Valley Voices

What makes Fresno’s economy thrive? Inclusivity, engagement and diversity

Folklorico dancers perform on Ventura Avenue during the second annual CenCalVia Open Streets event in Fresno on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Over a thousand participants were expected to gather by bike, skates or on foot to enjoy a variety of activities such as music, dance, skating and games as the street was temporarily turned into a “paved park.” CenCalVia was held to bring diverse residents together to celebrate community, health and active lifestyles, organizers said.
Folklorico dancers perform on Ventura Avenue during the second annual CenCalVia Open Streets event in Fresno on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Over a thousand participants were expected to gather by bike, skates or on foot to enjoy a variety of activities such as music, dance, skating and games as the street was temporarily turned into a “paved park.” CenCalVia was held to bring diverse residents together to celebrate community, health and active lifestyles, organizers said. Fresno Bee file

After five years as a U.S. Marine serving the United States of America, I’ve turned my attention to more local matters. Today, as the California state director for Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit that registers new voters and increases civic engagement across the country, I work to defend and strengthen the democratic institutions of our state and, especially, our city. I’ve come to believe that our community will only truly thrive when all its members feel welcomed and included.

That’s why, in the wake of the 2016 election, I’ve devoted so much of my energy toward empowering immigrants in the Central Valley. We face real losses if fear prevents our documented and undocumented neighbors from making their full economic and civic contributions. Fortunately, Fresno has been a bright spot for many in these uncertain times. Last month, our city earned a handful of top scores in the Cities Index, a tool that measures how effectively the largest 100 U.S. cities are integrating and supporting immigrants.

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Sam Molina, state director of Mi Familia Vota. Contributed

Specifically, our city received a perfect score in the category of “inclusivity,” which demonstrates Fresno’s ongoing commitment to making social services and language assistance available to foreign-born newcomers and to attracting bilingual job candidates. Fresno also ranked highly in the categories of “economic empowerment” and “legal support,” which reflect our support for immigrant-centered vocational, entrepreneurship, and legal resources.

Some of these efforts have been ongoing for years. Fresno-based organizations like Centro La Familia, Education and Leadership Foundation, and the Central Valley Immigrant Integration Collaborative (CVIIC), established in 2014, help immigrants access legal services across both rural and urban communities here in the Central Valley. These organizations have held over 300 legal workshops in Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Tulare counties.

In 2015, the Fresno City Council passed a pro-immigrant resolution, calling for comprehensive federal immigration reform and support for Dreamers. And in 2016, Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro reiterated that the college “is committed to supporting the success of all of our talented students, including undocumented students,” calling them “a critical part of the next generation of leaders in the Valley and beyond.”

Community stakeholders are now forming an Immigrant Advisory Coalition, modeled on the existing Office of Immigrant Affairs in San Jose. Since 2015, that office has supported conferences that empower Latina business founders, encouraged citizens to comment on proposed legislation like Trump’s new “public charge” regulation, and participated in art workshops celebrating immigration stories. Here in Fresno, we hope the IAC will do all that and also focus on public health and safety, business opportunities for newcomers, and their access to local government. A few local council members are already on board, including Fresno City Council President Esmeralda Soria, the first Latina in history to hold the position, and councilman Luis Chavez.

Mi Familia Vota is committed to this same inclusivity. We’ve registered roughly 45,000 new California voters around the state, many of whom were legal permanent residents born abroad who have since become citizens. In the greater Fresno area, there are over 100,000 legal permanent residents, so we have our work cut out for us. But we actively help communities get informed about our candidates, hold know your rights clinics and partner with organizations like the United Farmworkers Union. We also hold voter registration drives and workshops in local high schools to educate the younger generation about why voting matters and the importance of their vote.

I’ve long believed that diversity is our city’s greatest strength. As a kid in Fresno, my friends were from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities: Punjabi, African-American, South Asian, and Mexican, to name just a few. My social and professional circle today is similarly diverse. Our different cultures and viewpoints keep our society vibrant and growing. For Fresno, diversity has always been key to our city’s success — yesterday, today, and certainly tomorrow.

Sam Molina of Fresno is the California State Director of the nonprofit Mi Familia Vota.

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