The Outsiders: Golden Hands in East Palo Alto

Last night, the East Palo Alto community was asked to attend a presentation on Oxford Day Academy, a public charter school set to open in the Fall of 2017. A duo of ladies welcomed us, the community, into the smallest room at the local YMCA and began the meeting with song and prayer. We sung and prayed and soon afterwards the meeting commenced.

Idealism vs. Realism – An Icebreaker

The icebreaker was to sort into categories both our positive and negative emotions, perceptions and experiences of the local education system in East Palo Alto and the small neighboring cities (Menlo Park, Redwood City, Fair Oaks, East Menlo Park but NOT Palo Alto). Amidst categorizing the negative perceptions of our educational resources in our community, the facilitator commented on how unbalanced the list was and suggested that we focus on the positives instead. Before I could rebuttal, a community leader sitting behind me clarified that maybe — just maybe — these negative emotions, perceptions and experiences of local education is all we’ve seen and experienced since the 90’s. Maybe all we’ve known is ‘lack of offering, lack of resources, gentrification, lack of cultural appreciation and lack of care’, and so to assume something that may not be experienced in our community is to invalidate our emotions, perceptions and experiences  … maybe.

Flood Break

The facilitator’s projection set the tone for the rest of the night. After debriefing on the ice breaker (which was more of a breaking open of the flood) came testimony time from none other than the Founder/CEO of Oxford Day Academy. She recited her life story to us, the community, and by the end of it there was a paradigm shift, a shift that I could not ignore but rather take in as momentary truth; she’d won over the compassion of some and the immediate trust of others.

Her pitch followed the basic American business model of ideal supply and demand, which at that point had many of us, the community, eating out of the palm. Look, I get it. Oxford Day Academy promises to be tuition free, open enrollment (with a raffle styled student waitlist), small sized, culturally sensitive with dedicated counselors. It’s the entire package wrapped with a silk red bow coupled with a promising smile for prompt delivery and successful transaction.

As a community member and a strong advocate for the youth, I was triggered by last night’s presentation. With the work that is currently taking place and space in our community by the hands and hearts of those that live here, coming into this ‘meeting’ and observing the idealistic complex of superiority was slightly insulting. I am not invalidating anyone’s life experiences of struggle and challenge, but that is what it is – LIFE. A rough start leading to a life of elite education and resource does not equal merit or permission to assert privilege.

My Thought Process

In East Palo Alto, a rough start is many times an everyday experience for our young people. ‘What we gon’ eat, how we gon’ get to school, where we gon’ sleep’ – these are rough starts that trigger emotional distress for our youth who then see school, such as Oxford Day Academy, as a burden rather than a solution. We do not need more schools. We need more parent involvement, more housing for the homeless, more safe spaces for victims of domestic violence. We need more compassion for those displaced.

These rough starts are what needs to motivate us to help push forward the already existing work being done here, right now. The change we so desire births out of collaboration and unity. Perpetuating the philosophy of silo-ship will get us nowhere. We are too small to stand divided ya’ll, and there is only so much of East Palo Alto left to stand on.

One statement shared by the pair of facilitators that I did agree with wholeheartedly was not to ‘make a promise I cannot deliver’. Yes, girl, yes. Right on the money! Do not promise this community multiculturalism because it already exists here in these streets. Do not promise dedicated counselors because it already exists here in these buildings. Do not promise personalized learning, because it already exists here in these grassroots.

There are already such educational programs in place that practice being a tuition free, open enrollment, small sized, cultural learning space with dedicated mentors such as Live In Peace, L.I.P SWAG (Students With Amazing Goals), College Track, Foundation for College Education, Building Futures Now, One East Palo Alto, YouthEPA, Youth United For Community Action, East Palo Alto Boxing Club, ROGUE EMPIRE – for our students at our home schools (East Palo Alto High School, East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, Eastside Preparatory, Menlo Atherton High School as well as the rest of the Sequoia Union High School District).

Promising facets of an already multiculturally vibrant community that is suffering from gentrification and community displacement is adding insult to injury. East Palo Alto will not be the same East Palo Alto in 2017 and beyond, so why promise something to an unintended audience? To build today in East Palo Alto means building for the new community and not for the present one so why not just call it what it is and not for what it’s not?

We must commit to partnering youth-based organizations that serve as a home for our young people. Our youth right now need the offering, resources, care, and cultural appreciation that many consider to be of lacking. Okay, I HEAR YOU! So, what are the next steps and how can we inch forward together? How can we celebrate partnership and collaboration? How can we, as adults in our community, practice what we so long have preached? What can we offer to our young that we did not have access to but so eagerly needed when we were in high school?

We begin to act on these practical solutions right now, and we will not have to wait for the future.


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