Lessons from a Ten-Year Plan for Community Change

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August 31, 2013; The Desert Sun

A recent editorial in The Desert Sun highlights local improvements that have begun to emerge as a result of a 10-year initiative sponsored by the California Endowment in California’s eastern Coachella Valley, where poverty rates are high. Established in 2010 with $1 billion, “Building Healthy Communities” was designed as a “ten-year comprehensive community initiative” that aimed to create “a revolution in the way Californians think about and support health” in 14 separate communities throughout the state. Three years into the program, the Sun cites recent environmental and educational indicators in the eastern Coachella Valley as sources of hope that 2020 might look very different in this community of Southern California.

As background on the current situation in the eastern Coachella Valley, the Sun highlights findings from a 2011 Building Healthy Communities study at UCLA that found that adults in this part of California were more apt to be uninsured than adults in other parts of the state (36 percent as compared to 22 percent) and obese (35 percent compared to 21 percent). A related two-year study released in June by UC Davis found evidence of “social vulnerability” throughout the community related to “poor public transportation, limited access to health care and failing septic systems in mobile home parks, many of which rely on private well water contaminated by arsenic and other toxins.”

In response to this study’s specific finding that 81 percent of residents live in areas on the high end of the “cumulative environmental hazards index,” Jonathan London, director of the university’s Center for Regional Change told the Sun, “We really found that the greatest concentration of those environmental hazards are affecting people with the least resources to deal with those problems.”

According to the Sun the “incremental progress” that is happening now in response to these problems is coming from leaders of local nonprofits, schools and other community entities that have banded together as part of a unified campaign. In particular, the Sun points to the innovative work of local nonprofit Pueblo Unido Community Development Corp., an advocacy organization that has developed a method to remove arsenic from local water systems.

Similarly, the local government transit agency is also expanding service this week to the region. Not do be out-done, the Sun notes that even Saul Martinez Elementary, the local elementary school, has raised its scores on the state’s Academic Performance Index from what at one time were the state’s lowest.

The California Endowment is blogging about lessons learned from all 14 sites of the Building Healthy Communities initiative, which will be an interesting resource to follow over the next seven years.  –Anne Eigeman