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What Facebook Means to East Palo Alto Teens

Facebook Academy


For teens in East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, Facebook’s presence goes beyond their digital lives. The teenagers in these towns are in the unique position of growing up alongside Facebook, not just on it. To understand what happens when one of the world’s largest social networks moves in next door, I headed to a skatepark in East Palo Alto, just a few miles from Facebook’s new campus.

A bunch of teenagers sit at a picnic table, some smoking, others looking down at their phones. I ask one of them, Dede Johnson, what he thinks about having Facebook in his backyard.

“I don’t like it. They’re kicking all of us out and my friends had to move because they can’t afford to live there. So I don’t think that’s fair,” Johnson says. Since Facebook announced the construction of its new campus four years ago,  the price of a single family home in East Palo Alto has gone up 75%.  Johnson says he deactivated his Facebook account in protest.

18-year-old Margo Hodge says she actually likes Facebook being “back there,” meaning Facebook’s huge campus, just a ten minute drive from the skatepark.

“Nobody really goes back there though,” Hodge says. “But it doesn’t bother me that it’s back there. I think it’s kind of cool that we have an actual big organization near us. And we’re a small town that’s not really known of, in this area. so it’s pretty cool.”

Her small town, East Palo Alto, is historically black, majority Latino.

Another teen at the skatepark, 17-year-old Daniel Nava, is worried that the culture of that town is being disrupted.

“A lot of the local East Palo Alto culture is being kicked out,” he says. “A majority of the west side of East Palo Alto is already being taken over. Rent control has been raised to the point where they already had to move out all the way across to Central Valley.”

Nava says this is splitting up extended families—aunts and uncles and cousins who have all lived closed to each other for generations.

“Facebook is a cool app I guess but not when it destroys your house or your home, you know what I mean?” Nava says. “So to me it’s not a good thing. I don’t like Facebook being here. It’s a cool network and all, but don’t be in my area. Have your own little abandoned planet. And work from there, because we don’t want you here destroying my house.”

Olivia Luna, 17, is also from East Palo Alto. She spent last summer inside Facebook at the Facebook Academy, a summer internship program exclusively for high school sophomores from neighboring towns.

“The first time I walked in here I saw it as a little mini college campus, without the dorms,” she tells me. “You aren’t distracted with outside world stuff. It’s very colorful and very open and it makes it a fun working environment.”

I met up with Luna at Facebook. She’d just finished a day of AP testing and was sipping her second iced coffee of the day in preparation for a night of homework.

“A lot of outsiders don’t see Facebook as this campus or a lot of people working hard day and night,” Luna says. “They just see it as Facebook, the logo.”

Luna is ambitious. She wants to go to Stanford or UCLA for college. She wants to be a motivational speaker. Her background is a big part of that. It’s something she shared with Facebook employees while she was an intern.

“East Palo Alto at one point was known as the number one murder capital in the world,” she says. “It’s not like that anymore, but the fact that students are able to come from cities like that and work hard and prove it to everyone, it shows a lot. It shows how much they’re willing to do to be successful.”

Lunalooks me straight in the eyes and gets very serious when she talks about her hometown.  

“Everyone there is protective of each other, they all look out for each other, they’re all willing to help each other out. They all want the students in the community to be successful.”

That’s what brought her to the Facebook Academy. Her best friend encouraged her to apply. Like most of the students who get into the program, she’s an AP student on the STEM track. But once she was in the program, it wasn’t the tech or the IT tasks that were the biggest highlight for her. It was having mentors to have lunch with at least once a week and a new space to go for advice

“Well I guess I could say I have my Facebook family, my Facebook parents, Facebook godparents,” she says. “I guess being part of the Facebook Academy really did grow on me. They became my second family. They write letters of rec. If I want to come visit they’re like ‘Oh yeah, just tell the day and time.’”

Lunasays this connection is crucial.  Facebook released its diversity numbers, and they’re pretty on par with other tech giants like Google and Yahoo. Spoiler alert: the companies have a majority white and Asian male-dominated staff, particularly in technical jobs. Luna wants this to change.

“If there were more people like me, women of color, or the younger people or teenagers, if they see that they see we can do it,” she says. “It’s not just the majority or higher class that can do this. Anyone can do it.  If there were more people of color, it would motivate the next generation to keep on making that happen.”

Right now, the tech industry relies heavily on programs like Facebook Academy as a way to shift the makeup of their companies in the future.

“I think diversity is important because there’s so many of us, a website or anything needs to relate to all of us and the back end who creates this can relate to all of us then the product will relate to someone,” says Rose Valencia, a 16-year-old from East Palo Alto, who finished Facebook Academy last summer.  

Last fall, fall Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg paid her school a surprise visit and Valencia interviewed him on stage. For her closing question, she asked Zuckerberg what he planned to do for her community. Zuckerberg talked about various ways Facebook has tried to help the community: Giving resources to the local police department, boosting the economy with jobs, and tutoring in afterschool programs.

Facebook Academy alum Anthony Villanueva says it works both ways --  the community can also make Facebook better.

“I think they learned a lot and benefitted a lot from our time there,” he says.  “Because we were just a gentle reminder that there are other communities just in Facebook’s backyard.”

The presence of local teens at the company each summer is a gentle reminder that there’s a whole town outside the walls of Facebook’s campus gates. None of the kids I talked to at the skatepark had ever heard of  Facebook Academy, but they did suggest to me that Facebook could build a skatepark or create more scholarships to help them out.

Facebook has been on a mission to connect the world. But according to these teens, to be a good neighbor, Facebook is going to have to bring that mission home, to East Palo Alto.