A cadre of legislators, community leaders and health advocates, including U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, are meeting in Stockton Thursday to devise a plan for improving economic and health outcomes throughout the often-overlooked San Joaquin Valley. And one region stands out: Kern County.

Advocates are releasing a report focused on Kern County to coincide with the inaugural San Joaquin Valley Leadership Conference. That report, “Kern County: Geography of Inequity and Opportunities for Action,” lays bare the area’s social disparities while outlining a roadmap for change.

“We start with the premise that Californians want other Californians to live quality lives, and we need to invest in the conditions (in which) children are living,” said Chet Hewitt, president and CEO of The Center at Sierra Health Foundation, which commissioned the report and has been organizing a network of valley nonprofits and funding a multimillion dollar effort in its mission to create better health outcomes in the San Joaquin Valley.

“I don’t want to sound naive, but when we talked to Californians and told them things about the quality of water – in some communities you can’t drink the water coming out your spigot – there were people in disbelief,” Hewitt said.

Those types of issues disproportionately impact minorities and low-income residents, the report states.

A broad report touching upon air quality, poverty, water contamination, and land-use policy, it describes Kern as a region where “deeply entrenched natures of inequities” exist, especially along racial and economic lines. Despite rich natural resources – including the highest valued agricultural crops statewide and more oil than any other county nationwide – roughly 22 percent of all residents live in poverty.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • A divide separates those who benefit from and control access to the region’s natural resources, and those who are impoverished by policy and planning decisions that have left them with inequitable access to those resources.
  • Roughly 40 percent of residents who live in unincorporated parts of Kern County – about 140,000 people – live in disadvantaged communities marked by years of disinvestment and a lack of representation in the decision-making process.
  • Compared to white and wealthy residents, Latinos and low-income residents are more likely to live in areas served by contaminated water supplies, be exposed to pesticides at work, and have children likely to attend schools exposed to pesticide drift.
  • Limited economic opportunities exacerbate conditions for Kern residents, while a shortage of highly educated workers limits expansion opportunities for high skill-based industries.
  • Kern County ranks 52 out of 57 reporting California counties on health outcomes that include length of life, low birth weight and perceived health, and it received the lowest possible ranking for health behaviors contributing to poor outcomes, including smoking, obesity, teen births and sexually transmitted diseases.

Bleak as the picture painted in the report may seem, there are opportunities for change. The answer won’t come from a few new government programs or short-term investment, but from long-term systems change influenced by active community members rising up and getting involved to create better policies for their neighborhoods.

It identifies unincorporated regions that are left with little political representation as a particular challenge.

Political and economic leaders in power now, the report states, are often reluctant to view decision-making through an equity lens. That needs to change, the report states, pointing out that in an ideal situation, community members with vested interests in better health outcomes would get involved.

The report lays out ways community members can get involved. It suggests residents lobby the County Board of Supervisors to add a health element to the General Plan that’s being updated; that political power be built in low-income areas through community organizing; for residents to collect and report suspected environmental hazards while pressing regulators to create policies to protect vulnerable communities; and that collaborative partnerships be cultivated to pursue widespread systems change for better health outcomes.

“This is not a report about intractable problems in unincorporated areas or in marginalized areas or cities, but about stage-setting for what needs to be addressed in California,” Hewitt said. “This is a movement that we’re building. It is a movement for equity and a movement for inclusion and social justice.”

Participating in the Local Control Funding Formula, a state program requiring that community members have input in how local districts create their budgets, could be one way to achieve systems change, the report states.

Locally, the Dolores Huerta Foundation has seized the opportunity by organizing parents and educating them about the Local Control Accountability Plan – the long-range planning document parents have a say in developing every year.

At the Bakersfield City School District, administrators listened to community members’ need for greater health care for their kids and used state LCAP funds to build on-campus community wellness centers – making it the first in the state to use those funds in such a way. The report marked such strides as a community victory.

But for every success, there are several empty LCAP community forums. That lack of involvement is one of the challenges in movement-building among communities, Hewitt admitted.

“I’ve been to some of those meetings and sometimes am disappointed more people aren’t there,” he said, adding, however, that many of those living in Kern County who need the most representation are working poor struggling with food insecurity. Attending a meeting isn’t a priority, he said.

And although community groups that go into neighborhoods, talk with residents and can communicate their concerns to decision makers are critical, he said, increasing participation would demonstrate to decision-makers that it’s not just a few marginalized people in need.

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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