Sunny weather, majestic ocean views and the dream of a better life propelled millions to move to California in the last century and a half, but the reality today is wide income inequality, unaffordable housing and devastating wildfires.
With the goal of building resilience and making the California dream more attainable through systemic change, about 550 leaders in business, politics, nonprofits, environmental groups and economic agencies gathered in Santa Rosa on Thursday and Friday for the seventh annual California Economic Summit.
“They are problem solvers, not complainers,” said Lenny Mendonca, co-chair of California Forward, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that co-hosts the summit.
An array of speakers outlined major statewide issues, including environmental concerns, the housing crisis, educational achievement gaps and inequity. In an era of divisive politics nationally, many said the only way forward is to bridge divides and share resources.
“We know that we need to lead by example because, folks, the healing that we need not only in our state but across our country, begins at home,” Oscar Chavez, assistant director at the Sonoma County Department of Human Services, told the morning crowd.
Last year, California surpassed the United Kingdom in becoming the world’s fifth-largest economy. But 55 percent of Californians believe they would be better off pursuing the American dream in other states, and almost half of California’s workforce — 47 percent — say they struggle with poverty, according to recent studies by the James Irvine Foundation.
“California is generating enormous wealth, but to many Californians, the California dream is now an empty promise,” said Peter Weber, co-chair of California Forward.
The summit’s initiatives include adding 1 million more skilled workers, 1 million more jobs that pay a living wage and 1 million more homes in the state. And there was a preview of the California Dream Index, an empirical, metric-based resource that tracks economic mobility and shared prosperity.
“The idea is to not think of the dream as something far off, but put it into something of a business plan on how you create it,” said James Gore, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and member of the summit’s steering committee.
Gore appeared before attendees Wednesday morning in an N95 respirator. He said the smoky air from the Camp fire just 13 months after firestorms devastated Santa Rosa was another reminder of resilience.
“Resilience has to be embedded into everything we do. Resilience has to be embedded into the triple bottom line: the economy, the environment and also the social fabric of what we’re trying to do,” Gore said.
More housing in the era of repeated wildfires is another path toward resilience. The framework of Governor-elect Gavin Newsom’s plan for 3.5 million new housing units by 2025 was presented — far more than the summit’s initiative for 1 million.
Attendees discussed where and how homes could be built. Part of Newsom’s plan includes promoting development on vacant land in urban areas and encouraging rail-connected urban growth. State Sen. Mike McGuire and Assemblymen David Chiu and Tim Grayson acknowledged the discussion could influence their policy-making.
“The answer to the housing crisis is all of the above,” Chiu said.
In past years, the economic summit generally took place in metropolitan areas. Gore advocated to bring the summit to Sonoma County, in an effort to bridge rural-urban divides.