewalks sparkled white and I never saw a pothole. In contrast, here on Quesada there are tiny liquor bottles tucked into every bit of random vegetation, and driving down any block feels like taking a trip over rumble strips. But we have “million dollar” views here, too, and art, and mostly what I love is the people.

After the meeting, I asked Suaro if he wanted to see our Founder’s Mural, and the turnaround area where he would be setting up a space for kids to paint a mural in the Kid Fun Zone on Oct. 3rd. As we walked up the gentle slope and passed the main garden area, with its beds bursting with tomatoes, squash, and corn, I told him how our neighbor, John Davila, has been hard at work to clear and maintain these beds not just for himself, but for the kids and elders to have areas to plant. As we got to the top of the block I showed him the mural I’m painting on the side of my stairs: I didn’t need to ask anyone for permission. I’m pretty sure if I lived in Pac Heights someone would have stopped me or filed a complaint.

Unlike most people when they see the Founder’s Mural, Suaro headed first to see who painted it, to see if he knew them. Of course, he did. Precita Eyes, which was founded in 1977 by Susan and Luis Cervantes (Suaro and Luz’s parents), serves the community by supporting the development of murals that not only beautify, but also educate.

Suaro and I talked about how art brings communities together, and especially how it can be healing. The process of designing a mural can take years, but that process itself brings people together as they share ideas and stories. As they share pain and hope. As we talked, I told Suaro about another neighbor, Rithy, who lived through Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia. Rithy is an artist who’s been telling me he wants to make some sculptures for our community garden. “Something that represents our diversity,” he said. Rithy’s elegant pencil drawings blend surrealism with agony and precision. His bronze sculptures capture the human form moving between states—perhaps between worlds. While he draws at his dining room table, Rithy is looking out at our shared garden and thinking about what he can add.

Is this the next stage of this beautiful community garden: more art to fill our hearts with hope? To help us share our vision of the world as a place filled with human and ecological diversity?

There is no street in Pacific Heights so filled with palm trees, parrots, a community garden, and art. The weather is better here, and so is the love. Our street can be rough but those challenges bring us together. If everything was always smooth we wouldn’t need to talk to each other. There is no street where I would rather live than here.

I’m constantly amazed at the way living on Quesada allows me to connect not only with a large and diverse community, but also with my own personal history.