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Listening to Our Community: LIFT Partners Share 2020 Insights From The Front Lines

By Misty Avila, Program Officer – Civic Engagement

“We envision a world where diverse experiences are embraced. Racial disparity accounts for wide gaps in education, health outcomes, and economic opportunity. We critically understand the impact of media and education on our society’s perceptions. We seek to create initiatives that birth new narratives.” – Jamillah Finley, founder and executive director of Black Girl Magic Project, a program in Fresno engaging Black girls in journalism and arts activism centering young, Black voices as positive figures through youth-generated media.

These words capture the heart of our belief in the strength of the Central Valley’s rich culture and the Foundation’s vision to protect the hopes and dreams of its people.

As we welcome the new year full of promise for social and civic engagement at every level, we recognize how Central Valley communities are hindered by the ongoing pandemic that has further exposed and exacerbated the inequities faced in the region. Still, heroic organizations and leaders work tirelessly to re-imagine possible futures for communities.

Over the past year, the Foundation has carried out the LIFT Initiative, a First Amendment grant-making pilot, to explore and learn from the landscape of civic engagement in the Central Valley.

Fresno Education Lab
Source: Fresno Bee Education Lab, Fresno Ed Lab Reporters host pre-pandemic listening sessions with Spanish-speaking residents.

We listened directly to organizations – from parents building civic advocacy skills through the Parent Institute for Quality Education to community-based journalism labs embedding diverse voices in McClatchy Bee newsrooms in Sacramento, Modesto, and Fresno. We set out to uncover the core supports needed by communities to engage in First Amendment freedoms and sustain a vibrant civic life.

Lessons and Insights from the Front Lines

  • Over one hundred listening sessions from Sacramento to Bakersfield revealed both emerging and seasoned organizations dedicated to First Amendment freedoms of speech, expression, and a free press, and mobilizing around local issues such as education, immigration, water, and housing. But their community’s ability to exercise First Amendment rights is directly connected to the resources and capacity available to create a local culture of participation. The region is severely underserved by philanthropic resources, even as the population and needs expand.
  • Given the racial injustice and pandemic impacts of 2020, civic unrest has shown the need for civic education. Communities are eager to have their voices heard and be part of decision-making that impacts their lives. HIP is doing this critical democratic work daily, despite COVID-19, to strengthen the political power of Hmong and disenfranchised communities through innovative civic engagement and strategic grassroots mobilization.

Nancy Xiong, director at Hmong Innovating Politics (HIP), has seen shifts to digital organizing in response to the pandemic and shares how this year has amplified “a whole generation of young people who are ready to be engaged and build.

Hmong Innovating Politics
Source: HIP Instagram, Hmong Innovating Politics first day back to canvassing during the pandemic, 2020
  • Local Central Valley news is experiencing an accelerating crisis. Lack of factual and timely information, especially in the home languages of residents, is further isolating communities. Dillon Delvo, executive director of Little Manila Rising (LMR) addresses the decline of local news in Stockton:

With the erosion of journalism, we seek to control our own narrative. Sadly, the threats of false narratives are very much true and powerful in our local community. And in a community that has been systematically disenfranchised, we need to change its culture of powerlessness to one that possesses the ability and the right to shape itself.

With support of a LIFT grant, LMR is responding by collaborating with reputable journalists to tell their community’s story, both present and past. Dillon adds: “Change is happening right now and deserves to be documented and amplified.

  • Community foundations across the Central Valley are trailblazing how to preserve and innovate existing newsrooms through media lab startups such as Stanislaus Community Foundation’s McClatchy Media Lab with the Modesto Bee and the Fresno Bee Education Lab with the Central Valley Community Foundation. In addition, leaders are responding to the changing conditions in traditional media by creating new platforms born from the community such as Kern Sol News, a youth media outlet reporting news in Bakersfield, and the Fresno State Institute for Media and Public Trust addressing the lack of community voices in newsrooms by training the next generation of diverse journalists.
Source: Kern Sol News, In the 661: Youth Voices for Kern

Ecosystem of Engagement

What surfaced from a year of listening is a vivid civic engagement ecosystem of connected partners ranging from community organizers, educators and journalists to First Amendment advocates.

This network-approach allows us to think in a more holistic way about how to invigorate community-wide and inclusive civic engagement capacity in our state’s most important region. Grassroots organizations play a key role in activating and engaging communities while local journalism and national advocates fight to keep independent, fact-based local news as a core function of our democracy. Community-based educators, such as the Yolo County Youth Civic Initiative, build civic literacy for the next generation while community media outlets, like the community to newsroom pipeline with Sol Collective, are forging stories alongside those most impacted by economic and social injustices. Collectively, they create a blueprint for how to successfully uplift the First Amendment in the Central Valley.

Moving Forward

In 2021, we will continue deep listening across the Central Valley and will devote resources to amplify voices. As the LIFT pilot evolves into a longer-term strategy, we embrace opportunities to collaborate safeguarding local news and strengthening diverse civic and journalism pipelines that represent the future of the Valley. With the LIFT partnerships formed, we are eager to keep learning and look forward to sharing more insights and lessons from the front lines.

Special thanks to the LIFT partners; JBMF board, especially Susan McClatchy, Joaquin Alvarado, and Ashley Swearengin; JBMF team; Advisors Brenda Quintana, Leah Taylor, Evelyn Arellano, Cha Vang, Gretchen Moore, Jennie Breister, and Jim Boren; and all our community leaders dedicating their time to guide our inaugural civic engagement grantmaking efforts in the Central Valley. 

View LIFT partners here.