Above: Merced community organizers and residents gather in support of Building Healthy Communities #Health4All campaign in April. (Photo provided by Building Healthy Communities Merced Facebook page)
By Hannah Esqueda
MERCED, Calif. — As the clock winds down on 2016, Building Healthy Communities (BHC) Merced and local partner groups recently gathered to take stock of their achievements and the work left to be done in 2017.
Funded by The California Endowment, BHC Merced — a coalition of residents, agencies and community organizations — is now more than halfway through it’s 10-year initiative, a milestone that partners say has brought major progress in advancing health equity in the community. The group’s work is largely concentrated in the city’s south side, with multiple projects focused on addressing health access, education opportunities and youth investment.
Chief among the BHC projects has been support for the establishment of a district voting model for the Merced City Council.
Over the last few years, the coalition engaged a multitude of community residents and partners as it built a case against the city’s at-large voting structure that had led to a concentration of power within Merced’s more affluent, north side of town.
“It took a lot of work but in October 2015 the City of Merced finally adopted a redistricting plan which officially ended the use of at-large elections to elect city council members,” said Venise Curry, regional director with Communities for a New California Education Fund (CNC).
CNC worked closely with BHC Merced to educate residents and mobilize voters to support a local measure and create the districts.
“The map that was used to help draw the districts even takes it’s name from one of our friends at BHC, Isai Palma and will now bear that legacy,” Curry said.
All that groundwork paid off in November, when Merced residents in city districts 1, 3 and 5 were able, for the first time, to vote for a representative directly from their neighborhood. The election resulted in the addition of at least one person of color to the city council, a major success for diversifying the local government, she said.
Similar elections will be held for districts 2, 4 and 6 in 2018.
Equity in education
In addition to its local government policy work, BHC Merced has also focused on improving conditions in area schools. Community partners like Parent Institute for Quality Education (PIQE), Cultiva La Salud and the Health Equity Project help comprise the organization’s Schools Action Team (SAT), which is dedicated to helping engage parents and advocate for students in South Merced.
Much of the work of the SAT to date has been around increasing parent input as part of Merced City School District’s Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP), a document required by all districts statewide that reflects spending priorities under California’s school funding law, known as the Local Control Funding Formula. That law, passed in 2013, is intended in part to provide greater financial support to schools serving high-need students, including low-income students, English language learners and foster youth.
Members of the SAT have worked to ensure parent voices are reflected in the LCAP and that districts hold true to the promise of LCFF.
“The work we do is very hard. We know the money is there, we just aren’t seeing it in our schools,” said Claudia Corchado, with Cultiva La Salud in Merced. “We need to keep pushing so we start seeing it in schools and with our families.”
BHC staff said there is a great need for such community work to continue, as a recent Merced City School District accountability report revealed major discrepancies between learning achievements for students on the north and south sides of town.
The 2016 report showed only 24.4 percent of district students from within the areas where BHC has focused its work exceeded the state’s English Language Art standards, compared to 42.1 percent of students in more affluent areas. The assessment results for mathematics revealed a similar trend, with 33.2 percent of district students outside of the BHC site meeting or exceeding state standards compared to 16.1 percent of BHC site students.
The lack of educational success extends deep into the community, as BHC Merced found that 22 percent of the city’s south side adult population lacks a high school diploma. That figure jumps as high as 30 percent for some of Merced County’s more rural communities like Planada.
Fears under Trump
BHC staff and advocates have expressed concern over the changes and possible threats to funding under the incoming president.
President-elect Donald Trump has expressed his intent to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, start a registry for the country’s Muslim population and repeal Obamacare, said Michelle Xiong, youth coordinator with BHC Merced.
Already BHC partner groups and staff are looking to support state measures like Senate Bill 54, which would prevent local law enforcement, schools and courts from using resources on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials.
Local initiatives establishing sanctuary cities, congregations and counties for undocumented residents are also being planned and these safe spaces would be open to all community members targeted by Trump, including LGBT and Muslim neighbors, Xiong said.
The threat to the Affordable Care Act and Medi-Cal expansion is of equal concern, as a recent study found more than 51 percent of Merced County residents enrolled in Medi-Cal.
“That’s the second-highest figure in the state,” Palma said. “We’re second only to Tulare County.”
If the ACA were repealed millions throughout the state could lose coverage, including thousands of Valley residents.
While these changes have altered the larger landscape upon which BHC Merced and partner groups operate, staff say the need for these types of resources and community support has never been greater.
“We know that we’re going to continue doing what we need to,” Xiong said.
We’Ced Youth Media is a project of New America Media and is funded in part through grants from The California Endowment.