Valley Voices

Fresnans listened to the deepest needs of our working poor. The answers may surprise you.

Reading and Beyond helps children and parents in poverty use education to get ahead.
Reading and Beyond helps children and parents in poverty use education to get ahead. Vida en el Valle File/2013

Listening is hard to come by these days. Doing something about what you hear is even more rare.

We have failed to solve some very real problems that hold people, our region and our state back.

This is especially true for the growing number of Californians who are working, but are still in – or on the brink of – poverty. They’re struggling to support their families financially and cut off from opportunities to make their voices heard. For decades, we have been trying to solve these problems, but our success has been limited.

Many people know this population exists, but are unaware of who they are and the challenges they face. If we want to find solutions, we need to truly understand the problem – by listening to the people experiencing them.

We were the Fresno partners for an effort to listen to working Californians. Two sessions in Fresno late last year were among 14 hosted statewide by The James Irvine Foundation to hear directly from Californians who are trying to support their families and improve their communities – but who face barriers to opportunity.

These sessions brought to the surface telling themes about the challenges at hand. A lack of jobs in the region came up, but the concerns went much deeper:

▪  They want to be treated with dignity. A part-time security worker said, “You’re just a number nowadays. If you quit, there’s other people that will take your job. I think that’s why the quality of work goes down.”

▪  They want to live without making extreme tradeoffs. Despite working hard, Fresnans still have to make difficult decisions about what basic necessities they can afford.

▪  They want the opportunity to make their lives better. Most felt trapped; jobs are scarce, preschool or higher education was too expensive.

▪  They want to live without fear and anxiety. We heard fear from immigrants, documented and undocumented, who are eager for acceptance and opportunities after years of working in California.

▪  They want to be part of a strong network. The lack of access to information, resources and support holds people back. Residents feel that government officials don’t understand their life circumstances.

There are some initiatives to overcome these challenges, but they have not been able to reverse the trends. For example, Fresno has a strong entrepreneurial spirit, particularly among immigrants. But our city still includes some of the poorest zip codes in the country.

Expanding access to resources and business expertise (like the Fresno Area Hispanic Foundation and Fresno Community Development Financial Institution’s efforts) could have a ripple effect across the region, but is it enough?

Emerging public-private partnerships can also pay dividends. Fresno Unified School District’s Parent University holds Ready To Learn Workshops that help a parent be their child’s first and best teacher. The Cradle to Career Partnership aims to improve outcomes for children from their earliest years to college.

More than 100 leaders from government, nonprofits, business, and other sectors are driving this unique initiative – but more initiatives are necessary.

Innovative leaders from different business sectors are also speaking out about the need for new approaches. This includes the Fresno Bridge Academy, the technology company Bitwise, and the Central Valley Community Foundation. But there are still many organizations entrenched in the way they have always done things.

These are good starts, but we need more – much more. Our economy and community is stronger when we listen to each other. But without action, millions of voices will go unheard and our problems will remain unsolved.

Phil Meyer is the president and CEO of ValleyPBS. Luis Santana is executive director of the Fresno-based nonprofit Reading and Beyond.