Posts published in 2018

Downtown Kirkland, WA
Downtown Kirkland, WA, where Neal is on the Community Council.

Mustard seeds

By Neal Black, ’94 (Civil/Environmental Engineering)


How small is a mustard seed, exactly?

I’m asking myself this from the dais of council chambers at the first council meeting after being sworn in. My decision to run for local office last November was inspired, in part, by my former Stanford classmate, now Senator, Cory Booker, who has instructed college graduates to “Stay faithful in things large and taking on the world, but stay faithful in those things small – because remember it’s the small things, the size of a mustard seed, that ultimately moves mountains.” As I work through tonight’s agenda, I’m wondering: When Cory thinks of a mustard seed, just how small a seed does he picture?

Tonight’s council agenda consists of a proposal to allow temporary signs on city right-of-ways (picture an A-frame sandwich board along the curb) and a proposal to up-zone four city blocks from two stories to five stories. Compared to things large, these seeds are tiny.

But wait. The community speaks, and I listen. I learn that A-frame sandwich boards are a matter of economic fairness and inclusiveness for some small business owners who can’t afford high-rent space along the main thoroughfare, some of whom are immigrants, older entrepreneurs, or just starting out. And those three extra floors? If done correctly, they’re a small part of a regional solution to affordable housing—a crisis here in the Seattle area.

Mustard seeds are tiny indeed. (I know. I Googled it.) But running for local office and working with like-minded neighbors to make small improvements to the city, ultimately, improves people’s lives.

Neal Black, '94Neal began as a tutor for the Ravenswood-Stanford Tutoring Program (RSTP), working with students in East Palo Alto and Redwood City. He was a tutor coordinator in RSTP for two years. Neal was also a Stanford in Government fellow, interning at the Natural Resources Committee of the California State Assembly, and he attended Stanford in Washington, where he interned in the White House Office on Environmental Policy. Now a lawyer in Seattle, he has incorporated service to his community into his career and family life. He is the chair of the King County Bar Association’s Public Policy Committee, and, in November 2017, he was elected to the Houghton Community Council in Kirkland, Washington.

Cleaning things up at the office

By Vanessa Ochavillo, ’18 (Human Biology), Cardinal Service Coordinator


“Imagine a couple of guys and some garbage cans,” Cameron began.

This is Dechets à l’Or—or “Garbage to Gold” in English—an environmental startup in Guinea that collects local people’s trash.

Every morning, garbage collectors go into the neighborhoods in the city of Kan Kan, trucks bumbling down pothole-ridden roads, providing a service that locals have long felt that the country did not adequately provide.

Cameron Woods, ’20, sometimes joined the trash collectors. Others times, he accompanied the fee collectors as they went door to door, requesting payments. On these collection trips, Cameron filled out the paperwork, quietly following along with his elementary French and what little he had learned of Malinke, the local Guinean dialect.

He spent most of his time playing observer, which proved to be appropriate for his official role as “staff support.” After weeks of learning the organization’s operations, when he proposed changes that organized customer data for easier analysis, he hoped this would make work simpler for the staff.

“The best moments would be when someone would come up with an idea on their own of how to collect data, and I would help them do that,” he said.

More than process improvement, however, he wanted to understand the people. He spent weekends and lunches with coworkers to get to know them. During collection rounds, they would play language games, where he shared English phrases in exchange for Malinke.

A film fanatic with a particular interest in the African diaspora, being an observer suited Cameron well. And the internship reaffirmed his pursuit in both areas.

Musing about a career in film, he can “literally picture how a Netflix documentary on Dechets à l’Or could really open people’s mind to the crisis of waste management.”

“We are visual creatures. We respond so strongly to stories and to emotion when you put all those things together—the music, strong visuals, stories, characters. They hit you in a certain way that will get you to care, to care about other people’s struggle, other people’s joy,” he said.

One day, while on their usual collection routes, he and his coworkers got to talking about the roads, and they asked him if the streets in America were like the streets in Kan Kan.

“I had to explain the nuances of a society that they were completely unfamiliar with,” he said. “On a daily basis, I was filling in the blanks of their worldview while they were simultaneously filling in mine.”

Cameron wants to return to Africa. Maybe next time, he will come with a camera.


Cameron Woods, ’20 (African and African American Studies), was a 2017 African Service Fellow.