Region Rising. That’s what Valley Vision branded our first-ever regional town hall back in 2015, produced with our government partner SACOG.
But it wasn’t this innovative conference that drew 1,000 participants that kept coming to my mind at last week’s California Economic Summit in San Diego. It was a single region. The counties of Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa, Lake, and Solano now working jointly. People and institutions rising after the wildfires that killed 43, destroyed 8,400 structures, and laid waste to a land mass equal to the size of 13 cities – each the size of San Francisco.
A special session organized by Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore one evening drew dozens of political and business leaders from across the state, matched by their own school, business, government and community service leadership. We sat in a circle, looking eye-to-eye at each other, seeking to understand the extent of the damage to lives and property, and what was needed next. The stories were riveting.
One story hit me deeply: A mother admonishing her teenage son on his way home from college to keep his eyes on the road when driving down Highway 101. The devastation is so jarring, drivers get fixated on the apocalyptic scene, lose track of where they are, and crash into each other. Another: A wife and husband, already struggling to make ends meet, pay their mortgage bill this month on a house that is now an ash heap.
While you couldn’t help but be deeply moved by countless stories of personal loss and suffering, the conversation didn’t stay there long. The focus instead was on action.
Attending as a friend of Sonoma County leaders and as co-chair of the California Stewardship Network, it was clear to me that this is not a disaster impacting a few, but instead thousands. Area residents are making decisions now (or over the next few weeks) about whether they will stay and rebuild their lives or leave the area or even the state. I asked Supervisor Gore, “How are you and others staying in touch with residents to know their needs and to make decisions based on real-time information?”
His response drew the room quiet, “Our first action was to teach community organizing,” he said. “In town hall meetings attended by hundreds of people across the fire-impacted areas we placed big blown-up maps of the cities on easels and trained people to organize at the block level to form a support network,” Gore explained. Neighbors selected their own leaders to support and serve them. People stepped up. Communication is disseminated instantly using Facebook or Twitter… emerging needs are raised. “It’s just how we do things in Sonoma County,” Supervisor Gore said matter-of-factly. “I stay in touch with these new community leaders – we all do…” as he looked around the room.
In the wake of events like these, I was reminded again of the very best aspects of humankind. Selfless acts. Neighbor helping neighbor. Government moving smartly and swiftly to provide the right safety net services to those who need it most, coordinating closely with nonprofits doing the same. Businesses mobilizing and rebuilding, providing both the philanthropy and investment capital necessary for forward progress. More real-world proof of the power of networks to improve people’s lives.
The devastation is also driving unprecedented conversations and collaboration across city and county boundaries. California, the nation-state, is actually a state of regions – areas with distinct but connected economies, transportation networks, workforce, and food systems, all interlaced. It’s a truth upon which the California Economic Summit is based and policy advanced.
I witnessed this again and again over two days with my peers from across California on affordable housing, water and workforce, punctuated this year by new needs rising from the wine country fires. These local leaders aren’t talking about rebuilding communities that once were, but instead seizing this awful moment to accelerate well-thought-out plans that pre-existed the fires to transform their communities to be more prosperous, just and sustainable – but 5-15 years faster than earlier envisioned. They need the State’s help to do so, and the State is responding.
We will see this on display when the California Economic Summit is held in Sonoma County next fall. They will have much to teach us about resiliency.
James Gore ended the meeting with a comment that this region might be called “707” for short after the area code that covers them all. Short. Memorable. Everyone smiled.
707 is rising.
Bill Mueller is Chief Executive of Valley Vision.