Guest opinion: Learning our history, raising our consciousness, leveling the ground


By Karen Grove

A huge thank you to The Almanac and Kate Bradshaw for the important and well-researched series, "Uneven Ground: How unequal land use harms communities in southern San Mateo County."

It's extremely timely – on Oct. 3, Richard Rothstein, acclaimed author of "The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of how our Government Segregated America," will be speaking in San Mateo. On Nov. 17, Menlo Together is hosting a conversation about how public policies that segregated America have affected Menlo Park specifically. And just last week, author Alex Schafran spoke at the Menlo Park Library about his book, "The Road to Resegregation: Northern California and the Failure of Politics". Something is in the air!

As Rothstein and Bradshaw both reveal, historical laws and political decisions segregated cities and concentrated people of color in neighborhoods with few services, underfunded schools, and outsized environmental challenges, including in Menlo Park.

In Belle Haven, we see the legacy of these policies today. As Bradshaw describes, "While it's easy to dismiss this history as a time when laws and attitudes were different, the impacts of these discriminatory actions persist in the health outcomes these neighborhoods experience today." Reduced life expectancy, higher rates of asthma, obesity and mental illness, and lower academic and economic success in the Belle Haven neighborhood can all be attributed to our city's design.

For those of us who live in Menlo Park, we have the ability to solve this problem because we have the Belle Haven neighborhood that is impacted by our history, and we have the resources to achieve equity. Our City Council will respond to us, so let's continue to study the past, learn from it and demand policies that create equal opportunity for all.

To do so, we'll have to intentionally change old habits.

In 1952 the city was establishing a general plan, and arguments were made to increase minimum lot sizes in order to "protect what we've got" and prevent "slums and blighted areas" by taking steps to "maintain population density at its present level" (from the June 5, 1952, Menlo Park Recorder).

We must recognize that when we (west and central Menlo Park residents) argue against higher density housing in our neighborhoods to "preserve neighborhood character" we are repeating the language of those before us, who "protected" their all-white communities from people of color. We must remember that when we say, "I support affordable housing, just not here!" we are repeating a history we all condemn. As with many of our historical racist actions, we not only exclude and harm people of color, but also our store clerks, nurses, public servants, artists and young adults of all races and ethnicities. Likewise, we can all benefit if we choose to learn from history and chart a new path.

This is a call to action. This is the moment to learn from our history and shape the future of Menlo Park for the better. We can make Menlo Park a connected, inclusive, multi-generational, diverse and welcoming city we can proudly call home.

Next time affordable housing or additional housing is proposed near our central or west Menlo Park homes, I hope we'll all remember how our voices fit into the arc of history and choose the side of inclusion and equity.

I urge you to attend the upcoming events to learn more, stay abreast of the issues, attend City Council meetings and make your voice heard. Let's be the change we want to see in the world, together!

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