Community Action from Shared Understanding: A Case Study in Sonoma County

This blog post originally appeared on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity on June 30, 2015. You can access the original article here.

Sonoma County is a thriving northern California county known for world-class vineyards and breathtaking vistas as well as rich cultural diversity and the entrepreneurial spirit of its residents.The county is also home to a vibrant web of community organizations dedicated to making it a better place. But Sonoma County residents recognize that their communities – like so many across the nation – face the difficult reality of deep disparities in access to opportunity.

Most Americans see the gap between the rich and the poor as a problem. But reasonable people who are concerned with the growing divides in the United States can, and do, disagree about how best to address them. At Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council, we have found that by creating a common frame of reference about the nature, extent, and consequences of inequality, it is possible to mobilize broad coalitions to improve human development outcomes.

Aiming to confront disparities head on and develop a detailed roadmap to address them, the Sonoma County Department of Health Services commissioned Measure of America to produce A Portrait of Sonoma County in late 2013.

The report found that although Sonoma County overall scores well on the American Human Development Index – a composite measure of health, education, and income – outcomes in these areas are highly uneven. In some communities, residents enjoy long lives, very high levels of educational attainment, and earnings more than double the national median; in others, residents struggle to meet their most basic needs.

Crucial to its success was a collaborative process to support the report’s development, dissemination, and implementation. The report concludes with an “Agenda for Action” that outlines concrete recommendations for addressing the county’s greatest challenges and identifies high-priority neighborhoods. Seventy-five organizations and individuals signed a “Pledge of Support” committing “to using A Portrait of Sonoma County to better understand … gaps in opportunities and to partnering with the community to identify the strengths and assets on which to build a comprehensive and inclusive response to this report.”

County leaders agree that, one year after its launch, the Portrait has become the gold standard for data on need and well-being in Sonoma County. Evidence-based attention to racial and ethnic disparities is leading to conversations about the reality of de facto segregation, and the Board of Supervisors’ official acceptance of the report has spurred municipalities and agencies to put human well-being progress on the same level as infrastructureand other priorities. In the words of Alfredo Perez, executive director of First 5 Sonoma , “You can’t go to a meeting in the community without the Portrait of Sonoma being talked about.”

The shared understanding has been instrumental in catalyzing advocacy and policy changes to promote greater equity:

  • County agencies have agreed to concentrate and coordinate substantial resources in the five communities identified in the Portrait as having the highest potential to move up the Human Development Index.
  •  Shortly after the report’s publication, the County Board of Supervisors voted to regulate e-cigarette use, citing the Portrait’ s findings on high teenage tobacco use in the county as an impetus for new limitations.
  • The report prompted the formation of a funder’s circle that is coordinating the efforts of community and private foundations, hospitals, and the county government with an eye towards finding projects that they can collectively throw their support behind.
  • Following the Portrait ’s recommendation to “make universal preschool a reality,” the Board of Supervisors requested a cost estimate for this program. Policymakers estimated requiring $70 million for instruction and facilities, and the board is exploring financing options for the county’s first-ever universal preschool program.
  • A pilot program has begun, with the bottom-ranked census tract on the index as the first site, to create a series of murals aimed at community engagement and healing. The goal is to use public art as a means for improved local law enforcement-community relations and to tap into cultural assets in underserved areas.

How can we take the experience of Sonoma County and replicate it at scale? First and foremost, legitimacy is key: community and government involvement foster legitimacy. Data-driven change also relies on accessibility and transparency. Accessibility means communicating findings in plain language (whether it be English, Spanish, or another language) and ensuring that inequality is defined in a non-contentious way that people can relate to.

Transparency consists of explaining data sources, calculations, and goals—and giving the data used to produce any analysis to the public, free of charge. And social change requires real partnerships across sectors and political divides.

As the Portrait Pledge of Support states, “only by working together as equal partners with a shared vision and common agenda can we hope to achieve our long-term goals of making Sonoma County the healthiest county in the state for our residents to work, live, and play.” The report and its adoption by Sonoma County can serve as a model for other cities, counties, and states looking to improve the wellbeing of their citizens.