“There was a need for local voices,” said Margarita Luna, a program manager with The California Endowment. She funded the creation of the Women’s Policy Institute-County to empower women to advocate for social and economic change in the Eastern Coachella Valley, an unincorporated part of Riverside County where many residents are poor agricultural workers from Latino immigrant families. Twenty grassroots women leaders went through the inaugural local policy advocacy training program in 2015 and are now using their newfound skills, voices and personal experiences to create change for their communities.
When Governor Jerry Brown announced the historic policy known as “realignment” in 2011, attention naturally focused on the overcrowded state prison system. California’s prisons were at 180 percent capacity, and in some, medical and mental health care conditions were so inadequate the Supreme Court deemed them unconstitutional.
But to some, realignment unveiled another big, hidden issue. Over decades, California assumed control of the state’s public programs with expenses totaling more than $10 billion. A budget crisis and a desire to increase efficiency prompted Brown to give that authority back to counties and cities. He argued that local officials could do a better job at designing and managing local programs and services, including public safety, child welfare, foster care and public health.
Margarita Luna, a program officer with The California Endowment, recognized an opportunity. Her work is devoted to improving health in the Eastern Coachella Valley, an unincorporated part of Riverside County through an initiative called Building Healthy Communities. Many of the area’s residents are low-income agricultural workers from Latino immigrant families. In some places, residents have no access to potable water, sidewalks or paved streets.
If realignment was going to bring money into Riverside County, Luna reasoned Eastern Coachella Valley residents should have a say in how it was spent.
“There was a need for local voices,” she said.
Policy Change at the County Level
That need became Luna’s inspiration to work with the Women’s Foundation of California to create a brand new program, the Women’s Policy Institute–County.
Much like the groundbreaking Women’s Policy Institute (WPI), which the Foundation created in 2003 for women leaders to advocate for important statewide legislative changes, the county version would provide the same opportunities at the local level. In her work, Luna saw how state policy expertise often didn’t translate into savvy at the local level. State and county governments were two different beasts.
She was especially keen to develop leadership in rural places like the Eastern Coachella Valley where local leaders struggled to get the attention of elected officials. She persuaded The California Endowment to support the launch of the Women’s Foundation of California’s WPI-County program in 2015, inducting 20 fellows to train them on public policy work in Riverside County.
The Coachella Valley in Riverside County is an important agricultural center, but many workers and residents are exposed to pesticides and polluted drinking water and some live close to toxic waste disposal sites. The transportation system is almost nonexistent, poverty is rampant and the income disparities in the Valley are great. While the median household income in Indian Wells is more than $135,000, 20 miles south in Mecca, it is $25,000.
The problem lies in the county decision-making process, which can be complex and hard to navigate. County supervisors hold great power because they make decisions impacting the day-to-day lives of the community. They decide how to spend federal and state dollars. They plan and implement local versions of statewide and national policies. They also make decisions that impact county services, housing development, transportation and the environment.
WPI-County Empowers Local Leaders
Luna said it is critical for local leaders to participate in the process of developing longer-term investments in the Eastern Coachella Valley. One example is Nancy Valenzuela, a domestic violence prevention activist, who wanted to scale her impact. She graduated from the first WPI-County class.
Valenzuela emigrated from Mexico 16 years ago to escape a violent, abusive relationship. Years later, her 19-year old son was murdered by the same man she had left. Valenzuela said domestic abuse is a serious, under-acknowledged problem in the Valley’s agricultural community. She’s a volunteer with Líderes Campesinas, a nonprofit that develops women leaders and brings awareness to the unique issues faced by Latino female farm workers, including sexual and domestic violence.
During her year with WPI–County, Valenzuela attended 10 two-day retreats where she and 19 other leaders learned about how Riverside County operates. Then they brainstormed, researched and proposed policy solutions to problems. It was an eye-opening experience for Valenzuela.
“I realized the county and cities that we live in, they can actually do something about the issues we’re trying to help the community with,” she said. “We know now that we’re not alone, that there are entities and institutions that we can tap into, express our thoughts and take our message to.”
This was part of Margarita Luna’s goal—to help rural community leaders, like those in the Eastern Coachella Valley, figure out how they can be heard. Her approach as a philanthropist in the Eastern Coachella Valley is guided by her own experience with homelessness while watching her mother battle cancer at a young age.
She is now partnering with local leaders to bring together schools, local government, business leaders, neighborhood groups and individuals to create a vision for the Valley and a blueprint for how to get there. Luna knows that women policy leaders are an important ingredient for success.
“Ultimately, I want the women who go through WPI–County to have the power to self-determine their future, to be the change agents in their communities, to vocalize what needs to happen and to also feel like it can happen,” Luna said. “I think that’s powerful.”