Diana first stepped into Wellspring to distribute a poster to educate others about the warning signs of domestic violence. Then she came back in search of art submissions for two exhibits that she curated, the first titled “Creating Freedom: Art and Poetry from Domestic Violence Survivors” at the California Museum and the second titled, “PTSD Nation: Art and Poetry from Survivors of War, Gun Violence and Domestic Abuse,” at Sacramento State.
She now comes to the women’s center for counseling with Genelle Smith, Wellspring’s Women’s Wellness Program Coordinator.
Each time she visited Wellspring, she worked with Genelle.
“In every interaction that I had with Genelle, she was so positive and so loving,” Diana said. “I knew that I needed therapy so I said to her, ‘I would really like it if you would be able to work with me.’ I had to wait about a year-and-a-half before she had an opening.”
“What is really extraordinary about Genelle is that she takes each person as they are with their fullness,” Diana said.
Diana is a champion of affordable housing, a self-taught art curator, an artist, a poet and a community organizer with degrees in English, law and early childhood education.
She is also a survivor of child abuse and domestic violence. She has PTSD and does not drive. She walks an hour from her house to Wellspring because she believes that physical activity helps regrow the dendrites in her brain that were erased by trauma.
As a VISTA volunteer in the late 1970s Diana helped to create the Residential Hotel Preservation Ordinance. Enacted in 1981, the law preserves residential hotels as affordable housing in San Francisco.
She became a VISTA after she graduated from law school at the University of San Diego. She worked for a nonprofit that served to protect the legal rights of low-income seniors.
The biggest challenge that the seniors were facing at that time was access to affordable housing. San Francisco was rapidly gentrifying – with an influx of people attracted to the city for its economic development opportunities.
“After about a month of fact-finding, I realized that the biggest hole in affordable housing was preserving the affordable housing that already existed and in those days they were what we now call SROs [single room occupancies],” she said. “I encouraged others to call them residential hotels because I wanted to emphasize the fact that these buildings were people’s homes. It wasn’t just a planning code designation.”
SROs, or residential hotels, were built along the East and West coasts in the late 1800s to house merchant seaman. They were often filled with single rooms and a shared bathroom and kitchen.
“Over time these units became the last units of affordable housing for poor people, people getting out of jail, immigrants, the elderly and people who were disabled,” Diana said.
In San Francisco, the residential hotels were clustered in Chinatown, the Tenderloin, the Mission and even a few in the Haight-Ashbury area.
“As the decades rolled on, they did lose their luster,” Diana said. “Some of them had gorgeous common spaces with really nice, plush, old-fashioned furniture. They started getting a little shabby and then the developers started to see them as good sites to develop into bed-and-breakfasts, apartments and office buildings. They would force all the poor people out, fancy it up and charge tourists really high rates to stay there.”
Consequently, thousands of people were becoming homeless.
“Homelessness has become so normalized – it is just a horror story that we now have a society where we consider homelessness normal,” she said. “We need to preserve the housing so that we can preserve the people.”
In 1977, throngs of activists flocked to San Francisco to protest the demolition of the International Hotel, also known as the I-Hotel, and its surrounding neighborhood, which catered to the Filipino community. Diana was among these activists.
The city wanted to bulldoze the hotel to create luxury housing.
“What people were doing in those days to preserve affordable housing were big demonstrations to protest the removal of low-income tenants from low-income housing,” she said. “Economics be damned, they just told the public, ‘you can’t kick these people out and they must stay.’ That did not work – you need a policy solution as well as an activist solution.”
Diana researched how to write laws and visited the tenants of residential hotels scattered across the city – educating them about how to conduct meetings, their rights and how to mobilize others to fight for their housing.
“Some of the tenants had been loners for most of their lives – single people – and they didn’t know anything about community organizing,” Diana said. “After a while, more and more people would trickle into these meetings. You could see people who had been isolated for many years’ all of a sudden making friends and feeling empowered.”
Diana, with the now-mobilized and educated tenants, was able to persuade the city and county to place a moratorium on the buying and selling of residential hotels. Then, she began to draft a law that would take away the economic advantage of owning the hotels to preserve their presence in San Francisco.
“People felt a real buoyancy – a sense that we could make the world a better place,” Diana said of the late ‘70s. “We could make a better society and there was a real push to do this without a revolution. Because everyone had this enthusiasm, most had the same goals of community betterment as opposed to today’s emphasis on individual betterment. It was not difficult to find folks to collaborate with to preserve the residential hotels as affordable housing. I had researchers who were willing to gather the stats for me about residential hotels in the area; reporters and artists and all of the affordable housing nonprofits were right there with me.”
She found city and county supervisors to support the Residential Hotel Preservation Ordinance, a law that would ban the demolition of the hotels and prohibit developers from transforming them for any other use.
Ella Hill Hutch, an African American county supervisor who represented a district with a high concentration of residential hotels, agreed to support it, as did and Harry Brit, the city’s first openly gay supervisor.
Diana worked with Warren Hinckle, a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle who wrote a series of articles chronicling the lives of people living in residential hotels.
“He would walk through the Tenderloin with me –- introducing me to people and giving me more insight on the issue,” Diana said.
“You have to have all these pieces in place to be able to effect change,” Diana said. “You have to have the political people behind you, the community behind you and journalists who are educating people about what the problems are and about what the actual solutions are.”
The law passed unanimously, But then San Francisco property owners campaigned to have the law declared unconstitutional. Diana had to submit to a community rewrite of the law that weakened its strength. Still, the law survives today and has served as a model for other municipalities nationwide.
In 2005, it was challenged in the Supreme Court case “San Remo Hotel vs. City and County of San Francisco.” The Residential Hotel Preservation Ordinance was ruled constitutional and is believed to be the only law left that protects SROs in San Francisco and other cities.
According to the World Bank, income inequality in San Francisco is on par with income inequality in Rwanda.
“We are the only animal who doesn’t understand what our role is on the planet,” Diana said. “Our job is to help the least of us with loving kindness and positive actions.”
Diana’s first home was in the projects in Los Angeles created after WWII.
“Even 68 years later, this housing is still needed,” she said. “The way things are going, soon poor people won’t be allowed to live anywhere.”
In 1981, Diana left San Francisco to hitchhike through Europe. On this trip, she conceived her first child. In her marriage, she experienced domestic violence. Her second marriage, too, was abusive. When she fled her second husband, he started stalking her.
Diana moved to Sacramento six years ago with a new crusade — to educate others about domestic violence and trauma.
She created a poster on the warning signs of abusive and controlling relationships and taught herself how to curate art exhibits.
“One of the interesting things about having PTSD is that you lose a sense of who you are,” Diana said. “But, the upside of that is that you get to reinvent yourself. I’d never been in the art world before. I decided I wanted to be a part it as a new way to do community organizing.”
“I was lucky enough to have a father who would take me to many of the blockbuster exhibits in L.A., often pointing out salient features,” she said. “So I was able to develop an eye for art.”
An in-house curator at the California Museum taught Diana how to translate her ideas for her exhibit into a polished product. Through the experience of curating “Creating Freedom: Art and Poetry from Domestic Violence Survivors,” Diana learned that many survivors live with debilitating PTSD that often goes unrecognized. This inspired her to curate “PTSD Nation: Art and Poetry from Survivors of War, Gun Violence and Domestic Abuse” to educate the public about PTSD.
“PTSD is an anxiety disorder,” Diana said. “It is basically when your brain experiences an overload of trauma that it can’t handle anymore. Many of the dendrites that help us with everyday activities are ‘blown’ and redirected to only figuring out what is ‘safe’.”
The art exhibit focused on the visceral experiences of living with PTSD. Under each piece of art Diana asked artists to write a brief explanation starting with, “I want to the public to know …,” describing their experience of developing and living with PTSD. It also featured artwork that showcased individual journeys towards healing from trauma.
To show how many people with PTSD can find symptom management through advocacy and art, Diana cited two participants from PTSD Nation:
“Amanda Wilcox, whose beautiful and brilliant daughter was murdered by gun violence, has sustained many symptoms of PSTD, but she has also become an advocate for gun safety and mental health. She and her husband have become spearheads for all the amazing gun safety laws in California, probably about 40 laws. For the exhibit, she did a wonderful collage that illustrated her voyage from the death of her daughter to advocacy.
“Then, Sunshine, a guest at Wellspring Women’s Center who acquired PTSD through domestic abuse, manages her symptoms through the Art of Being program offered at Wellspring. She did a wonderful picture with hearts.”
Sunshine’s artwork on display at PTSD Nation.