Urban Wire How local philanthropy is addressing Fresno, California’s severe economic inequities
Erika C. Poethig
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Sitting in the shadows between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the inland city of Fresno, California, is one of the youngest, most diverse, and fastest-growing US cities. But it also has the nation’s second-highest rate of concentrated poverty, and the life expectancy for residents living in affluent versus poorer neighborhoods can vary by 20 years. According to recent Urban Institute research, Fresno ranked near the bottom across 274 US cities on economic and racial inclusion, and it ranked last among 59 cities in California.

Cities facing these challenges are looking to create more inclusive growth for all residents by turning to new partners to develop and implement new programs and policies. Philanthropy has become a critical catalyst in this effort. In Fresno, through The Kresge Foundation’s Shared Prosperity Partnership (SP2), the Central Valley Community Foundation (CVCF) hosted a roundtable discussion to explore how to better align policies and programs across sectors to reverse the effects of decades of discriminatory policy and systems.

The Urban Institute, with the Brookings Institution and Living Cities, are partners in SP2. At a recent regional SP2 convening in Philadelphia, I sat down with CVCF president and former Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin to explore the foundation’s preliminary efforts to help local stakeholders work toward shared prosperity.

What led to Fresno’s social and economic inequities?

For 60 years, leapfrog development has been driving wealth to the outer edges of the city, building single-family homes on the very farmland that is meant to power our economy. What feels to some like growth and progress is “white flight” that is undermining our economy and destroying the stability of our neighborhoods.

While we have begun to move the needle on some of our most persistent economic, environmental, and social challenges, these conditions are a direct result of decades of discriminatory policies and redlining followed by land-use policies that further isolated and segregated our community.

Why is it challenging to address economic disparities, and what is CVCF doing to set Fresno on the path for shared prosperity?

Conversations about inequality are difficult—both to initiate and to carry through—but they are the necessary first step to addressing the challenge of inequality. It requires civic leaders to be vulnerable, which is not always a comfortable space to be in. As mayor, I found that the best outcomes came from being willing to challenge the status quo and honoring and valuing the voice of Fresno’s disenfranchised neighborhoods.  

Now, at the Central Valley Community Foundation, I see the powerful role that philanthropy can play as a convener, data collector, conduit for resources, and a supporter of the organizations working at the grassroots level to engage and empower residents. As an institution, we can leverage our place in the community to amplify resident voices. Because philanthropy overlaps geographies, policy areas, and programs, institutions like CVCF are uniquely situated to bring local changemakers to the table so we can, together, determine what inclusive economic development looks like in our community and take aggressive steps forward as a region to achieve it.

We collaborated with the Urban Institute to convene 70 people representing 50 organizations to discuss how best to align programs and policies to enable low-income residents to contribute to and benefit from expanding opportunities for economic growth. From our SP2 roundtable, we have started an important conversation between community members and civic leaders. We have used data to myth-bust some deeply held convictions, and we have been able to set a course and prioritize next steps.

What are specific examples or strategies that philanthropy can deploy to foster more inclusive and equitable neighborhood revitalization?

In an underresourced city like Fresno, relationships are our currency. So we invest significant time and energy into building and maintaining our relationships. One of the challenges for Fresno are the deep pockets of distrust from neighborhoods that have been left behind. Our foundation has committed to using our position and our network to attract and deploy resources and programs to empower residents and transform our neighborhoods.

For example, CVCF is working with a cohort of resident-led community development corporations and neighborhood associations under the umbrella of the Fresno Community and Economic Development Partners to expand their individual and collective capacity to serve as the backbone for revitalizing the city’s core neighborhoods.

We have also just announced the selection of eight neighborhood-based nonprofits in Fresno to receive operating funds and 12 months of intense technical assistance as part of CVCF’s inaugural Communities Organized for Resident Empowerment Initiative, which aims to establish lasting, resident-led civic infrastructure that empowers residents to set neighborhood priorities and to take collective action to address community challenges.

Last year, we worked with the City of Fresno and residents in Fresno’s downtown, Chinatown, and southwest neighborhoods on the nation’s largest participatory budgeting process. Transformative Climate Communities is bringing $70 million of state cap and trade funds to these neighborhoods, and we supported the resident engagement process to develop the state’s expenditure plan.

Foundations often help develop cross-sector partnerships around a variety of issues and then identify streams of capital that align with programs and policies. How is CVCF leveraging this role in Fresno?

Fresno is the site of the nation’s first high-speed rail (HSR) station, which will eventually connect Fresno with the Bay Area by 2025 and later with Los Angeles. The state’s HSR Authority has acquired property for the new rail station in downtown Fresno, so there is great potential to harness the growth and development that will eventually follow these investments.

As the Bay Area grapples with a severe housing crisis, inland California is becoming more attractive. HSR will connect Fresno to the Bay Area in under an hour, which is great for Fresno’s access to their economy, but it puts the Central Valley at risk of becoming a bedroom community, which may expand our retail jobs but little else.

That is certainly not the pathway to prosperity that Fresnans are hoping for. We are looking for good jobs that bring upward mobility, and we need to ensure that existing businesses, particularly small, minority-owned businesses, are prepared to benefit fully from HSR and other investments.

Over the past 18 months, CVCF has been addressing this subject among various stakeholder and community convenings to discuss how to plan for this investment, as well as how to strengthen and prepare our workforce and our economy overall.

That seems like a big lift, but we have incredible buy-in from our community partners and we’ve already seen strong movement in several of these key areas. The Central Valley continues to face some of the most difficult economic, social, and environmental challenges in the nation, but we have momentum, a good plan, and strong partners. It finally feels like it’s our time to shine.

Downtown Fresno, Ca. Photo by Nicolas McComber/Getty Images.

Downtown Fresno, Ca. Photo by Nicolas McComber/Getty Images.


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