Tameeka Bennett   Executive Director of YUCA

We sat down with Tameeka Bennett in YUCA's quirky brick office on a side street of East Palo Alto on one of the first hot spring days. She has poise, confidence, and a lot of wisdom from years of 'hitting the pavement' organizing in her community, which she dearly loves. Enjoy learning from her insights on organizing and how to win against the large corporate interests attempting to take what EPA cherishes most: their community.  

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What does “home” mean to you here in East Palo Alto?


My favorite part of East Palo Alto that there is such a strong sense of community. We're very small -- only 2.5 square miles-- so you know everyone here. Everything I did growing up was in East Palo Alto from church to summer camp all of my extracurricular activities were done here. You can walk down the street and yell somebody's name out because we all know each other. One of the defining aspects of who we are is that we're very involved and live in a city that is extremely determined. We became a city by sheer will. We took 20 years to incorporate as a city. We were slammed down again and again but our elders and our founders did not stop, they didn’t give up. They fought all the way through two decades and became a city. This determination is in our DNA. Our community members have no problem at all letting you know what they think and how we should be running the city. And I think that's beautiful and it's exactly the way every city should be run. That's why I do this work.


How did YUCA get started and what has kept it going?


Young people are often seen and not heard. We wanted to break that. We want to make sure that young people understood that their role wasn't just to follow suit but to also create their own paths and figure out their own solutions. And so Yuca was born in 1994.


A lot of people didn’t think we would last, because it was led by young people. But now we are one of the longest standing organizations in East Palo Alto - we are very proud of that. We don't give up. I mean, it's grassroots community organizing so you're always going to have scary times but you keep going. But the fact that we're young people gives us the energy to do that.


We've got a tradition here at YUCA where we intentionally strive to keep our leadership young. Our staff and ED (myself) are all under 30 years old. You see young leadership in a lot of Silicon Valley companies, but not really in the nonprofit sector, especially in an organization that’s over 20 years old.


But I think that our hiring practice is one of the key advantages that has kept us thriving. We constantly have new and fresh energy coming in - young folks who are living and seeing the real issues that are present on the streets every day.  I think there's a difference in seeing a young person as a recipient of a service versus a shaper of society. It’s the difference between going into a nonprofit, getting tutoring for an hour, and then going home versus coming here where you have a say in the direction of the organization - that's what sets YUCA apart.


How does youth leadership make you more effective in your work?


I believe that those people who are directly affected by an issue are the ones most likely have a solution. For example, young people experiencing street violence, and identifying how to address it in non-militarized ways. Or improve the quality of their education at school. They have the solutions to those problems. They may not know how to articulate them yet and they may not understand the full context behind them, but if you give them the tools and the skills to help them, they have the power and the ability to implement change.


For example, we had one student whose mom died suddenly in a car accident died and then all of a sudden she was whisked away by Family Services and Child Protective Services and they went all the way to Colorado to some distant relatives. So we organized to bring her back here and at least get to say goodbye to her siblings. If the organization wasn’t in touch with our young people like that I don't think we’d be able to react so quickly and advocate for the direct needs of youth.


It’s imperative that youth organizing not die, because no one can speak for young people like they can speak for themselves. Youth today in EPA experience a lot of problems I didn't have growing up and I’m still only 29. You’ve got to be able to keep up with all of that. I don't think you can be 55 and 60 still trying to run a youth program - it just doesn't work. I mean, the lingo on the street changes like from month to month.


What the major issues you are focused on now and why?


Right now focus issues are education and housing. Our goals are to establish a high school in East Palo Alto  - we don’t have one right now - and increase the amount of affordable housing stock and strengthen low-income tenants’ rights to stay in their home. We do one-on-ones with community members where youth go and talk to parents and other youth about what issues they are facing right now. They use lots of door knocking- grassroots style. They bring all that information back and then they see what the top priorities are.


I thought we were going to focus on predatory pay-day lending, since that’s a big issue here. But the youth looked at payday lending and asked “why do we have to go to these centers and get advances on paychecks? Whatever money we’re making should be enough to cover bills. Why are we always working for other people, why don't we own anything here ourselves? They traced it back and focused on education. They thought that having their own high-quality high school here in East Palo Alto would encourage their peers and themselves and actually reach for things like college and business degrees and come back to this community and invest economically in this place. So that’s how the education campaign formed.


Housing is an issue we have been working on for about 10 years. The founders of this community were intentional in making sure that tenants have rights and protections, and that housing stock was going to be affordable for blue collar families.


Now we happen to be smack dab in the middle of all these tech companies like Facebook and land became a hot commodity. Back when EPA was created, no one wanted this land. Black and brown communities were pushed out here, the site of a toxic waste facility and empty lots. And now all of a sudden everybody wants it back. Well, no. You red lined us; you busted everyone out; you said this is where we have to live. We, by will and sheer determination, made it our own. We made it a city. You can't have it back now that we made it something that you want.


There are only one or two other organizations in East Palo Alto that have the extensive knowledge about housing that we have, and are down there on the front lines fighting for affordable housing. You could ask any other organization in East Palo Alto and they would tell you without a doubt that YUCA is on the front lines fighting for our housing and our leaders.


In the last 5 years, we've noticed a rapid change in ownership and a rapid process of gentrification happening in the community. We thought that it would take at least 10 years to heat up but I don't think we have that long. I feel my community will not be here in the next three to five years.The work we're doing is definitely slowing that, but it's hard when you have huge tech companies who are requiring that their employees live close to their campuses.

What’s an example of a win you’ve had on those issues?


We just finished negotiated a $20 million dollar deal with Facebook for affordable housing. We threatened them with legal action if they didn’t want to come to the table and we're fully prepared to go through that. It wasn't the first time we've had to threaten that. I won’t get all into the details, but the results of that lawsuits are showing today because housing is being built in Menlo Park for for low income families. $10 million of it is for East Palo Alto specifically another $5 million of it is for the surrounding community within a 15 mile radius. We've got another $500K for tenant assistance, i.e., any emergency tenants have whether they can’t pay rent, cars were towed, medical emergencies, or legal defense. There's a $500,000 fund for those needs that's being administered by counseling legal services of East Palo Alto. This money won’t address the full issue of housing and tenants rights, especially as the gentrification pressure grows, but it’s a good start and we are happy about it.


As you look to the future, what does “winning” look like?

Housing is the big issue right now. And 'winning' that in EPA looks like home ownership of folks of color is retained-- and not just retained, but sought after. It would look like community members are educated in tenant protections and rent control. We do a lot of education workshops, but there is so much turnover that its hard to keep people educated. So another win for us would look like no more turnover of our families. It would look like me be able to look at the same faces over the next few years at these community workshops and not few faces every few months. It would also look a high school here in EPA that our young people can attend. Especially in small communities like EPA, having a public high school is really important because it builds camaraderie among young people and families. I think people don't understand how sporting events could even bring community members together. Not to mention that HS years are some of the most crucial years of your life as a young person, so to not be able to experience those within the context of home is hard and unfair. You should always the option to go to a different school if you want, but you should also have the option of going to school in the environment that you are familiar with, comfortable with, and where people are cheering for you to make it. Our young people don't have that right now."