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On the REAL History of East Palo Alto

This story deserves its own book, but don’t worry EPA, I got so much love for you and I have plans for this narrative, but for now I am going to tell the raw and dirty version of East Palo Alto’s history and its surrounding community, with particular emphasis on Stanford’s relationship with the community.

My love for East Palo Alto started early in my Stanford career. My parents drove me to orientation and upon looking at the directions realized that Stanford had them going the long way so as to avoid EPA. My parents’ are bay area natives so they thought that was stupid and we went through it anyway. I didn’t see what the big deal was; it looked basically the same as any neighborhood I had ever seen in my life. It didn’t take long for me to figure out why they tried to make us go the long way. It was clear that everyone that worked to make our lives at Stanford so idyllic lived in East Palo Alto. Yet, those people, so vital in our community, so giving and loving to Stanford were treated like criminals. It started early my freshman year when a girl had gone out there to do “service work” and “got stuck” and the boys panicked and made sure she was picked up acting as if it were a serious emergency. It was still daylight.

I watched my peers continue to, as I would say, act out their own version of “white man’s burden (only now some of the folks are not white, so let’s change it to liberal, privileged man’s burden)” on our neighbors. Stanford students signed up to volunteer and feel smug about themselves and add it to their resumes and then failed to show up to their actual assignments. If you work in a community like this you know how damaging that is to a child. The kids that I encountered at EPAA High School were already cynical about Stanford by the time they got there, they had seen this behavior so many times, had been experimented on for so many theses, had been called ghetto by the kids who their parents’ cleaned up after that they had no delusions about Stanford’s intentions. That the students from EPA had any interest at all in going to a good college after that experience was nothing short of miraculous. If I had had to grow up that close to Stanford I would have been even more angry than I am now.

Now all of this behavior is awful, but what they don’t tell you at Stanford, even for most of the people who do service work, is that the history of EPA is one of intentional and heinous racism. It is no accident what has happened there. East Palo Alto started out as a farming community but in the aftermath of the war as Black men returned from serving our country, disproportionately, they benefited from the G.I. Bill. But like most of the rest of America, there were still ways to get around that and the white citizens of the neighboring communities made sure that real estate would not be sold to these men. Like so many areas, East Palo Alto became the only area where blacks could purchase homes and so black communities developed as white communities used all sorts of horrific tactics to keep these soldiers out of their communities. The one advantage to this at the time was that black middle and upper class people lived next door to working class black people, ensuring that while the lines were designated by color they weren’t marked by poverty. As restrictions on housing lifted in the 60s and 70s this changed.

In the meantime, the surrounding areas did what they could to not only exclude East Palo Alto, but also to annex much of its land. The East Palo Alto that exists today is a shadow of a much larger community. Menlo Park annexed large portions of its industrial and commercial lands throughout the decades, leaving a tax base that only got lower as the more affluent blacks moved to areas they had been excluded from. This made East Palo Alto as not only a black community but also a working class community. The residents of the city served as a cheap labor force for the growing Silicon Valley. During these decades East Palo Alto became more and more isolated, it lacked a grocery store for 20 years. Efforts to fully integrate the neighboring high schools were resisted by white parents, and Ravenswood was shut down, creating the one way busing and the horrific tracking that East Palo Alto students now have to face when they encounter their peers at the neighboring high schools. The freeway was built, which in a very real terms sent the clear message that East Palo Alto was a ghetto. Attempts to incorporate into the neighboring cities, which as I already mentioned had annexed much of the best land in the town, were resisted by whites. During the 60s and 70s, facing the same conditions as Oakland, EPA radicalized and changed its name to Nairobi. This radical presence, which was the force of the well-educated blacks in the community, went away as the town became increasingly poor and as the militancy of the Civil Right’s movement failed.

The dreams of the 60s, something that Stanford students had fought for, died and greed became good. Crack became an epidemic in all poor areas. The sentencing laws and War on Drugs ensured the absolute destruction of a once vibrant and proud working class community. Violence rose, just as it did in other areas as the gap between rich and poor grew, as our sense of shared responsibility for our neighbors was lost and the lies perpetrated by the Right about Welfare Queens and personal responsibility allowed privileged whites in our country to shirk their own responsibility and tell themselves that their hands were clean. The goals of Brown v. Board of Ed were resisted and integration was stopped. Where it continued to be implemented, wealthy parents, like many of those still at Menlo Atherton High School and other surrounding schools ensured that poor students were keep out of the higher level classes by refusing to pay for the community’s elementary schools and then enforcing tracking at the high schools. With every attempt of the Left to integrate and equalize the schools white, wealthy parents fought. Eventually the ruling that schools had to be equalized in funding for race was destroyed by the ruling that schools did not have to equalize funding for class. As the housing prices rose and rose, Blacks moved out of the communities and either returned to the South or moved to Sacramento and Vallejo. Hispanics, who face their own challenges but who benefit from immigrant narrative in a way that black people don’t moved, in. For many people the Hispanic immigrant population seemed somehow less frightening than the black population. However, as Hispanics in East Palo Alto faced all of the challenges that blacks had faced in their proud but isolated communities the problems for working class communities like East Palo Alto and the one I came from, continued.

I worked in East Palo Alto and I fell in love with those kids. I realize I say that about all children, but there is something beautiful and special about the children in East Palo Alto. They are resilient, they are funny, they are immeasurably strong, but they also have a strong sense of who they are. They exist next door and surrounded by communities that isolated them out of their own hate and unwillingness to honor their commitment to this country and to their neighbors as citizens should. Yet, despite being that close to a community that represents and enforces the destruction of their own, they remain proud and willing above all else to love and try to do the right thing and to continue to take responsibility for their own success.

I tell this story as often as I can because I hope that one day the Stanford kids who do service work will look around and start asking not how much impact they can have, and not what they can get out of this work, but instead start asking how we became a culture and community so terribly defined by hate. I think that if enough of us ask that question then maybe we can redefine things. Above all else, I tell this story because every time someone calls one of my kids “ghetto” I have to contain my rage so that I can do my part to re-educate. Not my kids, but my peers, because those are the people who need to be re-educated, and I am lucky enough to be able to do the job. To this day I carry that working class value around with me, and ain’t nobody gonna talk about my family, my friends, my neighbors or my babies that way.

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5 thoughts on “On the REAL History of East Palo Alto

  1. Reblogged this on Be Elite Not Fab and commented:

    Number 4 in the best of series. I think the degree to which this was popular highlights the lack of knowledge about this community. A lot of activists and Stanford students spend time and resources here without knowing what is going on.

    You can love people for who and what they are or you can hate them for what they are not. Activist credo to live by.

  2. I am a bit torn here. I am happy to see that a Stanford student realizes the seriously disengaged and often misguided attempts at “help” that students “give” to East Palo Alto. And yet, as a young black woman working and living in my community of East Palo Alto, I am astounded at the your audacity to take on our history through narrative. What narrative can you give to EPA that we have not already given to ourselves? And I quote.”This story deserves its own book, but don’t worry EPA, I got so much love for you and I have plans for this narrative, but for now I am going to tell the raw and dirty version of East Palo Alto’s history…”. The raw, dirty version? Who are you? And I ask that not as a rhetorical question, but a question that I hope will begin a thought provoking search of self. Who are you to “reveal” our raw and dirty history? Who are you to call our history raw and dirty? Are you speaking of the history stanford students have created between them and ourselves? Ok. Sure. Call it raw and dirty. But please, leave the writing of any narratives pertaining to EPA, to my city. To my people. To the ones who best understand it and can give it the respect it truly deserves. Thank you.

    • Ok, a couple of things. One, did you read the rest of the blog? Because I grew up in a community very similar if not more poor and more violent than East Palo Alto and I grew up in extreme poverty, so if the issue is that the only person that can educate people on history are those who have lived in the location, then we are going to have to stop teaching history entirely, because I didn’t grow up in Rome either. If the issue is someone telling the story who has privilege, then, yes, I went to Stanford but I also grew up in horrific poverty and violence, and I wouldn’t be bothered by you living in my neighborhood and writing a blog post about it. I wrote this because I worked in East Palo Alto and because I was frustrated by the general lack of knowledge my peers had, raw and dirty means “non-white washed version of what actually happens that makes Stanford culpable for their actions” it doesn’t mean “these people are dirty.” I speak a different dialect than folks in the Bay Area and sometimes people interpret what is aggressive language to be directed in a way I didn’t intend, so I’m sorry if that was how the message came across, I was merely trying to make Stanford kids face their role.

      For the record, when I published this, I actually sent it to former students and friends who grew up in East Palo Alto and got their approval and I also did the archival research when I was an AmeriCorps volunteer who was working with special needs kids in East Palo Alto. I realize that this is a sensitive area and Stanford has earned that, but I think you might be directing that at the one person capable of forcing Stanford to own that fact.And by “I have plans for this narrative” at the time, I meant my dissertation topic because I didn’t want to go back home because I don’t have a home to go back to, but I’ve since decided that the story of my community needs to be told and I’m the only one who is going to do it. In a world where there are so few people that are doing critical history through this lens, where only 10-12 percent of Stanford population is poor and the vast majority of that 10-12% don’t come from the kind of poverty that I experienced, you have to ask yourself, how many voices do we have to speak? Stanford is one piece of me, but there is this other piece that aches, it is the same piece that drove me to work in EPA, the same piece that drove me back home, the same piece that is driving me to get my PhD, that piece matters just as much as the piece of me that is Stanford. This isn’t some random Stanford undergrad who grew up with privilege who is just talking about this as a resume boost, this is someone who is from a similar community, who has lived and worked and loved in the area. This is someone whose history is accurate and despite the lines you quote, far more celebratory of East Palo Alto than it is critical.

      But if you feel that someone who grew up in poverty, who worked in the area and who has a history degree and is applying to do education history,and has a long track record of on the ground commitment to social justice shouldn’t be writing this, you can submit your own version to me and I’ll print it and take mine down.

  3. Did you ever do a dissertation on East Palo Alto? … I’m from the community as well and currently in a doctoral program where my research will be on the phenomenon of “Nairobi” – which is a key part of East Palo Alto history. Let me know and thanks.

    • Hey, I didn’t for complex reasons but I might have some insight on schools during that era that might be helpful to you. You can email me at hraffin2016@gmail and we can chat, if you’d like

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