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Much work has been done to narrow gaps in education, employment and health that Latino residents of Sonoma County say they experience in relation to the mainstream population, but further inroads need to be made to boost incomes, voter participation and representation in elected seats, advocates said Thursday.

With the county’s Latino population on a steady rise — it now makes up a quarter of the overall population — action in the public and private sector will be needed to ensure that the next generations have ample and equal opportunities for economic development and civic engagement, speakers said in a half-day conference in Santa Rosa that evaluated the state of the Latino community.

“We, as a community, can create the blueprint,” said Herman Hernandez, president of Los Cien, the Latino leadership organization that put together the event at the Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa. Los Cien’s own growth, from nine members at its inception five years ago to more than 300 now, reflects the emergence of Latino leaders and greater visibility of Latino businesses and organizations.

“Even though our efforts at times might seem small, if they are sincere, their success is certain,” Hernandez said.

The event drew several hundred people, including nonprofit and business leaders; educators; local, state and federal officials; and candidates for public office.

Both of the county’s congressmen — Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, and Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena — were in the audience, as was Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, and four of the county’s five supervisors.

Over four hours Thursday morning, speakers tackled topics ranging from lack of quality preschools to the number of Latinos with untreated mental health problems.

The disparities with the majority population have long been known within the Latino community, but their existence has been highlighted in greater clarity over the past few years.

A recently released report, “A Portrait of Sonoma County,” compiled by the county’s Health Services department, found that whites, who comprise two-thirds of the county’s population, fare better across a range of measures of well-being — including education, health, income and life expectancy — than Latinos do. In an index expressed on a scale of zero to 10, whites had a score of 6.01, while Latinos scored lowest at 4.27.

“If we want to have a strong county, we need to close the achievement gap for Latinos,” said Oscar Chavez, the county’s assistant director of Human Services.

Poverty, a big problem across California, has affected the state’s Latino residents at a greater rate than the total population.

About a third of Latinos in California live in poverty, according to the event’s keynote speaker, David Grusky, a Stanford University sociology professor who heads its Center on Poverty and Inequality. Overall, nearly 1 in 4 Californians lives in poverty, he said.

Part of the problem for low- income households is the treatment of childhood education as a commodity, he argued. Poor families don’t have the means to pay for high-quality preschools and other training for their children, he said. As a result, they fall behind in school and later in life don’t have access to higher-wage jobs. There aren’t enough low-skill jobs to go around, and the demand for those kinds of jobs keeps wages low, he said.

“If we can eliminate those bottlenecks,” he said, “you ultimately solve the problem.”

Improving access to quality early-childhood education and workforce training would help address poverty among Latino residents, as would clearing a path for those who are undocumented to obtain citizenship, Grusky said, earning applause from the audience.

Any gains would require a significant taxpayer investment — he did not say how much — over many years.

“We know what to do,” Grusky said. “I didn’t say it was easy.”

The wave of Latino students coming through the county’s schools now represents a dominant majority among the student body, with nearly 2 in 3 entering kindergartners identified as Latino, according to Mary Maddux- Gonzalez, chief medical officer for the Redwood Community Health Coalition, a network of 17 community health centers in Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Yolo counties.

Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Socorro Shiels, who served as a moderator Thursday, cautioned people from “rushing” to fix public schools, which she said are working to provide equal opportunities for their students.

“Certainly there are issues we have to address. But we have to look at fixing society — the community in which we live,” she said. “There are things that we can do outside of the classroom to change those conditions.”

Tim Reese, executive director of the Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County, said the organization has been focused on changing those conditions for years through programs such as Head Start and Pasitos, which works with Spanish-speaking parents to prepare their 3- and 4-year-olds for school.

“We know that early education and upstream investment works,” Reese said.

The nonprofit group also is working with at-risk students to make up class credits and earn their high school diplomas. The growing Youth Connections program also helps students prepare for college and the workforce.

“When the experts speak, we nod our heads. We get it. We’re already doing it,” Reese said. “I’m proud of our staff. In many ways, we’re on the cutting edge.”

The county is seeing positive shifts when it comes to diversity in higher education, said Santa Rosa Junior College President Frank Chong.

When he joined the college two years ago, Chong said, Latinos made up 25 percent of the student population. They now make up 32 percent.

Sonoma State University has seen similar growth over the years, President Ruben Armiñana said. The entering class is 27 percent Latino, compared to 12 percent a decade ago, he said.

“We’re doing better,” Armiñana said. “(But) we need to do much better.”

The university is working with schools such as Elsie Allen High in southwest Santa Rosa to prepare students for college. But one of the university’s challenges is retention of Latino students.

A lot of students leave because of short-term crises in their families, such as a job loss or divorce, Armiñana said.

“Unfortunately, they don’t come back,” he said, adding that the feeling of failure they experience causes an “enormous burden” in their future.

And when it comes to depression and mental health, Latinos aren’t likely to seek treatment.

Only 1 in 11 Latinos with a mental health problem will seek a specialist, said Dr. Enrique Gonzalez-Mendez, a Sonoma County family physician and UC San Francisco clinical professor.

Latinos often don’t seek treatment because they don’t have health care coverage. There’s also a stigma when it comes to mental health, he said.

In addition, he said, “Access to care is a big problem, especially if you don’t speak the (English) language.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com.

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