Lessons Learned from Getting Proximate in North Fair Oaks

Mural depicting the past and present of the North Fair Oaks district of Redwood city
Artist: Jose Castro

There are many ways to learn about an issue, a population or a place. Some important learning occurs without ever connecting directly with someone affected by an issue or who lives and works in a particular community. 

At SV2 —and particularly in light of current public health guidelines—we certainly believe in the value of “at-a-distance” approaches, particularly to conserve the time and energy of all involved. However, we’ve also learned that  there is no substitute for first-hand immersion – for getting proximate

Through our current North Fair Oaks Community Grant Round, many in the SV2 community have experienced the value of getting proximate as a powerful way to understand the complexities and nuance of a community and its people, and to inform their perspective and actions going forward. 

What have we learned so far?

Recurring themes which call for both short and long-term responses.  Our SV2 Grant Round leaders conducted 18 “discovery conversations” with both formal and informal community leaders. Recurrent themes emerged:  the assets and challenges,  joys and  fears, aspirations and anxieties of the North Fair Oaks community.  Some tilt more toward the short term  “urgency of now” –  since exacerbated by the current COVID-19 crisis. Others call for a longer term strategy to change underlying policies and systems. We need both. 

  • housing (costs rising, displacement, gentrification)
  • local schools/education (local school closing, charter options, teacher turnover/low pay, homework help programs discontinued at the library) 
  • health care (including dental)
  • mental health (working 2-3 jobs, early life trauma, immigration challenges, a culture that doesn’t encourage self-care)
  • building leadership capacity in parents and community residents (developing community voice, agency, empowerment)
  • childcare (few high quality options, high cost)
  • transportation (railroad tracks divide the community, lack sidewalks and bike lanes), workforce development 

All the senses inform experience. It’s personal and emotional, not just intellectual.  

SV2 Partners came to better understand the North Fair Oaks community through several in-person Get Proximate  experiences: 

Partners participated in a facilitated Reflection Call following these experiences, sharing their observations—what moved and surprised them, how their multi-sensory experiences shifted their perspectives, and could change the course of their actions going forward. 

Some themes that emerged:

  • Strength of the local community
    • “You could see in the residential neighborhood how some took such pride in their homes.  The mural was beautiful and so were the vegetable plots in the park.”
    • “You could see the strength of relationships in the little markets.” 
  • Geographic and governance obstacles 
    • “The railroad tracks are a division, and there is not a way for the youth to cross the tracks so they need vans to get to some of the local programs.” 
    • “North Fair Oaks is in an unincorporated part of San Mateo County, so they don’t have a local say in the operations.  No local control.” 
  • The huge potential and heart of North Fair Oaks residents
    • “There was so much community spirit and talent at the Open Mic Night.”
    • “ I had an inspiring conversation with a Mom at the North Fair Oaks library. Her son is about to transition from community college to university studying engineering. She is also taking English classes and building her own skills.”   
    • “We need to talk about assets rather than deficits.”
  • The power of personal relationships and partnership
    • “I have now spent time there and developed some friendships. I can reach out directly. It keeps deepening.”
    • “We got to talk to others on the walk, like in the garden.  We learn more with natural exchanges.”
    • “We are not there as tourists but partners; we need to avoid talking about the community as them, as others. How do we do this genuinely and be more watchful with how we describe it and the words we use?” 

We need to gain understanding through both “intellectual sources” and by getting proximate. And when we truly get proximate, it’s  more meaningful, more fun, and ultimately, we’ll build deeper relationships over time that strengthen agency and leadership in the communities we seek to serve.  We look forward to continuing to integrate our Get Proximate learnings throughout our SV2 programming.