Letting Kids Write and Be Weird in San Francisco’s Last Ungentrified Hood

826 Valencia is taking its magical brand of writing instruction and tutoring to the Tenderloin.
(Photo: 826 Valencia/Facebook)
May 15, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Tech-driven gentrification has only recently begun to chip away at the seedy underbelly of San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, bringing yoga studios, doggy day cares, and trendy juice bars in proximity to the addicts shooting up outside buildings and the homeless people sleeping in doorways. But as much as newly arrived tech bros may love the trendy amenities, it’s a magical tree house being built in an abandoned corner store on Golden Gate Avenue that may have the most lasting effect on the area’s low-income kids.

Creative writing and tutoring nonprofit 826 Valencia hopes to provide the Tenderloin’s children with a safe space to let their imagination run wild. On May 19 it will cut the opening ribbon on its new 826 Valencia Tenderloin Center. The center’s writing lab will feature the cozy tree house, which is designed to spark kids’ enthusiasm for storytelling. To that end, the 826 Valencia Tenderloin Center will provide about 2,000 kids ages six to 18 with free writing workshops, after-school tutoring, and other creative opportunities.

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“It was clear that our next step was to serve more students and to continue to offer our services where they’re needed most,” Molly Parent, the programs and communications manager for 826 Valencia, told TakePart.

The nonprofit was founded in the city’s Mission District in 2002 by writer and philanthropist Dave Eggers and educator Ninive Calegari. Since then it has expanded to become 826 National, a network of chapters in six other major cities that serves 30,000 students. The idea of opening in the Tenderloin, where 35 percent of residents live below the poverty line, came up last year through consultation with 826 Valencia volunteers.

The volunteers “are really the heart and soul of 826 Valencia,” said Parent. “Because we believe in the power of one-on-one tutoring to transform a student’s relationship with writing, they make everything we do possible. Our volunteers identified the Tenderloin as an area where they wanted to offer support and that was centrally located and accessible.”

The writing lab will feature a beautiful tree house with nooks where students will write, learn, and ignite their passion for storytelling. (Photo: Courtesy 826 Valencia)

The organization met with community stakeholders and leaders and found that the Tenderloin had “a strong network of organizations that support young people, but none were specifically focused on writing,” Parent said. Grants from foundations and individuals led to the storefront being acquired and transformed into a whimsical space for kids.

A crowdfunding campaign hopes to raise an additional $40,000 to put finishing touches on the center and begin funding programming. “At this stage, we still need to finish painting the indoor mural, install storage space, furnish some of the rooms, plus the many little needs we’ll have once we open,” said Parent.

Far from a stale classroom environment with lectures about the proper format of a five-paragraph essay, 826 Valencia is known for allowing kids to be as weird and imaginative as they want. Each center has a fun theme and operates a storefront selling anthologies and zines created by its student writers, as well as T-shirts and quirky items.

True to San Francisco’s pirate history, 826 Valencia runs a Pirate Supply Store. The center in the Tenderloin will be home to King Carl’s Emporium, named after King Carl, a “legendary” puffer fish that lived in the fish theater at 826 Valencia.

“The idea behind King Carl’s Emporium is that it sells supplies for explorers of all kinds, as well as things Carl has gathered on his travels, from our classic pirate supplies to new products like dental floss for ogres,” said Parent. “We’ll have signs in a variety of languages, which will create a welcoming entry point for the neighborhood’s families, many of whom are immigrants from all over the world.”

Given the tech boom, there’s been plenty of national focus on building students’ math and science skills and teaching them computer science. But 826 Valencia’s website points out that according to a report from the Carnegie Corporation, “without writing skills, young people will be at a serious disadvantage in successfully pursuing some form of higher education, and securing a job that pays a living wage.” Only about half of students in the San Francisco Unified School District were proficient in English Language Arts on the state standardized test last year.

The creativity that kids in the Tenderloin will generate once they’re allowed to begin dreaming and writing in the tree house in the 826 Valencia Tenderloin Center builds on the artistic legacy of the neighborhood. Jazz greats John Coltrane and Miles Davis once recorded in a studio in the Tenderloin, and Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon in an apartment in the neighborhood.

Yet as the tech industry moves in, bringing sky-high rents with it, some folks might wonder if the families of the kids 826 Valencia hopes to serve will soon be priced out of the Tenderloin.

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“It’s definitely a time of change and struggle for many in San Francisco,” said Parent. At the same time, “while there’s an influx of wealth and many new residents, many longtime resident families are still here, with roots and strong communities that make the city what it is.”

With that in mind, the expansion to the Tenderloin enables 826 Valencia to continue “connecting resources—whether it’s caring adults with time to volunteer or donors who want to give back and invest in kids—with the needs of low-income students,” said Parent. “Right now in San Francisco, the resources are abundant and the need is great. We’re a space where communities can come together and support each other, which is particularly crucial in this city right now.”

Bringing people together to amplify the voices of the Tenderloin’s children will be essential to the success of the center. Along with nurturing partnerships with local schools and families, Parent said the center needs to double the number of its volunteers to have enough people to work with the kids. “Our work will always be driven by the needs of students, families, and schools, and it takes the support of a tremendous number of caring people to make it happen,” she said.