California Forum

Viewpoints: Heal the Central Valley with our greatest asset – our people

I’m weary of outsiders visiting our Valley to help cure our illnesses. They often employ drive-by journalism or bus-tour philanthropy to conduct a snapshot diagnosis, then leave us with a prescription to solve our woes.

We need a new, radical approach to address our hardships in the Central Valley. We need an alternative-medicine approach to tackle complex issues. We need to put people first, not our misfortunes. In other words: everyday people hold the solutions for positive change.

Yes, we have many, many threats. I’ve come to the conclusion that no single strategy exists to tackle our poverty, low education levels and poor health. I believe we need to rely on people themselves to foster solutions. My goal is to build self-reliance one family, one neighborhood, one community at a time.

I’d begin by listening to what’s working instead of using a disease-inspired approach. I’d first seek out people, often in small groups and typically not in formal organizations, who are taking responsibility for community well-being. Look for positive attitudes and a culture of healthy lifestyles – and reward their efforts. Build human capital.

For example, rarely do I hear mentoring as a model of social development. It predates nonprofits and the arrival of organizational capacity building – but it still works in our Valley, especially in rural areas. It’s based on personal relationships that can last a lifetime.

This isn’t about wishing illness away. My goal would be to slow and prevent the onset of major disorders. Recognize the good here and build the social health of a place, not prescribe a fix with a magical program.

For example, I’ve witnessed success with diabetes control only when it was combined with an individual’s faith. Dietary education alone didn’t work. Faith – in this case praying to the Lady of Guadalupe – was an additional requirement.

I’m not talking of your typical cast of characters. We can’t depend on the nonprofit sector for all the answers – that infrastructure is fragile and still very young. A different sort of inspiring leaders – often quiet in their efforts and not fitting the typical profile – can make a difference. They just do the right thing. We should support their work and get out of their way.

There is the beginning of such an approach called Direct Giving – a novel idea of directly granting resources to individuals. Crowd-funding models such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo or SoMoLend allow for individuals to directly support ideas and innovations. Imagine if the challenges of our Valley were reframed as part of a crowd-funding campaign. It would demand clear communication and understanding of messaging – a first step in building capacity?

This is a healing strategy. In many ways, our problems in the Central Valley are too complex for a single magical remedy. I re-envision the notion of faith healers in modern terms: individuals with bright ideas who know the pulse of their world. Who else understands poverty, poor education and health obstacles better? And they will probably work in unorthodox situations – a grandmother who watches over neighborhood youth or a beauty salon owner who counsels about domestic abuse.

Let’s build a resilience at the core to cope with our blues. I believe in the power of positive relationships when people listen to each other and collaborate, when emotions matter and motivate. It’s a slow approach and works best on a small scale.

For example, a single school district successfully tackled fundamental obstacles of poor achievement by first engaging in lots of talking with each other. They didn’t start with an elaborate model from elsewhere; instead they instilled a culture of change through conversations. Their model wasn’t about formal initiatives to be replicated but more about process.

Imagine a support system for the hundreds already providing informal direct services. It would be vastly different from the philanthropic landscape today and would require a creative rethinking of support and customized engagement.

I have witnessed great work done at the micro level. A farm labor contractor can provide a type of financial literacy to hundreds of laborers and offer micro-loans to get them through hard times. A local farm supply store becomes a small farmer resource center with advice and education. These individuals have built a social infrastructure to tackle everyday pressing matters.

I want to raise expectations and reward people who adopt healthier attitudes. We can encourage many with small incentives. Build relationships and foster individuals believing in themselves. Start with the culture of caring, but only where people have taken responsibility for their well-being.

I anticipate many missteps and failures that can be easily publicized and scorned. My approach relies on the informal and unstructured parts of community life. It will require an anthropologist and ethnographic researcher just to recognize what’s working and why. Measure progress by decades and generations and solutions that continue long after the funding runs out and funders move to their next crusade to cure the sick.

I want to build an army of effective healers in our Valley. Great things are already happening; I want more. Build self-reliance and a sustainable model. Reframe the diseases of our Valley and focus on our greatest asset: human capital.