As California reopens, these regions lead charge for economic equity

1024 576 Nadine Ono

As California starts to recover, many are eager to return the booming economy the state experienced pre-pandemic. But not all of California’s regions benefitted from that economy and those regions are taking the opportunity of the state’s reopening to create a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable economy for all Californians.

This month, CA FWD hosted the Regions Rising webinar as part of its Building Equitable Economies series. Participants represented the Inland Empire, the Salinas Valley, the Central Valley and Kern County – regions that have been left behind as California’s economy soared.

One of the tools that can create equitable economies throughout the state is AB 106, the Regions Rise Grant Program, which seeks to ensure disadvantaged communities and communities of color are fully included in decision-making processes around key issues impacting regional economic prosperity.

“For years, California has struggled with income inequality that we’ve seen throughout the state,” said Assemblymember Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield), who introduced the bill. “Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, while California touted a statewide unemployment rate of less than four percent, we saw a lot of the areas of inland California, where unemployment rates were closer to 10% and some places closer to 15%.” He added that it only got worse during the pandemic.

Michael Tubbs, former Stockton Mayor who now serves as a special advisor to the Governor on economic mobility and opportunity agreed, “We have to be intentional in terms of what we do with an equitable recovery.” He touted the May Revised California Budget (released after the webinar aired), which included a proposed Community Economic Resilience Fund that provides $750 million to support planning and implementation of regional economic strategies.

Here are what some leaders are doing to create an equitable and inclusive economy that will benefit, not only their region, but all of California.

Kern County/Bakersfield

Nick Ortiz, president and CEO of the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce acknowledges that many of the region’s residents live with inequities in health, education, poverty and others. But solving those inequities is challenging because the region’s major industries (agriculture and oil and gas production) face their own issues with market forces and increased regulation.

“What we’re trying to do here is create a process, a strategy and investment plan with a relentless focus on growing quality jobs for our region and in a way that builds on our strengths,” said Ortiz.

He added that climate change policy is having a disproportionate impact in that that region. The Chamber is involved with BK3 Prosperity, a public-private collaborative to create economic growth, to help the state vision on climate change from the “energy capital of California.” That includes encouraging innovation to get to a net-zero or negative carbon emissions in the future, which will also grow the region’s economic opportunity and close the equity gaps. B3K Prosperity was born out of the Regions Rise Together strategy sessions CA FWD led with government and community partners in 2019.

Inland Empire

Inland Empire Community Foundation President Michelle Decker, who was also representing Inland Empire Growth & Opportunity, describes her region as growing, young and 65% people of color, but with low educational attainment and too many low-wage jobs “Several years ago leaders came together and decided that we needed a regional strategy that would really maximize all of the assets in the region that were performing and doing great things in the region but weren’t necessarily working together.” They focused on advanced manufacturing, IT cybersecurity, green technology and sustainable logistics, with the emphasis on sustainable logistics.

She added, “The goal is to create quality jobs with family sustaining wages, benefits and good working conditions.”

Central Valley/Fresno

Ashley Swearingen, CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation, spoke about the region’s innovative Fresno DRIVE, a 10-year community investment plan to foster an inclusive vibrant and sustainable economy.

“We’re changing who the customer is,” said Swearingen, noting the customer has always been business leaders. “We’re changing that now to say the customer is the person from the historically marginalized community. What does that person need to access the economic opportunity that’s already here and working backwards.”

She added, “The North Star for economic growth in Fresno is based on transforming infrastructure systems that enable historically BIPOC communities to prosper.”

Salinas Valley

Tim McManus, a senior organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation, discussed the importance of community engagement for the region that includes a large portion of immigrants who often face tremendous barriers.

Discussed by McManus, Regions Rise Together Salinas Valley has implemented a civic engagement strategy, which includes meetings on specific topics such as economic trends and racial equity, where they hear residents’ experiences and exchange ideas. “Most importantly from that, is providing opportunities for next steps for people who want to change some of those trends and to be part of making a difference on it,” said McManus. “So, there’s some opportunity for new leaders to emerge who are going to work for that change in the future.”

The meetings have engaged about 500 people with 51 stepping up to be leaders on shaping economic development in their community. “This is a critical moment right now,” added McManus. “A lot of their conversations have exposed gaps and problems and impediments to economic development in the Salinas Valley. They want to address that, but they also know there is a moment, an opportunity to shape a forward-looking vision for what the economy in the Salinas Valley could look like.”

The Importance of Funding 

Funding is key to advance the work of equitable economies across the state. Dana Bezerra is the president of the F.B. Heron Foundation, a private foundation dedicated to helping people and communities help themselves, and a supporter of Fresno DRIVE.

“For us, we see inclusive, multi-stakeholder, locally-driven regional planning efforts as a key demonstration of communities taking on their own agency to create change,” Bezerra explained. “From our perspective, when you have engaged citizens in a place working together, that’s something that we believe we should get behind.”

A Call to Action

Paul Granillo, chair of the California Forward Action Fund, concluded the webinar by saying, “We need to deal with the reality of racism that is embedded in so many of our social and economic structures and we have to change that.” He urged participants to support AB 106 and to contact state leaders to ensure they support equitable economies throughout California.

You can view the entire May 13 Regions Rising webinar here.

The day after the Regions Rising webinar was conducted, Governor Newsom unveiled the revised budget, which has several economic development proposals that emphasize equity and inclusivity and CA FWD priority areas. You can read the details here and what they mean for California’s underserved communities.


Nadine Ono

All stories by: Nadine Ono