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Spotlight on East Palo Alto: An Interview with Jamila Henderson and Jeremy Nguyen

March 28, 2016
In the Media
Nancy Mancini

Policy Analyst Jamila Henderson and Project Facilitator Jeremy Nguyen spend a lot of their time working in research-practice partnerships in East Palo Alto. The Gardner Center’s partnerships in EPA go back to our earliest days, when John W. Gardner and Founding Director Milbrey McLaughlin acted on their belief that research universities have a responsibility to engage with their neighboring communities in reciprocal relationships that recognize the strengths of each partner. There is no shortcut to building the trust required to do this; bringing together partners with diverse experiences and expertise is hard work—even when they share a common goal. However, fostering long-term relationships with our community partners enables us, as researchers, to hear the language of practice and reflect it back with a combination of respect and inquiry. Jamila and Jeremy recently provided some insights into their work in EPA.

Jamila, what are some of the initiatives you’re working on in EPA? Are new community partners getting involved?

JH: I’ve worked most closely with Youth Empowerment Strategies for Success (YESS), a collaborative of over 40 partners, including nonprofits, educational institutions, and public agencies, dedicated to ensuring that East Palo Alto and Belle Haven/eastern Menlo Park children, youth, and young adults are able to achieve their full potential through education, employment, and a healthy community. YESS is convened by the neighborhood improvement organization One East Palo Alto, and the Gardner Center is a YESS research partner leading the Youth Data Archive data linking efforts. The Youth Data Archive is a Gardner Center initiative which links student level data from community partners over time to learn more about the youth they serve in common. In its strategic plan, YESS has made it a priority to improve member data collection and use in order to inform planning and drive improvement. This year will be the collaborative’s third year of collecting and analyzing data through the Youth Data Archive. Past analyses have tracked student participation patterns in YESS member programs and services to determine who was being served and the types of services typically accessed. With three years of data, the collaborative has the opportunity to look at students over time and link participation in programs and services to outcomes in school (e.g., attendance, suspensions, GPA).

I have also had the opportunity to work on SWAG, which stands for Students With Amazing Goals, with a great team of Gardner Center researchers and a diverse group of community partners. SWAG aims to identify East Palo Alto’s most at-risk students and provide them with a comprehensive set of services and case management. The Gardner Center is partnering with San Mateo County, Live in Peace, and other local stakeholders to support the initiative by building capacity for data-driven decision making, and conducting research to better understand program implementation and the ultimate benefits for youth participants. To date, we have conducted about a dozen interviews with key SWAG stakeholders to learn how the program is taking shape and adapting over time. Manuelito Biag, Senior Research Associate at the Gardner Center, is leading the research.


How important is it to your work in EPA that the Gardner Center has long-term relationships in the community? How important is it that you bring a sense of community history to the work?

JH: Trust and dedication to the work is really important in a community like East Palo Alto which has struggled with poverty and violence over the years while neighboring cities have enjoyed economic prosperity. Historical racial discrimination in housing and education prohibited residents from living or attending schools in neighboring communities, and government policies and local practices isolated the community geographically and economically. This history is still very fresh in the minds of some long-term residents and, as one of the few remaining “affordable” cities in Silicon Valley, some residents fear the city they’ve called home for several generations may become unrecognizable as a result of gentrification. To really work in partnership with a community like East Palo, it’s important to be aware of its history as well as its goals for the future. East Palo Alto residents have a great sense of pride in a city that only recently incorporated (1983) but which has a history of community activism. Building trust in any context takes time, but it is particularly important in communities that have every reason to mistrust. A long-term commitment shows dedication to the work and acknowledges that it takes time to address decades-long inequities.


Jeremy, what is EPA’s Youth Action Team, and what role does community history play in your work with these youth?

JN: The East Palo Alto Youth Action Team was established through a partnership between the Gardner Center and two East Palo Alto community-based organizations: Live in Peace and the Mural Music & Arts Project. Since 2010, the Youth Action Team has been a driving force in advancing the dream of an arts and music center in the East Palo Alto community. To fulfill this mission, the Gardner Center is partnering with Youth Action Team members to build their leadership skills, produce arts and music events and projects in their community, and work with a large team of adult partners to create the center for arts and music in East Palo Alto.

Empowering youth with the cultural knowledge to advocate for change is a core value of the project. Integrating community history into Youth Action Team programming is essential. Youth Action Team members learn about their city’s history through design and youth development workshops, conversations with community members and stakeholders, and presentations from community leaders during programming sessions. To date, five cohorts of teens and young adults have made a 10-month commitment to the effort, meeting weekly (and sometimes more) to learn leadership skills by actually leading change efforts in their community.


Can you give us an update on the Youth Art & Music Center? How will the center build on the community’s heritage and contribute to its future?

JN: The Youth Art and Music Center (YAMC) project aims to strengthen the East Palo Alto community by increasing opportunities for local youth to amplify their talents, realize their potential, and impact their world through the arts. Currently the project is in the midst of a community design process with an architecture firm and the landscape architect Walter Hood, in a series of activities to explore the design and organization of the YAMC’s programs and spaces. The center is also building partnerships with local arts programs to examine and build upon their offerings, while also conducting proof of concept and community engagement activities to build momentum.

The new art and music center will be created by and for the community, and will ensure that all East Palo Alto youth have consistent and equitable opportunities to explore and discover themselves, their community, and their artistic interests and talents. The arts are a unifying force that can address the critical issues facing the community. Ultimately it is hoped that East Palo Alto will enjoy an array of arts opportunities, including this special community hub which will allow large‐scale celebration, education, and congregation for future generations.