Fresno: a city summits and the Street Saints keep on

I was excited about meeting Fresno’s Mayor, Ashley Swearingen, for breakfast Monday morning. I’d heard that she was an emerging leader to watch in California’s political constellation. And I knew she was a Republican who was interested in how to include low-income people and communities in her ambitious goals to develop Fresno’s economy – one of the poorest in the US. Mayor Swearingen didn’t disappoint. She articulates a clear vision for economic growth, and brought high energy to a passionate call to action at the Fresno Economic Development Summit that she had convened – and the reason for my visit to Fresno. Strategic Economics, which is preparing a plan for the Mayor, organized the Summit with participation from City agencies, citizens, and a few panelists experienced in economic and community development from around the country.

After I presented an overview of social enterprise, an extraordinary local nonprofit, the Street Saints, grabbed me and my fellow panelist Roger Williams of the Annie E. Casey Foundation for a quick tour. Street Saints employs gang members in a screen printing business, accompanied by intensive team building and support. The company was started by a local businessman who turned his t-shirt silkscreen shop over to a social mission after printing one too many t shirts to memorialize the death of local teenagers (and gang members). Street Saints was started by seven men who say they were once ‘part of the problem’ — and decided to dedicate the next several decades to turning around their Southwest Fresno community. After watching nonprofits come and go when the grant funding ran out, they started this diversified service and social enterprise organization with the slogan ‘reclaim, restore, equip, repeat’.

After an uplifting visit to their early childhood education program, they drove us by a homeless encampment; a devastated scene of hundreds sleeping out in the street. Their ranks had been thinned by a City effort to place many of them in housing – and there is low cost housing in Fresno – but with little service-enriched supportive housing available for people with mental health and substance abuse problems, many are still living outdoors. The previous City administration had created a small park in the midst of this scene with – literally – tool sheds that people were using as shelter. It seemed like a picture out of the Great Depression.

Back at the Summit, Roger Williams had highlighted how ‘anchor institutions’ like hospitals and schools can contribute to redevelopment and workforce development through procurement from locally-owned businesses. A focus of REDF’s current work. In Cleveland, for example, a major hospital decided to invest in creating a local laundry service bringing jobs directly into the community.

Participants in the Summit from Southwest Fresno articulated acute concerns that the economic development plans of the City focused on downtown and neighborhoods close to downtown, and that the City was unresponsive to their needs. They suggested several ideas about how to integrate Southwest Fresno into the downtown plan . Roger Williams reflected on his work in post-Katrina New Orleans and advocated that communities not wait for government to lead – but get them to follow success when communities organize themselves. Gus Newport described a creative way that a low-income Boston community got attention. Residents put the bumper stickers of a mayoral candidate on a thousand rusted cars that had been dumped in their neighborhood, called the media, and got immediate action hauling the cars out.

A rousing few days in Fresno left me fired up by the creativity and power in local communities where people are organizing to create jobs and hope right now. REDF is eager to get involved and help. We post our first-ever Request for Qualifications on September 20 so that we can identify the nonprofits we will work with and fund over the coming years to expand social enterprise in California. Spread the word.