History Meets the Present: The Continued Resilience of East Palo Alto

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History has a way of centering us in our truth. It opens windows and doors into a deeper part of us and others. We begin to understand how things came to be, why your now citizen father grits his teeth every time he crosses a border, why there was a golf course in your neighborhood gated by a 20 foot fence that you never questioned, and even why you are determined to remain grateful no matter what life hands you.

It is one thing to visit a community, shop at their local grocery store, question what others have told you of this place and admire the warmth this community radiates. However, it is an entirely different experience to spend weeks gathering historical information about a community and then make eye contact. The closest comparison I can think of is accidentally opening East Palo Alto’s (EPA) diary, where they stored hopes, where they drew their future, and all the tear stained pages where they wrote about their trauma. There I sat flipping pages that looked like news articles, academic papers, and magazine spotlights that detailed the most intimate and violent experiences that this community had endured.

Through my research I learned about the redlining of EPA, and how this practice which backs mortgage lending to certain White neighborhoods and excludes others that house minorities, shaped what EPA would become. What this practice meant for residents was that they could not secure access to mortgages or capital so their property values were capped, and their access to gaining generational wealth was stifled. It also hardened racial divides, and left African American folk with limited options for where they could live.

The research revealed many personal stories of the first African Americans moving to the county and their neighbors protesting their arrival outside their homes and creating an environment of hostility so toxic that there was no choice but to move.

Additionally, there were also stories of folks moving to EPA and finding community, raising their children among family and developing strong social and community bonds.

In the 1960s, EPA was predominantly African American and the expansion of the 101 freeway deepened the physical and cultural divide between EPA and the neighboring communities. EPA at this time was still unincorporated, and received a fraction of potential tax revenue when compared to surrounding cities, which impacted services that could be offered.  However, despite the institutional barriers to resources, EPA was on its way to becoming a community that would pioneer change for its residents. An example of this was the founding of the Nairobi Day school and Nairobi Community College which were organized and founded by community members in response to a public school education system that was failing their children. These two institutions provided culturally relevant curriculums, classes and resources to their community. Children and young adults were free to learn about themselves, their history, and engage in topics that were not being talked about in traditional school. The schools were a beacon of light and were run mostly by volunteers, and demonstrated true resistance to current institutions. However, these schools would not survive due to being fire bombed and burned down and the community exposure to drugs in the 1980s.

Drugs ravaged through the community and they were coupled by the deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities and the return of veterans from the Vietnam War with limited access to services. Institutional practices such as the differences in sentencing between crack cocaine and cocaine, targeted low income folks of color. At the time 5g of crack cocaine and 500g of cocaine received the same sentence of 5 years through the Anti-Drug Abuse act of 1986.  It institutionalized the sweeping of minorities into prison and further impacted their job prospects, community cohesion, voting rights and ability to seek services. It also enabled the ballooning of the prison system. In the 1990s EPA was known for the highest homicide rate in the country, a fact that continues to impact the community today and was largely driven by the exposure to drugs. Now, in the present day the demographics of EPA have changed dramatically making Latinos the majority population, with a strong concentration of Pacific Islanders and African Americans. However, now the community faces the threat of gentrification and what the demographics will look like in the future is uncertain.

With this information racing through my brain I arrived at my first CSA meeting in EPA. I looked the community in the eyes unsure and embarrassed about all I knew about them. They asked outside organizations hard questions regarding their programs and stressed cultural competence. When they were dissatisfied with responses, they made it known loud and clear with no hesitation. Here was a community that had been through so much and all I could do was sit and bask in their collective strength and try to figure out how I could best support them within my role. I felt privileged to be able to sit in a room with community organizers that are working on homeless drop in centers, outreach workers that spend hours of their day walking the streets trying to convince individuals to seek medical care, leaders of nonprofit organizations working on recidivism and matriarchs of the community.

How do you reconcile the painful history of this community and their commitment to joy? What can we learn from their resilience?  I thought about all the programs, laws, and rhetoric that view communities such as EPA at a deficit, and how they have no idea what this community has been through.

So when we think about mental health and recovery services, the historical context of community becomes essential in program planning, delivery of care and how we practice cultural humility.

Now when I shop at the local grocery store I will remember that it was not until 2008, or 20 years after incorporation as a city that EPA got its first full service grocery store. When I see all the teens riding my bus in the morning I will recall that it is because EPA does not have a public high school and children from this community attend 18 different schools. I will never forget that EPA was born out of racial discrimination and continued on through the resilience of the African American community. As I walk down the streets I will reflect on the fact that in the mid-2000s bank lenders went door to door in EPA to get homeowners to refinance their homes and many African American people lost their homes to predatory lending. I will reflect on all the people that came before me and instead of feeling overwhelmed with feelings of anger, sadness or frustration I will try to harness the power of resilience, radical hope and a commitment to community to continue on a path towards health equity.

Written by Tania Perez, Office of Diversity and Equity – Community Health Planner