Who is Amy Farah Weiss and why is she running for mayor — again?
You probably know her best from the last mayoral election, when she and her fellow candidates on the “1-2-3 to Replace Ed Lee” ticket collectively earned more votes than the incumbent. Whether she’s asked you to sign a ballot initiative, to get involved in preserving a historic property or voiced an opinion at a Board of Supervisors meeting, Weiss is on the move.
“There was so much momentum from 2015 that was realized, and I’ve channeled that momentum into one area of my platform: transitional housing,” she said. “I’ve been leading from the outside ever since.”
Sitting in the communal area of her Mission District workspace, Weiss currently directs the Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge, a program she devised matching residents with tiny dwellings and vacant land. She said her idea for sheltering homeless people provides benefits untold to residents and the immediate community, including property owners. Regularly filing reports and proposals with The City on her findings, Weiss noted that, occasionally, her ideas for strategic solutions end up being implemented, though she rarely receives acknowledgment or as much as a call back. Nevertheless, she persists.
“You’ll see that every candidate says homelessness is their No. 1 issue,” Weiss said, “but I’m the one who’s actually rolled up my sleeves, got into the encampments, provided basic needs like toilets and trash collection and worked with DPW [Department of Public Works] workers on the ground. I know the system and I know where it needs to be healed.”
This time around, her slogan is “Vote 1-2-3 For Equity,” a riff on San Francisco’s ranked-choice system and the notion that The City should tend equally to all its people.
So how did Weiss, born in Berkeley and raised in San Jose by a fundamentalist Christian mother from South Dakota and a Jewish, Vietnam veteran father from Queens, get inside the belly of political San Francisco?
“I remember visiting The City when I was 7 or 8, and it was Fleet Week. I was unimpressed, but somebody came up to me with one of those ‘I Love Your Smile’ stickers, and they didn’t ask for anything in return. It just touched me,” Weiss recalled. During her years as a student at De Anza College and UC Santa Cruz, she started visiting the museums, Haight Street and clubs like Bottom of the Hill and Great American Music Hall. It was then that she began to notice the street population.
“There was so much need in your face, and I would take it in, thinking, ‘I don’t know if I could live here,’” she said, imagining the need for a “force field” to shelter her own heart from the suffering of others. “But I got tougher.”
Weiss lived in Portland during its 2001-2003 period of rapid gentrification doing social work and playing in bands; she worked on an organic farm in Colorado, then in the Berkshires at a transitional community for people exiting psychiatric institutions. “The idea was that working on the land was part of the healing,” she explained.
Following a job at a mental health facility in Virginia and a period of doing AIDS work in Santa Cruz, she was ultimately called to work for a Bay Area company teaching sustainable business practices to bloated corporations. At first resistant, the idea of working “from the inside out” ultimately appealed to her. It was during one of her commutes, approaching the Essex Street onramp of the Bay Bridge, that she had an aha moment.
“It was the first time I had a vision of taking everything I’d learned in activism, music and in intentional communities and using it to create shelters for people that would add something to the environment,” Weiss said. “That as you were driving by, you would smile because you felt like people were being taken care of and had their place, living in vibrantly colored and designed shelters.”
Then, the financial crisis of 2007-08 hit: Weiss was activated to join her North of the Panhandle neighborhood association during a national bank’s aggressive campaign to expand while pursuing her post-graduate degree, a specialized program in Public Administration at San Francisco State University. She educated herself on local history, learning of the Fillmore’s one-time status as the “Harlem of the West” and of its legendary blues and jazz clubs. “And then, I learned about institutionalized racism, banks, government and how they took a thriving area and wiped it away in the most shocking and horrific way. That was another activation for me.”
She formed Neighbors Developing Divisadero and promoted community partnerships as an alternative to commercial development. But while her proposal to turn the historic Harding Theater into an arts, culture and collaborative hub was not realized — it has since become an arcade — the effort wasn’t in vain: Weiss’ local focus put her in contact with critical educators, mentors, political allies and friends.
“I recommend everyone do a deep dive in their neighborhood to understand where you are in the context of time. You don’t even have to go back too far to get all the way back to the Ohlone,” she said. “Americans aren’t taught to situate themselves in a new place by respecting it. It’s a tradition to take other people’s land. It’s a horrific tradition that we need to course correct now. But let’s have some empathy for the newcomers: They aren’t thinking about the fact they are new here, they’re just trying to fit into a system. This is a new way of thinking, and I’m trying to model it.”
Between sowing the seeds of equity — sometimes literally in community gardens — from NOPA to City Hall, Weiss is emerging from the Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge to begin her campaign in earnest, pausing to note the simple pleasures of San Francisco life.
“I enjoy visiting my friends on Nob Hill. They live on a terrace street off Pacific, and it reminds me of “Tales of the City”: The magic, the views, being able to go down into Chinatown, or toward Polk where there’s this little laundromat and a large dog that rests on top of the dryers at night,” she said with a smile. “Lately, I’m really into hibiscus-Jamaica drinks, agua frescas, and was just at La Corneta. A mariachi band was playing, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this isn’t to be taken for granted.’”
Amy Farah Weiss is hosting a Vote 1-2-3 For Equity campaign launch event at SoMa StrEat Food Park, 428 11th St., on Jan. 28 from 1 to 5 p.m. All mayoral candidates and members of the public are invited to attend.
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.
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