This article by Kathleen Kelly Janus and Marciela Rodriguez originally appeared in the Press Enterprise.
In March of this year, President Biden told Americans that vaccinations would allow us to celebrate July 4 with neighborhood cookouts. Four months later, California became one of 18 states to reach the White House milestone of vaccinating 70% of our eligible population.
While reaching this goal made Independence Day celebrations possible, it is the strong community partnerships that have been built by vaccinating over 20 million Californians that promise to have lasting effects long after this pandemic is over.
Before the goal was met, the community infrastructure created by those of us in state operations was essential for conducting one of the most comprehensive census count efforts in history: Census 2020. In the middle of it, we had to adjust when COVID-19 struck so we could deliver nearly 50 million COVID vaccinations. Both operations provided critical lessons that will help prepare us for the next stage of economic recovery.
At the heart of these efforts sits a robust community organizing model. In California, we’ve seen first-hand that community engagement isn’t just about helping; it’s about hearing from people first, then responding to their needs.
California’s 2020 Census and vaccination efforts center on a data-driven approach that prioritizes hard-to-count communities. With a state as big and diverse as California, partnerships outside of government also are necessary.
During the lead up to the census, hundreds of local CBOs were engaged. The $130 million public-private partnership invested in promotoras—health workers in the Latino community—and other community organizers. These trusted messengers not only mitigated the fear families were facing from harsh anti-immigration rhetoric and policies, they also lifted up the voices of those who have historically been marginalized.
Census details included meetings with nonprofit leaders, held regularly to share best practices and address barriers that existed across different communities. This coordination became critical when the pandemic hit in early 2020, forcing the entire outreach operation to shift away from planned in-person events and activities.
Pivoting when COVID-19 hit was challenging but successful, thanks to the strong foundation of trusted relationships and community infrastructure that had been established.
Once vaccines were proven safe and effective for distribution, California built on the Census community outreach infrastructure, establishing a vaccine equity framework and an all-hands-on-deck outreach effort to vaccinate those who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
We tapped many of our top census partners throughout California and funded them to do COVID-19 outreach and vaccine appointment assistance. We worked with philanthropic partners like The Center at Sierra Health Foundation, the California Community Foundation and the Public Health Institute Together Toward Health Initiative, and additional CBOs.
Their collaborative work often led to additional and desperately needed funding of community-based pop-up vaccine clinics, staffing and transportation. These efforts are playing out in communities throughout California and will be critical to reaching our vaccine equity goals.
Take the work of Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability (LCJA) in Lanare, Calif., to connect rural farmworkers with vaccines. Over the past few months LCJA helped provide over 1,000 vaccines to communities in partnership with local public health leaders with door-to-door canvassing, phone calls, and bilingual registration to reduce barriers to participation.
In the Inland Empire, El Sol Neighborhood Educational Center delivered nearly 6,000 vaccinations and 7,000 COVID-19 personal care kits to increase protection in California’s most vulnerable communities. El Sol was recently recognized by President Biden at a White House celebration and honored as a Nonprofit of the Year by the California Association of Nonprofits.
We don’t claim to have everything figured out when it comes to community engagement, and we continuously seek to do better. But there is no doubt that we know how to leverage the strengths of the public and private sectors to strengthen our efforts.
As we get closer to ending this pandemic, we will continue listening to people from our communities as they talk about what they need for jobs, housing, health care and other inequities we face, and partner with the many essential community-based organizations in California to meet those needs.