Stanford has unique economic, service ties to East Palo Alto

Sept. 24, 2010, 2:03 a.m.

Although East Palo Alto is only five miles from Stanford, the two places’ economic relationship varies greatly from Stanford’s connections with other mid-peninsula cities. Nonetheless, the campus remains tied to the city through community service efforts.

Flanked by affluent neighboring cities, East Palo Alto carries remnants of its notorious reputation from the 1990s, when the city was known as the country’s “per-capita murder capital,” according to the San Jose Mercury News.

But even now, a report released by the Stanford Office of Public Affairs in 2008 with data collected in 2006 shows that of all the communities affected by the Stanford economic footprint, East Palo Alto falls very close to the bottom, with approximately $49.1 million in overall spending in 2006 compared to approximately $1 billion spent in Palo Alto.

As for the cash flow in the other direction, East Palo Alto was not listed as a factor affecting Stanford. The median income for a family of four is $48,000, according to Carlos Romero ‘80, the city’s vice mayor<\p>–<\p>a number that is at least half the median income in Palo Alto.

The lack of a Stanford presence in East Palo Alto is for several reasons. For one, the University does not own any land in the area, as it does in cities such as Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Redwood City, said Larry Horton, senior associate vice president of government and community relations at Stanford.

Although Romero said Stanford’s largest economic impact on the city comes from employment opportunities at the University, even those numbers are marginal. According to the Public Affairs report, only 302 University employees came from East Palo Alto of more than 20,000 total employees, despite a rising unemployment rate in the city.

“There’s a rather significant number, I can’t say how much, of undocumented citizens in East Palo Alto,” Romero said. “Generally, those folks don’t work for the University because they look for documents like that.”

What the University doesn’t invest in dollars, it may try to make up for in time. East Palo Alto is a hotbed for community service endeavors spearheaded by programs at the Haas Center, student organizations and several professional schools, such as the Schools of Education and Law.

In fact, Tom Schnaubelt, executive director of Haas, said the organizations volunteering in East Palo Alto are so numerous that keeping track of exactly how many groups, students and hours are devoted to the city is almost impossible.

Haas itself runs five organizations focused on East Palo Alto projects and Schnaubelt said the center has sent at least one student volunteer to East Palo Alto every year since the center’s opening in 1985.

“The University was founded as a public service,” Schnaubelt said, adding that in the founding grant, Jane Stanford explicitly wished for students to “become of greater service to the public.”

But with the public-service impulse come challenges.

While time and transportation stand out as the most obvious obstacles, there’s also the fact that Stanford students are still outsiders in East Palo Alto, a conundrum that no amount of time, effort or money can solve.

“One of our main challenges is to ensure that students are prepared for ethical and effective service in any community, which requires, among other things, that we set aside our own hubris, avoid treating the community as a ‘laboratory’ for research or experimentation with intervention theories, and that we honor our commitments,” Schnaubelt said. “East Palo Alto has a rich history, and students should be exposed to, have a basic understanding of, and learn to honor and respect this history before attempting to ‘fix’ anything.”

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