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Local civic engagement: An opportunity and obligation


When I first toured Stanford, I was surprised to find out that Stanford, California is an autonomous census-designated place with its own ZIP code. I found it hard to grasp that a college could be a self-contained universe, not officially associated with a surrounding town or city beyond itself. But throughout my first two quarters here, I have come to lament that this designation accurately reflects the reality of the notorious Stanford bubble. For me, the Stanford bubble represents a limitation on both our intellectual development and our contributions to social good.

If we are not in touch with current events beyond Stanford’s campus, we remain unaware of local societal problems and forgo opportunities to effectively promote progress. Limiting our endeavors to campus blinds us to meaningful avenues for action that are only a bike ride away.

Although our efforts to promote positive change must take national and international issues into account, thinking globally should not supplant the importance of thinking locally. To be fair, local issues may not be as alluring as the drama of national politics or the complexity of international crises. However, when we consistently prioritize headline-grabbing news over pressing problems nearby, we are not only forgoing the potential to contribute to the good of our neighbors, but also doing a disservice to ourselves as students and agents of change.

A few weeks ago, I partook in an Alternative Spring Break trip that both underscored the exigency of Bay Area social issues and emphasized the opportunities for action. Titled “Housing as a Human Right,” the trip was the culmination of a one-unit course that explored international, national and local housing challenges through a human rights lens. Our week of spring break primarily zoomed in on San Francisco, Oakland, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, which are grappling with housing shortages, gentrification and displacement.

The Bay Area has a longstanding resistance to constructing affordable housing, reinforced by impractical zoning codes that unreasonably limit building heights, the failure to create mixed-use properties that allow for both retail and residential space, and the backlash of NIMBYs (those who protest “not-in-my-backyard”) whenever new affordable housing developments are proposed.

The rise of Silicon Valley compounds these problems. As greater numbers of tech workers move into areas that have little available housing, they often settle in traditionally low-income neighborhoods, driving up market prices and making the rent unaffordable for the original residents. California laws put vulnerable low-income residents at greater risk of displacement. The Costa-Hawkins Act of 1995 strictly limits the type of rent control that cities can enact, which prevents them from prohibiting outlandish rent increases. When tenants cannot pay the newly raised rent, they are often evicted, destabilizing their lives and forcing them out of their tight-knit communities.

Through gentrification, well-off newcomers whitewash generations of local traditions and culture, replacing small family businesses with big chains or overpriced stores that the original residents cannot afford.

Throughout our Alternative Spring Break, we spoke with a variety of nonprofits to understand their analyses of the housing crisis, their current work and their visions for the future. Although we left a lot of the meetings feeling overwhelmed, we took away many clear, realistic policy proposals: repealing Costa-Hawkins, changing zoning laws, expanding protections against eviction and fostering cultural understanding in neighborhoods with changing demographics.

However, in working to enact these ideas, advocates of progress face a significant internal obstacle: our silence. NIMBYs who oppose affordable housing are the most passionate about the political negotiations that determine the housing landscape, so they are the ones who show up at meetings and end up shaping policies. Voices in favor of affordable housing are largely absent. When we asked what we can do to make a difference, representatives from nearly every nonprofit emphasized the same overarching message: the importance of “being at the table.”

If Stanford students were to venture beyond the bubble and simply show up at city council meetings, we could fulfill that role and elevate pro-housing perspectives. Additionally, we have hundreds of course offerings related to poverty, inequality, race, gentrification and dozens more themes that intersect with housing, as well as other issues that fall under the domain of local government. Making it a Stanford norm to engage in Bay Area politics would make a tangible difference in our surrounding communities, while complementing and enhancing the knowledge that we are already pursuing.

The idea of showing up at the table echoes the shift in emphasis towards local decision-making in light of frustration with the current Trump administration’s agenda. Many liberals are looking towards state and local governments to take ownership of the type of progress that the current president rejects. Local politics provides an accessible and meaningful outlet for Stanford students seeking to resist the Trump administration.

Individual voices can have exceptional power in the smaller venue of a city council meeting, and given that decision-making is typically less polarized in local governments, these discussions are likely to result in small-scale but substantial policy changes.

As an intellectual and public service pursuit, engaging in local politics is a valuable opportunity. But when it comes to housing, Stanford students must go even farther: We must see civic engagement as an obligation.

During Alternative Spring Break, we discussed Stanford’s complicity in the housing crisis, particularly our contributions to the tech economy that fuels gentrification and displacement. We spoke with Charles Guan ‘16, an alumnus who works at Square and participated in this trip last year. After much deliberation, he ultimately decided to live with his family in Fremont and commute to work so as not to participate in a housing market that pushes out low-income people. In his view, the chaos and stress of figuring out post-graduation life leave Stanford students going into tech without much time to consider the ethics of engaging with the Bay Area housing landscape. At the very least, such considerations should become a staple of planning for life after college and a common conversation among seniors approaching graduation.

Furthermore, the soaring price of housing also affects graduate students and professors, who suffer from the lack of affordable housing in Palo Alto. When we discuss the possibility of increased on-campus housing, we must recognize the extent of the housing crisis and go beyond internal solutions that serve only Stanford’s needs.

The Bay Area housing landscape affects our students, our faculty and our surrounding communities, and we are complicit in perpetuating it. To get to the root of the perennial on-campus housing concern, and to fulfill our obligation to our Bay Area neighbors, we must engage in the world outside the bubble and become outspoken pro-housing advocates. In doing so, we would put Bay Area politics on our radar, an important first step in making local civic engagement a Stanford student body norm.


Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’

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