It was around 8.30 in the morning and the smells of the Tenderloin were intensified by the heat wave that San Francisco was experiencing in early October. I had arrived early and stood outside the Glide Foundation, waiting for the rest of the group.
I had been invited to join a group of leaders from UBM (United Business Media) who were on a 3-day Quest. A Quest is an opportunity to leave the office behind for a few days and immerse yourself in different worlds. You meet real people confronting difficult challenges, hear about career choices, personal struggles, business obstacles and strategies for creating change.
Today the group from UBM was visiting the Glide Foundation in the Tenderloin — a neighborhood in San Francisco often associated with homelessness, crime, drugs, and prostitution. Glide helps people break free of the cycles of poverty and marginalization.
Outside the building, I felt as though I had one foot in the world of privilege where I spend most of my life and the other in the world of the homeless. I was uncomfortable as I tried to bridge the gap. My answer came walking down the street. “G’mornin lady! You play tennis?” said a young man sauntering toward me with a big grin. “Badly,” I responded. “Naw, you look like you play real good. I’d come and watch you play,” he grinned harmlessly, going on his merry way. I laughed and felt immediately more at ease.
Feeling less awkward now, I could engage my senses and be present to my surroundings. I smelled the smells, heard the sounds of the city, and looked around me. There were people coming and going, getting on and off buses, walking, pushing shopping carts, and there were others camped out on the sidewalk. I moved closer to the woman to my right. Her skin was bronzed by the sun, and she was wrapped up warmly in spite of the heat. We started a conversation. Her name was Melissa. I discovered that she had travelled the world in her younger days. She loves the music of Eric Clapton. Her niece and my daughter share the same name. She told me how much she loves to feel the warm rays of the sun. While our worlds in many ways were still far apart, we also discovered that we had things in common.
I went off to meet the rest of the group.
We spent the day learning about and experiencing the programs that Glide provides – from meals to healthcare to support groups. Glide believes that by helping people meet their basic needs and providing a safe space and inclusive community, people can rise above their circumstance to reach their potential. Jackie, for example, had abused drugs and lost all five of her children. She talked about her low self-esteem as a young person and how this led to a life on the streets. Today, she facilitates support groups for people in recovery with great energy and confidence.
A Quest is an opportunity to challenge our beliefs and assumptions about the world. Here in the Tenderloin, I had connected with people I ordinarily would not. I experienced powerful stories of people who had lifted themselves out of extreme poverty and hopelessness and turned their lives around with the help of an unconditionally supportive community.
It reminded me how important it is that we create environments in which all people, no matter who they are, can reach their potential. It also made me appreciate anew how complex people are, and how easy it is to make assumptions that can limit our ability to connect. I came away wondering where I am not seeing the potential in another person because I have preconceived ideas of who they are. My experience at Glide inspired me by challenging me to think about new ways of seeing the people I interact with every day.