From the Inland Empire to the White House: Building Community and Winning Our Future

On Nov. 5, 2011, more than 300 community stakeholders from the San Bernardino and Riverside counties (the Inland Empire) and others from Los Angeles and northern California joined several senior Obama administration officials for a White House Hispanic Community Action Summit at the University of California, Riverside, Riverside, Calif.  This summit was one of several White House tours across the country aimed at connecting local communities directly with White House leadership, including policy officials who focus on health, education, immigration, civil rights, community engagement, and job creation.

To begin the day, Secretary of Labor and southern California native Hilda Solis welcomed the community via video and assured participants that our local concerns are also national concerns—especially given the demographics, challenges and possibilities unique to the region.

White House Community Hispanic Community Action Summit

Photo by Carlos Puma

Before lunch, Jose Rico, deputy director for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics introduced the “Open Space” process to engage the community.  The Open Space process gives community members the opportunity to dialogue on topics of shared interest.  There were more than 30 community-driven Open Space sessions, including Hispanic small business ownership, environmental issues and the Hispanic community, immigration, and various topics in education.  The  format allowed participants to discuss similar interests, share frustrations and challenges, and devise plans to respond.  Participating stakeholders included parents, teachers, high school and college students, university faculty and administrators, business owners, retired educators, nonprofit leaders, clergy, and others who were present and contributed to the rich dialogue and perspective.  One of the most well attended and productive sessions focused on “Defining a Quality Education in the Inland Empire,” which addressed the dropout crisis, set clear education attainment goals for the region, and engaged in cross-institutional collaboration.  This session resulted in a concrete plan to establish a region-wide collaborative aimed at addressing issues of equity and opportunity for all children in the Inland Empire.

Prior to the “Open Space” sessions, the summit provided a series of intense, quick workshops that provided attendees with an overview of the many efforts aimed to improve the lives of Latinos across the country. Participants were able to hear from the dozen or so officials about the work in their respective agencies. For example, we learned that the proposed American Jobs Act is estimated to bring California $2.8 billion for modernization efforts to rebuild crumbling buildings and classes, which could help the state begin work on long overdue upgrades to schools and classrooms, supporting an estimated 36,600 jobs and $3.6 billion — enough to prevent an estimated 37,300 teacher layoffs for one school year. In the area of higher education, the administration increased Pell Grants in order to make college more affordable and reminded the public about the underused Income Based Repayment (IBR) program and a proposal to cap student loan payments to 10% of discretionary income for some current students during to help in this challenging economy.

At the close of the summit, Rico led a “News of the Day” discussion that focused on the reflections and progress from the day.  Many participants were grateful for the summit and were impressed by the Hispanic presence in President’s Obama’s administration.  One participant noted that the administration’s work and community engagement are inspiring for us all at the local level.

This White House Community Hispanic Community Action Summit served a much-needed role in galvanizing community stakeholders who might not have otherwise connected with one another.  White House officials not only sent a strong message to the Inland Empire that we are on the national radar, but the summit participants also demonstrated their passion, interest and expertise in responding to local challenges facing our region.  This willingness to collaborate on the part of both entities was apparent, and many walked away feeling that our challenges and hopes in the Inland Empire are not just local matters, but part of the administration’s national priority.

Louie F. Rodriguez is an assistant professor at California State University, San Bernardino, and the  principal investigator for The PRAXIS Project.