About Lydia Kou(顧錦珍)

My early years

I was born in Hong Kong to parents from Shanghai. When I was four, my family moved to Sudan where my father had taken a position as a factory manager. I have memories of him always out of his office and walking and talking to the factory workers with his white shirt sleeves rolled up. And I remember him telling me this too…”to truly understand the context of anything, one has to be ready and willing to listen.”

When my father died of a massive stroke, my mother had to create a business to support our family. She faced dual obstacles: being both a woman and a foreigner in a male-dominated society. I watched my mother’s struggles adjusting from a housewife to a business woman in such an environment, we had no family there, and it was just us: my younger brother, my mother and me. As I grew up, I realized what an incredible woman she is for her strength – teaching herself what she needed to know, learning from whomever was willing to talk to her and just simply fully immersing herself into what she needed to do to survive in a foreign country, now her and her children’s home.

My mother opened the first Chinese restaurant in Sudan, I remember when she had to leave my brother and me for travels to Hong Kong to buy restaurant supplies, and she would be very quiet and almost angry. Today after having had my own children, I now know her mannerisms were of worry and feelings of guilt for leaving my brother and me for business. When the restaurant finally opened, my brother and I helped out after school, mostly with food preparation. The memory that remains with me today is peeling and deveining shrimp, not my favorite at all. But more important were the lessons I learned watching my mother. I remember her being that gracious and elegant hostess on the restaurant floor but ready to roll up her sleeves to work in the kitchen, bar, cashier, server if she needed to be.

The community I grew up in had cultures from all over the world, and most of my school mates and friends were of mixed races. Most were half Sudanese. I attended a girls’ Catholic school which required us wearing uniforms and we were rapped on our knuckles when needed to be disciplined.

When the civil war erupted in Sudan, my mother sent my brother and me away to safety. He was taken in by relatives in New York. For me, it was relatives in Guam, “Hafa Adai” and “Where America’s day begins”. There I also attended a girls’ Catholic school. On weekends and school holidays, I worked at my relatives’ jewelry and gift shops located on the naval and air bases. While in college, I worked in the airline and restaurant/hotel industries.

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Coming to Palo Alto

I moved to the Bay Area in 1988 and became the owner-operator of a small business in Palo Alto on El Camino Real, a little north of California Avenue (in the College Terrace/Evergreen Park section). Even back then in 1988, there was an affordability issue in Palo Alto and wanting to be close to my business, I rented. Later, I did buy a condo in Mountain View and a few years later, moved to Los Altos, into another condo after saving up enough equity from the Mountain View condo and selling it. In 1998, after years of saving up, my husband and I moved to Palo Alto, and, achieved our goal to ensure our daughters the opportunity of an excellent education and an environment that was diverse; culturally and socio-economically. Our two daughters attended Terman Middle School and Gunn High School. I was co-president for the PTA at Terman and later, and I coached a girls’ volleyball team that won a couple of championships.

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Residential Realtor®

I am a residential Realtor, it is my business to know housing in Palo Alto. One of the persistent complaints about City Council is that various of its members assume that all of Palo Alto is just like their own immediate neighborhood. Well, it isn’t.

  • All of Palo Alto is not within an easy stroll of University Avenue.
  • You don’t need a passport to cross Oregon Expressway

My husband John and I have been residential Realtors since 1994 and 1997 respectively. Most of our clients are looking to buy homes for themselves in Palo Alto. To be successful, I need to listen very carefully for what they want. To get my clients to a decision that they will be happy with, it needs to be a well-informed decision. We help them understand the Palo Alto real estate market, to be aware of and understand their options, and to have better awareness of their thoughts and emotions. A common observation in my profession is that people often buy a house that bears little resemblance to what they originally said they wanted.

As I show houses, I am out-and-about throughout Palo Alto throughout much of the day. Seeing how things are, and how they are changing is both unavoidable and part of my job. And I hear the perspectives of these prospective new residents.

As a Realtor, I need to be detailed-oriented. I check that the facts about a property are accurate and complete. I do the specialized research that is beyond the capabilities of my clients. I ask the questions that don’t occur to my clients. It greatly concerns me when I see the sloppy, slap-dash recommendations that City Staff makes to Council. This problem is so pervasive that a Palo Alto Weekly editorial (Editorial: Skeptical about ‘net zero’) stated

“Based on past performance, it is naïve to think that Palo Alto and its consultants could devise a system that could reliably collect and analyze data of the sort the staff envisions. And it is even more naïve to think the community would have enough confidence in such a system to endorse this as a major pillar in our future planning strategies.”

My profession has instilled in me a strong sense of fiduciary responsibility. Council members are elected to act on behalf of the residents and in their interests. Palo Altans deserve utmost care, integrity, honesty, and loyalty.

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Realtor as Small Businessperson

Although many people think of Realtors as commissioned salespeople, my husband and I are actually small business owner working under a real estate brokerage firm. Our real estate licenses are hung with a real estate brokerage/firm; however, we pay office fees, receive 1099s, procure and pay for our own health insurance and retirement plans.

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Emergency Preparedness

My many years of work on Emergency Preparedness provide me multiple categories of experiences that will be valuable when I am on Council:

  • Working with individual members of the community to create a large-scale volunteer effort and then to keep those community members engaged.
  • Working with other organizations active in this area.
  • Working with City Staff and Council on the day-to-day aspects of this issue.
  • Driving a radical change in the City’s policy on this issue.

My neighborhood association (Barron Park) has a long history of working on Emergency Preparedness (E-Prep). In 2006, I was recruited to take over leadership of that effort, and as part of that I became part of the Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) Emergency Preparedness Committee. The first thing that impressed me was how much expertise and energy the residents had. I got up-to-speed faster than I imagined possible because of all the help I got from many people. The second thing that impressed me was how little effort City Hall made to utilize this valuable resource. To the contrary, City Hall often seemed to be working hard to ignore it.

At the time I became involved, the City’s policy on disasters gave virtually no role to residents, or consideration of how they could be involved. Their presentations stated that City government would be so busy doing their thing that residents should not expect to even see them for many days, and that individual residents should be prepared to take care of themselves. They even had a name for this: “You’re On Your Own” (YOYO). This struck me as wrong, so very, very wrong. There is strength in community, and the City needed to be supporting that.

I found a number of like-minded people in the PAN E-prep effort. They had created the Block Preparedness Coordinator (BPC) program, but they had gotten bogged down in definitions and planning for a full-blown program. I took the essential core of that work and implemented it in my neighborhood. That example motivated other neighborhoods to move to implementation, and they leveraged off my work, using my organizational and training materials. And through my personal involvement helping these other neighborhood programs, I became one of the leaders of the city-wide activity.

Knowing that what looks good on paper often fails in practice, I created and led exercises. These exercises help revitalize the City’s Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT formerly “PANDA”). These were volunteers who were trained to assist Police and Fire during a disaster. However, through neglect and mismanagement, the City had allowed this program to wither away.

The momentum of this program forced a radical change in the City’s policy and approach to Emergency Preparedness. Instead of residents being marginalized, they were now central. Instead of rationalizing how little it would do to help residents during a disaster, it was now thinking about how much it could do.

I learned a lot about politics during these years. Volunteer organizations are very different from commercial ones. It is hard to recruit volunteers, and they can easily walk away. You need to persuade them that their investment of their valuable time (and other resources) will be well-worth it. You need to provide the training so that they have confidence that they will make a difference. And you need to keep them meaningfully involved. As the E-prep activity grew and grew—it is now over 500 volunteers—it became important for me help others provide this leadership.