Old Hippie Becomes New Radical

11/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Don Stannard-Friel didn't have to go far to create a New Radical role for himself. Don is a professor of sociology and anthropology at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, a leafy suburb of San Francisco. Today, many of his classes are conducted in the inner city -- the infamous Tenderloin district.

After we were introduced, I realized that Don would be the only "old radical" in my book: his life parallels the major events of a generation. A kid from New Jersey, he moved to San Francisco "at the end of the beatnik period and the beginning of the free speech era." In 1966, he got married, became a father, and moved to Haight-Ashbury. He was studying at San Francisco State College when "all hell broke loose." As his political consciousness was awakening -- and while going to antiwar demonstrations with his baby on his back -- he began to study sociology. "My professors were using the cultural revolution taking place all around us as their material, and they were doing ethnographic studies -- going into the field with us." While working toward his Ph.D., Don worked in a psychiatric hospital, and he became part of the mental patients civil rights movement. Over the next decade, he completed his degrees, got divorced, and remarried. "We had a hippie wedding in Golden Gate Park and lived communally for a number of years. They were wonderful times."

After several decades of teaching, Don was feeling the need to clear his mind and refresh his spirit. He took a break and headed for the Tenderloin district where he'd lived as a poor student. He wanted to really get to know the community and write about his experience. When he was ready to return to teaching, he realized that this time it would be different. It would call on every part of him -- the young activist, the curious student, the experienced professor, and the man who knew and loved this difficult part of a world-famous city. Don designed a series of courses that would take his students into the community, interacting with local people so that they could learn from them and help them at the same time. It's the ideal intersection of what he had to offer and what his young charges wanted. "It's perfect or this new generation. They're not interested in political action like we were. These kids were raised on community service -- it was part of their curriculum from when they were quite small. They want to do things, to make a difference. It's quite a shift from my generation."

His students love what is affectionately known as "Tenderloin U." and all that it has to offer, such as a street retreat, where they spend up to a week with a homeless person. Even kids who don't show much enthusiasm for traditional studies who up for Don's classes. "It's hard for suburban students to get into San Francisco and find where we're working each day. But they do it without fail." As you might expect, the idea initially wasn't popular in all quarters; there was considerable resistance from Mom and Dad. "I had parents calling me and saying 'I'm spending $35,000 to send my kid to university, and you're taking her to the Tenderloin?'" But now that it's working so well and students are so enthusiastic, there's widespread support.

Like other New Radicals, Don discovered that relationships paved the way for his new work, giving him street credibility. He lived here as a young man, some 40 years ago and, more recently, spent time getting to know people in the area. "Someone will look at me and say, 'Who's this white guy with his white beard?' and I'll mention someone I think they might know. Either they relax immediately, or they check me out and figure out that we're here to help."

Don has also developed a good working relationship with the local police, something this former hippie never imagined himself doing. For instance, the police are part of the Tenderloin Hallowe'en party: they bring food for 400 or so children each year. "When I was young, it was all about 'we've got to change the world through revolution!'" Today, he's more open to other people's points of view, and he talks to his students about what he now believes is true: that it's all about making a difference in a single person's life. "I tell them, when you change a person's life, they change others, and the people they touch do the same. it becomes a geometric progression. it doesn't take long before you're changing thousands of lives, all because of that one person."

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