Bernal neighbor Beth Roy has written a short, must-read book about the challenges San Francisco faces as the city becomes polarized along the fault lines of new vs. old, Anglo vs. ethnic, progressive vs. centrist, forward-looking vs. backward-remembering, and high-tech vs. working class.
Blessedly, that’s not the subject of Neighbor Beth’s book. The subject of her book is the new mural that covers the exterior of the Bernal Heights Library on Cortland, and the intense mediation effort that was undertaken in 2010 to resolve the then-contentious question of whether the old, 1980s-era mural should be restored, or if the facade of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)-era building should returned to its original, mural-free appearance.
Neighbor Beth is a professional mediator, which is a handy thing, because her services were called upon in 2010 to help formulate a plan for the Bernal library that all parties in the controversy could support and feel good about.
That’s what the book is all about. The committee of neighbors who joined the library art committee began as antagonists and cultural rivals, but by the end of the mediation process —and with a lot of patient, hard work — they developed a plan for the library based on a very real, no-bullshit foundation of mutual respect and collaboration. Even more impressive (if the general absence of substantial grumbling is any indication), the new library artwork that emerged from the process has also been a creative success as well. Trifecta!!!
In practical terms, the Bernal neighbors who participated in the library mural mediation a) got some actual stuff done while also b) learning to appreciate each other’s point of view, and c) moving beyond the theatrics and confrontationalism of direct action and political organization. San Francisco could use a lot more of that these days.
Neighbor Beth’s new book is called “The Bernal Story: Mediating Class and Race in a Multicultural Community,” and it was just published by Syracuse University Press as part of their Peace and Conflict Resolution series. Don’t let the academic pedigree and subtitle deter you — this book is a highly engaging and insanely relevant read. Plus, you probably know a few of the main characters, because they’re your neighbors. Which is fun.
If you’d like a copy, you can get one as you congratulate Neighbor Beth at her glamorous book party this Saturday, July 26 from 5-7 pm at the Inclusions Gallery on Cortland.
Until then, here’s an excerpt from The Bernal Story that gives a good sense of what transpired:
Shortly before the meeting, Johanna called me for help formulating some feelings she was having about Mauricio and his campaign. She had caught a radio broadcast of an interview with him and others from his Save the Bernal Library Mural group. She was upset at what seemed to her to be a misrepresentation of the process we were in, as well as some harsh rhetoric she feared would rekindle flames of opposition just as we were coming together to craft a shared solution.
I supported her to speak her mind and coached her to formulate what she felt in the forms I had taught. When we gathered at the Neighborhood Center the evening of February 24th, Johanna opened the dialogue by addressing Mauricio with her “Held Feelings” and “Paranoias”. Mauricio heard her respectfully, demurring that the sharpest rhetoric had come not from him but from others in his group. Brandon joined the conversation with the “Paranoia” that it nonetheless represented what Mauricio thought. Mauricio validated that such language once might have come from him but he was seeing the value of a non-abrasive approach.
What was true, however, was that, as we approached consensus, he was uncertain how to turn the organizing campaign he had initiated in the direction of collaborative problem-solving. He suggested it was a bit too soon; his people needed more tangible evidence that their voices were in fact being heard before they’d be willing to lower the volume. With all the sweetness and authority at his command, Larry urged Mauricio to accept both the influence he had on his community and the responsibility to use it to support the mediation process.
Once again, this pivotal exchange helped focus the group’s good will on crafting a viable solution, helping to convince people that Mauricio was indeed on board. Terry led off the discussion. He had come into the mediation grounded in his knowledge of the library’s history and wishing it restored to the WPA façade. Now, however, he declared full support for the direction we were taking, looking forward with an historian’s eye to making new art. “What we have here,” he said, “is an opportunity to do a significant event in the neighborhood. This is the time people will look back to fifty years from now, just as we look back fifty years to the original painting.”
Giulio, who had spoken so vividly for the restoration of the mural, now said, “The library’s history is so much about struggle. In the new work, we can incorporate the WPA struggle as well.”
Each person spoke in turn about their hopes for the new work. People imagined plazas reaching to the recreation center, improvements to the playground, and more. With the keen eye of a practical visionary, Mauricio again re-focused the discussion on the library walls.
I very much appreciated the spirit of the meeting. Clearly, every individual in the room leaned toward a creative conclusion. But I knew that there were still major disagreements as well. We had formed a direction in theory, but we still had not truly come to agreement about the thorniest issue: the Cortland wall. Now, as we began to craft the final details of the agreement, I once again named that elephant in the room. I worried that the waves of good feeling might sweep people into an agreement that hadn’t deeply enough addressed the conflict. That was the dynamic that had happened at the end of the second session, and I could well imagine it’s happening again now. I wanted people to look squarely into the face of division and emerge with a stronger consensus.
The group rolled up their collective sleeves and proceeded to take my draft statement apart, line by line. Now and then the discussion stalled on a particular point: on a range from restoring the mural to eliminating it, where should we fall? Would the walls end up mostly bare with a few pale remnants of what was now there? Or would we reproduce the current mural, only in a smaller scale that better respected the architecture? Each time we hit one of those hard disagreements, someone – often Michael or Monique, the two participants least fixed in a position and therefore most able to access creative new ideas – suggested something that re-opened the sense of possibility and re-engaged the group in collaboration.
Michael, for instance, fantasized free-standing objects illuminated at night, perhaps even with changing images projected in space. Monique nudged the discourse away from old-timers and new-comers, or Anglos and Latinos, reminding us of all the young uncategorizable people in the community who were not well described by those terms: same sex families, multi-racial couples, returned descendants of generations-old residents.
As we proceeded, we changed words, substituting, for instance, “Revitalizing the Mural” for “Updating the Mural”. We adjusted the emphasis to focus on meanings of the work and the process by which it would be produced, resisting our own creative imaginings of the artwork itself. “Leave the artwork to the artists” became the motto of the group, even though it was difficult to restrain the flow of creativity released by our process. Finally, we all agreed that the consensus statement should end by quoting the statement Terry had made at the beginning of the evening: We were making history right along with art.
PHOTO: Top, Cortland facade of new Bernal Library artwork, 2014, by Telstar Logistics