Nadine Rambeau, executive director of East Palo Alto’s new EPACENTER, discusses her faith and hope in the region’s young people.
Nadine Rambeau, EPACENTER’s executive director
When I met Nadine Rambeau for the first time, we were both onstage. We sat in front of hundreds of people earlier this winter as I moderated a Silicon Valley panel about innovation. To say she brought the house down is an understatement; her passion for and commitment to children was palpable, and she instantly connected with the audience about her vision for the future of community nonprofits.
Rambeau, who is the executive director of the recently opened EPACENTER in East Palo Alto, has spent the past 20 years activating creativity as a catalyst for youth empowerment, economic equity and social change in multiple communities across the United States. She has served as the managing director of the arts and education division at the California Institute of the Arts. Before arriving in California, she played key leadership roles in establishing accessible arts education programs for vulnerable youth at the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago Chernin’s Center for the Arts; she also was instrumental in the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ award-winning job-training-in-the-arts program, Gallery 37. Amid the busy opening of EPACENTER, Rambeau was kind enough to sit down with us to discuss the organization and the impact it will have on the community.
The new EPACENTER in Palo Alto features lots of space for learning and engagement.
What’s your elevator speech for the organization, which was funded by the John & Marcia Goldman Foundation?
EPACENTER’s mission is to create opportunities for youth in the community to discover and amplify their talents, realize their potential and bring positive impact to the world through their creative expression. EPACENTER envisions a future where all young people in East Palo Alto will have the opportunity to become creative innovators and enjoy economic and social success in their community.
What has surprised you the most since starting your new role?
Seeing the students, some as young as just 10 years old, have such clarity about what they need to achieve and the solutions that will really work. Seeing them know exactly what would be best, and the fact that they have such innovative solutions for how to solve the challenges that they’re facing.
The grounds of the facility also promote lots of physical activities.
During our innovation summit, you mentioned that the kids establish EPACENTER’s boundaries and programming. What are some of the innovations you’ve seen so far resulting from this approach to building better youth programs?
One of the first innovative ideas EPACENTER implemented was the concept of adults stepping back and allowing youth to drive what happened. We took what they had to say so seriously that we created a building in response to [their ideas]. It’s also challenging for a large institution to be responsive to what you’re hearing from youth about what they need. Most of the time, organizations are only responding to the needs of adults or parents, but it’s important for youth to gain a sense of agency by having real decision-making power—and then seeing the implications of what it is that they decide.
Children had a large part to play in the center’s sustainable design.
What impressed you most about the facility, and what are some programming initiatives that you’re truly excited about?
What impresses me most about the facility is how cognizant the students were of the need to build for sustainability. They were very serious about that—reclaiming access to sustainable materials and design techniques that would sustain their future, not to mention the fact that they saw that as a need early in the design process. This is something that will keep giving back to their community for generations to come. With that in mind, we are also incorporating the idea of sustainability into our programming, building out a curriculum that encourages the students to take the environment into consideration as they explore their creative practice. We want them to be able to learn and apply their creative capacities to work on projects that involve sustainable design.
The EPACENTER’s Boom Box Theater
How are children wired differently today than they were, say, 20 years ago, and how will EPACENTER help them become leaders?
There’s a sense of maturity that this population of students have. These students really have a different level of exposure to challenges, with a deeper awareness of what the challenges are—and what their responsibilities are going to be moving forward. My hope is that they will bring with them into the future a much more informed practice of being citizens of the world. At EPACENTER, our job is to not shy away from serious issues. We want to help youth understand that creativity is a very powerful tool that can be utilized in many different contexts.
Light spills into the second floor of the center.
How does running EPACENTER in a region blessed by innovation impact your mission and the children in the program?
Operating in that type of environment gives the youth something to not only aspire to but also be inspired and challenged by. We’re on the cusp of taking what has been learned in Silicon Valley and applying it in a completely new context. Trying to take things to the next level and pushing the boundaries of this area is absolutely thrilling. It’s thrilling to see a population of students—who have been both inside and outside the environment—utilize their unique lens and perspectives to come up with innovations on how all of this can work together to benefit everyone.
I think EPACENTER is the most exciting place on the planet to be working. There’s so much potential here and so much inspiration. There’s so much opportunity when you provide youth with an environment like this and put some real resources behind their ideas. We can be a place where different ideas and innovative organizations meet, and students can gain access to these people. It will accelerate change and innovation.
What are you most excited about in the coming year at EPACENTER?
I’m looking forward to the new partnerships that will emerge—ones with Stanford are currently in development—and the new programming that will be developed and hopefully seeing boots on the ground. The students are chomping at the bit.
How do our readers get involved or support the organization?
Beyond fundraisers and events, we need financial and programmatic support, as well as equipment. We’re looking for people to become supporters of EPACENTER and its mission, backing the young people of East Palo Alto in discovering and developing their creativity. It’s an investment in youth and their amazing potential—and opening doors to a vast new array of opportunities. To make a gift, supporters can visit epacenter.org/donate, or text GIVE to 650.395.7925.
Photography by: PHOTOS BY CHRISTOPHER BAGLEY