Jenna Littlejohn no longer lives in The City, though she spends most of her time working to preserve culture and serving folks in need on this side of the Bay.
“Obviously Oakland has its extreme poverty and disparity issues but in San Francisco it’s so much more intense,” she said. “It’s stark and so drastic: The Teslas and $15 sandwiches. Living here, every day becomes an extreme circumstance.”
Working as a grantwriter for Third Parent, a grassroots nonprofit that serves San Franciscans whose essential needs fall into the gaps, Littlejohn went beyond the page and into the streets during the pandemic when calls for food distribution started to blow up.
“Jenna has been willing to jump in where we need her,” said Whitney White, co-founder with her partner Daveea Whitmore of the resource hub, which was established at the end of 2019. The couple had identified a specific need within the African American community: Essential resources and services are often mired in red tape and are awkward to access.
“It takes groundwork, being out there and doing some observing. The people who have the resources are not connecting with the community that may need them the most,” said White. “We meet the people where they are and Jenna is passionate about the work we’re doing and believes in the mission. She’s really been great at being a third parent to Third Parent.”
Volunteering with Third Parent puts Littlejohn in touch with people and corners of The City she’s certain she wouldn’t otherwise meet were it not for the opportunity to make the deliveries.
“Whitney and Daveea are so good at networking and getting things done,” said Littlejohn. “It’s not as simple as: ‘Here’s your bag.’ I want to uphold the dignity of The City. It’s not over until we leave.”
Double parked on Leavenworth, Littlejohn has looked up at the buildings and thought to herself, “Probably everyone in it, people who can’t move that well, needs a delivery,” she said. “You get inside and you find such lovely people. The point is to show compassion, to push the needle forward by being nice.”
Littlejohn knows something of service from her family, the Littlejohns of South Carolina who eventually settled in San Jose.
“My grandparents had six kids. It sounds like a cliche but they had a family band,” she said. Her father, a musician and mixed martial arts fighter, always demonstrated kindness to those in need: He carried a bag with fresh socks and other necessities he was prepared to give away on the street.
“My uncle, a smart guy, a biologist, had an incident in San Francisco and had been struck by something on the head. After that he was never the same and became homeless. My dad said ‘I didn’t know where my brother was and I saw him outside one day,’” she said.
Her uncle has since recovered, but his homeless period, which resulted from the traumatic brain injury, was something not often discussed within the family.
“Mental health wasn’t talked about,” said Littlejohn who knows what it feels like to be singled out, on the outside looking in.
“I lived in Newark ‘til I was 12 and went to high school in the sticks: Shasta,” she said of the move with her mom and stepdad, “I was introduced to large groups of white people. It made me uncomfortable.”
For the first time in her life, she heard racist taunts and threats. She decided then knew then The City was the place for her. “I wanted to be in a place where all the people are,” she said. Her imagination fired by stories and lore she’d heard from her mother, originally from Visitacion Valley, and from her aunt, who’d once docked a houseboat in Brisbane, she found her niche among the artists and writers in North Beach and in the Haight where she dove into jazz at Club Deluxe.
“Jazz music makes me write poetry,” she said. As a student at San Francisco State, Littlejohn won the Piri Thomas Poetry Prize in 2013.
“I majored in English, with an emphasis on poetry and knew I was going to be making tons of money once I got out,” she joked. Littlejohn is dryly comedic in conversation and worked for a time at the comedy theater, Killing My Lobster.
“I don’t think they’d say I was a very good employee,” she said. “I was late to all the events and a bad picture taker,” though, to be fair, she was juggling several jobs and internships, including runs as a nanny and a behavioral therapist for kids, a stint at an app and as a bookseller at Bird & Beckett where she learned to write grants for arts and nonprofit organizations, including the bookstore.
“The nonprofit work stuff stuck because it’s meaningful. Getting money for the artists is meaningful. Getting people their basics, food, is meaningful,” she said. “Working at the app was not meaningful.”
Bird & Beckett’s Cultural Legacy Project presents, documents and archives over 300 live music and literary events a year; Littlejohn observes and tracks their demographics.
“The attendance at the bookstore events is culturally mixed, but it’s a reflection of a city where most of the people are white,” she said, noting that 17 percent of the artists at Bird & Beckett are Black in contrast to the citywide percentage that in recent years shows the Black population at under 6 percent. Additionally, “Out of four employees, two are Black and three are women,” she said (the store’s proprietor, Eric Whittington, has been profiled in this column).
“I feel like an older guy most times in my life and Eric’s an older guy all the time in his life and we got along really well,” said Littlejohn. “We have the same temperament, we don’t like technology and we love books.” Their shared interests extend to jazz, San Francisco history and the people who contribute toward making it a beloved place on the map.
“I think it starts with the landscape and how it changes from trees to city to water. The look of it is alive and stimulating,” she said.
“An ideal San Francisco crowd would maybe be at a music venue. They aren’t the money crowd and they talk about art. But if I’m the darkest person in the room, then it’s not cool. I’m not doing that.”
Littlejohn identifies as half Black and as a gay woman. If she is misgendered or experiences microaggressions, she doesn’t give the perpetrator any energy, a B.F. Skinner technique she learned counseling children.
“I’m a millennial and in the habit of calling everyone they. If you don’t know what’s going on with me, don’t try to figure it out without asking. If I hadn’t been accepted by my family, maybe it would feel different,” she said.
“When I was younger I’d call myself Black. I’ve been kicked out of stores many times but I’ve not been arrested or messed with by the cops. I go by half Black now as a way to take responsibility for the privilege I have in the world.”
She’s happy living in Oakland, but a piece of her proverbial heart beats here. “In Oakland, there are Black people everywhere. It feels great,” she said. “There are great white people in the world, a lot of them are my friends and a lot of them live here. I don’t know how it works out. I’m impressed with anybody who’s not super rich and is living here,” she said. “There must be some kind of magic going on.”
Denise Sullivan, an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions,” can be reached at denisesullivan.com and @4DeniseSullivan. SF Lives/Live Talks are live streamed at 10 a.m. on the second Sunday of the month from birdbeckett.com. On Sept. 12, the guest is art historian and curator Kathy Zarur.