California's Greatest Asset: Its Diversity

Blog Post
EHS Daily Advisor
Oct. 26, 2016

People of color make up a majority of the population in California. The state’s highly diverse population presents economic, social and legislative challenges, but it is also a huge asset. As people of color become the “New American Majority,” other states would be wise to see California as a model of diversity and learn from our mistakes and accomplishments on the road to equity and inclusion. As we approach the day when people of color are the majority in America, we asked our fellows what lessons the rest of the country can learn from California's experience. Here are their responses:

Mia Birdsong

When it comes to family, these demographic shifts are incredibly exciting. People of color have a long history of rejecting the isolated nuclear family model for something more expansive and more grounded in community. Extended-family, multi-generational family, and chosen family are all parts of Latino, Black, and Filipino culture. Our families can provide models for the state, and ultimately the nation, that allow us to create the familial and community relationships we all need and want. Our families can push the people who design our systems and places to think more creatively about what everything from homes to school day schedules could look like if they were to truly meet the needs of today’s families.

The danger is, of course, that we learn nothing. Racism is so deeply engrained in our power structures that we run the risk of resembling Apartheid-era South Africa if we don’t make concerted efforts to shift old power structures in this state so that people of color can take leadership roles across sectors. But I’m hopeful about California. The organizing and activism happening in the Bay, the Central Valley, and LA is inspiring and heartening. The young people who are coming up now have a decidedly different agenda from their elders when it comes to the American Dream.

Natalie Foster

California has been a pioneer in the future of work, particularly when work looks more like a series of gigs than the same 9-to-5 job for 40 years. California’s diverse population has pushed advocates and lawmakers to advance policies that prepare us for changing work arrangements. For example, we recently mandated paid leave for parents in California, expanded our state earned income tax credit to put money back into pockets of the lowest income residents, and passed a universal health care plan with a public option. Expanded coverage creates opportunities for all people -- whether a banker or an Uber driver -- whether documented or not --  to get health insurance. As America’s demographics are changing, so too are the ways that we do work.  Going forward, California should be a leader in providing portable benefits so that everyone is covered.

Marci Harris

I think California today shows that diversity is not just a question of backgrounds or language. Disparities of economics, education, and opportunity still mean that considerable portions of the population are not "at the table" and sometimes not even aware of the questions asked and decisions made there that affect their lives. We can't expect changing demographics to do the work for us of informing, including, and engaging the public. We have to work to ensure that young (and not-so-young) people understand early that the "we" in "We the People" means them too. Seeing elected officials, nonprofit leaders, creatives, and entrepreneurs that "look like me" is big. Having a door opened, opportunity presented, or invitation extended by one of those role models is even bigger.

Eric Liu

Consider the two recent fatal shootings of black men in Tulsa, OK, and Charlotte, NC - and many other tragic encounters with police. These incidents painfully highlight the critical need to rebuild trust between law enforcement and communities of color. The first step to rebuild trust is comprehensive view of police and their interactions with civilians. California has been a leader in transparency and accountability in policing. Efforts include the passage of Assembly Bill 71, which mandates police use of force reporting, and the launch of URSUS, the first statewide police use of force data collection system. These initiatives present solutions that can be adopted by states around the country to improve transparency in policing as critical step to rebuild trust between police and our communities.  

Laura Weidman Powers

California proves that diversity and inclusion are not one and the same. While California is amongst those leading the nation in the demographic shift we're anticipating, one of California's most important industries, the tech industry, is struggling to include all Californians (and Americans) in its midst. Just because the numbers are changing doesn't mean power, wealth, access, and wellbeing will shift accordingly. If we want to see an empowered, engaged citizenry in California and in America, we have to ensure that those who are currently in positions of power and authority are creating paths to success for the new majority.

Anne Stuhldreher

“California is America, only sooner.” Manuel Pastor, a professor at University of Southern California said that.

I’m a policy nerd and a San Franciscan. So I’m proud of what San Francisco and California have done to make sure we have an “all in” economy and culture with a place for everyone. I think back to San Francisco being the first place to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples,  when it was illegal to do so. To being the first city to offer universal health care. To California becoming the first state to offer a $15 minimum wage.

None of these efforts are perfect. Nor is California, or San Francisco for that matter. Our state has a disgraceful number of children living in poverty. Too many people in San Francisco cannot afford to live here, or worse, survive on the streets.

We need to seriously pick up our game to meet these challenges, but we won’t stop trying. I hope to work with cities and states across the country to learn from each other and move forward together.