An Interview with Artist-Researcher Jerome Reyes, Part II

by Leslie W. Rabine


In Part I of this interview with Jerome Reyes (May 2017 Kapitbahay Newsletter), Leslie Rabine asked him why he, an internationally recognized artist, researcher and educator, is so passionately devoted to working with the staff and young people at SOMCAN. Here, in Part II, Reyes invites us into the welcoming world of SOMCAN where versatile adults and young people “are doing a lot of necessary things for their neighborhood and having fun while doing that.”

JR: SOMCAN is the most flexible organization I’ve seen, because they’re constantly changing all the time.

LR: In what way?

JR: For instance, they had a food drive last summer, in the front room, which was a computer lab. These are two things you wouldn’t put together: Wet perishable foods and electronics. They would take down the computer lab at 6:00 in the morning, then have the food drive. By 10:00 or 11:00, the computer lab would be back. And this is before lunch. You’re talking about things that architecture students would dream about. SOMCAN does it every day. There’s a demand for bikes, so they have this bike rack right inside the front door that looks like a bike store. So I can work naturally with them, and it builds on a legacy of the people of color in the ’60 and ‘70s working in after school programs, starting arts non-profits, etc.

LR: What is it that you do personally?

JR: I do different art projects with the youth. And it isn’t so much the act of making art projects that is extremely meaningful, but the act of talking about their families, talking about people they grew up with. South of Market is like this really funny TV show, where you know too much about everyone. You know what everyone’s gonna wear, how they act. And it’s quite special to have that in San Francisco at this moment. And the area they work in is at the forefront.

LR: In what way?

JR: You see the youth live within the velocity with which the city is changing. As a case study, the way San Francisco is doing it is unprecedented. They are the first generation of this city to grow up with cranes as a regular part of the skyline. And they’re at the ground zero of all of that. All kinds of developments are happening, and the young people are constantly positioning themselves in terms of how they’ll relate to the language of development.

LR: What projects do you do?

JR: They get the same type of curriculum I would teach at Stanford. I also test assignments at SOMCAN before I try it at Stanford. But it’s not like I’m there only to teach workshops. I’m there to hang out, work, and look at other SOMCAN ongoing and potential projects. SOMCAN operates much like a working lab for some people.

LR: In what ways?

JR: People go there to do their homework, or other activist projects. You have a lot of people hanging out at SOMCAN. That’s the environment I want to be in. SOMCAN doesn’t need me. I often feel I don’t add to what they already have.

LR: And aren’t you an asset to them?

JR: It does go both ways. A big reason why I’m there is that the people there are really versatile. They live complex lives and it shows in complex programs.

LR: Do you work with them on documenting their achievements?

JR: I say to the young people at SOMCAN, ‘Hey what did you do 2-3 years ago?’ and they’d say ‘Oh! We did this music program that we want to bring back,’ and I say, ‘Why didn’t you document it’, ‘Oh because we had 3 other programs we were planning.’ If you just wrote it down, and showed the trajectory of their programming, you’d get more support, because it’s so thoughtful. Right now we’re uncovering retroactively an amazing run of programs and services. They just do it naturally in an area that has so much shared space.

People ask ‘Why?’ I go back. And it’s because the space is fun. But also I’m being tested intellectually. Because they’re having really exciting lives, they don’t care about showing it off. They’re trying to do a lot of necessary things for their neighborhood and have fun while doing that.

LR: The young people there?

JR: Everyone, the whole staff. Then they have hilarious personalities, and they’re all easy-going even though they go to serious City Hall meetings and rallies. What more could you want? They’re all very cognizant of who they are publicly in a community-celebrating area of the city. And yet when we’re all in at SOMCAN, we’re laughing most of the time. At the same time, all the work is getting done. It rivals any space I’ve ever been in.