It's now the home stretch of the silly season, otherwise known as election time. And, as we all know, having been trained from pretty much knee-high, that We Must Vote. Because Every Vote Matters.
We all say this, those of us who are engaged in the political process, every election season. We even mean it. Especially those of us who follow national politics. After all, we saw a presidential election turn on the counting (or failure to count) of votes, leaving the country in the hands of a nightmare president named George W. Bush thanks to only 537 votes cast in the state of Florida on Election Day 2000.
Yet to those who don't have their finger on the political process all the time like we do, the voting results in Florida 2000 (except for the devastating 8 years that followed) are a bit attenuated to our own lives. The Florida debacle was about distant votes in a distant state where it was only the vagaries of the Electoral College math that made them meaningful (otherwise, an entirely different man named Al Gore would have become president due to his 1/2 million vote lead in the popular vote.) Let's be blunt: to most folks, electoral college math is not what they focus on when they think about elections. Their concerns are a lot closer to home. This can make it hard to motivate folks who live in states which are really "not at issue" in the Presidential race in the minds of electoral pundits and analysts. States where everyone knows the outcome in advance. States where it is easy to convince yourself that your one vote isn't going to matter.
But those single votes DO matter. Everywhere. Not just for Presidential contests. But for everything else that affects our day to day lives.
Like they mattered on July 1, 1983, when the City of East Palo Alto, California was born.
Thanks to the votes of 13 people.
If you go by the official Wikipedia story, there's not a whole lot of good fact listed to describe the City of East Palo Alto, a municipality which rests in the heart of Silicon Valley, California. I link to the entry only for those who are not able or willing to search out the true history of this multicultural diamond in the rough that I have called home for 32 years. If you really want to know East Palo Alto, you have to dig a little. You have to be willing to read, to watch, and to listen free of stereotypes. You have to learn about the history of this place, which officially begins in 1849 but we all know really began with the Ohlone Indians. You'd have to study Communes. Vietnamese Agriculture. World War II. Blockbusting, Displacement and Redevelopment. Black Nationalism. Racism. Classism. Latino/Mexican migration. Not to mention about the largest Tongan population outside Tonga itself.
And then you can finally dig into the history of each unique neighborhood in our 2.5 square miles: Belle Haven, Weeks Poultry Colony, The Gardens. University Village. Palo Alto Park, Ravenswood and Kavanaugh Estates. The Willows, University Circle and Woodland.
I'm not writing this GOTV diary about any of those things.
I'm writing my GOTV diary about the creation of City of East Palo Alto, which I call home, for a different reason: our city's history is a living example of the power and importance of a single vote in shaping destiny. In our case, it was the destiny of East Palo Alto, a low income, majority-minority, progressive community sitting in the middle of one of the wealthiest metropolitan areas in the world. 13 votes were all it took to bring to fruition the Dreams of a City that so many fought for, for decades.
When I came to live in East Palo Alto (otherwise known as "EPA") as a junior in Stanford in 1980, we were a 70+% Black unincorporated area of San Mateo County, California, with a land area of 2.5 square miles thanks to the surgeries performed by neighboring cities over the preceding decades to slice off pieces of the historical boundaries of the community for their own economic development. (It hadn't always been majority Black; at one time EPA was a majority Asian city, then a majority white destination town, at least until blockbusting came along. (I picked EPA to live in precisely because of that overwhelming Blackness, having grown up on a 99.9% black block in the 'hood in Brooklyn New York. It was the closest thing to home I could get here.) Through my student connection to the university, and the educational program I was pursuing which focused on Black psychology and sociology, I got to know several Black educators associated with Stanford who were East Palo Altans, who taught Stanford classes on Black psychology and Black education not at on campus grounds, but also in the basement of the residence at which housed both CDI (Community Development Institute) and the Shule Ya Taifa (elementary school) on Bell Street.
It was through those connections that I ultimately got connected with the East Palo Alto Citizens' Committee on Incorporation (EPACCI).
EPACCI was a motley group comprised of long-standing community activists and newcomers, idealistic young people like myself. Some had been involved in the area's self-governance efforts (an experiment allowed by the County of San Mateo except when it suited it, such as in the area of schools and police.) Some had been Black Power activists. Some were elders who had fought to get access to quality education for EPA kids, and fought against the county's closure of our only high school in the 1970's.
The members and workers of EPACCI all had one thing in common: each of us knew that we needed to be our own city. Period. There were lots of individual reasons, but ultimately the most important two, around which we ultimately coalesced a community, were affordable housing and freedom from police abuses visited regularly on the Black kids (and other nonwhite kids) and adults by the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department.
By the time I became involved with EPACCI in 1980, our elders had already engaged in years of fighting to try and become a city. Several efforts had failed, starting in the 1940's. By 1981 most of our neighboring communities felt that our cause was a joke. EPA had no tax base (thanks, of course to them slicing and dicing EPA for the decades before, but hey.) We were not the sophisticated, well-educated population our neighbors bragged about. Before the infamous year of 1992, EPA was most most famous for our history as a commune, the home of poultry farms and flower nurseries, our poverty and low educational attainment, and our only commercial strip, Whiskey Gulch (so named because it was where for many decades Palo Altans and Stanford students came to get around a prohibition against alcohol consumption in their communities, such that by 1983 there were three liquor stores, and three bars on a single block, in addition to numerous mom and pop businesses and nonprofit organizations.)
None of this mattered. What mattered was the need to self-determine, as a poor, minority community that has never enjoyed the prosperity of our neighbors because of racism, classism and otherism.
By 1981, proposed boundaries for the new city had been finally approved by the government agency in charge of setting municipal boundaries (LAFCo), and after a bit of wrangling, the incorporation question was put to a vote for the first time in more than 2 decades in April, 1982.
Now, anyone who has ever spent time here knows that EPA, despite all its' negatives, may be the most passionate, politically sophisticated one horse town in history. The residents were divided 50-50 on the question of incorporation, despite education campaigns, lobbying, fierce community meetings and threats of internecine warfare even in families. For the year between 1981 and 1982, EPACCI not only engaged in a fierce political campaign, it went out of its way to register pro-incorporation voters, and to make sure that on election day we called each and every household to remind them to vote.
It didn't work. Incorporation lost. (Thanks to 41 votes cast not by East Palo Altans, but instead by our immediate neighbors in Menlo Park who refused to allow us to dissolve a sanitary district that serviced both EPA and their area even though it would not have affected their lives in the slightest.)
But that was just a bump on the road. After much political pressure on the county, and much strategizing by EPACCI, the incorporation question was again put on the ballot, this time without the dreaded sani district issue as an albatross. However, given the sharp divide in the city, EPACCI knew that the efforts to secure pro-incorporation votes that it had made in the previous election might not be enough. Not when things were so divided.
So, EPACCI doubled down.
EPACCI did everything it had done the previous time, with even more volunteers. There were the phone calls. And the door-to-door canvassing. When landlords, most of who were absentee and white and who knew rent control would be the second law passed in the city if it became a city (because we'd told them so), started passing rules about who could visit their buildings and when, and locking main entrances and fences so that canvassers couldn't get in, we did what had to be done to gain access to the tenants -- most of who were pro incorporation (I will not disclose what we did, just in case the statute of limitations has not run out /grin.) The homeowners coralled their neighbors. Their churches. Everyone. We blanketed our little town with flyers, information sheets.
And that was just on the run-up to election day.
The election day machine itself, however, was a thing of beauty. EPACCI and its allies had set up phone trees and a command center, where every single voter registration list was pored over and constant phoning went on. It was not enough to call voters and remind them to vote this time, however. EPACCI had to make sure that pro-incorporation voters actually got out and voted. So, this time, folks went up and down streets with megaphones reminding people. If you were a supporter, we were nosy, asking when you were going to vote. We offered you a ride. We drove you. And if your friend needed a ride, your friend too. We helped you at the polls, if you asked. All of this with EPACCI workers checking down at City Hall every hour on the hour to report who had voted and who hadn't from each precinct -- and if you hadn't, the calls and the offers would start up again. This cycle lasted until the polls themselves closed. Dozens and dozens of volunteers, doing whatever it took to not only secure the vote, but get out the vote.
And in the end, it paid off. But only by the margin of what was first 15, then later changed to 13, votes.
Given that I drove 16 people to the polls personally that day, I give myself credit for all of them.
OK, maybe not. /smile
[A personal but deeply important aside: Few cities in California have a mother and a father. But in the hearts of East Palo Altans, we have had both, the late Barbara Anne Mouton and Omowale Satterwhite, whose names I couldn't write this diary without mentioning. It was these two educators and political activists who, when I was just a young pup, exhorted and rode herd on those of us young Black folks and young Latino folks and young white folks and young Vietnamese folks, all of who were in East Palo Alto because we believed fundamentally in the power of a poor, minority community to create a strong, multicultural oasis in the heart of Silicon Valley, to do what had to be done. They along with other elders not mentioned here, were the heart and soul of EPACCI, its vision, its mission, and its successful efforts including the GOTV machine in June, 1983. They deserve, always, honor and love -- as examples of extremely politically savvy, relentless, visionaries. They will always have mine.]
Of course, it took another FOUR YEARS, as election challenges were brought in the San Mateo County Superior Court to absentee ballots (we won), and then appealed to the California Court of Appeals (we lost), to the California Supreme Court (we won), and finally to the United States Supreme Court (which wisely stayed out of it), before we knew that the city we'd worked so hard to create could continue to exist.
But make no mistake: had there been no laying it all on the road, no virtually around the clock get out the vote effort, those four years of fearful waiting to hear the final word -- that we existed, legally -- would never have happened. Because there would have been no 13 votes and thus, nothing further to talk about at all.
Where is East Palo Alto today? Well, our existence has traveled through intense poitical opposition 30 years ago, and again and again since (most recently when the City's fundamenal identity as a place for affordable housing was under attack by a predatory equity investor that bought up virtually all of the multifamily housing on the west side of the freeway--the side closest to Stanford, and the primarily white and Asian communities of Palo Alto and Menlo Park) and proceeded to systematically push out as many low income tenants as possible and keep the city tied up in litigation attacking our rent stabilization ordinance. We face the same pressures as other low income cities: gentrification, and balancing the tension between needed development and preserving the income diversity and cultural diversity that makes the city we call home unique in Silicon Valley, and in California. We are still diverse -- even though the African-American majority has been replaced by a Latino majority. Pacific Islanders, Vietnamese, and now increasing numbers of whites as well call EPA home.
But the last 29 years of history would not have existed at all, but for the relentless efforts to get out the vote in 1982 and 1983, twice in 2 years, to take control of our community's destiny, and preserve its richness (warts and all) for our families.
A relentless Get out the Vote effort that resulted in 13 people making a local history that is a model for how to get it done locally. 13 people's votes making the difference between self-determination and what would have led to destruction of the Silicon Valley's only minority-majority city when its 2.5 square miles were ultimately parceled out between our wealthy neighbors, the cities of Palo Alto and Menlo Park.
No one knows, precisely, who those 13 people were in the end. And that's precisely the point - had any of us made a different decision, on a special election day in 1983, about not only voting, but making sure that no one who had a stake in our fight couldn't not vote for ANY reason, who knows what East Palo Alto would have been.
I just know what we would not have been: the proud, political sophisticated, diverse oasis in a sea of technological and educational wealth we are today.
I'll end where I began. Your vote matters. But each separate vote matters. So it's not enough to just vote -- you must take personal responsibility for making others vote, too. And we have to prove it, over and over again, that yes, a single vote really DOES matter. While stories equal to sledgehammer confirmation of the power of one vote, like the story of my home, don't come along every day, they are more often than we surmise. They are more important than we might at first assume. Do you know how effective the right wing has been this past 30 years, infiltrating not just the Oval Office, or the federal House of Representatives, but local school boards? Taxing entities? Local and state offices with the day to day power to affect real lives, and not in a good way? If you don't, then you're not paying attention.
I will end with one of my favorite songs of the Civil Rights era, because it applies now, and we need to FEEL this song's call to action more now than ever before:
Ella's SongWe know what fighting for freedom means in the context of the world today. Indeed, many of the issues that Bernice Johnson Reagon first wrote about, first sung about, are still with us today. But today, so much more is at stake. Many, including me, have said that the United States itself is at stake, if the Right-wing gets to complete the handiwork of its last 30 years since Ronald Reagan first landed on our nation and laid the foundation for a United States that is not for all, but for some, and the hell with everyone else. We know what faces the country, what faces the world, if a Romney/Ryan administration gains power. So, unless we've each individually laid it on the road trying to prevent it, through not just our own vote but making sure that the votes of others who feel as we do are cast, and counted, we haven't fought hard enough.
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers' sons
That which touches me most is that I had a chance to work with people
Passing on to others that which was passed on to me
To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail
And if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale
The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm
Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me
I need to be one in the number as we stand against tyranny
Struggling myself don't mean a whole lot, I've come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives
I'm a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard
At times I can be quite difficult, I'll bow to no man's word
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
So...what are you sitting here reading this for? Get out of here and
GET OUT THE VOTE!!!