If someone asked you to name the greatest thinker in San Francisco, you might have to stop to think about it.
Perhaps one of the numerous writers or artists who call The City home? An elected leader, current or past? How about someone in tech or medicine? Education, sports, activism, nonprofit work, entertainment?
The name Sam Dennison might never come to mind, even though he was twice declared America’s Greatest Thinker.
Dennison, 57, recently won a quirky philosophy contest called the Great American Think-Off. He also won it in 2006. Held since 1993 in the rural Minnesota town of New York Mills, the contest begins at the beginning of the year, when organizers pose a question and solicit essays. Four participants among the hundreds of entrants are then invited to New York Mills on the second Saturday in June for the debate. The audience asks questions and ultimately chooses the winner. This year’s question was, “Income Inequality Threatens Democracy. Agree or Disagree?”
Dennison was one of the two finalists who agreed. He says his life experience and work in the Tenderloin helped in crafting the essay and defending his position. Dennison is a Resident Fool with the Faithful Fools street ministry, “a live-work nonprofit intentionally here in the Tenderloin to build community amongst people who otherwise wouldn’t meet,” Dennison says.
The Southern California native and Santa Clara University law school graduate moved to San Francisco five years ago from Minnesota seeking a change from his lifelong work as an educator. Dennison was introduced to Faithful Fools through a family friend and hired to create oral histories. He found much more than that.
“I realized that this kind of work was very close to what I loved about education, only I didn’t have pesky students who were all over me for grades,” Dennison says. “And there was a kind of freedom here to really explore and engage, and get much deeper into social justice issues, which I’ve always been passionate about but didn’t always have a place for it in my work life.”
The San Francisco Examiner recently sat down with Dennison to learn about the Great American Think-Off and the Faithful Fools. Answers have been edited for clarity.
What inspired you to return to the competition?
Really it was the question: ‘Income inequality threatens democracy. Agree or disagree?’ And my answer is, yes it does. Living in this neighborhood, this moment in time, you’re seeing the great emptying out of that space between impoverishment and great wealth. That, to me, is really a threat to democracy. Folks who have great wealth can ride the Google buses, can reserve part of Dolores Park — although, thank goodness, they’ve changed that. But that was well on the way before anybody said, ‘Hey wait a minute, that’s not a good idea.’ Schools are another classic example. Here in San Francisco, we have some of the most segregated schools in the country because white wealthy people send their kids to private schools. All that privatization means we don’t share the common good. We don’t share buses, we don’t share schools, we don’t share parks. Income inequality does threaten democracy because, for people who are experiencing poverty — and that’s a growing number of people — it’s a degree of hopelessness.
The debate guidelines say writers should approach their entry essays from personal experience. Living in San Francisco, along with your work with Faithful Fools, did you feel especially comfortable with the topic? Absolutely. I see it all the time, whether it’s the school example, or even just going to City Hall with many people from this neighborhood. I’ve watched consistently the rolling of the eyes or the deadpan, ‘here comes another group of residents.’ You know that a lot of it is just dismissal. ‘You guys don’t vote, you don’t have money for us. We have to listen to you because the sunshine laws say we do.’ But it’s rare that it really makes a big difference.
In your essay, you describe how the rich and the poor become enemies through inequality. Do you feel like San Francisco is in that kind of place right now?
I really do. I don’t think there’s anything inevitable about the story being written right now. But I do see the animosity that’s there. I do see this sense of, from the poor perspective, it’s ‘we never get listened to, they don’t understand us. Why are they just moving in and taking everything we’ve got? How come it’s getting worse?’ And from the perspective of the very wealthy who are moving in, the majority of whom are young people making $150,000-$200,000 a year, they’re feeling like, ‘why are those people sleeping on the street? It’s disgusting. They’re vomiting over there. They’re doing drugs over there.’ And all they want to do is clean up. So you’ve got those tensions. People aren’t seeing each other as people; they’re seeing each other as enemies. There’s not a common ground there that’s creating a sense of empathy.
What was the mood like among your competitors?
It’s a very civil affair. I understand that a couple years ago when the debate was ‘should same-sex marriage be allowed’ it was less civil. Apparently people got really hot under the collar, which is to be expected. But, one, it’s the middle of Minnesota. Let’s be realistic, ‘Minnesota nice’ is a real thing. And it is very intentionally a civil debate. Everything is set up to make it that way. There’s a strong moderator. You spend time with the other essayists before so you get to know each other a little bit.
How much did you prepare after they chose you to participate?
I think for some people it is intimidating. I got the impression from the other three competitors that they did a lot more to prepare than I did. To be honest, I live this all the time. I work with Market Street for The Masses, which is a coalition of 30 nonprofits here working in [income inequality] all the time. I went to law school, so I was prepared early in life for thinking on my feet. And then the bulk of the preparation for me was that I read my essay to a variety of different audiences to get their take on it, their questions, what they liked or didn’t like. So I had a sense of what kinds of questions would come up from the audience. But it’s pretty free-wheeling. You don’t know what kinds of questions are going to come at you.
Tell us about Faithful Fools and the work you and others do there.
Faithful Fools is a live-work nonprofit here in the Tenderloin. Our basic purpose is to create community amongst people who otherwise wouldn’t meet. We have a variety of programs in arts, wellness, writing programs. We also have what we call street retreats, which are day-long reflective outings. We form a kind of community in the morning, an opening circle, and then everybody spends between 4 and 6 hours on the streets, eating at St. Anthony’s and other public kitchens, and then at the end of the day, we reflect. The idea is that the neighborhood and the streets become a mirror for us. Where do I see myself out there? And when I see myself out there, how do I feel about it? Where do I connect, where do I feel separated? So all of our activities are really an excuse for us to find ways to create relationships amongst people and to find our common humanity.
What’s the story behind the organization’s name?
Even though it feels like ‘faithful’ has religious connotations, it really doesn’t. One of the founders was a Unitarian Universalist, and what you may or may not know about those folks is that all of their core principles have nothing to do with god or religiosity. It’s about respecting the inherent worth of every individual and deep consciousness of every individual. The other founder is a Franciscan, and Franciscans tend to have this perspective of preach all the time but use words only if you absolutely have to. The idea is that you have core values of treating people with dignity, meeting needs where they are, living in poverty, meaning that you share resources with others. So for Faithful Fools the idea is not faithfulness in god or spirituality, but being steady. It’s having faith in one another, and being faithful to the work. Not giving up when it seems too difficult. And not coming in with preconceived notions about what’s supposed to be. The idea of the ‘fool’ is that person who moves easily from place to place without needing to carry special garb or a role. They’re willing to be viewed as being silly or stupid, or out of place. Think of the medieval jester — the person who can hang out on the streets and then go right into the court, cross those boundaries. Not necessarily knowing the right answer but just meeting need where it is and doing the best that we know how to do in that moment. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. As for the ‘street’ part, that’s the leveling place. All of us at some point most days end up on the sidewalk or on the street. You can be wealthy, you can be poor, you can be smart, you can have cognitive impairments, you can be in a wheelchair, you can be all kinds of things, but sooner or later most of us end up on the street and we’re on the same level — we’re right at the same place. And then ‘ministry.’ There’s the idea of ministry in the religious sense, but ministry actually has a much older sense of tending to one another’s wounds. So if I minister to you, it’s about caring for you, it’s about offering something. We don’t imagine ourselves as proselytizing or bringing the word of god. It’s much more that sense of caring for one another.
Will you return to the Think-Off next year to defend your title?
Well no, there’s a rule now that says you can’t win two years in a row. But I figure, I did it 10 years ago so perhaps I’ll do it again in 10 years if I still have a few brain cells left.