Menlo Park council bucks public sentiment, doesn't name new community campus after Onetta Harris | November 17, 2023 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - November 17, 2023

Menlo Park council bucks public sentiment, doesn't name new community campus after Onetta Harris

In 4-1 vote, it will be the Belle Haven Community Campus, which contains the Onetta Harris Community Center

by Cameron Rebosio

After four years of construction, the Menlo Park City Council chose to name the new community center the Belle Haven Community Campus, overriding a vociferous grassroots campaign to name it after late community activist Onetta Harris. The council opted instead to name the campus' recreation center after Harris at a Nov. 14 City Council meeting.

The newly-minted Belle Haven Community Campus has seen a grassroots movement throughout the naming process, with Belle Haven residents coming out en masse to ask that the City Council name the building after Harris. At a recent meeting, 100 people voiced support for the Onetta Harris name for the campus at 100 Terminal Ave.that's expected to open in mid-2024, overwhelming any alternate suggestions.

Belle Haven's old community center, renamed for Harris in 1983, was torn down to make way for the new campus, was named for Harris, who was an activist and involved community member, according to the Menlo Park Historical Association.

Vice Mayor Cecilia Taylor opened the council's discussion with an impassioned speech about the erasure of history in Belle Haven, which historically was the center of Menlo Park's Black community. Census data shows that Belle Haven's Latino population has grown while the number of Black residents has dwindled in recent decades.

Taylor said that the new campus under construction is an opportunity to build community, and amid the ardent debate over the name, she feared the opposite had happened.

"Our history in the community has already been destroyed, sadly," Taylor said. "So how can a building encompass what our legacy truly is? The legacy of being red-lined? The legacy of being underserved, underrepresented and under-invested? Is that what we want to see in this new building? Is that a part of our legacy?"

Taylor, a member of the council subcommittee on the community campus, suggested keeping the prior names for each of the five services housed at the new campus, including Onetta Harris's name on the community center. She also proposed on behalf of the subcommittee that the new campus remain unnamed or be named the Belle Haven Multigenerational Community Center or the Belle Haven Community Campus.

"This is not about one person," Taylor said. "This is not about one name. This is not just about one piece. This is about a community that has always felt like it was not included in the city of Menlo Park."

Community members voice their concerns

Over 20 people spoke at the council meeting in support of naming the community center after Onetta Harris, including several members of the Harris family. Her great-granddaughter Gabrielle Harris said that she had learned more about Harris's legacy through several meetings about the naming decision, which inspired her.

"I know that I wouldn't be where I am, pursuing a higher education and actively taking on leadership roles at my school, without the legacies of my great-grandmother and other Black women who paved the way for future generations and showing us it is possible to make meaningful change in our communities," Gabrielle Harris said. "Even if we're not here in person, the younger generations are paying attention."

At times, emotions ran high. Several speakers voiced their concerns over the erasure of Black history in Belle Haven and throughout the United States, saying that failing to name the center after Harris would be a symptom of a larger problem by erasing the history of a Black woman who served her community. Multiple people went over their allotted time to talk. Most were cordial, but some yelled at the council and levied accusations of racism.

Council debates how to name new campus

The Community Center is only one of the five services that will be offered at the new campus. The facility also replaces the pool, youth center, senior center and Belle Haven Branch Library.

At a joint meeting of the city's library and parks and recreation commissions on Oct. 25, commission members recommended the council name it the Onetta Harris Community Campus.

The council was largely torn between the demands of droves of residents who came to speak at meetings held over the years that the project has been underway and those who approached them outside of public forums with different names for the campus.

Taylor advocated for the overall campus to remain unnamed for now. Along with her recommendation, she and Council member Betsy Nash recommended commissioning a documentarian to create a documentary on Belle Haven to preserve the community's history.

Council member Maria Doerr took a different stance, saying that she respects Taylor's role as the council member representing Belle Haven and a member of the subcommittee, but that she had seen an outpouring of support for the name Onetta Harris Community Campus.

"The thing that I keep hearing is the community speaking loud and clear about priorities they have in hopes they have of seeing how the name reflects an important leader and legacy in our community," Doerr said. "And I've also heard folks speak about how this is more than just a building and more than just the programming that used to be there. And that this is more than just one woman. We're talking about this legacy."

Nash said that the recommendation from the subcommittee still hopes to honor Onetta Harris through the name of the community center within the larger campus.

"Onetta Harris Community Center is an actual name," Nash said. "It is not just a picture on the wall ... This is above and beyond."

Nash also said that the proposed documentary would highlight Harris, along with other members of the community whose contributions should be recognized. The project would also focus on the history of Belle Haven as a neighborhood.

Mayor Jen Wolosin stated her concerns that the name Onetta Harris Community Campus was greatly supported by the public and recommended by the Library and Parks and Recreation Commissions. She said that "to ... not use that process in the end, is something I'm really struggling with."

Council member Drew Combs said that electing to go with another name did not negate the efforts of all those who contributed to the naming process of the community campus.

"To not accept the recommendation of a commission, or to go in a different direction, which we do all day long, does not negate the value of that process, does not suggest that somehow there is not legitimacy to that process," Combs said.

Taylor said that she had several constituents who were not present at the public meetings, whom she enumerated as "tens," reach out to her to request a name other than Onetta Harris for the campus.

Doerr said that she was in favor of naming the campus after Harris due to her legacy in the community.

"There's so many leaders in our community that have done so much," Doerr said of Harris. "But she is one of those leaders, and I just want to acknowledge the impact that I think it can have to have someone's name on a full building."

The council voted 4-1 to name the new structure the Belle Haven Community Campus, with the five major programs named the Onetta Harris Community Center, Belle Haven Pool, Belle Haven Library, Belle Haven Senior Center and Belle Haven Youth Center, with Doerr dissenting. The council also gave staff direction to pursue a documentary on Belle Haven and a dedication plaque for the Belle Haven Community Campus with the names of those who donated and made the project come to fruition. n


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