Empathy at the Laundromat

Post by Aaswath Raman

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We’ve recently embarked on our second design project, which has both striking differences (geography, proximity) and similarities (inequality, the effects of history) to our previous project situated in Sierra Leone. Our prompt this time is around the challenge of community-building and organizing in East Palo Alto (EPA), a historically poor, minority-majority city that is literally across the creek from one of the wealthiest cities in America, Palo Alto. This proximity to such wealth makes many of EPA’s challenges around education, crime, infrastructure and community development rather poignant. Our partner is the new city manager of EPA, and the broader context of our work is framed by the beginning of a new planning process that local city government is embarking upon.

A key difference this time around is that we’ve been given a great deal of latitude in defining the scope of our focus, the users we want to engage and in how we structure our empathy work. Our team was asked to geographically focus on the westside of EPA, which is separated from the rest of EPA by the 101 freeway, and from Palo Alto by a small creek. It is surprisingly geographically isolated and lacks most of the amenities one would expect for a neighborhood of some 8-10k residents. Moreover almost all the properties in the area (primarily multi-family homes and apartments, but also some homes) are owned by one company (1800 units in total).

We began our empathy work by spending an afternoon walking around the neighborhood. We began first at the only restaurant in the area and then split in teams of two. Our team spent an hour or so standing outside the nearby 7/11 looking to speak with customers as they entered and left. One strategy that worked well was to ask if an entering customer would like to speak with us after they’d finished their shopping. Numerous insights came from these conversations, including the presence of a nascent community of recovering veterans in pre-fab homes in the area, and an overwhelming concern about safety and police responsiveness.

The westside’s near-complete lack of public spaces proved a challenge in interviewing ordinary residents without a prior introduction. The one place that has proven very fruitful is a large laundromat in the area. The nature of doing laundry (long waiting time) made this an easy venue to approach individuals and families to conduct detailed empathy interviews. Over the course of two weekends we conducted four substantive interviews across a range of demographic strata (ethnic, marital status) in the laundromat, with one positive lead for a home visit we aim to pursue in the coming week.

Beyond residents, we’ve also engaged in extended conversations with the founders and employees of NGOs operating in the area. Here too we have begun to identify preliminary insights related to the operation of these NGOs and the demographic transition that has occurred in EPA over the last decade (from having a majority African-American to a majority Latino population). Have NGOs geared to the previous majority community been able to transition to the new realities of EPA’s population? Should they? As we contemplate the broader system, and the physical and social assets available to the city and its residents, such questions will prove essential to tackle. Our visits with NGOs and other community figures is also providing us with more leads to visiting residents in their homes.

The project’s timing fortuitously overlapped with Cinco de Mayo, allowing many of our team members to drop by a large festival taking place at a school in the city. This venue proved useful to do both fly-on-the-wall observations and to engage with attendees. It turned out that many of the attendees were from neighboring cities, indicating the potential draw EPA could have to non-residents in some circumstances (a surprise). We also noticed that many family and friend groups attended the event together, but primarily interacted with each other and not significantly with members of other family/friend groups. This seemed to tie in with we’ve heard and read about EPA’s challenges in building community with a new immigrant population that is transient and not strongly tied to the city. These observations, along with all the interviews we’ve conducted so far, indicate both the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead as we begin to synthesize our findings into actionable points-of-view.

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