Community

Student creates mural honoring essential workers

Emma Wakefield completed the mural, commissioned by the Lake County Arts Council, days before graduating

A new muralism class at San Francisco State University has already extended its reach far beyond campus, into rural Lake County. Utilizing both art-making skills and business savvy learned in the class last fall, a student won a grant to create a large mural honoring essential workers.

Emma Wakefield endured sweltering heat for a week in May to paint the Essential Workers Appreciation Mural, a project of the Lake County Arts Council. Days later, she graduated from San Francisco State with a bachelor’s degree in Art and a minor in Education.

The mural shows a child sleeping with a stuffed animal under a large quilt with images of first responders, a teacher, a power-line worker, a mail carrier, a grocery store clerk and others. Measuring 44 feet wide and 13 feet tall, it covers the full back wall of the Meals on Wheels Thrift Store in Lakeport, about 120 miles from San Francisco. It was dedicated July 1 at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

In researching the mural, Wakefield learned about the varied, vital roles of essential workers. “It was very, very cool to see all these people who were incredibly brave during [the pandemic] and willing to go out and continue their work and face the danger of basically a plague,” Wakefield said.

The mural fits the overarching theme in all of Wakefield’s art: finding beauty in daily routines. “I would like my art to be something that people know they can look at and get a warm feeling from,” she said. “I want people to feel comfortable, to feel safe and to see the world through a new view. Something you do every day can be beautiful.”

Wakefield says she wouldn’t have thought to apply for the $8,000 grant if she hadn’t taken the “Murals and Public Art” class, where Lecturer Daniel Velasquez (B.A., ’16) aims to impart far more than artistic techniques. He also provides students with an understanding of the entrepreneurial aspects of careers in the arts, including governmental funding and contract negotiation.

“Assignments are focused around real-world opportunities that they seek out, stumble into and create for themselves,” Velasquez said.

SF State was Wakefield’s first choice for college. She was excited to move to an urban area. This shows in her “Sci-Fi in SF” series of drawings that reimagines the cityscape and SF State campus in a futuristic society.

“When I came to San Francisco, I was like, ‘Whoa, there’s a building taller than four stories! I was like, ‘This is the future!’” said Wakefield, who grew up in Loch Lomond in Lake County.

She jokes that the entire Lake County population could fit in Oracle Park, the 42,000-seat home of the San Francisco Giants and the SF State Commencement.

“Attending San Francisco State, as a whole, changed my life,” she added. “I met a bunch of people from different backgrounds and different cultures, talking with them and learning more about them — and seeing something outside from my very small town.”

Learn more about SF State’s School of Art.

Alumna resurrects SFMOMA's Soapbox Derby races

A handmade car shaped like a prawn races down a road inside John McLaren Park in San Francisco during the SFMOMA Soapbox Derby on April 10, 2022.

Stella Lochman infuses city with a dose of whimsy

In reviving the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s (SFMOMA) Soapbox Derby, alumna Stella Lochman (B.A., ’08) turned to history — not just to the museum’s original 1975 and 1978 soapbox derby races, but to the turn of the last century. The city’s first Bay to Breakers, then called the Cross City Race, happened in 1912. The race was part of a series of events planned by the city to boost morale and signal that San Francisco was rebounding after being leveled by the 1906 earthquake and fires.

“The derby marches in those tracks,” Lochman says. “It seems like we’re out of one wave of the pandemic, but who knows if there’s another one behind it? When these moments appear, we need to have an experience of collective joy.”

And that’s what the third-ever SFMOMA Soapbox Derby brought to the city — a sprinkle of joy mixed with art, community and whimsy, Lochman says.

The April 10 derby drew thousands of spectators and paid homage to the races of the 1970s, when artists like Ruth Asawa and Robert Arneson created wacky contraptions like a car made of bread that raced downhill in John McLaren Park. Forty years later, 57 cars made by Bay Area artists and community members, including an entry by a San Francisco State University art class, competed for 35 artist-made trophies in categories like “Best of the Worst” and “Best Pun.”

Alumna Stella Lochman

Alumna Stella Lochman celebrates the conclusion of the SFMOMA Soapbox Derby.

Cars shaped like pencils, carrots, erasers and even a knit sweater cleverly called the “Cardigan” sped down the road as people cheered. A San Francisco State sculpture class taught by Professor Michael Arcega took home the award for “Funkiest.” The 12-person team spent more than eight weeks developing, designing, engineering, sourcing materials, building and testing their creation: a giant upside-down Frankenstein head named “Mary’s Monster.” Arcega documented the team’s progress on his Instagram.

Lochman, the driving force behind the derby, doesn’t even have a driver’s license. But she has an interest in the performative and social side of art. That’s what compelled her, as SFMOMA’s public engagement manager, to bring the races back to life.

“The derby is a beautiful mix of object and performance. It’s sculpture, but it’s a moving sculpture and it’s a sculpture that has a human element,” she said. “It’s not the serious art that makes people feel intimidated by contemporary art. It’s accessible to anyone. Kids love it. Your grandpa loves it.”

As the child of bohemian parents, Lochman grew up in San Francisco surrounded by art. She participated in city youth arts programs, attended the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts and later studied art history at SF State. She credits the University’s radical past — the 1969 student strikes — with informing her work.

“The de-colonialist programming that has been going on at SF State since 1969 is something I’m immensely proud of and actually look to a lot in my work,” she said. Rather than spend her time learning about the Western canon, she opted for a more global perspective taking classes about Caribbean art and Japanese art history.,

Living and breathing art is second nature to Lochman, she says, but she knows her experience with art is not the norm. Her role at SFMOMA, in part, is to integrate the museum into the fabric of the city through partnerships, such as one with San Francisco Public Library and most recently with San Francisco Recreation and Parks for the derby. She dubbed herself the museum’s “outdoor cat.” And last weekend’s races are a purrrfect example of that partnership.

Alumna Creates Mural Celebrating LGBTQ Life in San Jose

Artist and alumna Houyee Chow stands in front of the mural she painted in San Jose’s Qmunity District.

As a first-generation, biracial, queer woman, Houyee Chow (B.A., ’18) knows firsthand the power of representation. So, when the Mexican and Chinese American artist was selected to design and paint a mural celebrating the city’s LGBTQ culture, she knew just what to do. She put a call out to the South Bay queer community asking for selfies. Everyone who submitted photos was represented in her mural. She wanted to depict actual members of the community, but painted them in rainbow colors, her way of saying there’s no mold for queerness, she adds.

The mural is one of two completed this spring in downtown San Jose’s newly established LGBTQ district, the QMunity District. The district, concentrated on Post Street between South First and South Market streets, is home to restaurants, nightlife and now public art. Last year, San Jose City Councilman Raul Peralez, the nonprofit LGBTQ advocacy group Project MORE, the Santa Clara County Office of LGBTQ Affairs and the San Jose Downtown Association announced the new district and put a call out to queer artists to submit their proposals for the mural project. Chow and Nick Ybarra were the two queer artists chosen for the project. Ybarra’s mural focuses on LGBTQ history, while Chow’s is more of a celebration of the people behind the culture.

A native of San Jose, Chow says the project was personal. “Being a queer person of color in San Jose, when I was little, I thought we didn’t exist. … I never really saw any representation,” she said. “It was a magical experience to create a beautiful space for the queer community so we can feel welcomed, heard and seen.”

Activism is interwoven into her art, mostly because the art world has traditionally been dominated by white men, she says. Telling a different story about identity automatically gives her work a political angle. She studied Art at San Francisco State University, where she learned to embrace her identity. “Ever since then, I realized how important it was to share my story, because there are people out there who want to see more people of color and more queerness in art,” she said.

One of the things she took away from her professors was to be unapologetically queer. Assistant Professor of Art Libby Black taught her not to be afraid to take up space and to make a mark no matter what. “It’s a man’s world,” Chow says, “But we’re coming in regardless.”

Since college, Chow has gained a footing in the San Jose art scene. She’s a resident artist at KALEID Gallery and had a featured show there in March. It was the owner of the gallery who encouraged her to apply for the mural project. When she’s not creating art, she’s teaching youth to make art in an after-school program.

But art almost wasn’t her career path. She discovered her love of painting at 5. She told her mother she wanted to be an artist, but her mom didn’t think art was a career, she says. So, she turned her attention to medicine — until an unfortunate incident confirmed her true passion.

Her mother was a victim of gun violence. Chow, who was 16 at the time of the attack, was with her mom when a person they didn’t know opened fire. Her mother suffered injuries that left her wheelchair-bound for almost a year. She eventually recovered, but the incident made Chow realize that life was too short. “I said, ‘Screw it. I’m going to do what I love.’” With the support of her older sister, she began to pursue art more seriously.

Her family has since come full circle and embraced her career. They even came out and helped her to paint the mural — a moment that filled her with gratitude and joy. “I was so scared to come out to them, and now they’re out here painting huge rainbows with me,” she said. “It was a magical moment.”

SF State Students Make Their Mark on Bay Area School Boards

James Aguilar (left) and Taylor Sims

All San Francisco State University students are interested in education, of course. That’s why they’re University students. But two Gators — James Aguilar and Taylor Sims — are taking their love for learning even further. They’re both helping set the course for others’ education as board members for their respective school districts.

Aguilar and Sims are among the youngest trustees ever for their local school districts. Although they each have their own unique story of how they were elected, they share a common goal: a desire to serve their communities.

Sims, who will graduate this semester with a B.A. in Sociology and a minor in Africana Studies, is a school board trustee in the town where she grew up: Pittsburg, California. As a trustee, she’s focused on understanding her community’s needs to help shape Pittsburg Unified School District’s vision, goals and policies. Although Sims was sworn into office just a few months ago, she has already set many goals and priorities. One of them is to provide more mental health resources to students.

“At a school board meeting, there were multiple students who expressed, especially during this time of COVID-19 and distance learning, that they’re having mental health issues,” she said. “There’s a lot going on in the world, so they need help to better focus in the classroom.”

Another priority for Sims is advocating for ethnic studies in K-12 education. This is vital for Pittsburg because it’s a diverse community, she says. “It’s important that we don’t erase history, we don’t whitewash other cultures’ histories and we actually celebrate and appreciate all of the cultures that are in Pittsburg,” Sims added.

Sims says that she learned a lot about her culture through her Africana Studies classes at SF State but wishes she received this type of education while she was going to school in Pittsburg. “We’re not taught that in high school, which is why we’re now pushing for ethnic studies to be implemented into Pittsburg schools,” she said.

James Aguilar

SF State Political Science junior Aguilar is also a school board trustee for the San Leandro Unified School District. He says community and student engagement are his priorities.

As a trustee, Aguilar listens to the communities he serves — virtually during the pandemic — and uses what he learns about their needs to shape how the district supports student learning. Recently, he and his colleagues have been doing that by surveying the community on reopening schools for in-person instruction.

“We’re going into our community and asking how we can navigate conversations on reopening,” said Aguilar. “With that, we created a reopening readiness dashboard that’s been helpful in creating the vision for what the future will look like.”

Another example of community engagement is when Aguilar reached out to his constituents following the storming of the U.S. Capitol in January. “It really has been a crucial time for us to come together and support our students, staff and the larger community. We want them to know that the district is with them,” Aguilar said. “We have to create a space for them to make change happen, to impact the future.” Engaging the community and students after a pivotal moment in U.S. history is critical to staying ahead as a district, he added.

“I plan on reaching out more often and really understanding what others are feeling at this time. More perspective will only help us,” Aguilar said. “In an ideal world, I want to know that everyone’s mentally OK because I know for sure I wasn’t at some points in the last year. A lot has happened. Stress and frustration is high.”

The students are also serving their communities in other elected or appointed positions. Aguilar currently serves as a board member for the SF State Foundation. Sims was recently elected as a California Assembly District 14 Democratic Party delegate.

Student Organizes Large Soap Donation for Kenyan Village amid Pandemic

San Francisco State University student Wayne Metho’s zeal for helping people crystallized while working in his native Kenya as an assistant manager in the hotel industry. So when COVID-19 started spreading around the globe, he naturally turned his attention back home, gathering donations for its citizens and working with a health care nonprofit. “People are my passion,” he said. “This is just a small way I could make a difference.”

Metho came to the U.S. in 2016 to study at Berkeley City College and transferred to San Francisco State in 2018. Even after years of living in the U.S., he maintained close contact with former colleagues in Kenya. Occasionally they would band together for philanthropic projects, like buying books for children and providing food to families in need.

Just after shelter-in-place orders went into effect in the Bay Area, the International Relations major learned about Tiba Foundation, an Oakland-based nonprofit that partners with local health care organizations in western Kenya to provide volunteers, funding and strategic guidance. Metho began volunteering for the organization, where he learned of a crucial need in the community Tiba serves: soap.

“People are my passion. ... This is just a small way I could make a difference.” — Wayne Metho

Many villagers didn’t have access to soap, a shortage that could be a matter of life and death during the COVID-19 pandemic, explains Tiba Foundation Executive Director Diane Dodge. But because of the pandemic, transporting soap from the U.S. would be too hard and securing soap at that time in Kenya was tough. That was the challenge, and Metho knew just who he could turn to: his former colleagues. Pooling their money, together they bought and delivered 750 bars of soap to about 300 families through Matibabu Hospital, Tiba’s partner organization.

Tara Neuffer, operations manager of Tiba Foundation, explained that Metho’s group represents a cornerstone of community organizing in Kenya, referred to as a chama: an informal cooperative in which members pool their savings and often make investments together. “They’re mutual-aid community fund groups where people pay monthly dues,” she said. “If you need a loan or there's a family tragedy, everyone in the group will democratically agree to lend you the money that you’ve been paying into.”

Inspired by Metho’s skills and drive, the organization offered him an internship after the project concluded. “We realized what an asset he was,” Neuffer added. “Not only is he intelligent and a great communicator, he just has that passion and will do anything it takes to complete his goals, which are always community-focused.” He’s currently helping develop videos and other visual promotional content and assisting with communications and fundraising.

Metho’s “passion for people” is an outlook that infuses most aspects of his life. When not working with Tiba, he’s a caregiver for people with disabilities in San Francisco. He takes his clients grocery shopping or to doctor’s appointments along with offering other kinds of support — work that’s essential and potentially dangerous during a pandemic. For Metho, however, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. “I just like doing nice things for people,” he said.

Alums lend a hand in unexpected ways during pandemic

Alumni Rachel Garcia and Thu Tran, who perform as The Singer and The Songwriter, held concerts from their car when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the Bay Area. 

From spreading joy through music to making protective gear, the Gator community is dedicated to helping others

Singer and alumna Rachel Garcia (B.A., ’08) says the idea for the Songmobile came to her in the middle of the night. The concept was simple: Get in a car, drive to the homes of fans and play short concerts from the car, all while observing physical distancing recommendations. Soon after Garcia’s brainstorm, she and Thu Tran (B.A., ’08), the other half of the musical duo The Singer and The Songwriter, made it a reality. In the first weeks of the Bay Area’s COVID-19 shelter-in-place order, they played 52 mini-concerts. It was the perfect cure for listeners’ stay-at-home blues, Garcia says.

“We’d pull up to someone’s house, and they’d be sitting in their lawn chairs or in their garage with popcorn,” she said. “Some put up signs that their kids made. One family hung up a disco ball. The Songmobile ended up being a fun thing that families could get excited about together. It created a sense of occasion.

The Petaluma band has since moved operations online for safety reasons. People can still book private concerts, but the duo now performs via Zoom instead of from their car. It’s a small dose of solace, connection and joy during an uncertain time, Garcia says. She and Tran, San Francisco State University alums who met as theatre arts students, are just a few members of the Gator family who are finding ways to help others during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Santa Clarita Valley, alumnus and owner of a special effects makeup company A.J. Apone (B.A., ’11) turned his 3-D printing hobby into a large-scale mask-making operation, the Mask Initiative, in a matter of weeks.

“Before, I’d print silly things like the mask from the film ‘The Mask,’” he said. After the pandemic hit, he decided to print a mask based on a design available online. Next he focused on the filter. Inside his reusable masks are HEPA filters, graded for filtering viruses and bacteria, he says.

Apone shared the finished product on Instagram and mentioned he would accept donations. Within minutes, he received his first donation. The generosity hasn’t stopped. He’s received enough funding to buy 19 3-D printers. He’s donating masks to hospitals and other frontline workers locally and as far away as Florida and Connecticut. Since starting April 1, Apone has taken more than 400 orders and distributed more than 600 masks.

“It’s been wonderful to witness humans being humans,” he said. “People are wanting to help, and they’re really coming out of the woodwork to do it. It’s been unbelievable.”

Meanwhile, in Louisville, Kentucky, alumna Olivia Griffin (B.A., ’09) is busy sewing and selling cloth masks online. Griffin studied dance and costume design at San Francisco State and now owns the Mysterious Rack, a hat shop in Louisville. The Kentucky Derby is held in Louisville in the spring, so this is usually her busy season. Since that’s postponed, she pivoted to mask making, she says. She’s using the proceeds from her online sales to make and donate masks to nursing homes.

“In Kentucky, a lot of our coronavirus outbreaks are centered in nursing homes,” she said. “If we can stop the outbreak at the starting point, then the hospitals won’t be overwhelmed. And these people are the most vulnerable. I have a woman helping me who’s reaching out to every nursing home in Kentucky to prioritize who needs masks first.”

A few states over, in Pennsylvania, alumna Mary Fennelly (M.S., ’83) is helping others in the way she does best — by listening. When she lived in San Francisco, she volunteered as a phone crisis operator at San Francisco Suicide Prevention, which is when she realized she had a talent for counseling. She then pursued her graduate degree in the field at SF State. Now she helps children with behavior issues.

Recently, she took out ads in her local newspapers in the Philadelphia area offering free counseling sessions by phone. “It’s for parents who are going nuts,” she said. So far, no one’s taken her up on it, but she says as the months drag on, they’ll call. And when they do, she’ll be all ears.

Communication Studies Major Shaun Osburn Provides Tents for the Homeless

The rising rent, increase in gentrification and propositions on this fall’s San Francisco ballot have boosted the volume on the homelessness crisis discussion. Less audible are the conversations addressing concrete actions for the long-standing problem, but Communication Studies major and homeless rights activist, Shaun Osburn, has been taking the issue into his own hands for the 10 past months.

Almost $20,000 have been raised on his GoFundMe page, “Tents for San Francisco” — a project dedicated to replacing tents that police have seized from homeless residents in an effort to clean up the area. The project recently won Osburn the 2016 “Best In-Tent-ions” Best of the Bay award by 48Hills.org. Although Osburn is stunned at the overwhelming support so far, he is hopeful for more aid toward solutions, both short and long term.

Osburn has personal motivations for advocating for the cause. It was only a decade ago when he was recovering from homelessness and substance abuse himself.

“I went through a series of city-funded programs that have now either been drastically cut in their scope or don’t exist at all,” he said. “[I] started working, started paying rent again and my first full-time salary job since getting out of my unhoused situation ended up being at St. Anthony Foundation, which is San Francisco’s oldest and largest social services nonprofit. … I got to see the more logistical side of serving the population that I [was a part of].”

Ten years later, he has worked in communications jobs for nonprofits, earned multiple degrees and certificates from community college and is engaged to his partner. He has experience as a graphic designer and works for Academy of Art University as art director for its online content.

Come May, he will graduate, which he says is an accomplishment capping the 20 years he has been in and out of public colleges. “Tents for San Francisco” earned him work experience credit toward his degree, thanks to Professors Amy Kilgard and Frederick Isaacson, who heard Osburn’s pitch about this undertaking and encouraged him to pursue it.

“I’m thrilled that Shaun is connecting his important community activist work with his Communication Studies degree,” Kilgard says. “Social justice is an important tenet of our departmental and University mission. Seeing students like Shaun apply their communication acumen to important social issues is a light during a dark political time.”

Osburn started the “Tents for San Francisco” GoFundMe page in late January. Each tent houses two to four people and costs $30 – $40. With more than 400 tents and 566 donors to the cause so far, his efforts have been met with responses of both congratulation and resistance. The tents have been the sole safe haven for some. Osburn recalls a woman whose tent was seized and replaced three times. He was touched when he learned she was a talented artist, painting him a piece depicting a peaceful rendition of her tent in the San Francisco landscape as a thank you.

How bad is the situation for homeless people living in the most expensive city of the country? In Osburn’s extensive social work experience, he finds it worse than ever. Data from a 2015 count by the city show more than 6,600 people are homeless in San Francisco — the second largest in the United States, next to New York City.

In 2002, San Francisco implemented Care Not Cash, a policy that aimed to provide emergency shelter, counseling services and permanent housing search services in lieu of monetary general assistance — money that voters were afraid supported drug and alcohol addictions. The efforts included city-made deals with building owners to help the unhoused take a step forward. However, 14 years later, the solution has hit a snag; these Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing contracts are expiring, and building owners are increasingly opting to make more money by moving recently unhoused people out of their units and Airbnbers in.

Displacement, inadequate mental health services, wealth disparity and hyper-gentrification of the area are to blame, Osburn says. As the Tenderloin becomes a district tourists are increasingly comfortable in, the purposes of its buildings shift from help to hotel. Furthermore, retired elderly receiving benefits who never thought to work again are being evicted but lack the means of care, resulting in no choice but living on the street. “We’re in the death throes of late-stage capitalism,” Osburn insists, “and homeless people are the unintended consequences of it.” Osburn’s GoFundMe page speaks to his dislike of local officials’ decision to push unhoused people out of living quarters without, what he says, are real, solid plans backed by policy or guaranteed funding promises.

What does the city and Osburn propose as solutions when trying to solve this homeless crisis? Osburn sees success in the city’s efforts to install navigation centers. The purpose of navigation centers is two-fold: shelter and one-stop shop for counseling and permanent housing services. For now, it is a pilot project. Osburn laughs when opposers on the internet suggest they have better solutions than his temporary ones.

“It’s funny because people will constantly give the dissenting opinion that having people sleep in tents is a Band-Aid solution, and I totally agree,” he says. “But sometimes you need to put a Band-Aid on something before you make it to the emergency room. And I think we’re on our way there now.”

Osburn is excited about potential change as four more centers are slated to open in the next year, but he knows social stigma might hinder the progress made toward real change as people attempt to exclude the centers from opening in their neighborhoods. Misconceptions about homeless people continually undermine aid efforts, a consistent one being that most of them are addicts lacking job ambitions.

“I’ve replaced tents for people who drive Google buses, ride share drivers, for chefs at restaurants,” he says.

Although a percentage of the homeless population abuses substances, Osburn wants to address it as an issue of mental health, rather than morality. He stresses that the homeless population is diverse when it comes to background and previous circumstance.

Most of all, Osburn wants society to stop alienating the homeless and start seeing the population as real people. He believes the perception of “otherness” in regard to the chronically homeless perpetuates a cycle of destruction and despair for the entire community. Empathy is key; he is grateful for those who showed it to him and helped him get back on his feet.

“If there was a list of those worthy of saving, I wouldn’t be on it,” he says. Now that he has the means, he plans on displaying empathy to those in the position he was in not so long ago. He appeals with compassion: “If people still have a pulse, they still have a chance.”