Post by Ryan Harper
After finishing our last design challenge focused on a land far, far away, it was refreshing to be assigned to work on a domestic governance issue, particularly with East Palo Alto, or EPA for short. EPA is one of the first things I learned about upon arriving at Stanford. It’s the place that people talk about when they went to do “good” over the weekend, and also the place that people raise their eyebrows at a little if you talk about going there for longer than an afternoon, even if they had never actually spent much time there. We were all eager to get beyond the stereotypes and work with a dynamic partner: the city manager of East Palo Alto. In addition, in contrast to the Sierra Leone challenge, the prospect of being able to fully prototype and test various design ideas in EPA was exciting. It is not only located close to our campus, allowing quick trips over to speak with residents, but it was also, at first glance, seemingly more familiar to all of us.
The flipside of this challenge was that we were asked to utilize a more holistic design process. Rather than focusing on a linear, step-by-step assignment moving from empathy work to ideation to prototyping, we needed to pick from a variety of tools to get to the end goal, without an obvious plan to follow.
Our toolkit also expanded within each step. For example, we had to set up our own interviews for our empathy work and were expected to use a variety of devices to learn about the community and understand the people we are hoping to help. Professor Weinstein urged us to get creative with how we might connect with the community and understand the experiences of the residents there so we design according to their needs.
We set off to EPA on a sunny Saturday with high hopes for engaging with the community, only to be confronted with a few initial challenges. First, we learned that it’s good to give stores a heads up before showing up at their door to talk to customers. The store manager at Mi Pueblo was kind enough to discuss his customer base, helping us understand how much the store is used by the residents of the west side of East Palo Alto, but also asked us not to trouble his customers. Undeterred, we continued on to the lone restaurant on the west side, Tres Hermanos. There, we attempted to speak to a number of people, and while we had some quality conversations with the manager and a few people waiting for their food, we also encountered a lot of challenges. These included language barriers, noticeable uneasiness with sharing information with strangers, and lack of time as customers went about their day.
We did learn some valuable insights, namely that there is a real sense of community in East Palo Alto, but that the community breaks down across various lines. Most typically, this included immediate family and shared culture, rather than specific geographic breakdowns. There was also a real sense of separation between East Palo Alto and Palo Alto, but not between EPA and other communities that shared more common culture, such as parts of Menlo Park or Redwood City.
Going forward, we know we need to get more creative in our approach to be able to dig deeper into people’s experiences, but are increasingly excited about the prospect of learning more about EPA and applying design thinking to the many challenges the community faces.