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March 19, 2013

Regional innovations - Butte Region: How to build a "citizen army" to tackle community challenges

Jovanni Tricerri noticed something disturbing when he moved to California’s rural Butte region last year after spending a decade in international development. Tricerri had made a career out of working in communities across Latin America—helping identify and train young leaders eager to mobilize their neighborhoods around projects like building hospitals and improving inner-city schools.

What Tricerri found as he began working as executive director of the Chico Stewardship Network, a civic engagement effort in the Butte region, was an entirely different challenge.

“When I first started, it struck me that it’s almost easier to do this in a developing country when you’re starting from scratch,” says Tricerri. “When you come to the States and you’re doing community development, there’s a different culture. We’ve for the most part outsourced our community responsibility to our elected leaders. We start griping when the president or Congress isn’t doing something. But what it should really be telling us that we as citizens aren’t doing enough.”

Tricerri and the Chico Stewardship Network have made closing this daunting engagement gap a top priority in the Butte region—and their efforts to take on regional challenges by adopting a “stewardship” approach have already produced several notable successes. A new report by the California Stewardship Network celebrates Butte leaders for changing the way the region is tackling a range of community issues, from sending a “citizen army” of volunteers into struggling schools to bringing the community and police together to fight rising crime.

This “stewardship” approach to solving local problems, which puts a premium on collaboration and community involvement, is shared by all of the regional organizations supporting the California Economic Summit. Through the Summit, this group of committed leaders have joined together to pursue a shared agenda aimed at creating jobs, keeping California competitive, and scaling-up promising community-building efforts so they can be applied statewide.

Aiming first at the schools

In Butte, Tricerri’s group decided the first place to put this approach into practice was the Chico schools. Fully 40 percent of students in Butte County can’t read at grade level—an early warning sign that leads to a host of other community problems.

“Instead of going to the school district and saying ‘This is your problem, fix it,'” says Tricerri, Butte leaders took a different tack. “We told them, ‘Our approach is that this is our problem in the community, and we want to be part of the solution with you.'”

Working as partners with the schools, the Chico Stewardship Network has adopted two complementary strategies: An action-oriented effort bringing what Tricerri calls “a citizen army” of volunteers into the region’s classrooms, combined with an effort to get school leaders and community members working better together for the long-term.

Binding these two approaches together is a simple goal: “We want to get everybody reading at grade-level by 7th grade,” says Tricerri. “It’s no more complicated than that. If they’re off just a grade or a half-grade, the gap just gets wider and wider. And by high school, it’s hard to turn that ship around.”

After small-scale efforts at one-on-one tutoring proved popular in Chico, the Chico Stewardship Network looked for ways to expand their scope. Partnering with group called Reading Partners that specializes in volunteer training—and which has a track-record of moving students up an entire grade level after only 26 hours of one-on-one tutoring—Tricerri aims to have 1,000 community volunteers work for one hour a week in the Chico schools with struggling students.

The effort already has more than 200 volunteers involved, and Tricerri views their work as an important milestone for the Chico community. “We’re building up a citizen army,” he says, “with stewardship as their banner.”

A foundation for leadership

At the same time the group is moving volunteers into classrooms, the Chico Stewardship Network is also trying to build what Tricerri calls “a more engaged, cohesive leadership structure for the educational system as a whole.”

Each month, the group convenes a unique collection of leaders from across the community’s education system—including district administrators and the leaders of several school employee unions, as well as local business and community members.

“It started during the budget crisis, when we brought everyone together to talk about whether a school was going to be closed,” says Tricerri. “We’ve kept the group together, and now we’re looking for ways to partner together on various initiatives.”

One place they’ve applied this new community-organizing model is on the region’s rising crime rate. With the Chico Stewardship Network’s help, Butte leaders are now working to benchmark the crime rate andbuild stronger relationships between police and community. This winter, Tricerri has also been collecting input from the organization’s partners across the region to identify their biggest issues—from unclear labor laws and looming water issues to making small- and medium-sized farms and ranches more profitable.

Many of these same challenges were identified as top priorities at last year’s Economic Summit, where regional leaders from across the state agreed to join forces on seven Signature Initiatives that can support the state’s regional economies—including workforce development, infrastructure, and access to capital.

The Butte region’s economic development corporation and its community foundation were so inspired by the Summit’s work, they brought the approach back to the Butte region. The two groups are now collaborating on a project that will ensure more local entrepreneurs have the capital they need to start businesses that can thrive—and stay—in Chico.

“We’re motivated by promoting stewardship as the main ingredient for citizenship—where everyone’s encouraged to participate in the success of their community,” says Tricerri. “We want to show how you do it.”

Tricerri knows he has a leadership model that works. Now, all he needs are a few more willing leaders.

— Justin Ewers, California Education Summit / Source

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