A dusty, loose gravel road—Avenue 36 —leads to the parking lot of the Allensworth Community Center, which serves as the community’s meeting place and activity hub. Within view of the community center is an elementary school, several shanty homes and neglected fields overrun by weeds.
Allensworth is a small “county-designated place” (CDP) located in the southwestern corner of Tulare County in the agriculturally bountiful Central Valley of California.
Bounty, however, eludes this community, which has a median household income of $22,625—62 percent lower than the state median. The town was founded in 1908 as a destination for African-Americans wanting to live out the American Dream: own property, get an education and thrive. That dream is now a distant memory, plagued by an abundance of problems more characteristic of third world countries: toxic drinking water, lack of sewage management, and rampant marijuana cultivated by Mexican cartels.
This is the reality of California’s small, rural disadvantaged communities which pepper the San Joaquin Valley, particularly the vast rural stretches between Highway 99 and Interstate 5.
There are many groups—agencies, nonprofits and private interests—working to improve conditions in these communities, but all too often those efforts are disjointed and lack follow-through.
Taking a unique, collaborative approach, the Tulare County Water Commission, Self-Help Enterprises, United Way of Tulare County and the Tulare Basin Watershed Initiative joined forces to launch a series of multi-community events aimed at addressing common problems.
The “Southwest Tulare County Roundtable: A Discussion of Community Water Problems and Solutions,” was held on July 18, 2012 at the Allensworth Community Center. The objectives of the event were to:
- convene communities with common problems,
- identify primary issues facing the communities, and
- begin the process of resolving those issues.
Twenty board members and staffs of community water districts from Allensworth, Alpaugh and Richgrove, as well as ten other community stakeholders attended the event. Despite a full agenda of valuable information presented by event organizers, roundtable attendees found as much value in sharing and listening to their peers. In many ways, the event served as a very effective group therapy session.
Common problems identified by the attending water districts and related stakeholders included:
- flawed organizational structures,
- lack of institutional memory,
- need for better bylaws and ordinances,
- lack of community participation,
- leadership development needs,
- difficulty in enacting water rate increases, and
- safety, in the face of escalating marijuana cultivation.
Ultimately, these issues all boil down to a common solution: the need to embolden local government. In a town of 471 people, where there are no more than two degrees of separation between the electorate and its elected officials, the challenges and opportunities in government couldn’t be clearer.
At the junction of those challenges and opportunities is civic engagement. “Good government demands the intelligent interest of every citizen,” as the saying goes. California Forward is a strong proponent of empowering local governments to make decisions in the best interest of their constituents and we applaud such efforts.
The Southwest Tulare County Roundtable equipped each attendee with a variety of tools to begin coordinating their communities’ progress toward intelligent civic engagement. We’ll be interested in observing the steps these small, rural communities take.
Afterall, this is an issue afflicting all levels of government.
A follow-up community event will be taking place later this month, tentatively planned for August 24 in Alpaugh.
Niki Woodard is a contributor to the California Forward blog and a member of the Tulare Basin Watershed Initiative’s core team.