By HAROLD PIERCE
A San Joaquin Valley-based health foundation is investing $3 million in 70 regional nonprofits with the ambitious goal of improving health outcomes through policy work, but there are varying levels of detail as to how the money will be used.
Some groups have very specific plans for the funds; others not so much.
In Kern County alone, 11 separate nonprofit groups are tackling 10 different matters. They include healthy air, affordable housing, immigrant rights, a pilot bike program in Arvin, reproductive rights, environmental justice, racial equity and pesticide reform, among others.
“It’s a broad set of issues because we didn’t leave anyone behind,” said Chet Hewitt, president and CEO of The Center at Sierra Health Foundation, a nonprofit organization assembled about two years ago to address health disparities in the valley that organized funding for the initiative. “We as Californians need to improve so that anyone has an equal and fair chance to do as well as they possibly can, and in many ways achieve what we would describe as the California dream.”
Creating a better life for those living in the San Joaquin Valley is at the heart of the campaign. It’s among the most economically depressed regions in the state, boasts one of the lowest national rates of higher educational attainment and is home to 400,000 kids living in poverty, according to a report the organization compiled in January in partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the UC Davis Center for Regional Change.
Hewitt said he expects to tackle all of the issues outlined at the same time because the money, awarded in $20,000 grants to most nonprofits, are not for short-lived programs, but for developing policies that might make their way into county general plans and become a part of the vision for regions as they develop.
Although nonprofit leaders are optimistic about change, they admit it’s a long-term plan with no guarantee for success.
The Sequoia Riverlands Trust, for example, received $20,000 to improve air quality through conservation. Its plan to achieve it includes attempting to influence policy makers to encourage more infill and upward development while discouraging urban sprawl. Such policies would lead to reduced travel times and less air pollution, Adam Livingston, director of planning and policy for Sequoia Riverlands Trust, said.
“We’ve seen cases a city and county general plan inform a region,” Livingston continued. “That can make a difference, and it’s not necessarily a 180-degree turn overnight, but it can help people really understand that where and how our communities grow is directly related to the quality of air we breathe.”
But not all counties stick to its general plan — a blueprint for the area’s future required by the state — since it’s not a binding document.
“One thing that influences it is whether we’re able to stay at the table and have a voice in implementation afterward,” Livingston said. “If it’s just adopted and then everyone kind of washes their hands and leaves, then it may very well not be implemented as intended.”
Similarly, the California Coalition for Rural Housing Project, which received $20,000, has been developing maps of cities overlaying bus stops, job centers, grocery stores and other necessities and comparing it against zoning.
Those areas with the most accessibility for such necessities are places where developers ought to be building affordable housing, Alicia Sebastian, the organization’s program lead, said.
“It’s ultimately a policy issue,” Sebastian said. “This is identifying where you should be zoning and making policy priorities to encourage affordable housing development, so it’s useful for advocates and planners, and this is something useful for developers.”
Ideally, Sebastian said, these maps would be made widely available across the state so planners and developers everywhere could make decisions in the best interest of community health.
Faith in Community, formerly known as Faith in the Valley, received one of the largest grants, of $600,000, to address a series of health issues, although efforts in Kern will be focused on air quality, said Joey Williams, lead organizer for the Kern County chapter.
The impacts are visible, Williams said. More than 111,000 children had asthma in 2014, according to the California Health Interview Survey, administered through UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research.
“There’s lots of folks who have to leave the valley because of the air quality,” Williams said. “It causes a lot of health problems.”
Faith in Community hasn’t yet developed a cohesive plan to improve air quality throughout the valley, but Williams said initial steps include “engaging faith leaders and community members in conversations around the impacts of air quality and environment,” before researching policies and determining who holds the legislative power to create change.
Other nonprofits are focusing on educating community members on various issues.
The California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance received $20,000, and plans to host “know your rights” workshops that would teach community members how to interact with law enforcement.
Those workshops would eventually lead to immigrant youths creating their own advocacy groups, said Jonathan Bibriesca, development coordinator for the alliance.
The Central California Environmental Justice Network, a two-person organization that received a $20,000 grant, educates farmworkers on pesticide regulations and how to report violations. It plans to continue that work with the grant.
“At the end of the day, one of the success indicators is to have a well-informed community,” Gustavo Aguirre Jr., a project coordinator for the Central California Environmental Justice Network, said.
In Arvin, one of Kern County’s poorest cities, the Dolores Huerta Foundation received $20,000 to implement a bike sharing pilot program. The group has about 300 bicycles, many of them donated. The foundation plans to use the money to research which parts of town would be best served with centers where they could be rented, advocate for more bike paths and purchase more bikes for residents, said Yesenia Ocampo, a health policy manager at the Dolores Huerta Foundation.
Although it hasn’t launched yet, the foundation has already gotten to work, setting up a free workshop next week at Haven Drive Middle School to provide helmet fittings, bike repair and education on bicycle safety to riders.
“We hope this bike sharing program not only promotes good physical activity ... but brings policy changes and brings money for infrastructure so that residents can feel safe going out,” Ocampo said.
The group partnered with graduate students at Cal State Bakersfield to conduct surveys, analyzing where residents want the bike centers located and how much they could afford to pay to rent a bicycle for a day.
“We’re asking residents if it’s something they can afford to help us make it sustainable,” Ocampo said.
The program should get off the ground by August, Ocampo said.
Such a program has a clear goal: get residents on bicycles. But how is success measured for other grantees whose goals are less tangible?
“We think that every time a community doesn’t have fresh water and gets attached to a municipal water system, that’s a victory. Every time a school uses LCAP money and there’s a real intentional effort to engage parents or focus on school climate, we believe that’s a victory,” Hewitt said. “We have expectations that moving forward, legislators pay more attention to what needs to change in the valley in order to give all children an opportunity to grow up and be healthy and prosper.”