Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “San Francisco State University”

The End of the Melting Pot

The concept of a society being a melting pot is something that strongly resonates for me. My family has never put down roots for more than a couple of generations. I myself have made two major moves and lived in three continents.

The idea that an ethnic group moves to a country and tries hard to become part of that society is a rich element in literature, movies and music. It is a symbol of a country’s ability to be accepting and absorb different people into its social fabric. It sees the intrinsic value of adding another rich layer of culture, food, costume and language.

There is also an oft-irrational drive on the side of the immigrant. After living in Israel for two months, I refused to speak English (it’s amazing what you can stutter through with a hundred words or so). I only listened to Israeli music, and sought Israelis to hang out  with, even though I was often a wall flower since 90% of the conversation passed me by.

When I moved to America, I immediately adopted the local basketball team, becoming a passionate Golden State Warriors fan (never easy – ask those fans who have followed them all their lives). I have goggled tailgaters, researched the Super Bowl party protocol (still more excited about the game than the ads and half-time show), and learned to look knowledgeable when wine tasting. I studiously watched The Daily Show and Colbert, okay – and the Simpsons.

I work with students on the San Francisco State University campus, a rich and diverse community from all over the world. The cultural richness is stunning and the programs offered impressive. There is an impressive statistic for how many students are first-generation to graduate high school and go on to university (I’m thinking 40%, but please correct me if I have it wrong).


I recently used the term melting pot in front of a colleague who is also an alumna (yes I checked it to make sure!) of SFSU. I meant it in a complimentary way to express how comfortable students feel to openly express their cultural and ethnic roots.

This colleague, a millennial, baulked at the use of the word. She responded that it is derogatory and suggests we all need to strive to be the same, that there is an intense pressure to conform to whatever the dominant culture demands.

It got me thinking. I desired to fit into the culture around me because I wanted to be accepted. But I never lost sight of my roots. I was always the Englishman in Israel and my friends never lost an opportunity to poke fun at my accent, the Queen, or to accept my undisputed authority on the noble topics of soccer and beer.

I understand why the term melting pot is problematic. Often the liquid in the pot is fermented by racist connotations. But melting pot does not have to mean only one soup with only one taste. Perhaps a tapestry is a better term. Many different colored strands weave together to create a beautiful work of art.


The millennial baulks every time that the ‘adult’ society tries to define it, put it into statistical graphs and research projects. The millennial doesn’t spend time pondering whether s/he is a Jewish American or an American Jew.

S/he is comfortable with multiple identities. Have you ever watched a millennial working on their desktop (it doesn’t work so well on phones)? They have a dozen windows open at any one time and flit from one to another like a humming bird on speed. It is the same with their identity. They are comfortable being Jewish here, gay there, a jock in one place, an intellect in another. It is natural and easy.

But there is a generation even more exciting than millennials following them. A while ago, my youngest son met three classmates at the park. The fathers stood together and looked on. One was Israeli, another Palestinian, a third from India, and the fourth from Pakistan. While the kids had fun on the wooden playground, the fathers fidgeted, discussing the weather, house prices and the 49ers. The fathers are all good men, wanting a peaceful world and a just society to live in for their families. We were all happy to stand there in that park playing fathers.

But what was amazing was that our sons were perfectly comfortable. They played together because it was simply fun to hang out. I am sure they each have an understanding of their roots and often hang out with people of their own ethnic background but do not feel a need to be defined as such.

The biggest problem I feel with the melting pot is that it is/was deemed necessary. The millennials will treat it with vague intellectual curiosity and the next generation won’t even know what it was – like a pay phone or record player.

And that is what gives me hope for a better world.



Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.   For more about the author, check out his website.

The Power of the Internet – SignUp

I am intrigued with the potential of the Internet to mobilize grassroots activism. My novel, The Accidental Activist, is a fictitious account of the McDonald’s libel trial in England in the 1990’s. The role of McSpotlight.org, the first interactive advocacy website, was integral in enabling two young activists to negotiate the maze of the British libel laws and take on one of the most famous law companies in the UK.

Twitter and Facebook were central tools utilized in the Arab Spring and China is putting considerable resources into controlling the Internet, at least within its borders. Shi Tzu, a journalist, found this out and languishes in jail.

Today, I walked past a few young people standing at the main thoroughfare at San Francisco State University, canvassing people to sign a petition supporting an environmental initiative. It was cold and I felt sorry for them. Despite their enthusiasm. students passed them by. I am sure it was not the issues, rather the desire to escape the cold and make it on time to class.

I thought there must be a better way to do it. Guess what? Apparently there is. Allow me to introduce you to SignOn.org. This is a new initiative that came to my attention when I wrote about Whole Foods and one of their (previous) Muslim employees.

The goal is to allow busy people to create and promote a petition. Though sponsored by the (thought of) left-wing organization Move On, the service is for any citizen to create a petition.

I want to applaud MoveOn for this initiative. It is efficient, time-saving and reaching people where they have discretionary time – on-line rather than on the street. Of course, there is always the loss of the human interaction as with all social media, but in terms of practicality and effectiveness, it seems like a great service.

And the fact that SignUp can be used by those with political views that do not fall in line with the MoveOn folks is also commendable. It elevates the core values of democracy and freedom of speech that we all talk about and forget often .


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

No More Nonprofits

Last month a study was released that suggested the majority of the 12 million baby boomer generation would be interested in creating their own nonprofit or socially aware business in the near future.

At first I thought of this as a positive statement, of a generation emerging who want to spent their time and resources creating a better world. I have, over the past two years, highlighted and promoted many non-profits and lauded the commitment of socially conscious business.

But I have to say that this enthusiasm somewhat waned as I considered the implications. I run a nonprofit in San Francisco, Hillel – the Jewish Student Center based by San Francisco State University. Our nonprofit has been in existence for over sixty years and yet we (the national movement) lead the way within the Jewish community. We are innovative and have the trained and committed staff to carry out new initiatives and the experience to analyze what works and what doesn’t. 

I thought that my feeling of so many nonprofits in existence was due to living in the vibrantly conscious Bay Area. But I discovered from The Chronicle of Philanthropy that there are more than a million nonprofits in existence.

Over the last few months, my board of directors has been intensively engaged with recruiting new board members as we go through one of the inevitable cycles of change. When meeting with prospects we do not have to work too hard to establish who we are. Over 90% of Jews participate in higher education and know what Hillel is. Neither do we discover resistance based upon financial constraints because we offer a low barrier in terms of a board member’s personal capacity. We seek commitment and passion.

When we approach these prospects, however, we discover that each is committed to a long line of causes and felt over-extended. Some have generously agreed to join us, others offer an extremely welcomed financial gift, and most suggested we return to them when they term out from some of their current boards.

So I think you can imagine why I am not as enthused by the prospect of a wave of new non-profits joining a market whose resources are already strained in terms of money and committed members.

There is a double-edged sword here. I want to be clear that I applaud the sentiment of these baby boomers, whether to set up a nonprofit or a socially conscious business. It says a lot about their values and the world that they and I envisage. I would be wrong to suggest that the need for such services is not growing.

You have to have been living on another planet to not realize that the poor are getting poorer and that more families and individuals are joining their ranks. The middle class are also struggling as their median income level continues to fall. I am sure that this is what is stirring people to action. Either you are hurting or you know others who are – and this is almost as painful. The top echelon (is it 1% or 5%?) continues to acquire wealth and actually grabbed the biggest share of after-tax income in the last thirty years. As we all know now, the top 5% own 60% of all private wealth.

Many of those in the 1% or 5% are the very people keeping the lights on in the nonprofit world, so we shouldn’t be too quick to bite the hand that feeds. I am impressed and humbled by the time and money that many of these people invest in philanthropic work.

Rather it is the rising disparity that is driving a greater need for the work of nonprofits. However, it cannot be ignored that we (the nonprofits) are cutting our staff and services as we struggle to remain solvent. In such a difficult environment is it not better to consolidate those agencies that have proved their worth rather than set up new agencies that will need to go through the inevitable growing pains at a time when we can ill-afford the luxury?

People enjoy investing in startups and it is the same with their philanthropy. However, the reality is that many of the new nonprofits won’t survive either because of a one-person leadership, a mission that has no depth, or they simply cannot sustain the income that development professionals learn to do over many years.

This might lead to disenchantment from those organizing and those investing. It could actually have a rebound effect on the 12 million who want to roll up their shirtsleeves and get involved. And this could lead to people being turned off from investing their money and time into agencies that can provide, and are providing, the essential services that many of us so desperately need today.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).



Inspiring Visit to Egypt

I first saw this on the Contra Costa Times website reprted by Josh Richman this past Thursday. Samuel Vengrinovich, a former San Francisco State University student and participant at the SF Hillel Jewish Student Center where I work, recorded his experiences visiting Cairo, Egypt, just one week after President Mubarak was forced to resign by a popular, peaceful uprising.

Here are a few of his choice quotes:

“I get asked all the time why did I want to go to Tahrir Square? And I think, who wouldn’t? I’m sure there are millions of people around the world who would have loved to experience and witness what I saw. I made this documentary video to share that experience, to provide an opportunity for people who were less fortunate like me of being so close to Egypt, or daring enough like me to even go to Egypt, to experience the Egyptian revolution.”

“Before my trip materialized, the Egyptian protests that were happening in Tahrir Square mesmerized me. I knew this was big. I was watching live footage morning and night, following the ebb and flow of the tug and pull between the regime and the people.”

“I witnessed the physical and emotional release of decades of pent up emotions by Egyptians under Mubarak’s authoritarian rule, their desire to guard and protect their revolution from being hijacked, and the sensitivity Egyptians displayed about their revolution being positively viewed by the international community.”

“I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness a nation breathe democracy and freedom for the first time in their lives. I was so close, being here in Israel. I knew I had to get there.”

Thanks Samuel. You captured something that I never saw on the TV or Internet. It is the natural exhubiance and optimism of the Egyptian people. This is a great video.——————————————————————————————————

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).


Sasha’s Soup Club

This month is National Soup Month…really.

I met Sasha and Blaise when they came to the Hillel Student Center as undergraduates at San Francisco State University. Today,they are married and living at U.C. Davis, where Blaise is studying to become a veterinarian.

Sasha has a talent for cooking. While still a student, she set up a small catering business and catered the meetings for the San Francisco Hillel Board of Directors. The food has never been so good at our Hillel board meetings since those days. Best of all, it was healthy as well as tasty. Sasha has a strong commitment to wholesome and socially responsible food.

Today she runs a soup club, making a fresh soup with all natural ingredients and then delivers it around Yolo county. She even shares her recipes.

So if you live up in Davis and need your stomach filled with a warm, soothing and nutritious soup, click here and help some struggling students. Struggling, they may be, but starving they are not.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com




Mikey Pauker – Sim Shalom

Mikey was a student at SFSU a few years back and very involved at our Hillel Student Center.

Today, down in SoCal, he is more widely known as a folk singer. His first two albums are firm favorites in my iTunes. He now has a third album out that is reconnecting to his Jewish roots. The album Sim Shalom has some excellent songs on it. Compass is a solid opener and the title song, Sim Shalom – Make Peace – seems so relevant today as Israel and the Palestinians begin negotiating (we all hope) a sustainable peace.

But my favorite is Wicker Man. Check it out along with a cool video below.


Mikey Pauker – Wicker Man from Eli Green on Vimeo.

His album can be heard on his website: http://www.myspace.com/planesoverbridgez/
If you are down that way, he has a live performance coming up on October 10, at The Mint in LA.

Good Listening,

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area.

A Tribute to Professor Paul Longmore RIP

I would like to think that I share many connections with Professor Paul Longmore, who passed away on August 9th in his home in San Francisco. He taught at San Francisco State University for 20 years where I focus a lot of my work hours. He was a writer and a political activist. He campaigned for the physically challenged and fought the hurdles and discrimination that confronted them.

Professor Longmore contracted polio at the age of seven. He wrote his first book – “The Invention of George Washington” – over a period of 10 years. Why so long? Professor Longmore wrote by holding a pen in his mouth and using it to strike the keyboards.

Let me say that again: Professor Longmore wrote by holding a pen in his mouth and using it to strike the keyboards.

Incredibly, Professor Longmore burned a copy of the book on the steps of a Federal building, as a protest against policies that discriminated against people with physical disabilities.

The Social Security Administration went on to revise its rules and one of the amendments that allowed physically challenged authors to count publishing royalties as earned income, became known as the Longmore Amendment.

Trevor Getz, associate professor of history at San Francisco State University paid this tribute in the SF Chronicle. “He wasn’t just about disability – he was an incredibly renowned George Washington scholar. It all came together when he burned his book. It was a statement about a particular view of the history of this country as one where people made equality and liberty happen.”

For more on Professor Longmore’s accomplishments, please refer to the Chronicle’s article.

As a writer, Professor Longmore serves as an inspiration for his drive to write and overcome any obstacle, and for his tenacity for social activism. Professor Longmore passed away, but his legacy and example will live on.

Good Writing,
Alon Shalev

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