Stanford, as seen by an East Palo Alto community

There’s a lot to learn from your school, once you leave it.

On Saturday morning, Melanie and I and a couple of other friends living in East Palo Alto attended a community meeting about potentially toxic levels of Manganese in the water system serving several EPA apartment complexes. We four were the only community members in attendance other than the organizers (until a man named Bob arrived later, and who Melanie remembered seeing at another community meeting about a month ago). This time, I learned a bit about Manganese, and the black tap water plaguing some of our neighbors, and the cost of testing water for chemicals. I also learned why a residence’s governing board might want to convince its residents that their water is as potable as ever, and why community members seeking more answers might feel strapped for money and support.

Toward the end of the meeting, someone suggested appealing to Stanford professors in engineering or public health to help accelerate the water-testing process and/or appeal to local politicians. My first reaction was Hmm, convenient! A friend to my left looked less confident, though, and a meeting leader echoed what was probably ringing in her head: well, if the profs can’t publish about it, they usually aren’t interested. And the general consensus was that Yeah, Stanford interacts with EPA all the time – for its own studies.

The longer we live outside of Stanford – outside, but close by – the more I get Stanford’s story as told by the neighbors. Stanford is a place where great resources are sent out and great people come in to change societies and empower the disenfranchised. It’s also a place where change might be sought for glory and people browse for a cause – any cause, just pick one – they can step into as vanguard. As Melanie and I pondered later, there’s so much good going on, but the motives don’t always seem so great. This tension was audible at the community meeting, where I saw the community legal officials de-emphasize Stanford’s reliability for this small and low-profile cause.

Living at this distance from my alma mater, in the midst of its surroundings, is teaching me how many identities Stanford holds – how many connotations its label carries. It’s an institution, built by humans, and perhaps it’s wrong to assume any such thing could be hands-down holy.

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