A Blueprint for an Equitable Region Rises in California’s Salinas Valley

1024 576 Nadine Ono

A tractor turns the cover crop into the soil in preparation for planting in the Salinas Valley of California (Photo: USDA/Lance Cheung)

The Salinas Valley is often described as a lush agricultural wonderland dotted with idyllic vineyards and farms. It also supplies 90% of the lettuce consumed globally. And while Salinas’ agricultural workers put healthy food on tables around the world, many of those same workers struggle to pay for housing and food for their own tables.

“We are notorious for having a very high cost of living and having a minimum wage job just doesn’t allow many residents to have a decent quality of life,” said Monterey Bay Economic Partnership’s (MBEP) Chief Operating Officer Freny Cooper.

This disparity sparked discussions in early 2020 among community leaders that included MBEP, California Forward and The James Irvine Foundation. These discussions resulted in Regions Rise Together: Salinas, an effort described as “a collaborative initiative that prioritized inclusive economic development with an underlying core priority of advancing racial equity.”

“At CA FWD, we are proud that the discussions started through our Regions Rise Together sessions evolved into this impressive initiative that has the ability to dramatically change the lives of those in this region,” said CA FWD CEO Micah Weinberg.

“Irvine’s goal is a California where all low-income workers have the power to advance economically. To achieve this vision, our Priority Communities initiative invests in efforts to create economies that work for all and to ensure worker voices are represented in decisions shaping their local economies,” said Priority Communities Initiative Director Jessica Kaczmarek of The James Irvine Foundation, which underwrote the blueprint. “That’s why we’re excited about supporting the Regions Rise Together Salinas collaborative.”

Inspired by the Fresno DRIVE Initiative, the Salinas blueprint aims to create an economic transformation with equitable opportunities and outcomes for all residents. Achieving this will require those involved to think, act and develop differently. Sankofa Consulting, which also worked on Fresno DRIVE, helped to co-create investment plans with specific outcomes in mind.

Community engagement, especially from traditionally disenfranchised populations, was key to a successful blueprint. The Community Engagement Working Group was created to ensure that racial equity was a key point in crafting the economic development plan.

“Three to five hundred community stakeholders were engaged,” explained Dr. Elvis Fraser, Sankofa Consulting’s founder and managing director. “There was a report out in response to our guiding questions about what they need. We brought that into the planning process and used it as a touchstone to go back and pressure-test the decisions in the investment plans against the community priorities.”

Cooper agreed, saying, “The solution had to come from the bottom up and not top down. So that was the learning through this whole process. You can’t have government or another entity move in and try and fix systemic problems. The only way to do that is to engage community groups to find solutions.”

The Investment Blueprint identified four investment plan core values:

  • Achieve inclusivity and prosperity for all residents in the Salinas Valley
  • Synchronize and leverage existing efforts
  • Enable and empower communities through the co-creation of investment plans, and
  • Demonstrate that the Salinas Valley region is investment-ready and investment-worthy.

To achieve these core values, leaders had to acknowledge and tackle the challenges facing the Salinas Valley including housing affordability and homelessness, lack of adequate and affordable childcare, lack of affordable broadband access, the need for increased education and employment pathways and increased access to capital and entrepreneurship opportunities, among others. These challenges were used to create three categories of investment areas:

  • Neighborhood Development and Infrastructure Expansion
  • Human Capital Development
  • Economic Opportunity Expansion

The estimated investment in these three areas will be $1.7 billion over the next decade.

In the midst of working on the blueprint, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. “Everyone was so busy just trying to stay afloat and serve their populations that we really didn’t have time to get everyone together on a regular basis and get the working groups established,” said Cooper.

And although the pandemic extended the length of the project (the initial goal was to unveil the blueprint at the 2020 California Economic Summit), it did put more of a focus on economic disparities in the region. It also changed the circumstances of some populations enough that the Sankofa team had to go back and re-visit priorities.

“What COVID did was amplify the issues, but it also did something really important,” said Fraser. “It created an opportunity because people’s attention was more attuned to the disproportionate effects of COVID.”

“Almost all of the challenges that are revealed thorough this plan require systemic remedies,” said The Community Foundation for Monterey Bay’s President and CEO Dan Baldwin. Looking forward, he added, “The part that’s got to take place the first year is there’s got to be a real broad-based commitment. It’s got to go beyond the people at the table here. It’s got to include a broader set of employers and private-sector, and even other governmental entities, because that’s where the policies reside.”

The Regions Rise Together Salinas Investment Blueprint, released in late 2021, is an example of how a community can come together to create a viable economic investment plan that, if successful, will create a Salinas Valley where all residents can experience inclusivity and prosperity.

“It is an important first step toward ongoing, meaningful community collaboration to develop solutions addressing economic inequality that focus on racial equity and workers’ well-being,” said Kaczmarek. “We are grateful for the leadership work of the core team and the many community groups who are driving local solutions that center Salinas Valley worker and resident voices to increase the spread of quality jobs in this critical time.”

This is the first in a series of blogs about the Regions Rise Together Salinas Investment Blueprint. Next, we will look at the investment plan for Neighborhood Development and Infrastructure Expansion.


Nadine Ono

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