Sitting in their house in San Francisco's Mission District, Elissa Chandler and Johanna Kenrick didn't know what to think of a seemingly random postcard from someone named La Shon Walker that read, "My favorite place in Bayview is Candlestick Point because it's a lovely park with amazing views." Elissa and Johanna were curious and followed the printed URL on the back of the postcard. They soon realized their address was randomly selected to receive a postcard as part of the SF Postcard Project.
The SF Postcard Project fosters community connection through storytelling exchange. Residents in marginalized neighborhoods fill out a postcard with a positive personal story of their community. That postcard is then mailed to a random San Francisco resident to give them a different view of a neighborhood.
San Francisco's Bayview neighborhood is tucked into an isolated Southeast corner of the city. Most San Franciscans don't have a reason to go to there. They only know what they see on the news—violence, drugs, and poverty. But, there are many positive stories that exist in these communities. Stories that need to be heard.
Elissa and Johanna's postcard had come from La Shon Walker, a Bayview resident and President of the Bayview Merchants Association. Elissa and Johanna sent me an email expressing interest in meeting the mysterious author of their postcard. I had La Shon's email and introduced them to each other. They exchanged a few emails, at one point realizing after the fact that they were both at The Ramp, a restaurant in the Dogpatch, at the same time. A few weeks later they were at The Ramp again, this time at the same table.
We had organized to all meet up for dinner to chat about the project, community, and our lives. I didn't know what to expect, but what followed for the next few hours was an energetic, real conversation between people from different neighborhoods, different backgrounds, and different generations—but all with a similar desire to build a better San Francisco.
Elissa had been to Bayview a few times in the past and Johanna had never been. La Shon urged them both to check out more of what Bayview has to offer, stating that "Bayview needs you." She said that it will take people from inside as well as outside the community to solve the challenges in Bayview.
Citing their experiences volunteering at a local community farmers market, both Elissa and Johanna agreed that it takes time and effort to build new connections with people you might not normally interact with. But they also noted that once you make those connections it can entirely change how you view a neighborhood.
These connections can run deeper than you might even suspect. At one point in the conversation, everyone realized that they had all recently read the same book about a collision of cultures between a Hmong refugee family and the health care system in Merced, California. It was a perfectly fitting serendipitous moment. This is the purpose of the SF Postcard Project: give people from different communities the opportunity to learn more about each other and they'll be surprised and delighted by how similar they really are.
After La Shon sung its praises, everyone agreed to have a future dinner date at an acclaimed Bayview restaurant. All people need is one small reason to talk to people that seem different than them, to connect with different communities. A simple postcard can be the catalyst to create lasting connections between people and communities.
"How do we break down stereotypes?" I asked at one point. "By doing what we're doing right now," replied La Shon.
Images courtesy of Hunter Franks