Eureka, a small town in northern California, is characteristic of many rural communities fueled by agriculture and resource extraction industries. Fishing, timber, and cut flowers have drawn immigrants from around the world, transforming it into an area that is culturally diverse.
A grassroots grants program there called Better Together has found its niche working with Latino and Hmong families – amongst others – who’ve settled in Eureka. The program is part of a broad county-wide initiative call First 5 Humboldt, designed to improve the health of families and community through asset and capacity building, and social cohesion. These play out in a wide range of arenas, including employment, education, housing, health, and transportation. It’s those elements that Better Together community Coordinator Helen L’Annunziata says “encompass a healthy community and contribute to healthy families, where the absence of any one of them has a profound affect on well being.”
In its pilot phase, Better Together was fashioned like many grassroots grants programs, based on neighborhood and community revitalization strategies. But after 3 years and a chance to reflect on the pilot, L’Annunziata says the original initiative has come to realize that “community revitalization does not account for the continued structural racism and class inequalities that many families face.”
Circumstances in the community changed that original focus. The Better Together effort unexpectedly evolved to incorporate a social justice element. During a series of immigration and enforcement raids in Eureka last year, L’Annunziata says that many Latino families were separated, “eroding the capacity building” the program had worked hard to gain with the families. Families grew fearful and isolated themselves, and she says it was impossible not to consider how greatly this circumstance weighed counter to the mission of the initiative. “We came to realize that race and racism is impacting their health and place in the community,” she says.
L’Annunziata and others started to think about new ways the initiative and the grants component could continue to reach these families and improve their health in the community. What was required was a shift in focus, to see and listen to the expertise and strengths of the families from the unique perspective and voice they alone held.
It was an acknowledgement of the built up “blinders that we wear,” says L’Annunziata – and the wealth of information and knowledge that the families could provide about their own circumstances.
“People who are in their unique experience of being marginalized can see things in their situation that people of privilege cannot see,” she says. Working to take those blinders off is now “a constant work for us and an opportunity to listen to their voices and expertise.”
What has resulted in Eureka are grassroots grants that are not only culturally sensitive, but also do more to serve as a bridge between different elements of the community. L’Annunziata says that it’s more important to think in terms of projects that “sustain relationships” rather than a model of growth. “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell,” she says. “Sometimes sustaining something – particularly when it comes from the community – is really more important.”
An example of such a project is a group of Latino mothers who yearly put together a day-long celebration of children and families, El Día de los Niños or day of the child. This is “not just a yearly event,” says L’Annunziata, but an opportunity where families can come together to talk about and develop solutions around issues – such as racism in the schools – that affect them.
Another project supported by Better Together that included a social justice element was the continued support provided to a community garden on city property tended by Hmong families, many of which L’Annunziata says are “expert master gardeners.”
These gardens, she says are “not just about food security but also food sovereignty,” where Hmong families can gain access to “culturally appropriate foods, do seed saving, and grow medicinal plants” not available in local stores.
“The added importance of the gardens is that they are culturally significant places for the Hmong people that outsiders including the city occasionally fail to recognize,” she says.
When the city wanted to use the garden properties for development, L’Annunziata saw it as an opportunity for the Hmong to “articulate the importance of the space in their terms” and for the city to “learn about the value of the gardens weather they shared that value or not.”
In this kind of dialogue, she was pleased that Better Together could serve as a “bridge” between two worlds. “The important task becomes inserting a more horizontal communication pattern that does not rely on a bridge person, and is neither top-down nor bottom-up. We have an opportunity to listen through these small grants,” she says.
For L’Annunziata, listening has become the focal point of what Better Together is really all about. “This program is about listening to people who do not have access to the resources that we often take for granted. It is about acknowledging the expertise in those voices and tearing down the blinders that we have built up,” she says. “We’re developing a social change movement through grassroots grant making on the residential level.”