By Spencer Tolliver
Don Fisher Clubhouse Director
Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco
The racial justice movement of 2020 was eye-opening for all of us here at BGCSF, as individuals and as an organization.
Of course, I’m not saying our country’s systemic racism or even the tragic murder of African Americans at the hands of our police came as a surprise to me or anyone who’s been paying attention. The country’s response, our members’ response, and our organization’s response sparked the realization that not only could we be doing more, but we have a responsibility to do more to help youth address these complex issues.
Our organization has a long history of supporting youth during times of change and crisis, which meant that the framework for engaging with these crucial topics – the culture of trust and open communication – was already in place. But the events of last year helped us to recognize that we needed to be more intentional about bringing anti-racism into our programming. This is an ongoing process, but we’re making real progress and continually moving forward, always with the goal of doing whatever it takes to help our youth succeed.
Before 2020, our main celebrations of Black culture and history were Martin Luther King Jr. Day — where all staff in the organization and all the youth and family who wanted to participate would join a day of service and celebration — and Black History Month. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the additional events that catapulted change last year, we enhanced our programming at the Clubhouse, offering a series of educational and cultural events to elevate Black voices. We invited Black professionals, culture bearers, activists, and members of the community to join in our daily programming and engage with our youth. I even did a remote video program on Southern cooking where I taught members how to cook my favorite dish, shrimp and grits. We organized a peaceful protest honoring George Floyd’s life for both adults and youth. This was really personal for me as George attended the same high school I did back in Houston and our families know each other. We wore red and gold, which were our high school colors, marched to City Hall, and sat in silence for 8 minutes and 42 seconds.
For the first time, our organization celebrated Juneteenth in 2020. Juneteenth is traditionally celebrated by African Americans in the South to mark the June 1865 day when, years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, enslaved people in Texas finally found out they were free. When we decided to recognize Juneteenth here at Don Fisher Clubhouse, and throughout BGCSF, we really wanted to get back to the history and make sure whatever we did captured the significance. With that in mind, last year’s Juneteenth Zoom celebration brought in speakers to educate our community about the history and meaning of Juneteenth. We’ll approach this year with that same intentionality — although we are excited to expand to include some in-person programming too.
Outside of organized events and discussions held by BGCSF, many of our youth and staff became involved with last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Our biggest responsibility here was to make sure youth members who wanted to protest were educated on how to do so safely. Our High School and Middle School Services Directors talked with our youth about why they were protesting, what their objectives were, and how they could stay safe.
We emphasize intentionality and responsibility when we talk to our youth about activism. Our goal is to guide them toward the more positive aspects of activism and teach them to be impactful agents for change without becoming destructive. It’s been incredible watching our kids grow through this movement. They’re getting more comfortable with their own forms of activism and showing more leadership. We’re seeing them take responsibility for the things they care about, whether it’s racial justice, social justice, or environmental justice. Youth are finding where they fit in the movement and are making a real difference. It gives me a lot of hope for our country’s future.
Of course, we recognize that confronting racism and actively fighting against it must be an ongoing, active movement within our organization and throughout our society. We’re having these conversations at every level of our organization so we can continue to improve at addressing these issues — for our members, our staff, and our whole community. We haven’t always gotten it right, and I certainly can’t promise that we always will. But we are learning and growing together, with the ultimate goal of serving our youth in the best way possible and building a world where every child can thrive.
Our commitment to anti-racist programming means teaching kids — kids of every race — our country’s history. No one of any race, religion, or identity is the genesis of the hate that comes towards them. Driving this point home is essential for children of color who, when they’re confronted with racism and don’t know where it’s coming from, tend to internalize it. It’s important for our kids to understand that racism exists outside of their identity and it is in no way their fault. It is also equally important for our organization to teach kids from a dominant culture or race (in this case, white kids) about the history of racism and how it has been transferred to them. We can help them understand how this unconscious bias is passed down generationally, recognize it in themselves, and identify how to be allies and make anti-racist choices. Educating youth from all backgrounds is how we’ll ultimately break the cycle of racism in this country.
It’s not only about addressing racism. We help kids address all internal bias by facilitating conversations about sexism, religious tolerance, homophobia, and transphobia. As we highlight anti-Black racism and work to elevate Black culture within our organization, it is equally important that we uplift all races, religions, gender identities, and sexual orientations. True diversity can only exist when all people, perspectives, and backgrounds are part of the conversation. As a leader in the youth development space, BGCSF understands that we are uniquely positioned to engage with kids on these complex topics and build a better, more inclusive world where youth of all backgrounds are uplifted and empowered to succeed.
I leave you with one simple but crucial piece of advice for further engaging with this material: Embrace diversity in all forms. Step outside of your comfort zone — even when it’s scary. Ask questions, admit when you’re wrong or don’t know the answers, and be willing to respectfully engage when someone from a different background asks you about your culture. None of us have all the answers, but when we’re willing to learn from each other, it gives all of us a chance at a better future.
BGCSF is currently offering free support and training to Black-serving and Black-led individuals and organizations participating in The Dream Keeper Initiative, a citywide effort launched in 2021 to reinvest $120 million over two years into San Francisco’s diverse Black communities.
April is Arab American Heritage Month and I am excited to both reflect on what this month means to me personally and share how BGCSF and Camp Mendocino engage Arab youth and their families.
We are pleased to highlight a member of our Senior Leadership Team, Erin Gutierrez. Erin has served the BGCSF community for 15 years. Her experience spans multiple roles across the organization and provides a powerful and unique perspective on the holistic impact of BGCSF.