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SoCo Rises - Empowering People to Rewrite Equality

By Ami Windsor for SoCo Rises

Even before the smoke cleared, people were talking about rebuilding Sonoma County.

“What does it look like?”

“Who will make the decisions?”

“How can we all become stronger together?”

These are the questions nagging at nearly two dozen Sonoma County residents from Santa Rosa and beyond who wanted to do more than wait for an answer.

They wanted to be part of the answer and more importantly, enable and empower the community to be a part of the answer, too.

“Post-fire, so much discussion was happening about the community, but not with the community,” said Socorro Shiels, director of education for the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence.

Starting around the dinner table of Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins’ Forestville home, the group began to talk about how to ensure that everyone in the community had a chance to share their vision for the future. With a web of stakeholders beyond the typical governmental departments holding a seat, a first tiny flicker of a shift in thinking took off. A movement, though ill-defined and nascent, was beginning to form.

The rules? No egos and no jurisdictions.

“Everyone has something to offer,” Hopkins said during the first series of meetings, held just one week after the Tubbs, Nuns and Pocket fires ripped through the east and north parts of Sonoma County. In all, the destruction from the fires is classified not just as the state’s most catastrophic wildfire, but the nation’s most expensive one as well.

The fire was epic, requiring resources from across the state, nation and world, as first responders poured into the county from San Francisco, Berkeley, Idaho and Australia.

The recovery and rebuilding effort required just as strong and courageous effort as the relief effort received.

From a small group of individuals, including Hopkins and Jen Klose, a Santa Rosa resident, lawyer and president of the Santa Rosa District School Board, a core group formed, bringing in individuals from Catholic Charities, Daily Acts, Ceres Community Project, First 5 Sonoma County,On The Move,West Sonoma County Union School District,Sonoma County Conservation Action and more. Local governments, including Santa Rosa and Sebastopol city councils held seats at the table but maintained equal status as everyone else.

“On the first night we talked about the myriad positive efforts and initiatives coming together…so many initiatives,” Hopkins wrote on Facebook. “It was hard to keep track of them all. So we asked: in the midst of all these good intentions, how do we organize the organizers? How do we ensure that no one is left behind as we rebuild?”

The concern was in the urgent rush to rebuild, time wouldn’t be taken to hear from those most affected, or to think about how rebuilding would either help solve or exacerbate the challenges the county was facing prior to the fires.

How to differentiate their group from those others was difficult, and uncomfortable.

“If we don’t quite understand what we’re doing, that’s ok,” said Karin Demarest, vice president of Programming for the Community Foundation Sonoma County. “If it’s uncomfortable, that’s good. It means we’re doing something new.”

That something new is, as Hopkins wrote, seeking input from every stakeholder – from the Coffey Park homeowner and the Santa Rosa business owner who lost their livelihoods in the fires, to the realtors, contractors, government officials, nonprofits, first responders and more who directly worked and will work throughout the recovery and rebuilding processes.

“The movement hopes to take the shape of the community visioning process,” Hopkins wrote.

‘Saturday problems’

“There were many issues of inequity in our community we were tackling before the fire,” Shiels said. “Since the fire, it is clear we must accelerate our efforts or the disparities will only been exacerbated.”

“They’re Saturday problems,” Klose said during a strategy session. “We want to tackle these, too.”

The Saturday problems are those that existed before the fire: education and income disparity between Latino and white families, the gap between wages and cost of living, housing stock shortages, the rising cost of rent and the almost impossible entry into home ownership.

SoCoRises hopes to hear the concerns around the ‘Saturday problems’ and those caused and exacerbated by the fires. Sonoma County residents can chime in through the SoCoRises website:

“SoCoRises will only be successful if you join us and share what matters to you,” said Catherine Couch, executive director with the Ceres Community Project.

The site offers opportunities to raise concerns, provide ideas and more on more than half a dozen issues, including housing, environment, health and healing, economy and employment, education, arts and social justice.

The topics came up after robust mapping efforts and conversations identified pillars that make Sonoma County living unique, but also challenging.

Want to be part of the movement?

Here’s what you can do:

1. Share your concerns on our website:

2. Submit your email to stay informed

3. Share the website with others in the community

4. Like and follow SoCoRises on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

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