⚡ A Tale of Two Cities

East Palo Alto; racism in tech; deplatforming politics; and our dream courses

On Monday, we launched the inaugural Reboot Fellowship. On Tuesday, we moderated an eye-opening discussion with Charlton McIlwain on race and the history of the Internet (recap below).

And for today's guest essay, I'm excited to follow up on that conversation by featuring Victoria Gorum, a Stanford sophomore and the Director of Project Management and Research on Diversify Our Narrative, a nationwide campaign to introduce diverse texts into public school curricula. They have some serious Instagram game, and you can sign your local petition here. In her free time, Victoria enjoys reading old YA novels, baking, and educating herself and others on racial justice topics.

I’m excited that Victoria’s essay connects the long history of segregation to recent debates over workplace diversity. She identifies racism as systemic while diving into its impact on individual lives, and lists clear ways for individuals to take action.

🛣 race in silicon valley

By Victoria Gorum

Every Friday, my classmates and I would end our week by piling into cars and traveling to East Palo Alto to mentor young girls through the Women and Youth Support Each other club. As the trees that surrounded Stanford’s campus gave way, we marveled at the cute little houses that made up the city of Palo Alto, one of the most expensive places to live in the US and the center of the tech industry.

About twenty minutes or so into our trip, we would cross over the highway into East Palo Alto. The shift in scenery was abrupt. Though the two areas are located minutes away, the median income in East Palo Alto is $64, 794, while the median income in Palo Alto is $157, 120. The schools in East Palo Alto are often underfunded, so many children are bussed out to schools miles away from their homes. Palo Alto, in contrast, houses one of the top public schools in California.

This is no accident: Silicon Valley, specifically East Palo Alto, or EPA, has experienced a long history of racism that often manifests itself in the form of housing segregation.

the two palo altos

In the fifties and sixties, white residents actively worked to keep Black people out of their neighborhoods.

In Palo Alto, they attempted to buy out Black newcomers, wrote housing contracts that explicitly banned sales to Black people, demanded that sales be approved by housing associations, and lied to potential buyers about the availability of an apartment or house. On top of that, real estate agents engaged in “blockbusting”: they told white residents that the presence of Black residents would decrease the value of their house and cause white flight. These realtors then resold the houses to Black residents for much higher prices.

Gentrification has continued to ravage Silicon Valley and turn Black and Latin/o/x neighborhoods white. Not only have housing and rent costs exploded, but real estate agents have pressured local residents to sell their homes so that they can resell them to high-earning tech workers. These are the very same areas that Black residents were forced into by white people only fifty years back.

To make matters worse, tech companies have a history of failing to invest in low-income areas like EPA while taking advantage of the less expensive land. This has created resentment among many residents which has only worsened due to discriminatory hiring practices. For example, though Amazon was required by law to hire workers from EPA, they deliberately found a loophole to work around this requirement. While Amazon has benefitted from the affordable land in EPA, many residents have not benefited from Amazon’s job opportunities.

These wealthy tech companies have a responsibility to EPA residents. Some companies have made strides to give back; Facebook, for example, has donated money to educational programs and has made future housing plans accessible to EPA residents. However, this is just a starting point. These companies should put time and money into recruiting community members, pushing for affordable housing, funding local programs for both kids and adults, and more. These are multi-billion dollar companies; the residents deserve to receive benefits from the tech industry, especially because they have received the brunt of the damage from their presence.

the responsibility of the tech industry

During the pandemic, the divide between those with access and those without access to technology has deepened. For example, students and teachers must rely on internet and device access to receive an education. Yet in San Mateo County, where EPA is located, 9,000 households do not have computers at home, and many don’t have access to consistent home wifi. Furthermore, many students can’t rely on busy working parents to help them; and without affordable childcare, students are double-tasked with studying and taking care of their siblings.

In the short term, programs like StreetCode are delivering laptops to students, and the district is providing free wifi and computers. Local educators are supporting their students as much as possible. Yet when you take a step back, it still seems unthinkable that residents who live minutes away from the center of the tech industry deal with a lack of access to technology.

Though EPA and other low-income areas are located right next to places like Palo Alto, these predominantly Black and Latin/o/x neighborhoods lack access to the resources and wealth of their predominantly white neighbors.

This situation seems to parallel Silicon Valley as a whole. A Pew research study found that 60% of Black people, 50% of women, 44% of Asian people, and 42% of Latino people experienced discrimination in their STEM jobs. These issues persisted for decades, and only now are companies responding. Google has committed to donating millions of dollars to various racial justice initiatives, addressing hiring inequities, and addressing disparities in funding for Black start-ups. Microsoft and Apple also donated millions, while pledging to partner and support Black owned businesses/suppliers.

These are positive steps in beginning to address the damage the tech industry has done to BIPOC communities, but we still have a long way to go.

accountability and advocacy

But how can we as individuals hold these massive companies and corporations accountable? Admittedly, it is difficult to put pressure on corporations without mass support. Boycotts only work when enough people participate to attract negative media attention. Additionally, because massive companies like Google monopolize so many aspects of our lives, it can be difficult to avoid using their products.

However, this does not mean that collection and individual action is not impactful. As an individual, you can refuse to invest in companies that use prison labor. You can connect with others through social media and share information about companies that utilize child labor. If you work for the company, you could push for more fair hiring practices, elevate the marginalized voices in the room, work to increase the diversity of leadership, and equalize the labor of Diversity and Inclusion. As everyday citizens, you can vote for affordable housing so that people can afford to live in their neighborhoods. Research and support initiatives to increase funding to underserved communities in the Bay Area. Support policies in your workplace and schools that actively work to recruit different identities and perspectives.

As I made my way back to campus each Friday afternoon and crossed the highway to enter Palo Alto, I would reflect on my experiences mentoring girls in EPA. Every Friday, we discussed topics like sexuality, colorism, sexism, and bullying. Many girls opened up to their mentors about their lives and experiences with these topics. Each and every person has value, and if we’re able to make even one student feel heard and supported, then we’ve accomplished our goal.

At the same time, we have to combat the systemic issues that led to underfunded schools in the first place; in the long run, systemic change can help more people. As I go forward, I hope to learn how to balance these two aspects in my activism.


why does the diversify our narrative project resonate with you?

Growing up in predominantly white schools, I didn't have the opportunity to really explore my identity and learn about the accomplishments of other Black people in a classroom setting. It wasn't until college that I began to learn Black history in depth and had the option to learn about topics like structural racism and implicit bias in the classroom. I want more people to have the opportunity to learn about different communities without having to attend college.

what's the most surprising thing you learned while working on the campaign?

I am incredibly inspired and pleasantly surprised by the sheer number of high school activists who have been doing such amazing work. I had made it a point to learn about different social issues in high school, but I hadn't felt empowered to make concrete change. I love that so many students feel otherwise.

can you tell me about a book you loved this year?

I've really enjoyed reading Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. Brittney Cooper's writing style is very conversational, straight-forward, and refreshing, and I felt seen when reading about her experiences.

🌀 microdoses

  • 📜 But if you're still in platform governance 100 like me, this short podcast is a great beginner's explanation of Section 230 and its basic implications.

  • ⛵ Leave it to Kyle Chayka to have a legitimately insightful take on sea shanties

  • ⏰ This one's an Easter egg for our next event...

💝 closing note

Today, we're welcoming two wonderful people to Reboot's brand-new Community Team: Jihad Esmail (a past guest essayist) and Jordan Soufian.

In the spirit of our fellowship launch, I asked the group: "What's a class you wish you could have taken in college?"

  • Jasmine: I've been begging Adrian Daub to teach "The Philosophy of Silicon Valley" ever since reading What Tech Calls Thinking for Reboot in November (our review).

  • Ben: I wish I had taken more humanities and focused less on science classes that would get me into grad school—especially creative writing, political science and glass blowing. (I also had friends who took too many glass blowing classes and almost failed out of their science majors because of it.)

  • Jihad: Exploring Economic Systems: a survey of non-capitalist economic systems. Every economics class I’ve ever taken explored capitalism and (maybe) contrasted it to socialism — thats it. Would love to have formally explored others in the classroom.

  • Jordan: Intro to formal and functional linguistics to better understand the unconscious knowledge humans have of language and how language influences the way humans interact with each other and the world!

  • Jessica: Many of these classes exist, but are just classes I wish I had time to take, and/or already got to take: ballet, piano, art, { dance/music } history, a class on Asian American literature where we just book clubbed a lot of good novels.

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—Jasmine & Reboot team