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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Confronting Prejudice and Bias

November 15th was the "Not In Our Schools" event - a collaboration of three high schools - for which I was the project coordinator. Over 300 students, teachers, and parents came to the Los Altos High School Theater to see a screening of the documentary, "Not In Our Town..." and participate in a community conversation facilitated by Milton Reynolds of "Facing History and Ourselves." The documentary, produced by my old friend, Patrice O'Neill, portrays communities in Northern California where a hate crime occurred and where the community found a creative, empowering way to respond. It provided a springboard for a conversation about the kinds of prejudices we encounter every day at school and even inside ourselves.

There were numerous poignant comments made during the community conversation that I will not forget. One young woman stood and in a voice wavering with pained emotion, told us of her friend, a bisexual, Muslim boy, who endured endless teasing and some bullying at school. One day, he jumped in front of the CalTrain and killed himself. Though she was his friend, she blamed herself for not having intervened and stood up to those who belittled him.

I think that in standing up and sharing her painful experience, this brave young woman motivated many to do something we haven't dared to before. How many of us have witnessed slurs and prejudice that injure people we know, but said nothing? It's not easy, or comfortable to be an "upstander." But that small act of courage can make a world of difference.

(The event included a great burrito dinner catered by students from Los Altos High and a mountain of desserts baked by students at Saint Francis high.....also a student art exhibit from students at Mountain View High and a short performance by "Camp Everytown" kids.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Housing in Palo Alto

Currently, a lot of community leaders are furious at the Association of Bay Area Governments which expects Palo Alto to add 3700 units of housing over the next five or so years. The fact that other communities are bearing the cost of housing while Palo Alto enjoys the revenues of a jobs-housing imbalance doesn't carry any weight locally. The fact that we are contributing heavily to global warming by requiring so many workers to commute in has not yet caused an outcry. The fact that housing sprawl to cheaper areas keeps gobbling up open space and farmland is a total yawn. In our recent City Council election, none of the 11 candidates talked up "smart growth", let alone high density housing along transportation corridors.

In beautiful Palo Alto, most neighborhood leaders are very vocal against housing developments, especially anything high density. We don't have the room. We don't want more cars on our already congested roads. Our schools can't handle more kids per classroom. High density housing (30 units per acre) doesn't fit in architecturally with the rest of the neighborhood. If any space along a transit line becomes available, we should bring in more retail outlets because that brings more sales tax revenues. Housing brings additional expenses (read taxes and fees) what with police, fire, and utilities services to provide. It's probably a pretty familiar refrain in communities across the country.

But in Palo Alto, housing values have gone up more than almost anywhere in the world. A house that sold in the 20 thousands in the early 70's is now worth well over a million dollars. (Median cost in 1970 was $33K and in 2006 it was $1.3 million dollars) In most cases they are bought by wealthy young couples who knock them down and build a much bigger place in its stead. Over the past 35 years, Palo Alto has become a financially gated community. Our kids can't come back and live here unless they become corporate or finance managers like many of their parents.
A digression:

This is what the house looked like that I rented with my kids for 13 years. (It's actually our old neighbors' house, but exact same model.)

This is the new house going up and replacing our old 950 sq ft. rental.

This is the new house next to my old neighbors' house. This "Mutt and Jeff" effect is a common sight througout Palo Alto.

Every day an army of teachers, nurses, waiters, clerks, nannies, gardeners, utility workers, police, and non-profit employees commute in and out of town to make everything function for the successful residents. The Palo Alto population balloons up to 90,000 in the daytime, even as many of the 60,000 residents fan out among the familiar corporations of the Silicon Valley.

Maybe the growing concern about global warming will wake people up to see that our "neighborhoods" extend far beyond Palo Alto and we need to care about the region and the planet. It would not be a bad thing at all if the baker's kid attended the same school as the Google manager's kid.

We'll see how the political battle plays out this Spring and Summer as the City updates its housing element (that dictates how much housing the city is prepared to develop) as required by the state.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Underpaid UC Chancellors

Easy Job - Minimum Wages

Hard Job - Perks Galore!

The governing board of the University of California system has a plan to boost the chancellors' pay about 33% over the next four years. That would bring UC Berkeley's Chancellor Robert Birgeneau to about $482,000 in addition to whatever other perks and benefits he gets. (It's a safe bet he gets his own locker at the University's gym facilities.) The governing board claims that the raises are needed to keep pace with salaries at private universities. I guess if you pay bupkas, you'll end up with some kind of boob running the college..... someone like say a Ph.D from the physics department (full professor average salary this year - 90K - 165K according to a pay scale chart. Or someone green behind the ears who could never handle the scope of responsibility, like say.... Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi ($212,000 salary in '06-'07). After all, an underpaid Chancellor would undermine the amount of knowledge UC graduates come away with. We also need them to figure out ways to pull protesting tree sitters off of their perches. Don't forget all the ribbon cutting they have to get right as well.

A new law went into effect last month that forces the Regents to vote in public meetings on executive pay increases. The law was a result of public outcry following a series of articles in the Chronicle that revealed "as much as $4 million in special perks and extra compensation had been awarded to departing officials of the California State University system during the past decade without public disclosure." (see SF Chronicle. This week there will be two public votes on these latest raises.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Farmer's Market - Veggie Neighbors

A new farmer's market started up recently every Sunday morning, close to where we live and I went there throughout the summer for nectarines and peaches. Most of our other produce I buy at Trader Joe's and an open air market a couple of miles away because the prices are much cheaper and the taste is very good, if not organic.

I'm reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan for my bookgroup, and learning all sorts of stuff about the "industrialization of food." One aspect of the industry is transporting huge amounts of produce across country or between countries so we can eat what we want when we want it. Even in the organic arena, the large growers with big transportation systems have displaced a lot of the small farmers. Although they are not dosing the soil with fossil fuel-based chemical fertilizers or toxic pesticides, they are still creating huge amounts of pollution from fossil fuels in the transportation phase. Pollan says that "the food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the US (about as much as automobiles do)"

So I'm rethinking my grocery bills. I may shift some of my "checkbook activism" for environmental groups to personal change activism and start paying more to the farmers on Sunday who come from towns whose names I actually recognize.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Genocide Response

On Friday night, Sally and I saw a one-woman performance about the Rwandan genocide of 1994. It was a piece about forgiveness, but I couldn't help thinking about the question of our responsibility as humans and as other countries when a genocide is happening. Until fairly recently it seemed like a no-brainer to me that we should send troops from the UN, NATO, and any other multilateral force to stop a genocide in progress; that it was justifiable violence in a way that no war for oil or territory will ever be. I remember reading how during World War II, Jews begged FDR (unsuccessfully) to bomb all the concentration camps to smithereens, knowing that many Jews in those camps would be killed, but many more would be saved. The horrors and mass insanity of a genocide (In Rwanda 800,000 Tutsi's were hacked to death in 90 days.) seem to justify any type of intervention that could stop it.

It gets more complicated when I think of my 24 year old twins and whether I could bear putting their lives at risk to make that happen in some far away country where we know nobody. Would I go myself? Is the killing of the perpetrators the only way to stop it? In Darfur now, there are some rebel leaders who are political opportunists (according to peacemaker NGO's who spoke on KQED-Forum program) and refuse to seek peace or cease fires while their people are butchered and raped by the Sudanese government and their Janjaweed proxies. That adds another confusing dimension to figuring out our response. I remember the 30th reunion of Stanford grads who had taken over a number of campus buildings during Viet Nam war protests in 1967. The event took place as President Clinton had US troops in Bosnia - ostensibly to end a genocide or ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs. The reunion dinner turned into a two hour debate about whether US and NATO actions could be trusted and whether they were justified.

I'm sure there are ethicists who have discussed this issue from every angle. I'd like to read some to see what resonates for me and whether there are creative approaches that deserve worldwide commitment. The genocides keep coming. In California, our government and media repeatedly caution us to be prepared for the next inevitable big earthquake. There are a variety of supplies and procedures we are all supposed to follow. We have extensive planning in place for rapid responses to devastating wildfires. When it comes to genocide, the intervention procedures are vague and largely undiscussed. Memorials, museums, and theatre pieces provide amazing, important testimony, but where do we learn how to put out the fires?