Protective Parents vs. Youth In Transition

Post by Kevin Ho



After spending several days in East Palo Alto engaging with a diverse set of citizens, our team found ourselves with an abundance of images, recordings, and notes to use in order to develop a Point of View. Since we did our need finding in pairs, we began by debriefing as a group on our experiences in the field. In order to focus on the most salient points from our field work, we debriefed using a ‘Top 5’ exercise where each of us took a few moments to look through our own notes in order to pick 5 key moments or insights. We found that doing this activity first was a great way to start a discussion over key stories uncovered in our need finding, without going through all of the content generated from our field work.

Through this exercise, we already began to find common patterns tying together what we each individually thought was compelling about our own experiences in East Palo Alto. The themes that were common to many of our interviews were: sheltering of youth due to security concerns, generational and ethnic tensions, and ownership of space in East Palo Alto. Our team was drawn to the insights around sheltering of youth, as many of our interviewees, from a young Tongan teenager currently preparing for high school to an adult community leader in the arts community, mentioned the impact of sheltering on them. We found a particularly strong tension between the parents’ needs to protect their children and the ability for youth in East Palo Alto to develop an identity within their communities. By protecting their children, parents hinder the ability for their children to have a group to identify within the East Palo Alto community; this is especially concerning especially for youth going into high schools outside of East Palo Alto, as many are particularly affected by negative stereotypes of East Palo Alto as they lack any other identity to hold on to.

Given this tension within East Palo Alto, we created two points of view to guide the ideation process:

  1. S, a single mother of hispanic origin who recently moved to East Palo Alto, needs to trust that there is a place somewhere in East Palo Alto where her young 2 year old son can be protected because even though safety is a shared concern, she feels that she needs to provide it to her son on her own by isolating and monitoring him.
  2. A, an 8th grade honor roll student, needs to embrace a positive identity as an East Palo Alto resident because: 1) the culture clash in non-East Palo Alto high schools often excludes EPAers, driving them to find community in gangs, and 2) her overprotective parents have left her ill equipped to be independent when she leaves East Palo Alto for high school.

While there still remain several assumptions that are unchecked, we chose these two points of view as both focus in on a very particular user while having the potential to affect change elsewhere within the communities of East Palo Alto. We look forward to digging deeper into these two groups in East Palo Alto by prototyping and returning to the field.


Gentrification looms over EPA

Post by Tate Rider


This week we focused on identifying a user and point of view (POV) for our design challenge. While we have done a number of interviews with EPA residents–ranging from taco shop managers to non-profit leaders to Stanford students—nailing down a specific user was actually more difficult than we had anticipated.

First, given that we are one of the two groups focused on the sliver of land on the westside of EPA, our way of thinking about EPA is a bit different. The westside is small and densely packed. There are few services for locals — as far as we could tell, there is a taco shop, a 7-11, and a couple of laundromats. And towering over the area is a (literally) gleaming glass Four Seasons hotel, which generates a significant amount of tax revenue for the city but also is an ever-present reminder of the gap in wealth between EPA and the rest of Silicon Valley. Furthermore, the vast majority of the people who live on the westside are renters, which creates a different dynamic: the transient nature of EPA is exacerbated and there is great uncertainty over the future since redevelopment of the area seems to be the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

Second, on the redevelopment front, we heard a wide range of views. I spoke with several Stanford students who currently live on the westside of EPA and a frequent refrain was, “Yeah, it’s only a matter of time before things get better around here.” Or, “I’m really surprised it still is as affordable as it is, but eventually the housing craziness of the Bay Area will reach here.” On the other hand, we heard concern over the uncertainty from current residents (“white people” are moving in and pushing out current residents) and from non-profit leaders. There is reason to believe that the Stanford students might be right about that inevitable gentrification and that the current residents may have real reasons to be concerned about what will happen next. A huge real estate investor recently purchased nearly all of the rental units on the westside; and even though there is a temporary agreement that the developer will maintain the property for working-class renters, there are a swirl of rumors about the longer-term plans for developing more luxurious accommodations for Silicon Valley workers seeking the next neighborhood.

With this as our context, we have been narrowing down our user and POV. A couple of ideas we find most interesting is to focus on disempowered tenants to make sure those tenants (many of whom are poor and don’t speak English well) have a voice during discussions about the future of the area. Separately, we are looking how we might be able to leverage the efforts of current non-profits in the area and help build capacity within them, especially around succession planning. These are two very different ideas, but we feel comfortable that they both would address the needs of the community on the westside of EPA. By the end of this week we should have our user and POV nailed down, and then the next part of our design journey will begin!

Developing POVs for a Nearby Community

Post by Kara Downey


Though our empathy work is far from finished, we are already unpacking our notes and trying to identify specific users and infer latent needs to address.  One benefit of designing for a nearby community is that we need not follow the design process in a linear fashion.  Instead, we can regularly return  to the west side of EPA and conduct additional needfinding to see if our ideas make sense, and how community members respond to them.  Being able to make multiple trips to EPA is also useful because it allows us to develop deeper relationships with some of our potential users.  Developing strong enough relationships to have meaningful conversation can be challenging in part because of EPA’s relationship with Palo Alto and with Stanford.  On the one hand, former and current students who live and work in East Palo Alto have served as valuable resources in their own right, as well as linking us up with broader networks of long-term residents.

On the other hand, the closeness of Stanford and EPA raise the stakes for the project.  Though some of the aforementioned Stanford students have made long-term commitments to EPA (and some there for the short term have had lasting impacts), far more cycle through the area in conjunction with a class or a short-term volunteer project, which leads to an understandable “intervention fatigue” and a hesitance to engage with outsiders.  Sustainability is one of the key principles guiding our thinking, whatever we produce for Magda will be better than nothing, but it’s hard not to worry that we’re feeding into that cycle.  One of the most uncomfortable things about this class is the fact that while we’re working to the best of our abilities, many of us are beginners, and the realities of the quarter system mean that we have to rush the process along.  This has been discussed in other blog posts, but at the end of the day the class is designed for us, the students, to learn about the design process, not to maximize the chance that we will produce something useful.  This tension is inherent with any class that uses real-world problems–and hence real people–as part of a learning process, but it feels especially strong in the context of EPA’s history of being an object lesson for privileged Stanford students.  This doesn’t mean that the class is somehow normatively bad, but it does mean that the intellectual leap involved in inferring people’s latent needs is harder when we’re concerned about designing with rather than for the community. It also means that we feel (useful) pressure to ensure that the time people spent talking to us doesn’t go to waste.

Speaking of those who’ve talked to us, we’ve developed POVs around several categories of users.  Our first user type is embodied by a young mother who is interested in being involved in community politics, but who feels uncomfortable in public spaces due to a lack of police presence.  It is not clear what she specifically is afraid of, but other residents of our section of EPA have voiced concerns about loiterers, and about slow police response time.  We’re still working to hone her specific need, but a desire to feel more secure in their neighborhood is something we’ve heard from numerous people.  Our second user type is a young, educated leader of an active NGO with strong ties to the African-American community.  This user needs to adapt his organization to the changing demographics in EPA.  Our insight is that this user seems to see serving the African-American and Latino communities as mutually exclusive goals: one can either “refocus” to the Latino community and abandon the organization’s roots, or justify continued attention to African-Americans on the grounds that they are increasingly a minority in EPA, but potentially lose relevance in the broader community.  Our hope is to develop adaptations that don’t force this sort of a choice.  Our third user is a high-school aged participant in an after-school arts and technology program at one of these NGOs.  This is another user for whom we’re having trouble articulating a specific need, but the insight is that he sometimes feels judged for being from EPA and wants to prove negative stereotypes about the area wrong.  This is a problem that transcends ethnic identity, but that is closely tied being a member of the EPA community writ large.  We hope that developing this POV will help us hone in on issues that would resonate with all of EPA.  Finally, we’ve identified a community of veterans as an untapped source of enthusiasm and volunteer labor for community projects.  Hopefully some of these POVs will prove useful for ideating–and if not, EPA is but a short car ride away.

Building a community in East Palo Alto

By Mohamed Yassine


I have been living in Palo Alto for eight months since I arrived from Lebanon, and during that time I have travelled to Texas, Washington D.C., and even as far as Sierra Leone. But I have never been to Palo Alto’s closest neighboring city. East Palo Alto was never on any of my friends’ recommendations for places to visit in the US. This past weekend, however, EPA was my destination of choice.

My classmates and I would spend a significant amount of time learning about the city and its community. In collaboration with the City Manager, our challenge was to design a way to build a shared sense of community identity and responsibility. We started off our journey in the development project harboring Mi Pueblo, the sole grocery store in the whole city. At first, finding people who were willing to engage in a conversation was a bit hard. We approached two women at a local café: one of them admitted that she was not from the city and that she was teaching English to the second woman; the latter preferred not to be interviewed as she struggled to express herself in English. We spent the rest of our time in the development project checking out the different shops, but much of the clientele seemed to be white, affluent, and from elsewhere. One couple coming from Mountain View stated that they shop periodically at Mi Pueblo since “it has cheap but good food”.

We decided to visit Jack Farrell Park with the hope to engage actual residents of the city. The park had a baseball field and a playground with many children playing and riding their bikes. We approached an African-American family who referred to us a young 14-year-old boy named Marques. He shook our hand with determination, demonstrating a strong and assertive personality. He told us that, next year, he will be going to high-school in Atherton and that he was feeling very confident about it. He related to us how the vice-principal at his current school was helping him academically through tutoring.  When we asked him about his hometown, Marques insisted that East Palo Alto was a good place because he cherishes his many childhood memories here, but he said that it “has too many murders”. He explained to us that sometimes, “people kill others by accident” and that “they are just mad at the world.” Marques recounted the story of his friend, who takes his anger on other people because he has a family that sometimes “gets out of hand.” Marques tried to help his friend by referring him to the anger management sessions organized by the library. We asked the young boy where he would see himself in 10 years. He said he sees himself either as a lawyer or a sports manager but he would like to live in Los Angeles since he doesn’t “want to get caught up” in East Palo Alto’s violence. Marques’ mother was involved in helping the community by assisting the baseball team. She operates a snack shop in the park where the revenues go to the city.

While interviewing Marques’ mother, another woman named Scarlett came to us to share her involvement in helping the city. Scarlett, a 33-year-old Hispanic woman, had created a program in the community to prepare children for preschool.  A single mother of a 3-year-old boy, she had moved from San Francisco, where she grew up, to settle in the west side of East Palo Alto. Scarlett confessed to us that she moved because of the growing gentrification of San Francisco’s Mission district.  She said she preferred to live in East Palo Alto, the only city, according to her, that has rent control. She said that while growing up, her family had to move constantly and that she did not want the same experience for her son. She wanted him to “have a home.” She attended many council meetings seeking to secure “the pools, the doors, and the locks” of her residential complex. “I had to find a spot that is safe for my son,” she said. Scarlett expressed appreciation for the community in EPA, for the library, and the few community centers that provided her legal and financial assistance. She tried to work in Palo Alto and Los Altos, but she did not feel comfortable, and ended up seeking employment in East Palo Alto: “Here, I am more accepted the way I am,” she said. Scarlett is a performance artist who is struggling to “find a spot” for herself. Luckily, she has recently joined a group of four women who are planning to pursue a Master’s degree at San Jose State University in performance arts in order to “reestablish their roots and their culture.” By the end of the interview, we noticed that Scarlett’s little boy had been missing for a short while. Scarlett immediately started looking for him, while crying and yelling his name. We frantically engaged in the search as we held ourselves responsible for the situation. The park was suddenly mobilized and people were ready to look for the little boy. Fortunately, the episode was brief and Ty, Scarlett’s son, was found. The event demonstrated a strong sense of solidarity among the residents in the park and underscored Scarlett’s concern for her son’s safety.

As we move forward with the empathy process, some of the insights that will guide our future interviews are Marques’ attachment to the memories he has from the city, Scarlett’s conviction that East Palo Alto would provide stability for her child, and the residents’ feeling of alienation from neighboring cities.

Round 2: Designing on the West Side of EPA

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.

Empathy at the Laundromat

Post by Aaswath Raman


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.

Empathy and Radical Solutions

Post by Aparna SurendraImage

As we cycle through the design process with a fresh challenge, I’ve continued to reflect on DP1. Most significantly, I’ve been thinking through ways to move from exciting insights to innovative solutions. A friend taking her first design class said it best: “The process is exciting, but my solutions feel… obvious. Helpful, but obvious.”

The has some wonderful examples of truly innovative projects, with Embrace being the most popular (as an aside, I think every student who spends time at the thinks, “If I have to hear about Embrace again, I swear I’ll…”). In any case, moving from insight to innovation can be a struggle.

In analysing why, my first response is — we’re too wedded to our initial ideation scribbles. This makes our solutions logical but, ultimately, incremental. The one class that pushed me to a more radical solution set used an interesting pedagogical strategy — I made a 2-minute video of my solution, screened it in class, collected feedback on the most compelling narrative threads, and then deleted the video (ouch!) to return to ideation. It was work-intensive, but forced me into a much more uncomfortable and generative space.

The second response, which ties well to our empathy work in EPA, is– an intuitive ability to crawl the systems space. In other words, understood how your user operates within a system and why. Understand how other agents operate in the system and why. For example, one insight arising from our work in EPA: The user doesn’t trust the cops Why? They didn’t thoroughly investigate X or Y incident Why?  Because the cops know that many EPA residents are undocumented, and stricter protocols would bring in ICE. As you move to a systems analysis and colour in different users and their motivations, you can re-configure yourself to intuitively (not conceptually) understand the way the system works. At this point, you can go on the journey with your user— you no longer have to ask ‘Why don’t you trust the cops?’, you ‘get’ it. In a sense, this is empathy in its purest form.

With Sierra Leone, I struggled to colour in the whole systems map, and move from a conceptual to an intuitive understanding of the problem space. I had huge holes when it came to understanding NGOs and government motivation, and this (somewhat unconsciously) limited my ability to ideate creatively around the problem. If you don’t know the rules, how can you break them? If you don’t understand the connections within the system, how do you intentionally strengthen, exploit, or by-pass them?

In EPA, I’ve already started developing a strong (intuitive) understanding of the systems map. Since our initial Saturday interviews, we’ve spiraled out to colour in a larger number of actors and motivations. In many ways, I think EPA’s small physical space has facilitated this. In Sierra Leone, rural villages were extremely insulated from one another (a function of physical distance compounded by poor infrastructure).  EPA, however, spans 2.6 square miles. While the experiences of EPA residents vary by demographic and other factors, they interact within the same space – the same restaurants, laundromats, middle schools and – in some cases — landlords. The most tangible consequence of this is the co-existence – however fraught—is a shared community fabric, and community ‘touchstone’ experiences.

Every user lives with the same physical backdrop and, for me, this provides a more tangible connection than national affinity or similar story of exploitation (Sierra Leone).  With each EPA interview, my team makes more connections within and between issues spaces.  I feel extremely excited about this project – I hope that our extensive empathy work can push us into a more radical solution space!