It Takes the Hood to Save the Hood: Spotlight on United Playaz


By Misha Olivas

Misha is the Director of Community & Family Engagement at United Playaz. UP operated a Community Hub at their South of Market clubhouse as well as a joint hub with West Bay Pilipino Multi Service Center at Gene Friend SOMA Rec Center.

United Playaz and West Bay Pilipino Multi Service Center have been doing joint programming for more than five years, and we collaborate in our Hub operations under the SOMA Youth Collaborative, a collaborative of public and private partners that work together in support of SOMA youth and Bessie Carmichael K-8. All the students arrive between 8 and 8:30 so that they have time to check in, get settled and have some breakfast before their first class. We have 6 pods K-12 across Gene Friend SOMA Rec Center, the UP clubhouse, and WestBay. Most of our students are from Bessie Carmichael K-8, but we have students from other schools. Our pods are mixed grades, so in one pod of 14 kids you could have all 14 with a different schedule for their classes. Generally students will have a synchronous class or two in the morning, break for lunch and some kids have enrichment, specialized services or asynchronous learning in the afternoon with a few having an additional synchronous class. After the “school” day is over, staff support students with their asynchronous work, facilitate additional enrichment activities and get the kids outside for some physical activity and fresh air! Then it’s back inside to clean and prep for the next day and do it all over again!

We have a long standing partnership with the SF Parks and Recreation Department that we have always deeply appreciated, but our partnership with RPD has been INVALUABLE during this pandemic. We would NEVER have been able to serve as many youth as we have over the past year or jump into in person services as quickly as we did without our partnership. SOMA has the least amount of public open space of any neighborhood in San Francisco. Many students and their families live in multigenerational households in SOMA’s single residence occupancy (SRO) hotels or other small apartment type buildings. In normal times, we love and value Gene Friend Rec, but it has been such an especially important place for our youth in this time, and we are so deeply appreciative of RPD for letting us use the facility in this way to support SOMA youth.

8/17/20 open date; 30 staff; 84 youth enrolled; 14,031 meals served

It has really been a mixed bag for our students. Some students have really struggled with staying engaged in distance learning; the Zoom fatigue is real, and it set in pretty early. Some students’ Zoom Rooms were really engaging, and they had a lot of opportunities to participate or contribute, and some students had Zoom Rooms that were more like webinars, where they were muted and had no opportunity for active participation. There were some students who were able to excel with the shortened class time periods, the reduction in assignments and the less constrictive environment. For example, instead of setting students up in sterile rows of tables, we have a variety of seating options: TV trays, bean bags, back jacks and comfy carpets where students can choose a seat that was most comfortable for them. We have many students who during regular school are often wandering the halls or play yard during class, and it seemed like for these students the experience was better. In one of our Middle School pods, most of the students got on the honor roll, but many had never been anywhere close before. We also definitely saw a difference between the students that we were able to accommodate at the Hub and support in making sure they got to class, making sure they were tracking and completing assignments and providing positive encouragement to versus those students that weren’t able to join us (many due to our space limitations but some because of transportation or safety concerns) who generally lacked direction and support from home. For many of our students, school just didn’t seem real this year, especially for the younger children.

We are so extremely proud and thankful to our staff that have been down to do whatever it takes to support youth. Distance learning support is not what any of them signed up for but hands down, without question, they were ready and willing to respond in whatever effort would serve the students best. Due to our existing relationships with many of the youth we were able to get into our Hub and because we have so many years of service under our belts, we had established relationships to draw on when it came time to nag students about wearing their masks or completing assignments. The biggest challenge in my opinion is that I don’t think we’ll ever get an accurate accounting of how many students simply disengaged from their school this year, and I think it will take time to see the full impact of how this past entire school year and few months will impact the future academic success of this generation of young people.

SOMA Youth Collaborative operates from a sense of community and family, very much in line with UP’s motto “It takes the Hood to Save the Hood.” We approach our work with a trauma informed lens, fully understanding the backgrounds that our youth come from as a majority of our staff are from the same or very similar backgrounds as the youth we serve. We prioritize care and connection as the foundation of all interactions. We know that you can’t learn when you’re hungry and you can’t thrive if you don’t feel connected to the people around you. Our regular practices include things such as at our large community gatherings where we make sure the youngest kids and seniors eat first, cultivating that sense of caring for one another. We communicate regularly and often with parents and families, making sure the students understand that we are all on the same page and united when it comes to caring for them. Many of the students in our programs refer to the staff as Auntie or Uncle and Ate or Kuya (Big Sister or Big Brother in Tagalog) not because we ask or require them to do so but because they genuinely feel that connection.

There have been so many special moments over this past year: the visible weight that was lifted from students when they were allowed to return to in person program; the pride that swelled in students that experienced academic success for maybe the first time in this difficult year; and the kindness of strangers in the form of material or monetary donations, home cooked meals or treats offered to staff in appreciation and the desire to help and support the students and their families in any way possible. But what has made me pause and smile the most has been the commitment and dedication of our staff in this time. As soon as we were able to return to in person services, without hesitation our staff were raring to go despite it being a high risk situation and despite the personal sacrifices they had to make such as practicing stricter social distancing and subjecting themselves to frequent testing. Above all, I have been extremely proud of our staff that they were willing to step into so many roles above and beyond being youth development professionals. Over the past year they have supported families with housing supports, unemployment support, guidance and interpretation around the multiple Health Orders, guidance and referral around accessing mental health services, support and access to testing and then vaccinations (making appointments, taking them to the test/vax, following up afterwards), supporting families with food scarcity issues, helping families secure clothes and shoes for kids that have grown in the past year, and on and on and on. We do all these things regularly anyway, but the volume of need and requests in this past year was such that almost all of our families needed this support this year as opposed to maybe half in the past, and all staff were providing these services as opposed to one or two point people in the past.

San Francisco is still a great place to grow up! SF holds so much within its small borders. It’s changed a lot over the years, but there is still so much diversity, so many amazing pockets of community and culture and so much innovation and resources. SF also has so many amazing natural resources and an amazing Park system (shout out RPD)! As a San Francisco Native, I am so proud of how SF has shown up for its youth in this pandemic through the work and support of DCYF and its grantees. We were very clear right away that we would get back to in person services as soon as safely possible, and DCYF never once balked at that desire. When everyone else had thrown their hands up or refused to figure out a way to get back to in person services, the amazing DCYF leadership of Maria Su, Sherrice Dorsey, Lamont Snaer and so many others made it happen and figured out a way to support providers with health and safety guidance, PPE and cleaning equipment, laptops for students and most importantly funding support to make it happen. As a result, our doors were only closed to youth for about 90 days, and we were able to hold in person services as soon as possible. SF is what we make it, those of us that live here, used to live here, work here, care about here — as long as there are so many people committed to making SF a great place for kids, it will be so!

District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney visits the United Playaz, WestBay, and RPD team at the SOMA Rec Hub

The transition out of the Hub and back to traditional school will prove to be a challenge for kids and families. Understanding that the ripples of the pandemic will continue to grow even after the threat of the virus is gone will be invaluable in helping everyone to recover. The additional social emotional supports that we have been able to provide at the Hub must continue on into the transition so that students can feel a firm foundation of support from their families and communities. The pandemic revealed the vital role that youth development professionals play as a bridge between families, schools, and communities. The investment made in the hubs and in youth development need to continue long after the pandemic has ended.

We held a small celebration at our Hub on the Anniversary of the Shelter in Place order where we made sure the Students understood how proud we are of them and how loved they are. We apologized because many adults failed youth in this time because of politics or personal challenges, and we told them that they deserved better. We celebrated their successes, even if it was just waking up and getting dressed for program or staying home but sending a text that said I can’t make it today. We encouraged them to be grateful for the small blessings and remember that we are all humans doing the best we can, that they can and should advocate for themselves and what they need and know that despite the hard times there is good in people and in the world and the people will continue.

In all this, our commitment to our motto has motivated us to continue to serve our communities. In the early days of the pandemic and when it was hard to find essentials such as toilet paper, it was the closed office buildings and partners such as Helen Han at Boston Properties that gave us cases and cases of toilet paper and food to distribute to families. So many people stepped up to help with food distribution like the staff of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and the brothers from our Re-entry Peer Support Group. Karl Robillard and London Lee from Twitter as well as Adam Mesnick from Deli Board, City Eats and Filipinos Feed the Frontlines provided food for families and volunteers. Before we broke for Spring Break, Epic Church volunteers assembled goodie bags for our staff as a thank you for all they’ve done. John McKnight from SF Department of Emergency Management answered every little question we had when it came to interpreting the Health Orders to keep our kids and staff safe. Truly, truly, truly people from all walks of life circled us as we circled our students and their families; just as in the parable of loaves and fishes, we have seen our efforts multiplied beyond what we could do alone, because It Takes the Hood to Save the Hood.