It was a rainy Saturday along the Monterey Peninsula in October 2012, yet a line of adults, young people and small children snaked around the building and out to the parking lot. It was the Grand Opening of the Cesar Chavez Library, a $3.0-million project that renovated the existing library and expanded it with approximately 6,000 square feet of new library space. This new space featured study rooms, a homework center, a local history room, a computer room, a digital arts center, and a community meeting room accessible to residents and community groups. This expansion was possible through the efforts of grassroots resident organizing groups and a couple of visionary librarians that leveraged city and foundation dollars to make this needed space a reality. As I stood in line with a few staff from The California Endowment (TCE), I marveled at the joy and enthusiasm a library could bring a community. When the doors opened, some 200 residents flooded in to get the first glance as what they had long wished for and finally made happen.
Prior to joining the Board of TCE, my time spent in Monterey County, some 80 miles south of San Francisco, where I live, had been devoted to trips to Monterey and Pacific Grove, mainly forays to the Monterey Bay Aquarium with my kids. I knew that the town of Salinas was home to the John Steinbeck Museum and to many farm laborers who worked the farms lushly blanketing much of the County. But that was the extent of my understanding of Salinas, and even more specifically, East Salinas, also known as the Alisal.
I joined the TCE Board about three years into our 10-year Building Healthy Communities (BHC) initiative at 14 communities around the state of California, including East Salinas. Each board member was assigned one of the 14 communities. The goal of these assignments was to do a deeper dive in our assigned communities. For me, this meant working closely with BHC Program Officer Lauren Maria Padilla-Valverde who had the East Salinas site as her main geographic focus. Over the next 8 years I visited Salinas at least once a year.
It has been said that Building Healthy Communities transformed TCE as much as, if not more than, it helped transform the 14 communities. Seeing this first-hand transformed me as well. I built relationships with community organizers, farm workers, artists, immigrants, formerly incarcerated young men and women, undocumented youth, and students. All of them working to help to build organized resident power for systems transformation and racial justice. The work in East Salinas was at the vanguard of community change because of the specific focus on healing as a catalyst for lasting health and racial justice. I attended organizing meetings with community resident leaders and grantees, healing circles with residents, youth and elected officials, TCE staff and grantees. Spoiler alert: resident power and youth engagement, grounded in racial justice and healing, works and is required for long-term systems change.
In my first year on the TCE Board, I visited Acosta Plaza, a 305-unit condominium complex built in the 1970s in the heart of the Alisal and home to farmworkers and three generations of three different gangs. On my first visit, the cracked sidewalks and neglected open areas were devoid of any human presence. The reason? It wasn’t safe. Three years later, when I visited Acosta again, children were running along the cleaned and repaired sidewalks lined with flower beds and new grass. Toys were scattered here and there, next to lawn and patio furniture where adults sat and chatted as they watched the children play. In one open area a Zumba class had 20 women showing their moves. Down the hill a newly constructed basketball court and picnic area were an obvious source of pride and a favored gathering place for youth and residents.
Time and again over my years in Salinas I saw residents and youth connected to BHC tell truth to power and seize the levers of political engagement and power-building. Some key wins included: organized residents eliminating School Resource Officers (SRO’s) in some school districts, limiting the size of the newly proposed juvenile hall expansion, and successfully advocating for education and government budgets that were more racially equitable and supported thriving youth and families. But what I remain most marked by was seeing the residents and youth step into a greater sense of voice, power and belief that they mattered, and they were entitled to demand change.
As with every community struggling under the yoke of a racist past and the endurance of white supremacy and racist structures, East Salinas still has its challenges, but the move to greater resident power and community and youth engagement is inexorable and inevitable. By requiring board members to deeply engage with community I believe we demonstrated TCE’s commitment to real change and learning over the long-term. I saw firsthand the catalytic force that rests with community and once unlocked it’s both unstoppable and enduring. At a time when belief in durable transformation can flag, my hope remains, thanks to TCE and more critically, thanks to the inspiring and fierce residents of East Salinas.