Monday, February 17, 2020

Center for Community Advocacy Turns 30

In 1992, farmworkers in the Salinas Valley were discovered living in squalid and unsafe conditions in lean-tos and caves, without running water, heat or toilet facilities.

Salinas, CA, February 17, 2020 - In 1992, farmworkers in the Salinas Valley were discovered living in squalid and unsafe conditions in lean-tos and caves, without running water, heat or toilet facilities. The discovery became national news, giving rise to such headlines as “Harvest of Despair” and the living quarters facetiously called “Rancho de Cuevas,” or Cave Ranch.

It was a seminal and catalytic moment for the recently formed organization, Center for Community Advocacy, which had only been founded two years earlier and was trying to establish its identity and mission.

CCA’s initial mission was to give farmworkers a voice in their housing choices and conditions by empowering them to organize with fellow farmworkers and demand safer, healthier and livable housing. CCA did that by organizing and forming neighborhood committees in each labor camp and farmworker housing complexes who could then advocate for their own camps.

“That was a key moment in CCA history and catalyzed the creation of the CCA,” said CCA Executive Director Daniel Gonzalez about that shocking 1992 revelation. “It gave CCA the fuel it needed. CCA was initially about housing, but these cases themselves don’t define the CCA culture. We’re not just about giving out information, but to develop leadership so farmworkers can speak for themselves.”

That mission is distilled in CCA’s slogan, “Helping Farmworkers Help Themselves,” which now goes beyond just housing issues to include health and nutrition issues, safety, education and strengthening family relationships.

CCA’s daunting challenge after it was founded was crystalized in comments made by one of the early leaders of a neighborhood committee, Jesus Fernandez, who was quoted in a video made by CCA in the late 1990s: “We didn’t even know we had any rights.” That was a stunning revelation to the public at large, which may have taken these rights for granted and may not have been aware that members of its own community were denied these most basic of human rights.

Gonzalez cites two accomplishments in the past 30 years that further raised CCA’s profile and standing in the community: the creation of a joint board of directors that featured representation from all segments of the community, from farmworkers and farm owners to developers, community leaders, corporate leaders, members of the clergy, and elected officials; and the creation of VIVA, a coalition of all neighborhood committees that was also represented on the board.

That was in the early 1990s, when VIVA consisted of representatives from 10 neighborhood committees (or comit├ęs). That number is now 40 and still growing. The board at the time also included CCA’s co-founder, Lydia Villareal, who was Deputy District Attorney at the time and was involved in the 1992 labor camp case and is currently President of CCA’s Board of Directors. Other board members when CCA was founded included such community leaders as Basil Mills of Mills Distributing Co., Bob R. Nielsen, Vice President and General Counsel of Tanimura & Antle, Inc., attorney Vanessa Vallarta, developer Mike Fletcher and Sam Karas of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors.

One of the most significant figures in the founding and development of CCA has been Sabino Lopez, who has been at CCA from the onset in 1990, holding a variety of roles including organizer, deputy director, leader/organizer, and Interim Executive Director in 2017-2018.

Lopez led the development of CCA’s award-winning organizing model and for nearly three decades has served as a steward of the organization’s mission to develop and empower the farmworker community in the Salinas and Pajaro Valleys. He is currently CCA’s Deputy Director.

“We are bridge-builders, we work on both sides,” said Gonzalez, who became CCA executive director in November 2018. “We have these connections with farmworkers and growers. Everyone’s got a side, an issue and that’s what CCA is about. Giving access to people is key for this model to develop and to work.”

CCA’s early efforts not only brought to light the dangerous and unhealthy conditions of “Rancho de Cuevas”, but also of so-called “legal” labor camps in which farmworkers paid $500 a month in dilapidated units that were built in the 1920s and were only meant to be temporary housing, as well as a devastating 1991 fire in the Kent Court Camp outside of Watsonville that displaced six families. CCA filed suit on behalf of 33 families in that instance and got compensation for their losses.

In addition, CCA helped broker a deal between residents who lived in the “Tres Palmas” Trailer Park in Pajaro and the landlord, who had long neglected repairs and maintenance in the park. After withholding rent for eight months (it was held in an account to be paid later), the landlord agreed to sell the trailer park to the residents, which formed a corporation with CCA as the governing body.

One of the biggest early success stories was the building of the Moro Cojo housing development, which consisted of 175 homes and 90 apartments for 300 families, at the time the largest development of its kind in rural California.

“I’ve seen several changes, particularly changes in attitude,” said attorney Vallarta, who served as executive director for six years, after the opening of Moro Cojo. “The sense that I can act to make a difference in my life or the sense that I don’t have to take it anymore, that I can act to make my life better. That’s the message that CCA brings to folks.”

And, 30 years later, while CCA still advocates for housing issues, it has expanded its mission and programs to include health and nutrition through its Health Promoters (Promotores Comunitarios Project); a Strong Families Program that strives to reduce violence and other forms of abusive behavior by teaching strategies that strengthen family relationships; and most recently its support of Youth for Change (Y4C), a group that identifies, recruits, trains and engages future leaders within East Salinas communities.

In its appeal last year to the Monterey County Weekly’s annual fundraising campaign for nonprofit groups, MC Gives!, CCA wrote: “CCA believes that youth leaders need an infrastructure to develop leadership capacity and to develop common agendas where leaders can take collective action to improve communities. Local youth benefit from the Y4C program by: developing skills that make them active participants in their community; using what they learn to help improve the quality of lives for their families and peers; developing community-based youth agendas for collective action; and receiving higher education and career guidance.”

Y4C was born when CCA began organizing adult residents in the Acosta Plaza neighborhood, launching several resident-led activities such as the construction of a basketball court and park area. During the project, youths, accompanying their parents, started attending meetings and work activities. They then invited other friends to join the effort and shortly thereafter, CCA was working with a core group of youth who testified at City Council hearings to secure funds for the project, conducted their own fundraising activities to support the project, surveyed their neighbors to increase resident support for the project and provided labor for the project. As the project neared completion, the youthful leaders formed a group and named themselves Youth for Change, developing an agenda that aided their civic participation.

A big component of the program involves education and career guidance. Youth and their parents participate in sessions where they learn about requirements, resources and important information needed to move forward toward a higher education. The goal of the program is for participants to secure an educational path to college. At the end of the program they visit a campus of their choice to learn about the intricacies and costs of college life.

“That’s our real foundation, to commit kids to issues in their community,” said Gonzalez about the importance of Y4C. “Helping youths get out of poverty, go to college or vocational school and help solve issues in their community and change the narrative, that’s the essence of CCA. The more people we commit to this, the more chance we have to make a change.”

Gonzalez said that CCA needs to forge ahead, keep its programs active and evolving and involve as many segments of the community it can to effect change.

“It really has changed people’s lives and we need to continue doing this work, because if we stop, people forget,” he said.

Center for Community Advocacy
22 West Gabilan Street
Salinas, CA 93901
(831) 753-2324

CCA’s staff is available Monday through Friday for client interviews by appointment. CCA is also available to meet with clients in the field, at their place of residence, in the evening or after normal working hours, by appointment.

Marci Bracco Cain
Chatterbox PR
Salinas, CA 93901
(831) 747-7455

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