Surina Khan, January 25, 2016, The Press Enterprise
What happens when we give women the tools, resources and relationships they need to solve some of our state’s biggest challenges? They rise to the occasion and end up transforming their communities for the better.
In 2015, the Women’s Foundation of California trained 20 Riverside County residents to advocate for policy change. While in the program, a team of six women, including veteran environmental advocate and Jurupa Valley resident Penny Newman, learned that money is being left on the table in Riverside County. The county is eligible to receive state dollars to address environmental and economic inequities in its communities, dollars that could transform the lives of thousands of low-income families while making our communities healthy – an all around win-win.
Their ingenious solution: Put the issue of environmental justice into Riverside County’s general plan. This would ensure county officials identify areas with high levels of pollution, high unemployment rates and inadequate affordable housing. In turn, this move would make Riverside County eligible to receive new state resources through a landmark 2006 climate change law that directs 35 percent of cap-and-trade revenues – or up to $1.75 billion for the whole state – to improve disadvantaged communities in the state, including right here in Riverside County.
“You can’t solve a problem that no one acknowledges exists,” said Newman. “With an environmental justice element included in the general plan, cities and the county will have to address the inequities within their boundaries and develop a plan to deal with them.”
This is just one example of the results we see when we amplify the voices and leadership of women, training them to be legislative advocates for their communities and connecting them with decision-makers to influence policy. That’s what we do through our Women’s Policy Institute, a policy advocacy training and leadership program for women. Newman is one of more than 350 women we have trained over the past 13 years, and those women have helped pass 25 laws on wide-ranging issues, improving the health, safety and economic well-being of all Californians. One such law, the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, extended legal labor protections and overtime pay to 100,000 low-wage workers in California, most of them women.
In 2015, thanks to the support of the California Endowment, we launched the first county-level Women’s Policy Institute in Riverside County in response to realignment, which shifts the state’s funding model to give local jurisdictions more control. Over the past year and a half, 20 local women got a hands-on, first-hand look at the inner workings of county government, including the role of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, the power of city agencies and what the state government’s budget means for counties.
They then went about tackling inequities in their communities. Newman’s group was interested in taking on environmental inequity. A different team is pushing to remove barriers to affordable, public housing for formerly incarcerated people. Another group is advocating to expand the county’s Medically Indigent Services Program to cover all of Riverside County’s low-income and uninsured population. And the domestic violence group is working to bring a teen violence focus in county schools and health programs.
Women and girls are often missing in Sacramento and at local levels of policymaking. That means women’s lives, bodies and futures are being legislated on in their absence. I believe that women have solutions to many intractable problems our communities are facing – we just have to provide the access and know-how they need to surface and advocate for them, just like Newman and her team are doing. We must continue to increase the number of women who are actively engaged in public policy locally and at the state level.
The Women’s Foundation of California expanded its county fellowship program in 2016 to Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Monterey counties. For more information, go to www.womensfoundca.org.