Laspa Center for Leadership We Act Grant: Kristen Liu ’19: Narrowing the Achievement Gap for Silicon Valley Students


Growing up in Los Altos, California, Kristen Liu ’19 was aware of the disparity of wealth in Silicon Valley and its impact on public education. Supported by a Laspa We Act Grant last summer, Liu discovered she could make a difference for kids affected by these issues using her interest in social media. As an intern at the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula (BGCP), she increased public awareness and expanded community outreach of the nonprofit’s efforts in addressing the income and achievement gaps in Silicon Valley using marketing and social media tools.

“I am interested in how we can use digital tools for good, because I think there is a lot of negativity on social media, especially in relationship to politics,” Liu says.

The BGCP provides academic support, mentorship, creative activities, and career and college exposure to kindergarten through high school-age students. Liu was introduced to the BGCP through friends who had previously volunteered with the organization.

Liu was interested in working for the BGCP because she has observed firsthand how Palo Alto’s successful tech companies create wealth that funds schools and community programs, while neighboring cities, such as East Palo Alto and Menlo Park, struggle with high crime and low achievement rates. (The U.S. Department of Education defines “achievement” as a school’s performance measured through students’ reading, language arts, and mathematics test scores. An achievement gap develops when schools’ test results differ from the state average or highest achieving group.)

“Helping students get to a four-year college is one of [BGCP’s] biggest goals, as well as providing a safe space for kids after school,” Liu says.

While the BGCP has nine locations around the San Francisco Peninsula, Liu spent the majority of her time at the Brentwood Academy site in East Palo Alto, where she was responsible for creating social media content for the club’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts to promote its free summer camp. A conversation with Brentwood Academy After School Program coordinator Erick Granados influenced how Liu crafted posts for BGCP. As a Boys & Girls Club alumnus, he told Liu to be conscientious when she posted information about the club’s volunteers, teachers, and kids by keeping in mind that the subjects, stories, and images are of real life.

Granados emphasized that they need to be sensitive to what information is shared and be honest about issues the kids face while not being condescending or exploitative. “That was memorable for me, because I really look at the way nonprofits use social media differently [now].”

Along with populating the BGCP’s social media accounts, a central part of Liu’s Laspa grant proposal was her idea to create “an original video project about BGCP’s goals that emphasizes the voices of BGCP students.” She did not have much previous film production knowledge, but learning about digital art and media at Scripps made her eager for hands-on experience. Liu did not expect that her video idea would become an opportunity to work with professional filmmakers from Intel, who reached out to the BGCP and volunteered to help Liu make a video about the organization’s summer program.

“The thing about working in the Silicon Valley at the BGCP is that they have so many connections to all these tech companies that want to speak to kids, give career panels, and also help out and encourage students in general to dream to work in the Silicon Valley,” Liu says.

The Intel crew brought all the video equipment and shot footage for a week. Liu was tasked with writing interview questions and recording candid shots of BGCP kids doing activities. Liu and David Cruz, BGCP’s development and partnerships manager, then spent two days using Intel’s editing software and facilities to finish the video.

In addition, Liu planned a graduation at the Facebook headquarters for BGCP kids who are attending four-year colleges, organized a Google panel on the company’s diverse, non-STEM-related career opportunities, and coordinated volunteer days with Silicon Valley companies. She worked with two other interns to create a pitch that won $2,500 for BGCP at Microsoft’s nonprofit challenge, “Hack for Good.” Liu’s team asked Microsoft employees to create technology that could be used with a classroom projector to break the language barrier that often comes between presenters and BGCP students. Liu also helped her managers with BGCP’s “Our Kids Our Watch” campaign, which surveys BGCP parents about where they live to show potential donors that struggling communities are nearer than they might think.

Liu is excited to continue volunteering for BGCP in the future. She valued the responsibility and trust her supervisors gave her and how they appreciated her ideas.

“I absolutely love the team. It was really cool to see how much everyone loved their job,” Liu says.