Fomenting Cross-Class Interactions

14 Jan

“A bubble” is often used to describe the shielded seclusion in which students live their lives on the Stanford campus. The words seem appropriate. After all, Stanford has a three-quarters-of-a-mile-long boundary that separates it from civilization. And even that ends in a yuppy favored downtown lined with preppy shops. What’s more? Even that sits next to multi-million dollar homes. To reach the seething humanity, one has to go further. To the nether regions of Palo Alto and cross into East Palo Alto. It is a task so mythically treacherous that no one volunteers, except when it is time to buy the necessities from IKEA.

But even in the famously elitist bubble, there are poor. Stanford spends about $3.2 billion to educate its roughly 15,000 students. The figure amounts to roughly $213,000 per person. About half of this money is spent on salary and benefits. The employees range from $10 hr/cafeteria workers with no benefits to administrators who earn hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Whichever way you look at it, we have a substantial breadth of employees with whom students can interact and form partnerships to help some and learn from others.

The shrinking conversational space

Most transactions involving cross-class interaction are economic interactions. For instance, when you buy something or pay for a service. For instance, gardening or pizza delivery. Most of these interactions have been bureaucratized, with greeting protocols and thank you protocols. They leave little space for real human-to-human interaction and exchange of stories. In India, the middle class often still knows about the lives of their maids and the neighborhood grocer. And that sometimes allows them to form genuine bonds of empathy which helps them look at policy and their own lives differently. It is only through knowing lives of people in other classes that one can build genuine empathy. The damning fact of modern life is that even empathy has been implicated in superficial identity issues. And empathy lies within the contingencies imposed upon the selling and buying, largely absent of information or care.


The idea is to connect students, faculty, and professional staff with workers from lower economic strata. For example, cashiers, janitors, construction workers, drivers, and other people whose services they rely upon every day. To do that, create an umbrella program that helps people form hyper-local chapters that extend to one building. For example, computer science students may start a program to help teach computers to janitors. Social scientists may work with people to improve their literacy skills.

Detailed Proposal:

There are three parts to the proposed program:

  • Create a website that has the following capabilities
    1. Matching students with Employees. The website will allow students and employees to enter detailed profiles. And it will allow them to search for possible “matches” based on their skill set, issues they want to work on, and availability (and time).
    2. The website will allow for both short and long-term matching. It will allow students to sign, for example, helping an employee with his resume’ or a government form. And it will allow for longer-term mentoring or symbiotic matching arrangements.
    3. The website would feature a blog and wiki to advertise successful ventures and collaborative opportunities.
  • Since creating excitement around the program is essential, the program launch will be followed by an advertisement blitz including posters, presentations, and get-to-know sessions.
  • The other crucial part of this venture is ‘hardware’— be it computers/supplies or other things that are needed to make some of this possible. So there would be two parts to the same. One would be a craigslist kind of central clearing house list that will post want and available ads. And the other would be a central fund that students or employees can draw on to make this happen.