The Birth of the California Center for Rural Policy:
“Tell the Story and Create the Future”
By Adrianna Bayer, CCRP Graduate Research Assistant
In times of great need, people come together to draw strength from each other. The birth of the California Center for Rural Policy (CCRP) was one of these occasions. Diverse community members from four Northern California counties, Del Norte, Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino saw a need for joint rural community action. As a result, leaders from a variety of backgrounds, including ranching, timber, health, education, and law enforcement, gathered multiple times from 2003 to 2005 to discuss rural issues. During the meetings community members reflected on Mahatma Gandhi’s quote “Your life is your teaching.” Despite the tension between the different interest groups, the members were determined to create a community where shared life experiences would teach greater receptivity to change and improvement for all rural people.
Quality of life in Northern California was and still is the primary concern of this group, originally formed as the Institute of the North Coast, which later became the currently known Redwood Coast Rural Action (RCRA). This group understood the socioeconomic changes in the region, such as the decline in traditional economic bases of timber and fishing and the potential increase in tourism. To fully understand the social and environmental challenges facing our local area, RCRA desired more concrete data that was generated at the local level. Existing data sources did not clearly address issues important to rural people in the four county regions. In fact, as Kathy Moxon, current Director of RCRA, stated, it was essential that “RCRA ask the most important questions to the region, those that address our communities' biggest concerns, versus an outside researcher asking questions he or she considers important.” Institutions such as College of the Redwoods (CR), Humboldt Area Foundation (HAF), and Humboldt State University (HSU) began to get involved with RCRA to help in any way that they could.
During some of the initial meetings, members went to Rollin Richmond, the President of Humboldt State University, and asked him to get involved and even lead the preliminary project of gathering data from the local communities. This request represents the conception of the California Center for Rural Policy (CCRP). Members of RCRA wanted a research center that would be dedicated to community concerns first and foremost. The fact that the CCRP is community driven is a characteristic that sets it apart from other research centers. The main reason RCRA chose to align itself with the university was to benefit from existing university strengths by building on work already in progress. At the two main educational institutions, (Humboldt State University and College of the Redwoods) health, environment, and economic issues are major topics of study. Community members, students, and faculty have valuable information that can aid the efforts of CCRP and are sources of revitalizing energy—getting the youth involved in rural community issues.
Though the CCRP is a new research center, its youth and diversity are its major strengths. For instance, Peter Pennekamp, Director of the local Humboldt Area Foundation, notes that people in the leadership roles at CCRP are “young, brilliant, and active; they see the world in unique ways.” Revolutionary modes of presenting information, such as GIS mapping, are constantly being adapted within the center. President Richmond commented on the diversity of workers: “If [RCRA] had sat and dreamt of the types of people we would want in [the CCRP], we wouldn’t have dreamt of anyone better.” The center aims to conduct meaningful rural research that can be translated into action (policy). A major goal is to make rural data accessible and easily understood by members of the larger community. Though the CCRP examines health, it is not limited to medical health alone. The CCRP considers the health of the community and environment as well. CCRP research examines individuals within the larger biological, familial, social, geographic, economic, and policy contexts. A healthy community is one that has access to clean, safe, natural environments; adequate healthcare; high-quality schools; living wages (with good benefits); nutrition; affordable housing and safe living environments. Research in these areas needs to be provided to the general public, planners and policy makers to assure that informed decisions are made. Only when everyone is involved will meaningful changes take root and grow.
The CCRP vision is of the future, an early catalyst to deal with a need for rural data that exists beyond the original four county areas to include the state of California. There is a great necessity within California and the U.S. to improve living conditions for all peoples regardless of race, class, gender, or geographic location. The CCRP, which was officially born in the fall of 2005 after receiving a grant from the California Endowment, is a grassroots movement of Northern California—it is planting the seeds. As Herrmann Spetzler, Executive Director of the Open Door Community Health Centers, said when contemplating the birth of the CCRP: “Individuals must…understand that this is just the beginning.” The CRRP is good for all groups involved, especially for rural populations. It is rural research for and by rural communities. With continual collaboration and support from local communities, positive changes will happen. In coming together, we not only draw strength from each other but share our hopes for the future. Perhaps American Cultural Anthropologist Margaret Mead said it best: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” CCRP is one such group working for social change in rural areas.