Changing Merced via Collaborative Partnerships

June 21, 2016 /

Above: We’Ced members, Leah and Cassandra, pose for a picture during the #InvestinYouth Rally in May.


By Claudia J. Gonzalez

Photo by Crystal Rivera


Merced, Calif.–Dr. Steve Gomes is an educator. He’s also the Merced County Superintendent of Schools. One would think he knows a thing or two about homework, but his opinion for the local papers clearly shows he did not study.

In part, Dr. Gomes raises questions about what The California Endowment (TCE) has funded over the last several years through its Building Healthy Communities (BHC) initiative and what he labels as the “counterproductive tactics” being used.

It would not take an “A” student to research the answers to Dr. Gomes questions. In fact, the Merced County Office of Education is one of the very organizations receiving funding to do innovative systems and policy change work that BHC is advancing. That’s right. The very organization Dr. Gomes leads is doing the policy change work he is so “disappointed” with. And, had he simply called other school district superintendents, he would know that many have and continue to actively partner in collaboration with BHC to improve both community and student wellness (including Weaver School District, which Dr. Gomes mistakenly identifies as an example of success occurring independent of BHC work).

BHC Merced has established long-standing, productive relationships with multiple schools, governmental agencies and departments, health organizations, and private/non-profit community organizations throughout the Merced area, including the one I run, We’Ced Youth Media.

Most importantly, this initiative has empowered hundreds of community leaders such as myself. The work we do in the community, has always been supported and applauded by BHC.

As the county superintendent, Dr. Gomes must know this. Why is he feigning ignorance or perhaps flat-out omitting information on the many collaborative partnerships this initiative has developed?

And why is Dr. Gomes labeling this work as being “counterproductive” and “confrontational?”

His efforts are aimed at one thing:  Creating a diversion from the important progress being made in which local youth and residents are finding their voice and increasingly participating in democracy so their communities are healthier and more equitable.

The status quo in Merced is under threat, and some of those in power clearly don’t like it. Our leaders need to accept responsibility and help all Merced communities rise instead of offering false, or at best, misinformed opinions specifically intended to question the purpose and approaches of our work. Let’s be clear: they disagree with the tactics because they are afraid of the outcomes.

Dr. Gomes called a public awareness campaign on the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) “confrontational” when it merely affirms the facts: School boards are indeed the responsible entities for approving school districts’ budgets and spending plans. Should they NOT be held accountable for this huge responsibility of spending tens of millions of dollars?

Of course they should. And that’s all the campaign is about: accountability.

He is correct in saying one of BHC’s aims is to increase parent involvement in the LCFF process. In fact, schools are mandated to engage parents in this process.

Furthermore, Dr. Gomes cites LCFF is relatively new, like “building a plane while you are flying it”, as if to say schools should be given a break for not being further along. Haven’t schools been working diligently to engage parents in the educational process since the beginning of their existence?

I know our partners have. Work has been going on with the Merced Union High School District (MUHSD) through organizations like the Merced Organizing Project which has worked to build a superintendent’s advisory council in the past and is now working to support parents to share their priorities and voices with MHUSD, its superintendent and its boards of trustees. Other partners are working collaboratively with other districts in similar fashion.

As if an afterthought, Dr. Gomes also uses the example of residents advocating for a Youth Council as somehow being confrontational. Community members have been reaching out to city leadership since February through formal written correspondence, emails, telephone calls, and even dropping by City Hall in order to try to work with city officials.

When these invitations were ignored, advocates took responsibility. Side by side with representatives from multiple youth leadership organizations across the state, local advocates convened a fantastic learning session on running successful Youth Councils. City Manager Steve Carrigan and mayoral candidate Mike Murphy even attended for about an hour. They didn’t seem to do much with the knowledge I hoped they learned, and now the Youth Council remains underfunded and undervalued.

If the voices of literally hundreds of residents, youth, and other stakeholders are ignored at town halls, council meetings, and rallies, what are residents to do? The better question is, what should the city be doing and why aren’t they supporting the Youth Council they created? 

Branding BHC efforts as confrontational or counterproductive is just a smokescreen, part of a kabuki drama aiming to divert from the real issue of the need for sweeping changes in our communities.

Merced is achieving a healthier functioning democracy in which all are acquiring the opportunity to participate. The inequities that persist are lessening already, and a clear path is being created for health and justice for all.

Hold on tight, change has finally arrived.

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