Tyerra Green, BAYCAT filmmaker, taken by michaele, Yahoo! Teacher of Merit, July 2006.
The first thing you see when you walk into BAYCAT‘s loft–once Villy lets you out of a hug–are the photos. There’s a wall of signed Polaroids of everyone who has ever visited: students, instructors, preachers, clients, donors, Bill Strickland, Jeff Skoll, and our fine-looking mayor, Gavin Newsom. Names and smiles; bigwigs and smallwigs.
BAYCAT trains young people from Bayview-Hunters Point in art, design, digital media, filmmaking, and human decency. These neighborhoods have by far the highest concentration of children in San Francisco, but the rest of the city doesn’t notice that that’s where we warehouse the future. “Historically-underserved comunities” seems to be the vogue term, but however you put it, these kids have had a raw deal so far. They are poor. Their schools are chaotic and badly equipped. The houses were built next to a power plant, on landfill where decades of toxic waste have built up, and so the children get sick more often than they should–but there’s just one pediatrician in the area. Until a Farmers’ Market opened last year, fresh food was a bus ride away, though liquor stores are plentiful. The gangs are armed.
_Photo by Tim, 2005_
Those are the problems, but there are 33,000 solutions. Bayview-Hunters Point also has artists, musicians, leaders, dreamers, preachers, businesspeople, and teachers who have it going on, and there’s no shortage of kids who want more. That’s where BAYCAT comes in. BAYCAT shows kids that they have a voice, and gives them the skills to give voice to their community. These are also, the theory goes, the skills that San Francisco and Silicon Valley employers want: design, video production, editing, and motion graphics.
Villy is the founder and CEO. She went from the New York projects to become an equity derivatives trader, then a corporate lawyer at a fancy firm. What she wanted to do was take these skills to make kids’ lives better, so she trained as a fifth-grade teacher. She was the kind of educator who teaches the Constitution by letting her kids draw up a class constitution: pushing them to move beyond because-I-said-so rules to identify the lasting principles behind them; encouraging them to test rewards and penalties and consequences; stretching ten-year-old minds around the notion of collective responsibility.
But she couldn’t reach all of them. Ten years old is too late. Five may be too late. No matter how much work you put in, how much you dig into your paltry salary for extra supplies, food, and field trips, no matter how many nights you lie awake with racing thoughts, you can’t save every kid. No Child Left Behind is the name of the federal act that has set public education up for guaranteed failure by mandating that every single child must pass standardized reading and math tests by 2012. Its goals are admirable, but no system improves by measurement alone–especially in California, where public education is still crippled by the staggering selfishness of Proposition 13. Where the principles of No Child Left Behind really live is in the hearts of dedicated teachers, who live in a war zone between hope and discouragement.
Villy left the public schools to start BAYCAT. She found an early supporter in Bill Strickland, the Pittsburgh social entrepreneur. I met Strickland (and Villy) when my company hosted a conference that brought together innovators from Japan and the US, and he held us rapt, as he does every audience, with his slides and his story. His power comes from his insistence on the elemental. The worst thing about poverty is what it does to your spirit, he says, and the cure for this spiritual cancer is to expose people to the best of the natural world. Beauty. Light. Water. Music. Art. Good food. Flowers. In the No Child Left Behind era, where principals are forced to force their teachers to drop everything but math and “language arts” drills, this sounds like granola-dreaming. But over the course of thirty-odd years, he has succeeded.
Strickland was a 16-year-old from the Pittsburgh projects, on path to nowhere good, when an art teacher introduced him to ceramics and took him to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house. When he found his calling as a grown man, he persuaded a student of Lloyd Wright’s to build a cathedral-like training center in the middle of the projects in Pittsburgh. That’s where he trained students in the ceramics he had come to love. He loved jazz, so he built a concert hall as part of the center–and Dizzy Gillespie came to play. They started a jazz record label that has won four Grammy awards. He wanted the kids to see beauty, so he built a greenhouse to grow Japanese orchids–and now they supply the Whole Foods grocery chain with flowers and hydroponic tomatoes, grown in the projects in Steeltown. He worked with local Pittsburgh businesses, Heinz and Bayer among them, to set up facilities to train a new generation of workers in food service and lab technician skills, so they could find jobs–and eat good food every day. Sunshine, he insists, is for everybody on the planet, not just for rich people. Good food is for everybody on the planet. His Manchester Craftsman’s Guild trains students in art, not academics, but his students’ graduation rates are so high that the city of Pittsburgh recently asked him to take over a failing high school. His first action will be bring in fresh flowers. People understand those kinds of messages. We are creatures of expectations, he says, and once you put people in the light, they shine.
Villy is an artist and musician too, and the BAYCAT loft reflects their shared belief in the power of beauty and high expectations. It’s spacious, light-filled, and stylish, and designed for people to work together. Buildings have emotions, I think, and BAYCAT’s place is warm and playful. It’s in the Dogpatch neighborhood, between Bayview-Hunters Point and downtown San Francisco.
Across the street, my friend Celine has opened a wine bar, one of several new small businesses drawn to Dogpatch by the mirage of the Third Street Light Rail, which will connect Bayview-Hunters Point to the city that has ignored it. That’s where Villy and I drink Rioja and Viognier from time to time. Dogpatch reminds me of Brooklyn’s DUMBO eight years ago, with its waterfront light, beautiful old warehouses slowly converting to design studios and apartments, and mostly peaceful agreements between the artists and the crack dealers. “I talked to the crackheads and the drunks from the beginning,” said Celine, who is as matter-of-fact as you might expect of a woman who can both pass two kidney stones and open a wine bar in the last two months of her pregnancy. “I told them, I have no problem with you being here, but you just can’t piss in the doorway any more. I can’t do business if you piss in my doorway.” They are obliging. Now they piss in the bus shelter at the end of the block, and greet her warmly as she opens up.
Last July, a team from Yahoo!–my favorite clients–hired the BAYCAT students to make a documentary about a project we were working on, a weeklong summer camp to celebrate 60 local teachers and introduce them to blogging, Flickr, and other web goodies. Every day, Villy drove Tyerra and Jason from Hunters Point to Sunnyvale in her green VW Bug. They interviewed dozens of teachers and Yahoo! staff, including Terry Semel, the CEO. They filmed it, shaped the story, and edited it in two weeks, with the help of BAYCAT instructors. Tyerra’s 14. Jason is 16. That’s Tyerra speaking on the BAYCAT homepage. Yahoo! liked the results so much that they sponsored a BAYCAT “Oscars” to show off the students’ work at the end of the summer. There was plenty to celebrate: graphic design for local businesses, a new design identity for the Visitacion Valley neighborhood, documentaries made for Yahoo!, for the Mayor’s Office, and for NetDay; a film about the Alice Griffith Housing Projects; an interview series on obesity they filmed at local McDonalds. They’re learning to bear witness: by shaping stories, you can shape a future.
Villy has huge plans for BAYCAT. Every time she tells me about them over Italian wine, my brain starts fizzing with her spirit–that’s the Villy effect. She believes that change starts with personal connections, with asking open-ended questions and being willing to listen to the answers. This autumn, she’s going to let me learn how to teach writing at BAYCAT. It’s a tiny commitment–once a week, a couple of students a time–but I want to be there to watch her dreams bloom.