Native son Antonio Lopez, 26, is opening doors by knocking on them…and he wants local kids to do the same.
As a small Bay Area city on the Peninsula, East Palo Alto infamously gained national attention in the early 1990s via headlines citing that it had the highest murder rate in the United States.
Across the way from the picturesque and prestigious Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, that divide that’s long contrasted EPA in a negative light is what makes native son Antonio Lopez’s journey — from EPA’s Gardens District to Duke University in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Oxford, England, and back to Stanford for his PhD — one to watch as he writes his next chapter in the Bay Area as an EPA city councilmember.
Lopez, born not long after that fateful year in EPA’s history, speaks about his home city with both analysis that sounds at home in academia and passion typical of long-time residents. When Lopez canvassed door-to-door to win his seat on the city council, he recalled a Black constituent calling his son to come greet Antonio because he dreamed of attending Duke University like Antonio had already. Lopez told The Six Fifty that to be a tangible role model for a local high school sophomore was an “awe-inspiring” moment.
Representation is only a hook though. Lopez made sure to leave with something actionable: “I told him…when I start thinking of the youth commission or we start setting up other commissions, I’ll keep you in my thoughts, those kids in mind with great potential that don’t have resumes just yet.”
Lopez, 26, enters his elected position alongside fellow young progressives who ran successful campaigns across the Bay Area. It’s one reason Lopez maintains the importance of shaping the youth’s trajectory since they’ll be the city’s future leaders.
The Six Fifty checked in with this local son of Mexican immigrants to discuss bridging EPA’s hustle and bustle culture with its present realities toward a more equitable future…well beyond the decades-old statistic that has haunted its image.
What was your reaction to hearing you’ll be on East Palo Alto City Council?
It’s really humbling to serve. At the end of the day, I’m in such awe of this community and really humbled to have the opportunity to put in my perspective as a young person, a newcomer in politics and someone who truly cares about what this community will look like in the next five to ten years.
What was it like to be able to tell others this was happening for you?
It was really affirming. Not for my own self, but for the young high school and college kids who were campaigning with me, who canvassed alongside me, to tell them that every vote counts, and every door they knocked on made a difference.
That’s the biggest takeaway I felt: one, being patient about the democratic process rollout; and two, if we took that extra hour from 7 to 8 p.m., the last bit of sunlight we had, all those conversations we had prior to November 3 and including the day, truly mattered. It was truly affirming as a grassroots campaign.
Was there one particular issue from your policy platform that crystalized for you, that you’re most eager to run to city council and put in action?
Housing for sure … we’re poised to have one of the worst displacements in not just the city, but the county. As I made my rounds knocking on doors in the community, seeing the utter devastation the pandemic has had exacerbating [problems] in the community, a policy that immediately addresses our ongoing crisis, people not being able to afford rent, that’s going to be absolutely essential.
In tandem with that, making sure our youth don’t slip through the cracks. Developing a pipeline through mentorship, internships and so forth where the youth have a stake in the city. They have someone who represents them, who understands what their needs are coming back from college: ‘Where am I going to live?’ Housing and education, a pipeline where we can get our youth opportunities encouraged where they can flourish. A policy platform has to address both moving forward, especially in the era of COVID.
As someone with deep roots here, how is it for you going forward to be able to effect change in a position of power?
We have to be honest where we’re at. When we look at the level of unemployment (11-plus percent in East Palo Alto), we’re at 1,500-plus [COVID] cases, the poverty rate, we have to be honest about every single metric where we’ve received the short end of the stick and at the same time, remind ourselves and the community at large … that we have amazing leaders.
My job as a council member is to encourage and facilitate the next round of leadership. In other words, it’s not enough for me to say Antonio Lopez won city council and that’s the end of the story. I want it to be the start of many other starts and have other young people, again, if this guy can come out of college and run for office and make a difference and make it, then why can’t you? That’s the message I want to give, you can make a difference, whether in politics or not.
Also, advocating and challenging the county for resources. Right now, we’re getting hit hard the most and it’s time for our neighbors to step up and give us a helping hand. It’s not a charity. That’s an important conversation.
Facebook as a physical structure is visible in East Palo Alto, not to mention the shadow they cast on the nation as a whole. What does their presence mean for the challenges EPA faces?
It makes it ironic, morally and logically outrageous, that we have the issues that we have. It’s like a level of dystopian novel where you have that much wealth within earshot of you but yet for decades, the community has been struggling.
South African apartheid, Israel-Palestine, am I comparing EPA and Palo Alto to [that]? No. But I am saying if we’re in a first world country, in the most affluent parts of not only the state, but the country, then why the hell do we the problems that we have? It’s a serious question. It’s an economic question, a racial question, it’s a moral question.
I think just being really candid and honest about that, saying, ‘We’re the ones that are most hit.’ I’ve been spending the last couple weeks after the election not worrying about the headlines, but honestly looking at the people struggling the most, going out with tenant leaders, door knocking and saying who are the folks who are struggling with rent? Identify them and facilitate resources for them. That’s where I need to be….let’s get our hands dirty and do the work of transforming the community. I’d like to think of myself, even early on, as someone who is being immediately involved, and I invite people to do the same.
The last time we spoke, you mentioned EPA’s rich Black and Polynesian history and how you wanted to center those communities to preserve that. In what ways do you want to engage them to accomplish that?
I’m currently developing an economic plan with some advisers and people on my team, meeting with staff to speak about having an economic plan that can revitalize East Palo Alto, particularly small businesses …
I’m thinking Black and Polynesian small businesses, food services, catering services, flower shops, barber shops, and [those] looking for a place to set up shop. I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time. When we’re doing the RBD [Ravenswood Business District] for instance, or when we’re doing the newly developed areas, having a first floor … where small business owners like the Black and Polynesian community can come up there, we can try the different foods this community has. As I’ve always told you, EPA has always had the hustle but it’s lacked in opportunity. First and foremost, prioritizing and thinking of our Black and Polynesian neighbors, particularly those business owners, giving them a relatively inexpensive platform to start up their businesses to set up shop in a prominent spot that’ll hopefully be EPA’s new downtown.
As I become more and more involved in the city, I will absolutely keep my eye out for opportunities for the Black and Polynesian [communities] in particular because I want to make sure part of my brand — if you will, for lack of a better word — is I am someone who is absolutely wanting to lift up with me other folks, other ethnicities in the community because I think that’s true to the character of East Palo Alto.
Your roots in EPA are tied to Latinos populating the area in the 1980’s. How do you plan to consider the essential workers, the workers that are undocumented who don’t have the ability to vote and live in the area?
A lot of the housing issues affect undocumented communities, undocumented folks. The organizations like Nuestra Casa, El Comité de Vecinos…these are folks who are doing the work of empowering our undocumented community. They’re absolutely in my thoughts. I have folks in my family who are in that situation. It’s an immediately personal issue to me. I’m of the firm political philosophy just because you can’t vote for me doesn’t mean I shouldn’t advocate for you.
The work with housing goes hand in hand in raising awareness for undocumented issues. That’s the blessing and curse of East Palo Alto, any given issue we talk about — health, housing — it’s affecting all the rest. Right now, I’m absolutely engaging every day with the undocumented community, tenants in particular, and trying to create as much awareness, particularly in the Spanish language, and other languages about what their rights are, what options they have to stay here. Hopefully, I hope they can see themselves seen in my candidacy.
East Palo Alto geographically has a lot of environmental concerns. What crosses your mind when it comes to EPA related to its environment?
Water infrastructure is a big issue. We’re sitting next to lots of bodies of water that are prone to affect us, issues of flooding in particular. I’m worried about our levees, making sure our levees by the Baylands are up to date and improved.
Not only water infrastructure, the former Romic Site, that YUCA [Youth United for Community Action] and other players, they raised awareness, they’re an example of young people getting together and fighting back, saying, ‘This is a toxic waste dump. This is hurting our community and they need to be out of our city.’
They were successful in doing that, but there’s still a lot of long term effects we haven’t calculated yet. As we’re developing the RBD, it’s gonna be built nearby that area. I’m thinking about how we can mitigate the impact, especially as people are going to start trafficking that area in the next several years. Conducting studies, conducting initiatives…so we know precisely how we can reduce the impact of that especially as we’re trying to commercialize that area.
What’s an ideal outcome for your time on city council? And since you’ve made a point to come back to East Palo Alto, do you have political aspirations beyond it?
I’ll go wherever the need is. That’s my honest answer. I have aspirations to serve this community, give resources where I can, to demand that people pay attention to East Palo Alto as a case study of everything right and wrong in the United States in terms of access and equity, disparities and opportunity.
My plan is, in the next four years, is I want to see more youth engaged in civics. I want people to feel they can make a difference. I want more unity across ethnicities and races because unfortunately I believe elections and politics brings out the worst in people. There becomes a tribalism that I think we all adhere to in certain moments, so wanting to transcend that. There’s polarization nationally and from the vitriol of demonization, we can be better than that. I think we are better than that. I want my time in East Palo Alto to really epitomize that.
Finally, again, just knowing that I’m always going to be someone who’s accessible in East Palo Alto. I don’t want to be the guy in the glass building or city hall building where you have to wait a week to see. I want you to be able to see me down the street and have a conversation with me, with a face mask of course ’cause of COVID. I want people to know I’m available and have difficult and important conversations to uplift and shape this community.
What would you say to people who are previously unaware of you or didn’t vote for you?
I appreciate you voting all the same. I’m grateful for them to make their difference regardless of whether or not they voted for me. They’re letting people know their voice matters and they’re influencing the shape of their community. I’m so grateful that they voted. Whether they voted for me or not is beside the point.
…Let’s put aside our differences politically and do the work of bringing the community together. There’s less than 30,000 of us. We’re two-and-a-half square miles. We’re surrounded by so much wealth and opportunity, let’s put our heads together to figure out how we can bring more money to this community and frankly save a lot of lives. Not just in terms of life and death, but in prosperity and opportunity.
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