The year is 1999. East Palo Alto has shed an infamous statistic of a bygone era. Marches, organizing, neighborhood watch groups, these were the tools that a generation reared in the civil rights and the Black Power movement had at its disposal to keep its community safe. But if the issue of public safety had been resolved, at least for the time being, the economic question kept the debates lively both in the streets and city hall.
In a sense, it is a distinctly EPA problem: an "inner city" in the heart of Silicon Valley that incorporated in arguably one of the worst moments in state history. To quote a former mayor in 2005, "For many years, we had no tax base. McDonald's was our largest tax revenue."
And yet, it is a uniquely American one, the story of minority-majority towns at pains to compete with their neighbors, of how to make revenue flow here as easily as running water. Nowhere is this sense of catching up more felt than in the field of education.
Ever since the days of Bob Hoover and other community members turning bedroom garages into libraries and took it upon themselves to create their own college in the 1960s, the history of the csity has always been linked to education (not least because its quality, as is in every American city, is linked to property taxes). Efforts to desegregate through busing turned out to be one-sided. The belief then was that why be beholden to outside districts to reform their treatment of our children.
That same year in 1999, faced with a teaching shortage, Ravenswood City School District offered Marie Barragan an emergency teaching license for a kindergarten class in Edison Brentwood Academy. As she put it, "I was so nervous as it was going to be my first official year."
In a sense, she started from scratch. On the other hand, Ms. Barragan came from a pedigree of pedagogues. Her mother, Yolanda, spent decades as a paraeducator across schools in the district, working with students the state classified with "special needs." Her sister Martha would soon join her at Ravenswood, teaching there from 2000 to 2015. As educators, she and her sister were following in their mother's footsteps.
There is only one important caveat that Brentwood principal bestowed upon to her newest employee, "I was the only kindergarten teacher that got all the 'non-English speakers.'"
In both a literal and figurative sense, the city was in its adolescence. They were now confronted with the question, "Where ought my children be educated?" Some opted out of the city through the court-ordered Tinsley Program, then in its sixth year. While others, like my parents, chose for their kids to attend the school down the street from our house.
My generation represents one of the first group of kids who grew up in the city when it officially was a city. As such, I am young enough to have benefited from the labor of city leaders, and yet old enough to have seen these changes occur so dramatically and in such a rapid amount of time.
Seeing the tumultuous change children in the city experienced, it was vital for her to create a sanctuary from the layers of violence – physical and economic – both within and beyond the school's walls. "I wanted to create a safe space that would inspire and spark the interest of knowledge," she said, "(for) the children to walk through the door and forget about their home situation and just flourish." Ms. Barragan constructed the English-speaking homes we did not have, one whose central goal was to become masters of our environment. As she put it, "From 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., you became my children."
Above all, she sought for her classroom to be "a temple of knowledge."
And what a temple it was. Through her creative curriculum design, that same classroom, filled with the children of immigrants, would end the year with the highest test scores out of any kindergarten class in Brentwood.
I look at these photos and see a woman who exemplified a life of serving the public of my city, in particular those most vulnerable, those without any voting power, whose mothers, like mine, relied on checks from the WIC program to feed them.
I see someone who embraced the children of East Palo Alto because in them lay its future.
And in this moment in history, this is what we must do.
Ravenswood teachers like Ms. Barragan did not make progress with their students because of their environment, but in spite of it. They were up against decades of disparities in opportunities that us kids of color inherited. Most immediately, they faced the issue of inadequate funds.
When I am asked about the merits of ballot initiatives like Measure I, I think about how much Ms. Barragan sacrificed to build this temple. "Half of my paycheck was going back to the classroom," she wrote, "so that I could buy materials and create the right environment for learning." If we are serious in retaining teachers like Ms. Barragan, we as residents must invest in the infrastructure necessary for them to carry out their work.
Today, we continue to teach each other. Only now, it's a bit more bidirectional. Her daughter used my book of poetry as part of her high school thesis. I keep her up to speed on all the happenings of a city.
And though she now calls me her council member, I will never bring myself to call her Marie. She will always be the woman I first met as a 5-year-old boy, the woman in a black blazer and slacks who every morning told us to stand up, push in our chairs, and recite the national anthem, and in so doing, sought to remind us, before we open our books for the day, through this simple ceremony that all too often veered into myth, we too were citizens.
Antonio Lopez is an East Palo Alto City Council member.