Silvia Paz is executive director of Alianza, which brings together community members, nonprofits and government leaders to address the health and economic issues faced by the most marginalized residents of the Coachella Valley in Southern California.
The group’s work recognizes the importance and limitations of a strong safety net, identifies underlying causes of poverty, and works for changes is policies and systems. Community members are part of the process throughout. The implementation of restorative justice, an alternative to punitive discipline practices at schools in the east valley, is listed as one of her most notable accomplishments as director.
Paz, 37, is also president of the Coachella Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees.
Start the day smarter. Get all the news you need in your inbox each morning.
As part of the USA TODAY Network’s Leaders of Change project, Paz answered our questions. Some may have been edited for clarity or length.
What is the core mission for you and your organization?
My personal mission is to be a person who can manifest God’s love, first and foremost with how I show up with my family — my husband and I are raising two daughters — and, by extension, with my community.
At its essence, Alianza exists to reduce the inequities of the Coachella Valley, which are best illustrated by the gaps that distinguish its western region, with affluent gated golf club communities, from its eastern region of agricultural towns north of the Salton Sea, with dim opportunities for real economic, mental or physical health.
What issues and projects are most important right now?
The coronavirus pandemic has brought on challenges to every family and further highlighted the disparities facing the most economically disadvantaged communities. The lack of stable housing, clean water, reliable transportation, accessible healthcare, and economic mobility were problems long before this current crisis, and they will remain problems long after if systemic issues are not addressed.
To end poverty, marginalization, and disparity we need to focus on building back better by reforming the financial safety nets available to individuals and families; redressing the structural impediments to economic mobility; achieving true value-add by implementing targeted economic development projects that intersect with community development.
To truly build back better we need to adopt a framework that acknowledges what has got us here; essentially, a history of disinvestment from entrenched systems, policies, and power structures that result in diminishing the self-determination of communities of color and marginalizing them along lines of race, immigration status, and poverty.
In the Coachella Valley, for example, a 2013 study titled “Revealing the Invisible Coachella Valley” exposes poor environmental conditions are mostly being suffered by communities with higher rates of poverty, unemployment and limited English proficiency as well as concentrations of non-white residents compared to the west Coachella Valley and the county as a whole.
In the Eastern Coachella Valley, the people most impacted are primarily farmworkers, live in mobile home parks (there are about 123 mobile home park communities), are not connected to municipal water systems due to lacking infrastructure, thus exposed to arsenic-contaminated water, live in a food desert despite the abundant surrounding agriculture, and have a fragile safety net.
These same communities are least able to comfortably shelter in-home and adapt to the loss of income resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you and your group could effect one change, what would it be?
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath in our region, it would really be a game-changer if we could create a solid, aggressive and focused planning group to develop an economic equity plan/strategy that strengthens the safety net, addresses structural impediments for economic mobility, and leverages targeted economic development projects to achieve real opportunities to strengthen the foundation upon which we must rebuild.
At its most fundamental level, this recovery plan will recognize the role basic infrastructure and access have on economic mobility in an area that has been allowed to be disproportionately impacted by under-investment, and work toward the mitigation or poor water and sewer infrastructure, roads and sidewalks, public transit, and electricity and broadband access.
Who or what inspires you in your advocacy work?
Day-to-day, I draw inspiration from my two young daughters, who in their prayers ask for peace, protection from floods and fires, and most recently the end of the health pandemic. I work toward a future in which they can live without carrying the burdens of inequality.
More broadly, I am inspired by the path that has drawn me to this work. Without knowing it, my desire to improve conditions around me started with my arrival to the United States as a young immigrant child. My lived experience, learning English as a second language; translating for my mother; walking two miles to the nearest bus stop; experiencing food insecurity; all had me questioning fairness at an early age. The questions that started in my young mind, which at the time could do little about them, have grown into the desire to identify and work toward creating the conditions that allow people real opportunities to thrive.
Looking ahead, what do you hope to see in a year? Five years?
My immediate hope is to see stabilization in the communities that have been most impacted by COVID-19. At Alianza, we balance long term improvements with the immediate need people have for food and cash assistance. As of today, we have distributed $180,000 in cash aid and thousands of food baskets to families. But this is a short-term fix. Our families need longer-term financial security to jump back on their feet.
Even then, true economic opportunity for our communities will not be achieved if the systemic issues that have made communities of color more vulnerable are not addressed. To get us there, my mid-range hope is to find the right mix of academics, practitioners, policy experts, and government agencies to create an inclusive and actionable economic recovery plan that becomes the blueprint for building back better, launched from the eastern Coachella Valley with statewide impact.
Who are the allies that support your work? How can someone interested in the work get involved?
Alianza is fortunate to work alongside individuals, organizations, foundations, and donors, committed to create real and equitable solutions that allow everyone to participate in the growth of a thriving region. Our work is financially supported by individuals who call the Coachella Valley home, and local and statewide foundations. Our ability to advance the needle on strategic issues, whether it is to re-district a local water municipality to increase representation and access to drinking water or implement restorative justice in a school district, is the result of groups of multi-disciplinary nonprofits and residents who believe and work toward collective impact campaigns.
Those interested can get involved by: 1) funding this movement, we need long-term sustainability to advance the work of equity; 2) lend us your expertise — if you are an economist, policy analyst, economic and or community developer, join us in creating a community-based economic recovery plan that is actionable and can serve as a blueprint for others; 3) champion our efforts — young and adult residents of the Coachella Valley can join our advocacy for a thriving region for all.
Visit our website www.alianzacv.org, follow us on social media, and contact me directly at [email protected]
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Silvia Paz enlists community members to help solve health and economic issues of California’s marginalized groups