When it comes to addressing the inequities that divide Fresno residents living north and south of Shaw Avenue, turning walls into bridges may seem a tall order to some.
However, talking about issues and brainstorming solutions is always a positive first step. Case in point, nearly 100 people spent the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 19 at Fresno City College discussing that divide as a way to hopefully build closer relationships.
The forum was the culminating event for The Bee’s Crossing The Line project in which The Bee facilitated a dialogue between residents from across the city. The project was part of The Bee’s transparency work through partnerships with Arizona State University’s News Co/Lab and Spaceship Media.
The event was moderated by Jim Boren, former Bee executive editor who founded Fresno State’s Institute for Media & Public Trust.
It included a panel discussion from residents who participated in the dialogue process, a brainstorm session and presentations on the root causes and health effects of Fresno’s divide.
“The one thing, I will say, that I got out of this conversation, is that we are all in the same boat,” said James Sponsler, one of the panelists. “We all had similar ideas. We all had similar concepts of the 800-pound gorilla in the room, when it comes to how this city is looked at. And we had similar solutions and ways that we see the avenues of going and moving forward together. It is key that we find what unites us. Right now, we have a street that divides us, but we need to find what unites us.”
Sponsler was on a panel along with Rodney Murphy, Felipe Arballo and Sirena Sosa Envernizzi, all people who participated in the dialogue.
Attendees broke into groups to discuss the perceptions of north and south Fresno that gets in the way of a closer, more productive relationship between the two sides of town and how to counteract those perceptions.
“I’m still waiting for Trader Joe’s to move into the hood,” joked Aaron Frisby.
Danielle Bergstrom, the founding director of Fresnoland, shared the root causes and history of Fresno’s divide, noting historically, the conversation about Fresno’s divide has been ongoing since the 1970s. Her presentation was titled “First, it was Fresno’s Mason-Dixon Line, then it was the ‘Tale of Two Cities.’ What’s next?”
“I’ve done a lot of research around this topic over the years, and then I‘ve also worked in places where I’ve had opportunities to have influence over these decisions and how they get made. It’s not easy to change these conditions,” Bergstrom said.
“It’s not easy to push a button and say we’re going to change this divide. It’s going to take a huge concentrated movement of citizens, people in power and people in a lot of different institutions with collective will to think about how we change things over time.”
Tania Pacheco-Werner, a research scientist at Fresno State’s Central Valley Health Policy Institute, told the crowd about how the divide affects Fresno’s overall health. She shared data and research on infant mortality, life expectancy, green space and air quality.
All of this, she said, affects the mental health of Fresnans. “We’ve shown that the more isolated people are, the less happy they are,” she said. “If I’m feeling in my home in north Fresno that there are a lot of things to be afraid of, I’m not well.”
Panelists challenged Fresnans to step outside their comfort zones to understand the divide and appreciate different parts of Fresno. Lori Clanton does that through organizing walking tours of different parts of the city.
“I think that there are enough people that live in this city that do have empathy, that care,” said Amy Fuentes. “If you’re here today, if you’re up here next to me, you care. And there’s enough of you. So I think you start there, and that’s where you start the conversations.”
While this is the end of this project, The Bee is committed to continuing this conversation. We’re considering future options.
As a reporter, this project gave me a newfound respect for groups in the city who do community organizing and community outreach. Spurring participation in the dialogue process and getting a diverse group was tough, but the turnout at the forum proved how important this subject is and how many people care about it.
“In engagement projects, it makes all the difference to work with committed newsroom leaders and reporters,” said Jeremy Hay, co-founder of Spaceship Media. “How much of a difference was clear in Crossing The Line and the dialogue that ensued, in the convenings, the Facebook group and the concluding forum, which all showed what can happen when a news organization really puts its will behind bringing its community together around tough issues.”
From the start of this project, many individuals and groups throughout the city reached out with interest in participating or helping in some way. It’s clear that this subject and project has struck a chord in the community and had a ripple effect.
Bergstrom raised a good point in her presentation: We’ve been talking about this for decades. What’s next?
Whatever comes next, I believe it’s important for it to come from the community and for our city’s policy makers to partner with residents.
Like Bergstrom mentioned: It took policies and decisions to create the divide, and it will create policies and decisions to bridge the divide.
Joe Kieta, The Bee’s executive editor, said he considers the forum a beginning of a potentially larger discussion that will take shape in the coming weeks.
“This is not an ending. We’re committed to using The Bee’s power to convene Fresnans from all parts of the city to discuss this issue and others the city faces. It’s a logical extension of what we’ve done for generations on the opinions pages by serving as a marketplace for ideas and a gathering place where the great issues of our city are debated in a civil forum.”
If you’re interested in joining a closed Facebook group to respectfully discuss this subject further, email me at email@example.com.