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Kanishka Cheng, Founder and CEO of TogetherSF

Becoming a trusted community voice in an era where public skepticism is at an all-time high isn’t easy. So, how can advocacy organizations convince residents that they have the power to make a change?

On this episode of It’s Not Magic, Kanishka Cheng, co-founder of TogetherSF and CEO of TogetherSF Action, shares her mission of empowering San Franciscans to get involved in local politics. By making education and opportunities for dialogue more accessible, Kanishka strives to build back the city by giving a voice back to the community.

Our host, David Stiepleman, talks with Kanishka about the initiatives TogetherSF is implementing to bridge the gap between residents and local elected officials. You’ll hear how Kanishka’s passion for her city led her to become not only an entrepreneur, but a champion for San Franciscans, current and future. Join us as we learn about the work that is being achieved and the work that is still left to do.

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Episode Transcript:

David Stiepleman: Hi, everybody. Welcome back to It's Not Magic, our podcast from Sixth Street. We invite incredible leaders to get to the core of how they're tackling complex tasks in their industry and the world. Today's guest talks about what's really going on in San Francisco and her mission to empower communities to act. Take a listen.

Kanishka Cheng: I was like, no one is going to sign on to a Zoom at 12 o'clock on their lunch break to hear someone talk about homelessness. But people did, and they did it recurringly, and they kept coming back for more and they wanted to follow up. They had follow-up questions; they want to know how they could make a difference themselves. So there's such an appetite to take action in San Francisco.

David Stiepleman: That's Kanishka Cheng, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Together SF and CEO of the political advocacy group Together SF Action. Kanishka didn't plan on becoming an entrepreneur, but after several years working for San Francisco City and county, she noticed a disconnect between residents and their government. Kanishka set out to rebuild the trust in community from the ground up in the middle of the pandemic and during intense public unrest. She and her backers, including Michael Moritz from Sequoia Capital, started Together SF. Armed with grassroots support, Kanishka has not shied away from obstacles and has successfully turned her idea into a movement. We'll discuss Kanishka’s passion for making city government actually work. Together SF’s strategy to tackle generational issues and the advice that empowered Kanishka to start taking more control over her time, including how to say no to meetings. Empowering San Franciscans may be harder than it ought to be, but it's not magic.

David Stiepleman: Well Kanishka Cheng, thank you so much for joining us. It's great to have you here. It's a beautiful day in San Francisco. I just walked from downtown in the financial district to the studio where we do this. You're somewhere, you don't have to reveal where you are exactly, but I think you're in the city and it's sunny behind you. It’s a beautiful day. It's a great place. So you could think that it's a fantastic place to live in, and it is a fantastic place to live, but there's also depending on where you walk, it's kind of grim. And if you read the national press, it's like the Armageddon has come. So can you just level set and tell our listeners what's really going on here?

Kanishka Cheng: Wow. Well, first, thanks for having me on. It is a gorgeous day. Our office is in the mission, so that's where I'm joining you from where it's almost always sunny here. So wow, so much is going on in San Francisco. . I would say the National press obviously is a little bit hyperbolic about what's happening, but there is a lot of reality too. And I do think that a lot of our local elected officials and sort of institutional organizations are very, very nervous about ever saying anything bad about San Francisco. But I think that's very frustrating for a lot of residents because we can't solve our problems until we're honest about what they are. And I think the idea that what San Francisco really has is a bad PR problem is not the best approach to solving our problems.

David Stiepleman: Right. There’re so many things that you can try, one could try to fix, and lots of people are trying to fix stuff. What is Together SF trying to fix? Like what are you focused on?

Kanishka Cheng: Together SF is focused on empowering voters with information, tools, making it very easy for them to know what's going on, and then to use that information to hold their elected officials accountable to outcomes. So what we've tried to do is build a base, a group of voters and residents who haven't really been engaged in local politics. We think that is probably the largest group of San Franciscans that kind of just want normal things to work. They want the basic services to function at a high quality. And I think that's a very reasonable expectation given the amount of money this city has and its budget, the level of talent we have in leadership, we know we can do better. And so we're trying to get more informed voters to vote better.

David Stiepleman: We're going to talk about what you guys actually, you know, sort of do day-to-day, but is there something that surprises San Francisco residents, San Francisco voters as you go around and do that education process? Like are they like, oh, I had no idea.

Kanishka Cheng: There are many things that surprise people. One is that they often don't know who their supervisor is or what the board supervisors is and what they do and how much power they have. Another thing that surprises people is that they're usually shocked that the mayor doesn't oversee the school district. That’s an entirely different political body, and it’s out of her jurisdiction. They're also surprised by who is on that body making those decisions.

David Stiepleman: Oh, let's talk about that actually that's the DCCC. So you should just, can you describe what that is? And right now there's a lot of jockeying going on sort of in an off-election year on who's going to be on that body and why are people interested in that? This is like in the weeds a little bit, but I think it's important.

Kanishka Cheng: Super in the weeds. But really important. The DCCC stands for the Democratic County Central Committee. So every county has one, and it is the local chapter of the National Democratic Party. And I think that most voters think that this is just the local presence of the presidential administration if it's a Democrat, right? So when I first got into politics, I thought, this is like Barack Obama telling me who I should vote for when I got my piece of mail around the election telling me who the Democratic Party endorsed in my local election. So we do a lot of education to explain to people that's actually not how it works. The DCCC is made up of like 26, 27 something people who run for office. The election is held in the primary and only registered Democrats can vote on it.

Kanishka Cheng: So our next DCC election in San Francisco will be the March 2024 primary. And traditionally, the body has supposed to be focused, was supposed to be focused on registering more people as Democrats growing the Democratic Party, and sort of leading democratic policy conversations at the local level and connecting it to the state Democratic party, which then rolls up to national. What has happened in San Francisco, and this trend started to happen in 2016, is we started having sitting elected officials who were in other elected seats run for DCCC and kind of take over that body. And this was a big deal because the party, the Democratic parties, the DCCC was traditionally supposed to be for activist, kind of grassroots activist, up and coming people to kind of develop their political skills and kind of get in the mix.

Kanishka Cheng: And then we had kind of a takeover from sitting elected officials. And why that is important is because then they were able to control the endorsements of that body. And in a city where we have about 65% registered Democrats, the endorsement of the Democratic Party can swing elections significantly, especially in down ballot elections like Board of Education, city College, and even the Board of Supervisors. So what it now operates as is mostly a body that votes on endorsements for itself, for the individuals on the body, as well as their political allies. So it's a real consolidation of power, and with it, we've seen this shift.

David Stiepleman: Do you have a sense of how many votes does an endorsement like that swing do you think? Because these are pretty small numbers at the end of the day in terms of if you, there's a, what, 11 supervisors. It's a city of 800,000 people. Like you can walk us through that math, but it's less than 10,000 votes per supervisor, right that you have to get.

Kanishka Cheng: In some districts it's like 8,000 votes to become a supervisor in some it's 16,000. Yeah, but it's a small number of votes. And the DCCC endorsement has, gosh, I forget the number. I think it's like a 10% swing for the down ballot races. Now, it’s not just that endorsement. It depends a little bit on the race. So for Board of education, UESF, which is the teacher's union, that endorsement combined with the DCCC endorsement is usually the dual factor that gets someone across the finish line for board of ed. So there's some combinations like that.

David Stiepleman: Got it. This kind of stuff matters. And, you know, people don't know about it. They don't know how they can kind of get involved and influence it. I have in front of me a I'm going to ask myself the question. What was most surprising as you sort of start to dig into city government. I have a chart in front of me of the city government. It's old and it's, you know, at a very high level what you expect. There's an executive, the mayor, there's the legislature, the city council, there's, you know, judges and then a lot of agencies. And then there's like these commissions that this is the most surprising thing to me. Can you describe this incrustation of commissions?

Kanishka Cheng: Yeah. Commissions are a thing that I am very, very passionate about. It used to be my job to appoint people to commissions when I worked for the mayor and manage all the commissioners. And it does take a lot of management. So there are 130 commissions in San Francisco. It is a huge anomaly when you approach to other cities the number of commissions that we have. Some of them are very influential, like the planning commission literally approves and rejects major housing and development projects. The police commission sets the policies for how police officers do their work. They also adjudicate HR issues with police officers. Same with fire commission. So the biggest issue that we see at our organization, and that I feel very strongly about is that commissions dilute executive authority. So if you are an executive, you don't have direct oversight over the departments or the teams doing the work that they're supposed to be doing, because that policy is set by a sort of a middle management, which is the commission.

Kanishka Cheng: The commissioners are appointed either by the mayor or by the board of supervisors. So usually it's a seven- or five-member commission, and the mayor has a majority of those appointments. But for all of the influential commissions, the mayor's appointments can be rejected or must be confirmed by the board of supervisors. And then the board has their appointments that the mayor has no oversight over. So to get anything done at a department, including hiring and firing department heads, that has to all go through the commission. So it takes sort of management and vote counting and vote whipping to get that done.

David Stiepleman: As you're describing that to someone in the private sector who like thinks about corporate governance, for example, that is incredible. I mean, the power does not lie with the mayor as a result. I mean in a system where you do need an executive, it's a sort of super, a strong executive who can direct policy. It's a sort of super nullifying kind of setup. It surprised me because as I thought about it, I thought, gee, I wonder if this came out of an era where government is corrupt and you need transparency and you want oversight and has like good intentions, but it feels like it's just grown all out of proportion and it's very hard to get things done. Is that a correct read?

Kanishka Cheng: Absolutely. That was the case. In 1996, I think was the last time the city did a big overhaul of our charter. And there was a lot of negotiation on compromise around commissions. The idea was, I mean, the political climate as the time was Willie Brown was mayor, and he was definitely a strong mayor. He used every ounce of power that the executive branch has. And in reaction to that board members of the board of supervisors created more commissions. So since 1996, over time, we've seen more and more commissions get created to dilute that executive power. And of course, as the public, it sounds appealing, right? Let's have more transparency, let's have more citizen representation on these bodies. But at the end of the day, no resident knows who's on the police commission, and that's the body that's going to decide who the next police chief is. It's not the mayor.

David Stiepleman: Right, I mean, we could kind of peel back the onion on this kind of governmental reform, on civil service reform, but I want to take a step back and let's talk about this obviously was part of the impetus to start Together SF, but how did it start? Maybe we can talk there.

Kanishka Cheng: Yeah. Together SF started, we started in March of 2020. I had been working primarily in the public sector for most of my career. So I had worked in affordable housing development. I had worked at the housing authority, the San Francisco Planning Department, and then I transitioned into policy and politics as a legislative aid. And then on the senior staff of Mayor Breeds administration when she was elected. And I just started to realize that we were losing touch with most residents in the city. And inside City Hall was thinking about the city's problems very differently than residents were. And I saw this, you know, I had an opportunity to meet with Michael Moritz and talk about what was happening in San Francisco.

David Stiepleman: Michael Moritz, obviously people know who he is in our, but the kind of legendary VC investor from Sequoia and is your co-founder of Together, right?

Kanishka Cheng: He talks to a lot of people about what's happening in San Francisco. He takes a real, like trying to get educated approach. And when I spoke with him, I talked to him about what I thought the city needed to reengage with residents, build that trust and relationship back in government to get them to care more and then talk to them about how to vote better. And so that was always the goal of together SF is how do we rebuild this community and get them more engaged. So I had the opportunity to start Together SF with him and I gave my two weeks’ notice, and my last day for the city was the Friday before the city went into lockdown for Covid in 2020. So now I was given this big task to launch this organization at the beginning of a global pandemic.

Kanishka Cheng: So we started it as volunteering. That was the highest need. And it was where I could really be the most useful is. I had a lot of relationships with nonprofits and other organizations in the city, and I knew that there was a need for volunteers. And at the time we had this huge pool of young and able-bodied people who were suddenly working from home that wanted to be useful. So we started out as a Squarespace site and a Google sheet where you signed up to get matched with a senior in your neighborhood that you would do grocery shopping for, or meal delivery for a nonprofit food packing on the weekends. And that's all we did for about a year. And we kind of followed where our community was growing and what they wanted to talk about. And it evolved from food security to actually the school district because this was also when the schools in San Francisco were not reopening.

Kanishka Cheng: And parent anxiety was growing around that, parent engagement was really growing. And we started doing webinars about what's happening in San Francisco kind of explaining bigger problems like homelessness, housing, public education, and it sort of evolved from there. And so as reopening happened, we've transitioned into a lot more in-person events that are also education-based. And then in June of 2022, so 2022, we had four elections in San Francisco was an extreme anomaly. And for the June election, which was our third out of the fourth, we did a ballot explainer kind of just explaining both sides of every issue on the ballot. And the feedback we got from our community was that’s super useful, I'd love to know what your organization thinks. Because I think by that time, we had built relationships with a lot of people, and we were starting to become a trusted voice. And so that kind of created an opportunity for us to launch our Together Action C4 organization, which allows us to do advocacy and take positions on things on the ballot. So we launched that in the fall of 2022 to be impactful in the last November's election. And that's how we got more into political advocacy.

David Stiepleman: So was that the, so to speak, the original business plan was to bean informing organization and helping people kind of unravel things? Or were you pivoting because of what you were hearing during the pandemic?

Kanishka Cheng: The original vision of the organization was to help people understand what's happening, to help them connect the dots between what they're voting for and how those things are playing out, and to really help them become more informed voters. The shape of the organization exactly how we do that was not predetermined.

David Stiepleman: I, I want to get into how you actually do it day-to-day. But before we do that, I'd love to just kind of rewind the tape and have people hear about your background, which is super interesting. You were born in Sri Lanka, you came here as a kid, and you lived in the Bay Area. And then you went to, and you should stop me and unpack stuff or whatever because I'm obviously not going to tell your story for you, but what I wanted to get to was, you were at UCLA, you were going to be a pediatrician, right? That was kind of your plan. And then you took an urban study or an urban planning class. And like what caught your eye in that? I mean because it really obviously changed your trajectory.

Kanishka Cheng: Yeah, big time. So I came here as a refugee from the Civil War that was happening in Sri Lanka. I was six years old. I came with my mom and my brother. My dad wasn't allowed to come with us for political and immigration reasons. And so we didn't see my dad for two years. But I had this very traditional sort of American dream story. We came here with nothing. We lived in public housing; we were on food stamps. We benefited from, you know, the charitable people at our church, all those things. And is really a testament to what immigrants think of America and the land of opportunity that within a generation, I'm the first in my family to go to college and I got to have a seat at a table at the administration of San Francisco's mayor. So that was, it was a huge accomplishment for me to get there.

Kanishka Cheng: And I credit it all to incredible social programs and government services. And so my passion and driver has always been that economic mobility is really the goal for most people, especially immigrants. And that is most opportune in cities if government is run effectively. And so that is really what coalesced for me when I took that urban studies class that like, hey, this is actually what I care about. And it's so interesting. I didn't even know this was a profession I could have, that this was an academic inclination that you could have. And it really opened my eyes to kind of what was possible. I think that's the sort of the magic of college and getting to take electives, .

David Stiepleman: We’re big liberal arts fans at least or at least I am . I think most people ought to be because you can't know what you don't know. And it's just an amazing muscle to be able to exercise and it's an incredible luxury. Going through, you describe the Oakland Housing Authority up to being at the mayor's table, running an organization that's presumably well-funded. And how did you get smart on how to do that? Did you pick up sort of lessons along the way about how to run an organization, how to start an organization? I mean, you’re a startup entrepreneur, right? I mean that's what you're doing. It happens to be in a sector that's going to hopefully benefit a lot of us. How did you get smart on how to do that?

Kanishka Cheng: I have really been building the plane as I fly, like when we started, I had no idea what I was doing. You know, the mistakes that were made in terms of who you hire as vendors, as accountants, as lawyers, as business ops, vendors. It's just like there's so much room for error there and it can really hurt how you start an organization. I think that I was very lucky to have co-founders and advisors that are very, very helpful and still very engaged with us and helped me make a lot of decisions. All of my previous work that included running and working on political campaigns in San Francisco helped me understand that side of it. But the hardest thing was the skillset of how to manage, how to grow, how to scale, and how to fundraise. Those were all things I had not done previously.

David Stiepleman: Talk about how do you scale and grow? Maybe from your personal lens, how are you adjusting how you spend your days and weeks to make sure that you can continue to do that? I think it's a very hard thing for founders.

Kanishka Cheng: It's really, really hard. That is probably my biggest challenge is saying no to things. I think as founders we want to take every opportunity. We don't want to miss out on anything. And really learning to strengthen that muscle of deciding what's going to serve your organization, what is going to keep you focused on your goals. I think the biggest actually helpful thing that I did was hire people who know how to do that better, who have management experience, who have built other organizations and put them in ops roles to help scale the organization. So about a year ago we brought in someone from the private sector who is a Stanford MBA and had built organizations and scaled them before and wanted to get more involved in local government and politics and make a difference there. And so we've been very fortunate that she's applying her skills, her private sector skills, into the work that we're doing and has really helped us, helped me especially, figure out how to scale and grow and manage my time better.

David Stiepleman: Well, what's an example of a lesson that, that she brought in that was like, oh, I didn't know I could do that.

Kanishka Cheng: I can say no to meetings. I can make them short meetings. , . I don't have to give everybody a lunch. That’s a huge lesson. Somebody else told me that, another founder told me that this week is that he doesn't do any lunches with people because lunches can turn into an hour and a half. And I'm just like, wow, that's so bold to just say no to lunches. I'm still learning how to flex that muscle because it's just the time is the hardest thing to manage. We are in year three and I'm still in a point where I stop working at 4:30, pick up my kid, do dinner and bedtime, and then I'm working again until probably 10:30. And that's probably not sustainable. And so I have to get better at managing my time.

David Stiepleman: It's the constant struggle. I think you're telling us something about the culture of government maybe, which is that people don't say no to meetings, and meetings go long. Or they're like, yeah, that's what happens.

Kanishka Cheng: Big time. Big time. That's the biggest thing. And she always comments on that, that it is so wild to her that when we have meetings with other nonprofits or government agencies, that when a meeting starts, there's no clear goal setting of what are we meeting for? What are we trying to get out of this? What are our deliverables, what are our follow ups? There's none of that. There's a lot of time wasted, there's so much inefficiency, and that is the culture we're trying to break away from.

David Stiepleman: Yeah, I got it. about the sort of actual act of informing people. I get the voter guides. I think you do; I know you do house meetings and other kind of gatherings. What have you learned in the three years or two years since you're able to kind of get out there in person that makes those like effective information transmission things.

Kanishka Cheng: People care so deeply about their city. People love this city. They really want to make a difference, and they are so hungry for the information. That I think has been the biggest lesson. When we first started doing these webinars in the fall of 2020, I was like, no one is going to sign on to a Zoom at 12 o'clock on their lunch break to hear someone talk about homelessness. But people did, and they did it recurringly and they kept coming back for more and they wanted to follow up. They had follow up questions, they wanted to know how they could make a difference themselves. So there's such an appetite to take action in San Francisco. And I think that we've been really been able to tap into that. The other big thing that I think has really been coalescing from you over the last couple of weeks is that this year, our organization has focused on the fentanyl crisis, and the drug crisis as the root cause of many other challenges in the city, including the recovery of downtown and homelessness, public safety, all of it, right? And no one's really been willing to talk about this issue. And so we've opened up this conversation and now there are more and more people talking about it. And I think what people needed was permission to have this conversation and have it in a productive way.

David Stiepleman: What do you mean by that?

Kanishka Cheng: Well, I think that talking about drugs and public safety is scary in San Francisco because there is this real anti-police sense. Nobody wants to be pro law and order or pro-public safety and talking about that in a balanced approach is really, really hard. We probably spend, that's what we spend a lot of time on and figuring out how to get that language, right? How to make sure our message is well received. And of course there's criticism, but that we have facts to buffer against that. But opening up that conversation for the public, I think has been really, really interesting for me to see that most people agree, and they want the basics. And we've kind of been gaslit by some elected officials telling us that's not the case. And certainly very loud activist voices on Twitter telling us that's not the case. But now I have this real confidence that that's where most of the public is, and they want to have this conversation.

David Stiepleman: People outside of San Francisco need to understand, and you said this before, 65% registered Democrats we're talking about, you know, gradations and extremes I guess within the democratic, you know, sort of electorate, I guess. So there's you know, I'm going to ask you in a little bit, sort of like, is there an application to some of the things that you're doing here nationally where it's across a different divide, but, you know, it’s as passionately held maybe. But when an activist is saying, I'm anti, I have an anti-police sentiment, like, just put it, let's put ourselves in their shoes for two seconds. What’s the, what is their argument? Nobody wants violence. I mean, nobody rational wants violence. No, nobody wants the humanitarian disaster that's going on. So what, what are they saying? Like why they are saying something different from what, you know, you think the mass of San Franciscans are saying,

Kanishka Cheng: What I think that they believe is that the police system is an inherently racist and institutionalized racist system. And it cannot be reformed, it cannot be fixed, and it should be abolished. There are true abolitionists in San Francisco, that's what they call themselves, that want to completely abolish the police system and abolish jails entirely. They want to get rid of the idea of incarceration at all. And there are elected officials in San Francisco that hold that view as well. So they are very loud about it, and nobody wants to be called a racist. I think that's everybody's biggest fear when you're a, you know, a very left-leaning Democrat in San Francisco, you don't want to be called a racist. You certainly don't want to be called a Republican. And so that fear has made people scared to even talk about it. And that tide is just starting to change following the recall of our DA and then the election of a very different DA in November.

David Stiepleman: And so the act of convening conversations and you're framing conversations, I guess in a way where you're saying things, you're saying them in an, you're framing them in a way that, you know, it's hard to disagree with, but like you're opening, you're creating the space to say things that otherwise people would be worried about, saying like, how do you actually do that? You mentioned you're getting the language, right? That’s a big part of it?

Kanishka Cheng: That's a big part of it. Having the data behind it is a big part of it. Bringing in other experts who have lived experience or have plate have been on the front lines of these issues come talk about it is another big part of it. So we do a lot of work to really curate the events to create that space. Our most recent one, I'll give you an example, was about drug services, drug user services. And you would think that's a pretty easy topic. Everybody wants to have the right number of services available for people who are struggling with addiction and want to get help, but San Francisco doesn’t. And that's a tough conversation to have because you are inherently going to upset the departments and the city that funds programs that doesn't want to look like they're not doing a good job there. But we created a panel of three very vocal advocates who are all in recovery but have slightly different viewpoints. And on Twitter, two of them have been pretty openly fighting with each other about those viewpoints. But we had them all in a panel and we had a really open, reasonable, fruitful conversation and found a lot of points of agreement. So I think that's an example of how we create that space for people to have that conversation.

David Stiepleman: Yeah, I like that. To ask you sort of the private sector annoying question, what are your performance indicators? Like how do you know that it's working? Is it number of conversations had? Is it like, oh, we actually are getting this on the ballot. Is it, you know, some kind of outcome? Maybe that'll change over time. I'm just curious what you think success is.

Kanishka Cheng: Yeah. Right now we measure success by the growth of the organization. How big is our network getting? And we measure that by email signup, social media follows. Another big indicator for us is the churn rate. How much are people coming back to events? We track all of that. And then the highest bar for us is, are they willing to take an action? And that looks like either emailing your elected representative and letting them know what you want them to do or posting on social media or inviting more friends to it. Those are our highest values. And then I would say our sort of gold standard is if you're willing to open up your home or business and invite your network together to hear from us. We do have a lot of people sign up for that too.

David Stiepleman: How’s it going? My understanding is it’s going quite well.

Kanishka Cheng: Yeah, it's going really well. We are actually hitting a staff bandwidth issue right now with how many more of those house party events we can do.

David Stiepleman: That's encouraging. Is there a national application to some of the things that you're doing? Sort of the either complex systems thinking or convening people like, and again, we've got enough to do in San Francisco, but I wonder if other people are looking at what you're doing and saying, gee, we could take this to Washington or something like that.

Kanishka Cheng: Yeah, and a lot of this work is very traditional campaign organizing, political advocacy work that many national and other local organizations have done. I think it's just different in San Francisco, it hasn't existed with this specific brand of politics. The biggest inspiration, I would say was the Obama campaign did a lot of this kind of grassroots community development, bring people together in their homes and their communities, and having those conversations there. I was in college and grad school during those years, and so I did a lot of that as a volunteer and it really, it worked so well. I think it really informs how we've approached what we're building out here. We'd also take a lot of cues from what national Democrats are saying. You know, Stacey Abrams, when she was running, she did this tweet thread about how police should not only be supported but should be paid more. And that was, I think, a big deal, right? Because she's such a left-leaning Democrat and that she was talking about this, and it was such a sharp change from 2020’s language and discourse in the Democratic party about public safety. So we can take cues from that too and see sort of where people who are running to appeal to more middle of the road voters what they're talking about. Because I think that is what most voters talk about. Even in San Francisco.

David Stiepleman: You mentioned, you know, sort of staff capacity. How do you keep people motivated, incentivized, you know, it's not the private sector, so people are obviously, you know, pretty dedicated to what they're doing, and we should all be very grateful for it, but how do you keep them motivated?

Kanishka Cheng: I would say that's our biggest challenge is managing staff capacity and bandwidth. I think it's everything the private sector is experiencing too, in terms of hiring. It's really, really hard for us too, maybe even harder because this is mission-driven work. Even though we're a startup, it's not like you're going to get equity at the end of the day, right? You're going to see a political win, hopefully. And so finding folks who are motivated by that is one part of the challenge. The other part of the challenge is then keeping them motivated and sustained in what is not a traditional campaign cycle. So what I mean by that is the people who work as community organizers or campaign managers, they work on a very short cycle campaign is maybe six to nine months, maybe a year max, where you are ramping up and you kind of burn out at the end of election day, and then everybody sort of takes a month off to put themselves back together.

Kanishka Cheng: But what we're trying to do is invest in people for multi-year campaigns, and so that requires a lot of thought about how we keep them engaged and motivated, prevent burnout, distribute work better, take things on and off people's plates. Then the third part of that is there is a challenge with the role specifically for community organizers. It's mostly appeals to younger people and it's often their first job, and so there's a lot of training and support that they need to sort of understand how to do this job in a more sophisticated way.

David Stiepleman: You mentioned earlier to Together SF and your c4. Can I ask how you're thinking about that? Right now you're convening conversations, you're framing debates within the context of San Francisco nonpartisan. I think you're just trying to get to the right answer on stuff. Inevitably, does the C4 start to back candidates, back particular ballot initiatives? Put money behind them? Like how are you thinking about that?

Kanishka Cheng: Yeah, so in November, the voter guide was the first foray into backing issues in candidates because we took positions and then we distributed our voter guide through a field program and through house parties as the vehicle to talk to people about the things, about the issues and candidates that we backed. So that's one way to do it. We are gearing up in 2024 hopefully to perhaps put forth our own ballot measure around an issue or reform that we think is necessary. I think that is where we ultimately go with the c4.

David Stiepleman: San Francisco politics, public stuff. It's like notoriously rough and tumble. Your professional world is that world, right? I mean, so you know everybody, and everybody knows you. It’s got to be hard sometimes. How do you do that? How do you navigate that?

Kanishka Cheng: It's really hard. I was actually thinking about this this week because so many of my closest friends still work in city hall and work for elected officials or are now elected officials. And as an organization, our first duty and loyalty and obligation is to the city and to what's best for the city. And Michael and I talk about this, that we are not here to serve any one politician. We are here to serve the city, and that is challenging because serving the city means sometimes shining a light on what's not working. And people in office, people who run departments, people who run programs are obviously very sensitive about what they're doing because for them, they're also trying their hardest right to do something. Everybody is the hero of their story, so us calling it out is very hard.

Kanishka Cheng: I do a lot of work trying to make sure people understand what we're doing is not about them personally. It's not intended to hurt them personally. We don't do any personal attacks, but we will call something out if we think it's not working well, and we will suggest what we think you could do better. And what we are really doing is building political support for you to do what we think is the right thing. I think that's sort of how we balance it, is to show elected officials that there is public support for the things that we're asking you to do, and you should feel brave and strong in doing those things.

David Stiepleman: Maybe we can just press a little bit on the fentanyl crisis. You brought that up and it’s so central to a lot of the other, like you said, a lot of the other pathologies and things that we're dealing with in the city. What in particular should we be doing? What are you guys advocating?

Kanishka Cheng: We are advocating for the city to address the supply and demand side of the drug markets. So on the supply side, we're advocating for law enforcement to have a role. We actually think that this should be a federal issue, given that the DEA has been very clear that the drugs are coming in from outside of the country. We're having higher and higher rates of cartel presence in San Francisco. This should be a federal issue. And it's certainly beyond the scope of SFPD who is now short 600 police officers. So what you'll want to see is the city call for the DEA to come in and actually manage the drug bust operations and have people prosecuted at the federal level and not clogging up our local system. So that's the disruption of the supply side of the market. And then on the demand side, we know that the city is not delivering enough treatment options.

Kanishka Cheng: There are not available beds for the people who want it. Forget a conversation about compelled treatment or compelled care. We don't even have enough beds for people who want it, and we don't have enough beds for people who are arrested for crimes that are fueled by their addictions. And we have a DA who's willing to offer them either treatment or jail, but we don't have enough treatment options for even those folks. So we're advocating for the city to spend more money there and we think that the city has enough money to do it, they're just not doing it efficiently or effectively. So those are our two big asks that are very specific, and we'll be working on, the upcoming budget process to advocate for funding in those categories. The bigger issue is how do we think about this as a big policy shift?

Kanishka Cheng: So there is a paper that's published that talks about European cities that had drug markets explode as well, and they all did four things. And we can, we talk about this as sort of the four pillars that we need to have in San Francisco. It is medicalization, so that is harm reduction and harm reduction does have a role in addressing the drug crisis treatment. Shelters. So we need more shelters for people so they're not out on the streets and they need to be high quality shelters that come with services. And law enforcement. Law enforcement has to have a role. But the biggest part of these four pillars is that there is social and political consensus for all four of these things to happen at the same time. And I think where San Francisco gets in its own way is that our elected officials cannot be unified that this is what needs to happen, that we do have consensus on this. They instead want to pick what are more carrot options and do not want to deploy any of the stick options. And it's pretty clear from any city that's managed this problem is that we need to have a balance of both.

David Stiepleman: How do we pay for all that stuff? I mean, we started off the conversation saying, you know, I was walking from downtown. Downtown, it's delightful. It's sunny. But there's not a lot of people around. I do worry about the, we all worry about the cliff that's coming in terms of commercial real estate leases, you know, leaving town and the tax bases eroding. And is that the response you get when you kind of propose these things? Or are there other impediments? Am I thinking about it wrong?

Kanishka Cheng: That, there’s political impediments of arguing about what's right and what should go first, what's the right approach? You know, but on the, how do we pay for it side, I think that the tough answer is that we are funding a lot of things that aren't working and we need to have an honest conversation about what's not working and then cut those things and reallocate that money to what we believe is our city's most urgent and pressing crisis. We don't have time for the luxurious pet projects that we've always had with a 14 billion budget, given that we do have this fiscal cliff coming and we are in a very serious crisis.

David Stiepleman: Right. I want to talk about the business community. We're talking about downtown. I mean, one sort of thing that I hear, whether it's in finance or tech or whatever, is gee, if they only did that, that one thing, you know, we could fix it if people would only just do X. And it's never just one thing. It's a multi-variate equation. It's a lot of complicated stuff you've been talking about. Everything from government governance reform to stopping the supply side of the demand side of drugs, you know, there's a lot of stuff going on and it's going to take, years. It's a generational kind of struggle to unravel these problems, and to get things right. Do you run into that attitude where it's like, oh, you know, if I were in charge and we had like a strong mayor or whatever, we could just do, you know, X, y, and z and would be done.

David Stiepleman: And so I'm interested if that's something that you're confronting when you talk to people and then more broadly like the business community, like what should we be doing? How can we be helpful? Is that an annoying question we should figure out? You know we have resources to bring to bear and you know, one of the things we could be doing is making sure that we're bringing our people back into the city and actually coming to work, which I think is healthy for an organization generally speaking, but, sorry, long question, but , you know, what do you think?

Kanishka Cheng: Yeah, it's definitely a generational problem that is going to take many years to undo, but I think what we are lacking right now is a sense of urgency and a clear plan of what needs to happen. What are those five, 10 steps that need to happen to restore downtown and to bring our economy back to where it could be and even continue growing after that. Right? So I think one part of this is yes, of course everybody should make their employees come back to work. Sure. But I don't think that there's any one thing, and I think the reality is that work culture has shifted, people have more options, and we can't just say, you should all force your employees to come back to work. Right? The city itself hasn't even forced all its employees to come back to work.

Kanishka Cheng: . So that's a problem. I also think it’s a chicken and egg situation, right? Like I think it was in New York City where people were feeling very unsafe on the subways. There were a couple of instances of people being pushed on the platforms, some assaults, and so they invested in just having a greater police presence on the subways that made people feel safe enough to come back to them. And then you had a critical mass of people on it, and then it was safer to be on it, and then you could pull back on the police presence. We need to think about, I think that kind of approach in San Francisco too. I don't think it's fair to tell the business community just bring all your people back to work. The city has an obligation too to make downtown feel clean and safe and welcoming.

Kanishka Cheng: And back to the carrot and stick thing, what they've focused on, I think is making it feel welcoming through like popups and events and activations. That's not enough to bring people back to work, I think. And so we have to do that harder part of the stick, which is having a law enforcement presence and being okay with that probably. There are other wonky things that the city probably needs to do, and these are the tough political conversations that I don't know that elected officials are willing to have yet. But what I keep hearing from business community is we have to reconsider the transfer tax if we're going to save all these huge office buildings. There was a story today about one selling for like 30% below its valuation two years ago. And this all comes back to our really complicated tax structure in San Francisco and the fact that business taxes can be put on by ballot through signatures, through four supervisors’ signatures. And frequently, like almost every year, we have a new tax measure on the ballot. And I'm not like an anti-tax person, but San Francisco has gotten way out there in the number of taxes, the complications of the system, and sort of this attitude that we are an island and that people aren't just going to pick up and go to the next town over and that the next town over isn't actually recruiting people. Because that's also happening.

David Stiepleman: Yeah, of course. I mean, south San Francisco for example, or Austin, Texas for that matter, right? What will be a sign of a win? What's a win? Short or medium term?

Kanishka Cheng: A win is winning elections is getting more people on the board of supervisors who are willing to work together to be reasonable to compromise. We have one member right now who said compromise is not of value. And I don't think that's an effective way to govern a city, right? So we want to get people elected who are willing to work together and are willing to have these tough and honest conversations to make cuts for cuts need to be made. I would love to see more elected officials who have had experience that is outside working for the city of San Francisco. That’s something that's slacking as well. Having more diverse perspectives in that way. So in this last election in November, we counted three big wins for our organization, and we had two supervisors elected who we really went to bat for, and we had a DA elected who we really support, and now we get to work with them and hold them accountable and tell them what we want them to do and build public support for those things. Going forward in 2024, I think getting more reasonable voices on the DCCC would be a huge win in 2024.

Kanishka Cheng: In 2024, it feels like a generational election for San Francisco. We will have every odd district on the board of supervisors up for election. Three of them will be open seats, so that's a huge opportunity to change the conversation. The mayor is on the ballot, the DA is on the ballot. We have a lot of chess board gaming happening with Nancy Pelosi retiring in her seat opening and seeing how people will shift to go for that opportunity.

David Stiepleman: That seat matters because it's kind of the dean of the elected in the region, but also because that means that certain people who are in seats are going to go for it, right and leave vacancies. Are you hopeful?

Kanishka Cheng: Oh, we're extremely hopeful. Absolutely. I feel like, you know, this last year was the pendulum starting to swing a little bit more to the center and we have a lot more work to do, but it feels like the momentum is just, it's still gaining and growing and that we are tapping into it, and helping to push that conversation as well. Absolutely.

David Stiepleman: Well, for all of us that live here and not from here, but lived here almost, you know, 13, 14 years. it's a great place. And thank you. And not just thank you for doing stuff, but for getting us all involved. And so we really appreciate it, and we appreciate your time. Thank you so much for spending time with us.

Kanishka Cheng: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

David Stiepleman: That was Kanishka Cheng, co-founder and executive director of Together SF and CEO of Together SF Action. As Kanishka said, starting the conversation is the first step to tangible change. We commend Together SF for not only opening dialogue, but for welcoming a diverse range of perspectives into the discussion. It's always great to see communities unite under the shared goal of making their environment the best it can be, even when their political ideologies differ. Kanishka’s work has been especially impactful because she meets people where they are and recognizes that a quick fix isn't the solution. San Francisco, it's a great place to live and work. It should be a great city, but we got to do the work. And we're excited to work with Kanishka and everyone else of good faith working to make San Francisco livable and humane and a hub of exciting things. Thanks for joining us, Kanishka Cheng. Keep up the great work. Thanks to everyone for listening. You've been listening to It's Not Magic, a Sixth Street podcast. You can read more about our guests on Sixthstreet.com and subscriber wherever you get your podcast. If you enjoyed today's podcast, please share it and follow it at Sixth Street News on Twitter for more news on the show and our firm. Thanks to Sixth Street's production team, Patrick Clifford and Ritvi Shah, putting this together with Sound Engineering by Stephen Colon. Our theme song is, It's Not Magic, an Original Creation by Patrick Dyer Wolf. Once again, I'm David Stiepleman. Thanks for listening.

David Stiepleman: The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Sixth Street and Sixth Street is not providing any investing, financial, economic, legal, accounting, or tax advice or recommendations in this podcast. Please see additional disclosures on our website for more details.


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