Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - October 25, 2013

On Deadline: A 'new crop of civic activists is starting to take on past generations' issues

by Jay Thorwaldson

A "next generation" of Palo Altans is becoming engaged in community policymaking with a strong emphasis on finding solutions to longstanding issues and debate topics.

Some are acting independently; some are part of a "Leadership Palo Alto" program resurrected three years ago after a lapse.

Some are stepping gingerly around some age-old sensitivity points, while seeking broader ways to approach seemingly insoluble local issues, including some that extend well beyond Palo Alto.

Concerns include topics such as the regional transportation tangle with 26 separate transit agencies, the perennial question of the homeless, environmentally sound lifestyles, and how best to define and design Palo Alto's future.

No one is quite sure just how to define "next generation," but generally those fitting that category seem to be younger professionals.

This year's Leadership Palo Alto "fellows" is a prime example. The 21 fellows are of disparate ages but with many 20-somethings.

The program has undergone a generational change itself following its creation in the late 1980s and a time when it became "Leadership Midpeninsula" and lost focus and funding.

This year's group differs from the first two, Director Paula Sandas said: "The average age is younger."

"I find it really astounding: They have a broader view of our community and of the world.

"I'm pretty moved by it. They're not just thinking about Palo Alto as its own bubble entity, but about Palo Alto as part of the world. Many are in the tech business, and so much of that business is global that they are looking at Palo Alto with more of a global eye."

A prominent feature is that many are "less enamored of the car." Another is that they are more willing to enjoy the benefits of "city" living — scaled to a Palo Alto-size.

"It's a group that's interested in 'building community,'" but they want to try new ways of doing that, Sandas noted.

Less emphasis on cars means more concern about transportation, locally and regionally. There are social concerns about inequality and inequity in the region, and some fellows are personally "working to address the homeless issue and how to get people employed and in their own dwellings."

"One of the things we've incorporated into the curriculum is '21st Century skills,' Sandas said, using a borrowed term. "Those are all about collaboration and finding common ground. Empathy is a key element of that — the ability to understand another person's point of view. That's one of the principles of 'design thinking,' the IDEO model."

There's even a techie name change: "'Leadership Palo Alto 2.0,' we call it."

Others not linked to Leadership Palo Alto also are emerging on the civic scene. Three stand out.

"If there is such a thing as new generation its members are interested in a broader set of issues" than traditional Palo Alto-centric topics, Eric Rosenblum said. He cited regional transportation and a willingness to accept Palo Alto as being "a small city" with city-type amenities rather than a suburb or village. It also "includes being able to work in that city" where one lives. The latter is a near-impossibility for many due to an infamous "jobs-housing imbalance" where Palo Alto's daytime population roughly doubles its nighttime population.

Rosenblum works for a start-up, and notes that "many of us are working harder than we ever have." But this week he found time to attend a community debate on Measure D on the Nov. 5 ballot. He is the father of two, 11 and 8.

He senses among peers "more support for greater density" to increase housing, but was excoriated by an older resident when he spoke at a recent meeting.

"I've never done this before," he said of his new civic involvement, admitting he was taken aback by the encounter.

"I am surprised that people question my motives," he said. "We're neighbors, and we should be able to discuss things without them impugning my motivation."

Another next-generation person is residential architect Elaine Uang, a north Palo Alto resident who has a 2-year-old girl and another expected momentarily.

Parking overflow from the University Avenue business district caught her attention, but her broader view reflects her background.

"As an architect, I'm interested in places, and the built environment, and cities — how they evolve and get created, how they change, how people shape them.

"That's kind of what's galvanizing me to look into some of these issues. Parking sort of affects us all. But it's all part and parcel of anything that goes on in a city, whether it's a building or transportation or just people coming through.

"I have a lot to do on a daily basis with my work but there's definitely a couple of political levels placed on top of that.

"I'm also interested in 'the 30,000-foot view,'" she said, referring to bigger conceptual pieces in transportation that other cities and corporations have addressed successfully.

Adina Levin is another who fits the model. She currently is executive director of the Friends of Caltrain group, which has mobilized about 3,000 commuters up and down the Peninsula to push for a better funding base for Caltrain.

With a high-tech background, she formerly owned "Social Tech," a business in downtown Palo Alto purchased a couple of years back by a human-resources company. A move to Menlo Park after years of commuting on Highway 101 put her within bicycling distance of her downtown Palo Alto workplace. She helped create Menlo Park's first "climate-action plan."

She also hosted a weekend "Transit Camp" that brought together transportation activists, transit agency staff members, residents and local officials. It became, by design, "a solutions playground" with open exchange of ideas and steps to make good ideas real.

One significant challenge, yet to be tested or demonstrated, will be bringing together the new and older generations of engaged residents into a coherent whole.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also writes blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).

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