San Francisco Letter Home
The morning of August 24th dawned just like any other day, except for the fact that all 25 members of our IHP Climate Change cohort were awake for that dawn, preparing to embark upon a semester the likes of which none of us had ever experienced before. Not knowing what we were in for and very eager for all that was to come – save for the bevy of illnesses we had been told would likely inhabit our futures – we arrived at our hostel in downtown San Francisco. While all of us are dignified, jaded juniors and seniors by now, we must admit to observing some freshmen orientation-like eagerness and butterflies during our first meeting.
True to the “go with the flow,” “be flexible and open-minded” mantras we have all been chanting since our packing lists arrived, even our journey to the classroom for initial orientation activities was marked with unexpected challenges, this time in the form of train delays and cancellations. But we overcame our first obstacle together, and got to know each other on the walk, rather than BART ride, to the community-activist-space-turned-classroom that we were fortunate enough to use during our initial week in San Francisco.
We won’t bore – erm… we mean enlighten – you with the details of all the policies and procedures our initial orientations sessions covered. But we do want to include that an awesome workshop on travel and privilege kicked off our first full day of IHP in San Francisco. That workshop inspired us to think deeply and critically right from the start about who we are as students, Americans and travelers, as we experience the world from backgrounds that differ from each other’s and from those of the people whom we would soon meet over the course of our learning. Only 1% of students in the U.S. study abroad annually, so what we are embarking on is a trip of great privilege. Understanding and unpacking that truth will be an ongoing process throughout our journey.
California Site Visits
While staying in beautiful San Francisco, we visited a number of significant places and organizations around CA. In our first excursion, we travelled to Driscoll’s berry farm, one of the largest fruit producers in the United States, to see what sort of impact on Californian climate large-scale agriculture creates. We were amazed by the scale of their operation, and learned a ton about the shipping processes and global logistics that goes into making sure that ripe berries are available all over the world during all seasons. These carbon costs are high, and we later discussed the importance of local food in building a sustainable food system in addition to simply thinking of organic vs conventional produce. However, we were also interested in how agriculture interacts with water use in California, which is currently in a severe drought.
Growing food takes a lot of water, and in our studies we learned that certain foods are more water-efficient than others. Meat, for example, takes a ton of water to produce. Berries aren’t the worst in this way, but the scale at which food and berries are produced in central CA, together with the long droughts caused by climate change, have led to a drastic reduction in available water in natural aquifers. Huge amounts of engineering have gone into creating water systems in California to provide access to water, and while this is great for food production, it means that water is being used much faster than it can recharge. Farmers know this, and so Driscoll’s Environmental Team showed us a recharge basin that they were piloting that was designed to more effectively soak up rainwater, which is a really cool idea. Apparently it has been fairly successful, especially because with climate change, California’s already infrequent rain is starting to come down in fewer, more intense bursts, which would usually lead to a lot of runoff rather than recharge.
After Driscoll and lunch we headed south to Swanton berry farm, an all-union, all-organic berry farm along Highway 1 and the Pacific. Swanton was an incredible contrast to Driscoll; they had pick-your-own, jams, and various pies available to visitors, and had a very different approach to the business of farming. They told us that they made a lot of their money by selling at farmers markets and through distribution to local stores, which was striking when compared with Driscoll’s unsaid assumption of more markets being simply better. They also use a lot of water, but because of their location, less water is available to them; at a coastal location, they aren’t allowed to dig wells, and must therefore rely on the water piped in, which is inconsistent and minimal. It’s unclear whether their business is going to be feasible as climate change continues to make California dryer, but it was refreshing and inspiring to see a model for more environmentally conscious and humanitarian method to agriculture.
Before leaving Swanton, we picked our own strawberries in one of their beautiful coastal fields. The berries were smaller than Driscoll’s, but they were sweeter and fresh and warm in the hot
Another awesome site visit was our trip to Phat Beets, a community organization in North Oakland, CA. Phat Beets is CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, which means that people buy a “share” at the beginning of the year and then pick up periodic batches of whatever’s growing at the farm. Made on city park land, Phat Beets’ existence itself is a challenge to institutional conceptions of private property and public good. Designed to help the community in whatever ways are most pragmatic and coming from a variety of socialist and anarchist philosophies, Phat Beets is an incredible example of the power of a handful of highly motivated people looking to make the world a better place.
Multiple avenues of attack on social issues allows Phat Beets to do the most good possible. Not only do they create edible parks and provide local fresh food for a disadvantaged community, but they also employ youth and community members, run a “kitchen incubator” program, double the purchasing power of EBT purchases, oppose gentrification, and provide personal support to members of the community following arrests and deaths. It’s definitely not your average farm.
The “kitchen incubator” program in particular is cool. They take applicants from the community who want to start healthy micro-food businesses and grant them access to a set of shared tools and resources. This includes education, a food truck, other cooking facilities, and the value of their shared knowledge and connections. When a business is doing well and has been successfully incubated, it is time for the business to leave the incubation program to make room for a new one, of course staying connected to the program socially and potentially brand-wise. This combination of factors creates financial independence, healthy food availability, and jobs along every step of the way, making the community markedly better off through wholly internal means. It was really awesome to hear about all of this great work, and afterwards we had delicious Eritrean/Somali food catered by one such micro-food business!
Many speakers were local professors or professionals, speaking about topics ranging from Vietnamese history, climate science and policy, and the oil industry in the U.S. One lecture that really stood out was an Introduction to Fracking given by Madeline Stanos, an attorney for the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment. She told us the realities of the water usage for fracking and agriculture in California, with a highly disproportionate impact compared to residential consumption that the news emphasizes. She told us how there are currently no setback laws prohibiting the placement of oil wells, leaving populations and even schools within a harmful distance. The effects of this exposure are a strong smell, dizziness and headaches, nosebleeds, and the oil wells could contaminate local waterways. Unfortunately, these fracking wells are often placed in the most economically disadvantaged communities.
Another fascinating lecture was by a Navajo woman, Wahleah Johns of the Black Mesa Water Coalition. She shed light on her decade-long fight to combat Peabody Energy’s coal mining operations on top of the Navajo Nation’s water source. She organized among the tribes to limit the company’s water usage, which successfully closed down a mine. Most recently, she has been campaigning for a Just Transition – to build a large-scale community solar development that would provide clean energy to those dependent on coal as well as the large population on her reservation without electricity. We were moved by her beliefs in the connection of nature and all objects as living, as well as the importance of recognizing ancestral lands.
Housing & Food
We stayed at San Francisco International Hostel, located on Mason Street, in the heart of downtown San Francisco. This hostel was popular lodging for many young travelers from Europe and the rest of the world, so the program started off strong in the international aspect: we heard many different European tongues at the communal hostel breakfast and in passing while walking up the five flights of stairs to our small but cozy bunk bed rooms. The hostel also aligned with our collective environmental consciousness; when you flushed the toilet, the **clean** water used to refill the toilet was first cycled through a small sink above to wash your hands, then into the tank.
SIT was so perceptive as to provide us with stipend money for the rest of our meals (as opposed to some kind of meal plan), so a major component of our experience in San Francisco was seeking out good (and relatively inexpensive) restaurants around our classroom for lunch and around the hostel for dinner. Our favorites included a Mediterranean falafel bar and a Vietnamese restaurant (how appropriate!). Of course, we appreciated the influence of California’s large immigrant population on the cuisine: there were plenty of amazing Mexican, Chinese, and sushi restaurants to choose from.
One night, two separate groups of us happened to go to two different Burmese restaurants, which both were unbelievably good.
However, we also made some effort to appreciate standard “American” cuisine in preparation for a long period without it: plenty of burgers, milkshakes, and other greasy spoon diner food was enjoyed by all.
Despite all our structured activity, we had the weekends and some afternoons off. At some point we all felt the need to just lie on our bunk beds and stare at the ceiling, trying to make sense of all that IHP was throwing at us and accepting that we had indeed consigned ourselves to “drinking from the fire hose” of endless knowledge and life experience for the entire semester.
But if we were exhausted now in the US, we had a rude awakening coming our way once we actually started going to these far-away, non English-speaking locations. So we rallied, and packed in the most fun we could find during our two-week launch in San Francisco. One Friday night, a group of us went to “Off the Grid”, a mini food truck festival in a large parking lot with live music just adjacent to the water and Ghirardelli Square. A night of dancing smoothed away many nerves and created great bonds between us from the very start. The farmer’s market at the Ferry Building was also a much loved destination, the perfect opportunity to try so many different varieties of peaches, plums, and cheese. After sampling themselves silly, savoring fresh produce to their hearts’ content and stomachs’ happy bloat, a group of us hiked up Twin Peaks to take in the city views before settling in at Dolores Park for an afternoon of recovery.
Over the weekend, some of us went to the Marin Headlands across the Golden Gate Bridge, appreciating the lush and quiet wildlife that was so very close to the hustle-and-bustle city: it was only a $2.25 bus ticket there and back! All of us checked out the massive Golden Gate Park, thus experiencing the bay from many different angles.
Lastly, just before we made our final preparations to head to Vietnam, a group of us made the day trip to the Redwoods, absorbing in the humbling beauty of some of the largest living species on Earth.