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A Tale of Two Cities: How Menlo Park and East Palo Alto School Districts Are Leading D.E.I Work





By Tonga Victoria Fakalata



On June 10, 2021, unified efforts towards greater educational equity were made when the East Palo Alto School District and the Menlo Park School District opened a joint D.E.I Office, hiring both Cities’ first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Coordinator. Many question whether this decision was propped up by the national civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and just another example of performative politics.


According to the Society for Human Resource Management, Diversity Equity and Inclusion exploded in market size and capacity, providing corporations, nonprofits, and schools with materials on how to tackle anti-racism. Year 2020 saw a 55% increase in a commendable pledge of commitment made by CEO’s of some of America’s biggest companies like Twitter, Amazon, Nike and Meta (formerly Facebook).


However, diversity, equity and inclusion cannot be a C-Suite decision and expect to live past year one. This hypothesis proves true when in just three years after systematizing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, it’s just not working. A 2023 Revelio Lab report revealed a stunning 40% attrition rate of DEI roles, claiming that ‘more than 600 U.S companies’ have laid off professionals and contracts in the DEI field, “bearing in mind [that] the median DEI team size in companies is three – these outflows likely amount to the exodus of entire diversity teams.”


A top-down approach does not, has not, and never will work.


So, is that what we are seeing happen in our hometown cities of East Palo Alto and Menlo Park? Well, not quite. Ask any Menlo Park School District alum from East Palo Alto and most responses will include their Tinsley experience. Best summarized in a copy of the 1998 Palo Alto Weekly Newspaper:


The origin of the Tinsley program dates to 1976, when a group of parents--both African American and white--formed after several racially motivated fights among students at Menlo-Atherton High School.The parents, who eventually organized under the name Midpeninsula Task Force for Integrated Education, were led by Margaret Tinsley, an East Palo Alto woman whose two daughters, Karen and Valarie, attended M-A.They filed a lawsuit alleging that unconstitutional segregation existed in all the school districts from Palo Alto to San Carlos. The settlement, finally reached March 10, 1986, required each district, based on size, to take a certain number of students every year.”


Ordered by the court and mediated by San Mateo County Superior Court Judge William Lanam, Tinsley became, for generations of East Palo Alto kids, the yellow bus to go to school. Is that the best way to solve for shared social inequity and is it still relevant? The jury is still out on that one.


Many argue that, for that time, the Tinsley pipeline model made sense. An integration model to solve for Jim Crow racial segregation which “did not exist anywhere” in the United States. Many argue that the Tinsley Program made sense. For that time, yes. However, in the age of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and school choice, does it surmount to the times?


While in conversation with Marissa McGee, the lone-Coordinator of the joint Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office, this became an interesting topic worth exploring.


“It’s like I have insider-info,” Marissa joked as we casually chatted about her experience as the first Diversity Equity and Inclusion Coordinator. A Stanford graduate and Eastside Panther, Alum, Marissa credits her educational journey as a Ravenswood District student as an asset in this new role.


“There is definitely an opportunity for both these communities to learn from one another because the [systemic] needs are so different.” Marissa explained when asked about the basic functions of the joint DEI office. “DEI looks different in each District, and because of my background as a teacher, my goal is to help differentiate the needs of each, in order to build solutions.”


A role that began with only one year funding, Marissa is preparing now for her third year as a joint officer which begs the question — is this a responsible solution to solve for shared inequity?


“DEI is not just words. It’s action. My hope is that this office will be here long enough for both Districts to build real solutions.” Marissa concluded during our Tuesday chat, distinguishing this office from the stunning shift in workplace culture and company-wide goals that no longer prioritize DEI. When placed in the context and vision of the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program, not only does it make sense, but it provides for the Tinsley pipeline model to evolve in a way that is specific to the tales and pains of two cities.


References 


Ayas, R. Cutting Costs at the Expense of Diversity. (2023 Feb. 7, Revelio Lab) https://www.reveliolabs.com/news/social/cutting-costs-at-the-expense-of-diversity/ 


Bunn, C. Diversity officers hired in 2020 are losing their jobs, and the ones who remain are mostly white. (2023 February 27, Yahoo.com)


Bunn, C. Hamstrung by ‘golden handcuffs’: Diversity roles disappear 3 years after George Floyd’s murder inspired them. (2023 February 27, NBCnews.com)


Mauer, R. New DE&I roles spike after racial justice protests. (2020 August 6, SHRM.org)


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