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California can emerge from 2020 stronger, more equitable

My heart is aching for California right now. Wildfires and smoke are ravaging our state in a year already full of tragedy. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to bring unimaginable loss, with working Californians who make the least being hurt the most. And the loss of health and wealth have been greatest for people of color, who have, for too long, experienced violence and undisguised bigotry, leading to this year of social unrest.

This is the most challenging time I can personally remember facing California. It is easy to lose hope, but I must believe that the very weight of the challenges we face also can set the stage for a potential transformation of our economy and a new social compact.

Driving that belief is the inspirational work of grantees we are privileged to support. Their efforts hold the promise of a California where all low-income workers have the power to advance economically. That’s Irvine’s singular goal, and we believe this work is now more important than ever.

This summer we supported research to learn how California can emerge stronger from this devastating year. We’re learning how the public and private sector can recover – and reimagine jobs and economies that are more equitable.

This included support for the Institute for the Future to listen to low-wage workers about their experiences and also future-thinking experts, in order to map out four possible futures after COVID-19. Nonprofits, funders, and other civic leaders will engage with these future scenarios in workshops in coming months so that we can understand the actions we need to take today to create a better tomorrow.

We also supported the Public Policy Institute of California to bring together California’s leading economists to discuss the state’s labor market in the wake of COVID-19. Their insights were sobering, as you can read in PPIC’s blog post here. In a nutshell, California’s recession will be worse than the nation’s, and our economy could take several years to recover, with widening income gaps and long-term underemployment.

These economists also suggested policy ideas to strengthen California’s safety net and expand opportunity for low-wage workers – and underscored the need to put regional, racial, and gender equity at the center of such policies.

Philanthropy and the private sector must come together with public sector leaders to use these cataclysmic events as a springboard to create a new, more inclusive economy with good jobs for low-income workers.

At Irvine, we have set out to pilot such collaboration in one industry for one region: infrastructure construction projects in the Los Angeles region with great union jobs in the skilled trades. Accelerator for America, a grantee, is in the early stages of assembling a California working group comprised of leaders from across transit agencies, engineering and construction firms, organized labor, community colleges, and philanthropy to plan for new, good jobs in future, transit-related construction projects.

Their charge is to ensure that we have the training and other supports that will be needed for currently struggling workers to get these jobs and launch new careers. If a success, the model could be applied across the state.

We’re eager to see where this and other workforce planning efforts can take us, alongside the vital work needed to protect and organize working people so their voices affect the decisions that impact their lives and livelihoods. (You can read more about such work by grantees in our Better Careers, Fair Work, and Priority Communities initiatives.)

To save the California Dream, we need to think bigger and imagine a better economy, not just a recovery.