Last weekend, California Watch health and welfare reporter Bernice Yeung and I traveled to Fresno for a meeting with representatives from unincorporated communities across the state.
The four-hour-plus session, held in English and Spanish, was a follow-up to Yeung’s April report “Neglected for decades, unincorporated communities lack basic public services,” which detailed the hardships faced by some 1.8 million Californians who live in unincorporated neighborhoods. Access to clean water is sometimes limited and oftentimes prohibitively expensive. Infrastructure is left in disrepair. And there are few clear paths to solutions.
There are hundreds of such communities across California, and California Rural Legal Assistance is active in many of them. We partnered with the nonprofit legal services program for Saturday’s event, which included lunch and travel stipends for participants who came from throughout the San Joaquin Valley and as far south as the Eastern Coachella Valley. (PolicyLink, an Oakland-based public policy research and advocacy institute, also participated.)
We distributed several Spanish and English California Watch Community Toolkits – these include hard copies of the article, the React & Act, a fact sheet on California Watch and the Center for Investigative Reporting, and a DVD of related multimedia – and sat down to discuss the issues residents face.
Some of the struggles I’d heard about before: failing septic tanks, water that costs more than monthly rent, a lack of sidewalks. I had not heard, though, about the creative measures already being taken in many of the communities. I was impressed, and my brain was working quickly to try to figure out how we can employ some of these methods at CIR.
In Parkland – a Modesto community fighting for sidewalks and a connection to the city sewer system – they’ve raised funds by selling tamales and organizing casino trips. Baseball is being used in Beachwood, where gang violence has been an issue, to teach youths that it’s not about winning the game, but rather winning in life. And in Lanare, organizers have taken to holding dinner dances; last week, they earned $1,200 in one night. Those funds are needed to keep open a park they use for meetings and to keep children active.
Yeung talked about the reporting process and the challenges of covering such issues.
“We’re very interested in learning more from the community about what is happening,” she said. “But that involves us building this relationship and hearing from you what we are doing right and what we’re doing wrong, and you hearing from us about the limitations and challenges of doing what we do.”
At one point, a representative from Beachwood – who had not read the article until that day – thanked Yeung for her story, and the participants broke into applause for her and California Watch for getting it right. I’ll admit it was one of the most awesome moments I’ve had working in community engagement.
Residents asked questions about what to do when talking with reporters and how to raise awareness of the issues they face. They mentioned the difficulties they’ve had getting journalists’ attention, as well as factually inaccurate headlines and articles. It was a conversation that could have gone on for hours more. Many signed up to be sources in the Public Insight Network, and I’m excited to see how we can further incorporate their voices into our reporting.
Last weekend’s event came on the heels of nearly two weeks of nonstop travel for me. I have one more week to go. And, frankly, I’m tired. But listening to people’s stories and brainstorming on ways the media can become part of the solution was invigorating. One youth in particular shared ideas he’s had for giving his community a voice. He’s now a PIN source, and I hope to work with him in the near future.
Tell us: What are the issues in your community that we should know about? What resources would you like to see accompany stories? Would these sort of additions take you beyond outrage and into action? Let us know in the comments section below or by becoming a source in the Public Insight Network.