Return from a Reality Check Road Trip
Team LearnUp Researches the Skills Gap and Unemployment in the Central Valley of California
Our team recently returned from a deeply moving and motivating trip to the Central Valley of California, two hours outside of SF. We visited Tulare, the region with the lowest educational attainment in the country, and Mendota, a city with a 39% unemployment rate, also known as the “Detroit of California.” Our hosts, The Workforce Board of Tulare and the City of Mendota, referred to our trip as a “Reality Check Road Trip.” It definitely was eye-opening.
We visited unemployment offices; a migrant labor camp; a Boys and Girls club in a poor town; a children’s community center tragically adjacent to marijuana fields and “prostitution caves;” a large town with no bank (but there is a food stamp depot) nor a pharmacy and where both rich and poor drink only bottled water because the ground water is too polluted with nitrates from fertilizers and pesticides; small towns where there are no jobs except those in the drug trade; towns that come alive after 5pm when city officials go home and a Wild West spirit of lawlessness is ignited.
We learned of the poverty of the region; the myths and gossip of the locals; the struggling farm workers; the difference between the working poor and the homeless on welfare; the water crises; the government-funded cities where a middle class of state and city employees exist to help the poor. We saw the massive disparity between the rich and poor (on par with my observations in India); the over-mortgaged homes where four families live together; entry-level jobs that have over 1,000 applicants for just one position (can you imagine!?); towns where daughters are married off at age 13; towns with so little economic activity that a convenience store is the main provider of food for residents; towns where, economically, there is absolutely no way to get ahead…
But we also saw hope.
We learned of the aspirations of the youth who want to move forward, those who dream of greater opportunities, and who sometimes desire to come back to help their communities as immigration lawyers and teachers and desperately needed medical experts. I was inspired by the youth who want a better life for themselves and for their farm worker parents who sacrificed through backbreaking labor in the fields. I was inspired by the UC medical student who returned to his town with a vision for the future, then founded a coffee shop community place and mentors youth; by a job coach who helps her unemployed clients cope with the psychologically devastating “rude awakening” that joblessness brings; by an Americorps worker teaching entrepreneurship in high schools; by the city and state workers who are committed to helping their communities; and by the counselors and nonprofits that encourage their youth to get an education even when parents may not support it.
We saw and heard so much.
We felt so much.
We returned to LearnUp this week with new insights and a determination to make an impact.
I feel a profound sense of gratitude for everything around me, and I thank all of you who are working on mission-driven projects to increase prosperity in our world. You are needed—both in America and abroad.