*I had the opportunity of interviewing Donna Rutherford, Mayor of East Palo Alto in 2016. This profile was published in the EPA Today newspaper.*
As the city on the move, East Palo Alto requires a fearless leader who is willing to stand up for its residents.
Donna Rutherford was appointed as Mayor December 1, 2015. Before that, she served as the city’s Vice Mayor. She has served on the city council as well as the school board for many years.
The current mayor grew up in Hunters Point, San Francisco before moving to East Palo Alto as she was entering her senior year of high school. She graduated from Menlo-Atherton High School in 1969. “I came from a family of 13 children, two parents, and we were always taught to treat every person we meet like we wanted to be treated,” she said of her family dynamic. “We have a belief in God. We were expected to do certain things. I always said I don’t want to be one of the statistics.”
“Hunters Point was a starting point for me. It’s a multi-cultural community,” she said of her native town. Her mother worked for a redevelopment agency that helped build low-income housing. Rutherford proudly said that a street was named after her mother. Drawing parallels to East Palo Alto, she explained that some could describe Hunter’s Point as “dismal,” but she didn’t see it that way growing up. Instead, she saw the good in her community. “I could look out at the bay and see all those sails. The sails in the water. Different colors. Beautiful,” she described. “They want this land because they can build nice houses,” she said, “We’re in an ideal spot here in East Palo Alto.”
“I can relate to the fact that as I ventured outside of East Palo Alto, attending different conferences all over the state, people would see us from East Palo Alto and they would make some comments that were negative,” she said of her experiences. “I would always defend East Palo Alto. I know there are a lot of hard-working people in this community.”
Rutherford never expected to be mayor or an “elected person at all,” she said. “I wasn’t an A student, but I did my homework. I wasn’t a follower, but I didn’t consider myself to be a leader either,” she described herself. What she did know, however, was that she wanted to help others. “I wanted to be a social worker to help people and I’ve always respected my elders because they have so much wisdom.”
After getting married, her plans to become a social worker were derailed as she dedicated her time to being a stay-at-home mom and volunteering. She volunteered with the Ecumenical Hunger Program before it came to East Palo Alto. When her son was in school, she decided to become involved in his education. “I went to the school site meetings, PTA meetings, and got involved that way,” she said. When parents began electing their officers, she thought, “well, if someone nominates me, I’m not going to turn it down.”
Even though she had not finished college due to starting a family, she kept a positive attitude and was more than willing to learn. “I’ve always asked for help,” she said, “Somebody knows and all you have to do is ask.” As the newly appointed school site president, she “attended the school board meetings faithfully.”
“I spoke up when I needed to and at one point, folks thought I was an employee because I was there at all the meetings.”
Rutherford is no stranger to standing up for what she believes is right—even when it means going up against bullies. She has done so all her life. She remembered a time when she was in middle school, waiting for her turn in the game of four square. When it was finally her turn, one of her classmates, a “bad girl,” took her spot. “She walked in front of me and got in the square. I thought okay, I could either let her do it again, but it’s my turn and pretty soon, we’re going to have to go into class,” Rutherford r e recalled. So, she made a decision. “I stepped in the square too,” she said. “I knew she might hit me at any time because she was a fighter.” The girl eventually walked away, but not before saying, “I’m going to get you.” Rutherford always seemed to be standing up to the kids who were notoriously troublemakers. “I stood up,” she said before admitting with a laugh, “I had to run home a couple of times.”
On the other side of the spectrum, she remembered a time when she was in a bit of trouble for being chatty in class, during a summer program. The teacher asked her to be quiet, but she had forgotten about it by the next day. “Bob Hoover [a now long-time community activist of East Palo Alto] came into the classroom—I’ll never forget this. He was tall and young. He said, ‘young lady, your teacher told you yesterday to stop talking… I’m here to tell you that if you don’t stop talking, you’re going to be out of the program,’’ she recalled. “I straightened up. We laugh about that today,” she said.
Looking back, she didn’t hold a grudge against Hoover. “He cared enough to say that to me,” she said about the encounter. “We have to do that to our kids, too.”
The mayor advised that everyone ask for help if necessary. “Don’t be afraid.” When speaking about the youth, who make up a big portion of East Palo Alto’s community, she said, “You’re not going to be getting younger. You’re going to get older and eventually you’re going to have to realize, looking back at my life, what have I accomplished?”
Referencing back to a study that was presented to the council by One East Palo Alto that found that this community has too many liquor stores for its size, Rutherford was impressed with the youth taking action. “I’m amazed at the youth that have taken charge of their lives… They don’t to have their community overrun with liquor stores,” she said.
“The youth have to think that they can do it. They have to motivate themselves,” the mayor said. She has high hope for the youth of East Palo Alto. “Somebody is always going to be the first person in someone’s family to complete college. Somebody is going to be the first AfricanAmerican person to be employed over here,” she said, urging the youth not to give up. Rutherford also understood that many continue to compare East Palo Alto to its neighboring cities. “We’re still a young city. So, we can’t be compared to Menlo Park or Palo Alto or Mountain View.”
During her term as mayor, she said, “I have lots of goals, but I’m realistic about what can be accomplished in a short amount of time.” She assured that she does not let her “head get big.” “I don’t have a problem telling you, I don’t know. But you know what, I’ll get the information for you. That’s the least I can do.” The mayor also stated that, “I’m not using my position as a stepping stone to congress.” What she wants, she said, is to “enjoy my life and make a difference in the community.”
When asked what she would like to say to the youth in the community, she had firm, but fair advice. “You can’t let your circumstances dictate how to behave. You have to draw on your inner strength because we can’t continue to use the excuse, ‘well, I came from a single family home and my mom was on drugs and my dad wasn’t around.’”
For those who feel that they must leave East Palo Alto, Rutherford wasn’t offended, she encouraged everyone to be motivated and go experience the world. “If you have to leave, leave and come back at some point,” she said, “You’ll always have East Palo Alto in your heart and you can always come back.”