Rancho Cucamonga’s Spanish speaking residents had a lot to say about their community. Unfortunately, many of them were not confident enough to voice their concerns and engage in local government. These residents became distrustful of city government, primarily living in an underserved area which often faced disproportionate differences. A number of policies and programs that are developed and implemented affect this portion of the population, yet their input was not requested or incorporated into the solutions. The city of Rancho Cucamonga developed Community Champions to engage Spanish-speaking residents in a leadership program, providing them the opportunity to collaborate with the city to develop policies, programs, and strategies to improve the quality of life for their community.
No opportunities existed for the few residents who wanted to engage with city officials to raise their concerns. Many had never been to city hall, let alone a Rancho Cucamonga City Council meeting and did not know who their elected leaders were, or knew that their voice mattered.
Over one-third of the population in Rancho Cucamonga identifies as Hispanic. This population is at higher risk for various chronic diseases and resides in neighborhoods that are not easily accessible to a healthy lifestyle. Residents in the southwest portion of the city in particular faced many challenges to the quality and length of their life, with higher rates of poverty and fewer neighborhood amenities. Two out of every three residents were obese or overweight and three out of every four school children did not meet fitness standards. There were no outlets selling fresh produce, limited access to open spaces for exercise, and the streets lacked curbs, sidewalks, and bike lanes. Despite these inconsistencies, these populations are traditionally less represented in local decision making including city council meetings.
Rancho Cucamonga leaders strongly believe that local community members are best equipped to solve local issues. In order to do this, it was critical for Spanish-speaking residents to become actively engaged in community issues if the city was going to effectively improve the quality of life for its residents. To do this, it must give residents, especially those who are most disadvantaged, a voice to create the healthiest thriving community.
The city has a long history of civic engagement as the foundation of its governance style. Healthy RC is a city community partnership with over 75 community stakeholders, including elected officials, city staff, the county health department, hospitals, schools, nonprofits and community based organizations, faith based groups, businesses, local universities, residents, and youth collaborating to improve the quality of life through policies, programs, and partnerships.
The idea of Community Champions was developed through the Healthy RC initiative to engage Spanish-speaking residents as leaders and partners who not only inform decisions and policies, but also play an active role in implementing and sustaining them. Participants work in partnership with local governmental leaders and officials, community partners, resident and youth groups to voice concerns and issues and identify and implement long-term policy driven solutions.
Community Champions meet bi-weekly to enhance their leadership and communication skills, deepen their understanding of public policy and local governmental processes, and build their capacity to plan and implement solutions to their identified priorities in their neighborhoods. They have increased access and availability to healthy food by dramatically rezoning where community gardens and farmer’s markets could be located, simplifying the permitting process, and reducing associated fees.
Instrumental in identifying opportunities in the city that require additional attention, Community Champions have canvased neighborhoods, collected data and conducted neighborhood assessments, engaged local residents, and applied for, and secured, grants to improve the quality of life for residents in this area. They have also conducted walkability assessments around local schools to gather data for successful Safe Routes to School infrastructure grant applications that created new sidewalks in their neighborhood enhancing safety and increasing walkability and bikability for students and their families.
Community Champions were successful in collaborating with the city and its Healthy RC stakeholders on the development of policies such as community gardens, farmer’s markets, and complete streets. They not only advocated for the passage of these policies, but were actively involved in coordinating and conducting focus groups, comprehensive surveys, and drafting policy language and recommendations that were later adopted by the city council, often speaking in Spanish at city council meetings. As a result of their involvement, the Complete Streets policy was recognized as the 10th best Complete Streets policy in the nation.
The program has also received regional recognition. Recently, they were invited to speak to public health students at the University of Southern California on the importance of providing meaningful engagement opportunities to local residents.
By learning how to navigate through the policy process, the Community Champions are improving the dialogue with local decision makers, applying for grant opportunities, and making informed decisions that affect all residents, and particularly those in the southwestern area of the city.
Rancho Cucamonga’s innovative approach provides a model for other local governments to partner with residents to create policies and programs that benefit the entire community. It is the city’s commitment to engaging and empowering all residents in improving the quality of life for everyone who lives, works, and plays here that is the heart and soul of Rancho Cucamonga.