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Laura Savage                             Follow East Palo Alto Today on
East Palo Alto Today                     Facebook    Twitter         Blog    
Sunday, March 17, 2013         
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Photo of YUCA members protesting the presence of ROMIC in East Palo Alto   EPA resident Dennis Schwerzer rides a tractor
           All photos courtesy of Michael Levin       EPA resident Dennis Schwerzer is show
Photo shows YUCA members protesting the       operating a tractor in the city several
presence of the ROMIC Coporation in the          decades ago.
city several years ago.                                    


Photo from the film "Cultivating the Vision"   A large flyer depicting the City Limits Urban Farm
Reba Phillips, left, and her brother Isaiah are     This photo shows a flyer from the
shown with other youth in a scene from the       City Limits Urban Farm, which is one of
film, Cultivating the Vision.                               the newer urban agricultural efforts in EPA.

Surrounded by the cities of Palo Alto and Menlo Park, East Palo Alto has always had to struggle for a place and a voice of its own. Often-times the city is forgotten or overlooked, except when the media is reporting on violence. There’s something about a small city with predominantly non-white citizens that attracts constant negative press.

Early on, drugs and violence were cemented into people’s memory. Even still, with all of the negative connotations and struggles that sometimes go hand in hand with low-income communities, the residents of East Palo Alto love their city.

They love the rich history and the promise of a rich future.

It is with this in mind that the collaborators of ‘Homegrown: Cultivating Dreams Through Action’ are presenting three short films about the history of urban farming in East Palo Alto, the Weeks Neighborhood vision and the activism that led to the closing of ROMIC -- a hazardous-waste facility formerly located in the city -- by Youth United for Community Action (Y.U.C.A) and the environmental sustainability options for the future.

The three films are a collaboration of work filmed by Michael Levin, a filmmaker and researcher for Rebooting History, a project under Stanford University’s Spatial History Project. Levin produced the award-winning film Dreams of a City: Creating East Palo Alto in 1996. The film footage is decades old says Levin, who mostly viewed them as environmental stories when gathering it.

Rebooting History seeks to use documentation as a means to engage EPA community members and Stanford students “through classes, video projects, mapping, oral history and other interactions that deepen, enrich and refresh our view of both East Palo Alto and its interrelations with the larger Silicon Valley region.”

The short films were completed and gave a local and more modern commentary to the footage with the help of local non-profits -- Collective Roots, Live In Peace and Y.U.C.A. -- and students from Stanford University's Program on Urban Studies, along with the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, which does youth-led research.

The generation of young people in East Palo Alto have promise according to their peers Adrian Johnson, Brenda Naranjo and siblings Reba and Isaiah Phillips. It is all about the opportunities they are presented with while young.

Throughout the East Palo Alto community, many feel that the youth must be given options to become leaders and, it is through their passions that leadership qualities arise.

“I’m in love with EPA,” said Brenda Naranjo, a Y.U.C.A. worker. “I feel like it grew out of the political vision. I feel like it’s a city. It’s growing and it’s moving. I don’t know what the new EPA will look like, but I know I want it to be something great. It’ll be a lot of hard work getting there. We’re not there yet, but I definitely wanna carry out the dreams of the community members that were here.”

The history of the small two and a half square mile city is rooted in rich agriculture and hot-blooded activism by its residents. It is no surprise to long-time residents, who are mostly African American, Latino and Pacific Islander, why the older generations have endured.

“I don’t wanna see EPA rise after gentrification,” says Isaiah Phillips, 22-year-old EPA native and lyricist teacher at Live In Peace and musical collaborator on all the films featured. “I wanna see East Palo Alto, with the community members that are here now, rise and it be a powerful thing for a low-income community to become a regular-income community because community members have been empowered to take themselves to that level. Not because somebody gives them something, but maybe something was gifted because of some of the work that some of the community members put in and then after that it moves because there’s a catalyst.”

East Palo Alto youth wrote, produced and performed original hip hop music for the films, which was merged with the final editing of the original video.

“It’s a collaboration between the youth lyricists and the musicians.,” says Levin. We’re probably the only class ever to have a producer, a film editor, an urban historian and a hip-hop lyricist as teachers. [to the Stanford students that is, to help them gain better understanding and knowledge about East Palo Alto].”

Mary Hofstedt, with Gardner Center, knows that youth play a vital role in the success of a community. The Gardner Center believes strongly in community youth development and “ in working in deep partnership with communities; bridging the gap between research, practice and policy” in hopes of producing research that fuels action at the community-level.

“We go where we’re invited,” said Hofstedt. “The leadership we do is from behind. What we did in this case is support young people in the community.…”

Residents of EPA have a long reputation of being leery of non-residents trying to dictate what is best for the city. That mistrust stems from decades ago and years of fighting for independence from San Mateo County and control by Palo Alto and Menlo Park. The fight for incorporation for decades before the incorporation in 1983 is at the root of the city’s organizing capabilities.

Make no mistake- EPA has an abundance of seasoned political activists, organizers and leaders who can mobilize residents around self-sustainability.  The goal behind this project is to inspire the youth to bring about change in their communities for the present and future generations.

That love and determination of self-sustainability sometimes spreads to newcomers.

Luckily, Stanford University is in close proximity and has a long standing working relationship with city residents to help empower the community.

Reba Phillips, older sister of Isaiah, admits to having a chip on her shoulder and being skeptical about what the Stanford students could teach her about her city.

“I learned a lot in the class about EPA that I didn’t even know,” she said.

 “Five of the youth members partnered with the [Stanford University] class to co-produce the films and acted as experts on East Palo Alto,” says Hofstedt.

“Part of their mission, in addition to the class partnership in telling these stories is to make the powerful, beautiful history of arts in the community more visible and to use music as a way to shed light on stories from the community and to pull the community together in events that celebrates those things. So they feel this was a good use.”

The classes and the work on the project weren’t confined to the classroom. Stanford students and EPA youth took tours guided by Collective Roots, a non-profit whose mission is “to promote food justice by engaging youth and communities in garden-based learning andnutrition education to positively impact health.” The tours went throughout EPA so the students and the youth could see first-hand the neighborhoods that were in the videos and to see the other natural resources the city had to offer.

In addition, the music tracks in the videos were produced and recorded at Live In Peace, a non-profit that combats persistent violence in the community by seeking to celebrate the lives of youth. Live In Peace gives them a recreational and learning outlet steeped in music. They are taught how to play instruments produce, write, edit, lay down tracks, etc. It fosters creativity in the youth in a hobby that they already love.

“My hope is that [art] will be one arm of sustainability,” said Justin Phipps of Live In Peace. “I feel like it’s a powerful weapon in the fight against gentrification and the fight for self-preservation in the community.”

“Just learning about East Palo Alto history and learning to appreciate things in my community, I never tripped on the fact that I have lemon tree, an orange tree, a plum tree,” said Ms. Phillips. “You walk around East Palo Alto all the time and you see these trees and don’t trip off it. Everybody doesn’t have that in their city. Taking the tours around East Palo Alto and seeing the urban farmers, Cooley Landing…. It made me have a better appreciation for things I see in my community. I see them every day. The rest of my family is from San Francisco. They don’t have that. They have buildings, cars and public transportation.”

East Palo Alto isn’t usually synonymous with green-living or environmental activism. Through his work, Levin seems to make the connection between the two.

“It’s a schism. Lately environmentalism has been seen as a middle-class issue versus a low-income community of color,” Levin said, referring to the content of his films.

It is the new generation that seems to have a clear vision of their city, as they take the reigns of leadership to make EPA a city they’re proud to call home.

“I really believed in the vision of it,” Isaiah Phillips said. “The fact that it brought Stanford students together with East Palo Alto and gave them a different kind of perspective on certain things. It gave me an opportunity to create a relationship and bond between Stanford students and East Palo Alto students.”

“When I first started, I was told to come here because I needed to be here to represent an organization, but as I started to learn more about the project and my own interests I started to realize that there’s not many people doing what we’re doing, as far as young leaders,” said Adrian Johnson, 20, who is also a native East Palo Altan and a featured lyricist and performer on the films. “There’s not many young adults [in his age range], either in college or coming back from college, that are showing the kids in the neighborhood how to be responsible, independent thinkers. “

These budding young activists are fired up about their city’s future, but even more so about being part of the change that’s apparent.

“I’m in love with EPA,” said Brenda Naranjo, a 21 year old Youth United for Community Action staff member. “I feel like it grew out of the political vision. I feel like it’s a city. It’s growing and it’s moving. I don’t know what the new EPA will look like, but I know I want it to be something great. It’ll be a lot of hard work getting there. We’re not there yet, but I definitely want to carry out the dreams of the community members that were here.”

“I believe that it’s going to take the youth to [be the] bridge,” Reba Phillips said. “We can open up a new book, not just turn a new page. We can open up a new book and begin a new story. I think …[as] the youth, we have that power.”

Laura Savage, the author of this article, is a journalism major at San Francisco State and a regular contributor to EPA Today. She can be contacted about this article through the paper at epatoday@epatoday.org