‘Why are you still funding in East Palo Alto?’

By: Avani Patel

Recently, while attending a conference in Colorado, we were asked to break into smaller table groups. I was stunned to learn that many individuals from all over the country had either heard of East Palo Alto or used to work directly in the community. Excitement pulsed through me – I was about to make connections with others that felt as passionately as I did about EPA!

Unfortunately, the exhilaration ended abruptly when a gentleman from across the table, with a perplexed face and a sincere gesture asked, “Why are you still funding in East Palo Alto?” The question jabbed me right in the chest and took me by complete surprise. I fumbled a bit, wondering if I had heard the question wrong. When I scanned the table, I quickly understood what I was up against. The only reply I could think of was, “Why wouldn’t we?”

The next ten minutes felt like an eternity, as each person with any sort of connection to EPA went around the table talking about their experience and frustration with working in the community. Then, the final blow came when someone proclaimed, “You can’t help a community that doesn’t want help. As funders, we need at least something, anything, to work with.”

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Yes, it’s true. The EPA community has struggled with power dynamics, political corruption, violence, drugs and gangs – everything that shows up in the media, and perhaps most peoples’ assumption of the community. However, the community and its people have been geographically isolated for decades (most recently recounted here). Although one of East Palo Alto’s public schools is located on the same street as Stanford University, they are in separate cities, and even separate counties. The neighborhood continues to be indiscriminately infiltrated by corporations and companies, and thousands have been deceived by predatory lenders and forced out of homes-- at times due to wrongful eviction (more on these topics here). Furthermore, EPA is often treated as a petri dish by established institutions, non-profits, and foundations, with constant prodding and testing of new interventions as different leaders and partners come and go. In terms of funding and resources, it’s been like winning the jackpot some years, and trying to stay afloat in other years.

Despite these constant hurdles, the city remains hopeful, and holds its young people on a pedestal. Since I joined the Peery Foundation over a year ago, I’ve been taking the time to meet with community members, students, educators, non-profit leaders, and foundations, who are all aspiring towards a better East Palo Alto. The community does want help; it’s obvious, as hundreds of families trust organizations like the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula, where parents rely on after school programming for their children. It’s obvious as all seven Ravenswood City School District principals responded to a Request for Proposal from the Peery Foundation to fill an immediate need or gap at the school.

While the community has been open to receiving resources, there are clearly ways that are more helpful than others. What’s helpful is approaching investments by asking folks who are living and/or working in the community if they consider a program or intervention as a need, and where it lies on a prioritized list. In other words, if a foundation is approached by X organization to operate in EPA, the foundation should have trust in the people of the community to decide if this is an investment to pursue. Too often, funders and non-profits are working together without considering the prioritized needs as defined by the community and schools. What’s helpful is providing unrestricted funds and allowing organizations and schools to define their own goals, instead of these goals being dictated by the people providing the check. The folks working in the community are doing the hardest work with a real sustained vision for change – let’s trust them. 

At the Peery Foundation, we are trying our best to shape and change our strategy so that we are responsive to the community and its needs, instead of our predetermined goals and what we want to see. We are proud to serve in EPA and are working to strengthen our relationship with schools and community-based organizations. While many have given up, or let frustration sink too deep, the Peery Foundation hopes to continue to work in East Palo Alto, answering the community’s needs while questioning and strategizing to do much better. We are confident that the money, time, and energy spent on and in the community is deeply deserved and appreciated, when engaging appropriately. It remains a city with a lot to offer, and hopes and dreams as high as yours or mine.

If one feels compelled to ask, “Why are you still funding in East Palo Alto?” I urge s/he to visit any of the community’s school campuses. You may find an administrator relieved to have the support of CASSY, helping a student and their family cope with being homeless or see a Junior Student Coach lead a blacktop game with her peers thanks to the support of Playworks. The Peery Foundation recognizes the daily hard work of the people serving in the community, and the persistence and resilience of its young people.

Though there is a lot of work still to do, and we still have a lot to learn, we remain proud to serve and invest in East Palo Alto.