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Community Voices: Reflections from our Priority Regions

Listening to and engaging Californians is a core value for us at Irvine. It’s also critical for achieving our singular goal: a California where all low-income workers have the power to advance economically.

Recently, we convened community leaders from our Priority Regions pilot communities of Fresno and Salinas to inform, deepen, and scale the impact of our work as we consider expanding to new communities.

These communities are vital to our state’s success. They are vibrant places brimming with innovation and grassroots leadership. Inspirational leaders are fighting to ensure residents have power in their communities. They are supporting residents to develop microenterprises, gain an education, heal from trauma, and engage civically.

And these cities are incredibly diverse – people of color make up the majority of Fresno and Salinas’ populations.

The cities also face serious challenges. Too many residents struggle to make ends meet, despite working full time and/or multiple jobs.

Low-wage workers are residents of all races and ethnicities. If you’re a person of color, you’re much more likely to be a low-wage worker, and there are disparities by race in average median wages. For example, people of color in Salinas are two times more likely to live in poverty, and Fresno workers of color earn an average hourly median wage of $15 compared to $24 for white residents.

Over the summer, we held listening sessions to explore how communities are working toward creating economies that work for everyone. Participants included representatives from various community foundations, including the Central Valley Community Foundation and the Community Foundation for Monterey County, who re-grant Irvine dollars to local, grassroots organizations. Some of these grassroots organizations also participated.

We asked:

  • What does an inclusive economy look like, and how can we get there?
  • How are communities focusing on racial equity to advance economic mobility, and what barriers are preventing progress?
  • How can philanthropy support these efforts?

We heard how racial inequities hinder economic mobility. But we also heard heartening stories of community leadership and promising ideas to ensure that all workers thrive.

Address basic needs

Residents said we need to find solutions to the everyday challenges they face, such as low-paying jobs, poor transportation, lack of affordable and quality childcare, lack of affordable housing, clean water, and access to educational opportunities.

Many of these barriers are rooted in a history of race-based policies and practices that dictated where someone can live, who has access to banking, credit, and loans, and who is hired or promoted for certain jobs. It has meant generations of people of color have had to work harder to get ahead.

One solution residents offered is bringing industries of the future to Salinas to offer higher-paying jobs, greater job security, and advancement opportunities. Historically, jobs in Salinas have been low-paying ones linked to farming and hospitality.

Promote a narrative that brings people together

One Visalia woman told us she drives past a huge Confederate flag daily when she drops off her child at school. Her constant fear for her children’s safety resonated deeply with us as moms and women of color.

Her story underscored the participants’ recommendation for the need to promote a positive story about these communities that centers on their strengths. Doing so could counteract such divisive narratives about communities of color, create a sense of belonging, and promote the idea that an economy that truly works for everyone requires everyone to thrive.

Promote dialogue

We were encouraged to hear that community foundations and others are starting to address racial equity in economic planning efforts. But we must do more to ensure these efforts are truly inclusive and that workers struggling with poverty have a seat at the table. This work is complex and sometimes messy. That’s why having common definitions, tools, as well as the opportunity to learn from peers, is critical to address the importance of racial inclusion for a thriving economy.

Next steps

Our team is deeply grateful to everyone who participated. Their time, candid insights, and aspirations are invaluable.

We hope these lessons are helpful for the participants, our partners, and foundations considering investments in the region. We look forward to sharing an update on what Irvine’s investments will look like in the Priority Regions in Spring 2020.