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Entering 2023 with optimism and gratitude

I have mixed emotions as I reflect on 2022 and look toward 2023. What keeps me awake at night are the serious challenges facing California, particularly those robbing millions of low-paid workers of access to the California Dream. We face an unpredictable economy, the existential threat of changing climate, and efforts to undermine civil society and our democracy. This affects all of us, with low-paid workers, particularly from communities of color, facing the greatest barriers and threats.

Whenever I get overwhelmed by the challenges, I try to focus on the promising things underway or in arm’s reach to make California more economically inclusive and resilient. We are proud to support many of the organizations working hard, with passion and creativity, to protect, advance, and empower Californians who are paid low wages and excluded from the decisions that affect their lives.

I also try to focus on the tremendous opportunities we can achieve if we fight to ensure that new state and federal funding – the state surplus, bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act – are used to create a more inclusive, equitable, and resilient economy. California is poised to receive billions of dollars to rebuild our infrastructure, expand opportunities for workers, and mitigate and adapt for climate change. Those dollars must be used to make a just transition to an economy that works for everyone — producing higher-quality jobs and career pathways that reduce economic and racial inequity, expand our middle class, and revive the California dream.

Across California and the nation, we’ve seen organizing efforts for and by workers who have won employees higher wages and protections, underscoring the importance of supporting worker power. (In November, a Public Policy Institute of California survey found that 82% of respondents felt it was important for workers to organize to avoid being taken advantage of.) And there’s been a resurgence in apprenticeships, which can pay workers a living wage as they learn new skills for greater career advancement.

Along those lines, our board just reviewed lessons from the vital work of grantees we support in our Better Careers initiative. Since 2018, the initiative has provided more than $100 million to connect Californians to good jobs with family-sustaining wages and advancement opportunities. I’m happy to announce that our board approved an additional $160 million over seven years for the initiative, with a focus on strengthening apprenticeships, leveraging public workforce systems, and investing in nonprofits serving workers who suffer the greatest barriers to economic and racial justice.

In coming months, we’ll similarly review progress and lessons from the grantees supported by our Fair Work initiative, which has invested  $108 million since 2018 in efforts to ensure greater fairness and opportunity for workers earning low wages. This includes supporting leaders, partnerships, and innovations that connect workers to vital information and services, reduce wage theft, ensure access to rights and benefits afforded in current law, and promote civic engagement.

Our Priority Communities initiative continues to invest in exciting efforts in inland California to create good jobs and inclusive economies that work for all their residents. In October, the state awarded regional planning grants to cross-sector collaboratives to plan for a just transition to economies that work for all. We’re proud to support many of the community organizations that are core to those planning efforts.

One example of the possibilities is the Fresno DRIVE initiative, one of our core investments, which led a coalition to receive the nation’s largest grant ($65 million) — and only one in California — from the federal Build Back Better Regional Challenge (USA EDA). The funds are for a core DRIVE investment idea: the Fresno-Merced Future of Food Innovation (F3) project, and we believe that other regional planning efforts can further leverage our support for greater investments.

I’m also excited about the growth of our Just Prosperity initiative, which launched in March of last year. In its first four years, the initiative will provide $107 million toward statewide efforts to develop and implement policies that reflect the priorities of low-income Californians by investing in organizations, partnerships, and new ideas that amplify worker voices, advance racial equity, and spark dialogue and action across the state.

We know that our funding is far outstripped by the problems we face, so we seek to partner with other funders who share our commitment to advancing economic and racial equity.

For example, we’re proud of our partnership with the Sierra Health Foundation and four other foundations to create the $17.7 million Community Economic Mobilization Initiative (CEMI). With California on the cusp of receiving and distributing an estimated $139 billion in federal and state dollars related to infrastructure and economic recovery, CEMI aims to strengthen community organizations so that they can govern how these new state and federal resources are invested.

As we at Irvine seek to deepen our commitment to bringing down racial barriers to economic opportunity, I am especially inspired by the work of the Redwood Region Climate and Community Resilience (CORE) Hub in Humboldt County, which we were able to support with a $1 million investment. They are doing the hard work of organizing and educating community leaders to ensure community benefits from an enormous new federal offshore wind energy project. If designed and implemented appropriately — with the priorities of the tribal nations in the region at the center— their efforts will deliver new jobs and economic opportunities for rural and tribal residents who have been historically excluded from both.

We cannot achieve a California where low-income workers have the power to advance economically with funding alone. We must lift up the ideas and wisdom of community leaders who know best what is needed. This includes those who are committed to advancing racial equity, a commitment that we at Irvine share (read more here about that).

I know that the challenges facing our state and nation keep us all up at night. I hope they also compel us to listen, learn, and support the transformational community efforts underway to make our state more resilient and equitable. I am incredibly grateful for the hard work of our grantees, staff, and board toward working to make this a reality and for all they do with and in service of California workers.