Skip to Content

CPEHN Is Engaging Communities of Color in Local Policy Development and Budgeting

An equitable recovery requires collaboration between local governments, traditional public health systems, and communities. (Photo by Clay Banks.)

California Pan-Ethnic Health Network (CPEHN) is celebrating their 30th anniversary this year. Launched in 1992 in response to police violence and the brutal beating of Rodney King and the ensuing riots, CPEHN was founded by four ethnic partners who came together to create cross-racial solidity around health equity.
“Because health is the one thing that connects and unites us all,” told us Weiyu Zhang, CPEHN’s associate policy director. 

CPEHN focuses on building people power through statewide policy work. “We use policy advocacy to transform systems and build power with communities that are directly impacted by the policy issues we focus on,” Zhang explained. “We also do policy research and data analyses, we connect people and systems, and we invest in communities of color by cultivating leadership and building capacity through training.”

From the very beginning, CPEHN has worked at the intersection of health policy and racial equity. When Cal Wellness began thinking about a recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, CPEHN was a grantee whose leadership we were excited to invest in.

Weiyu Zhang, CPEHN
Let’s not go back to doing business as usual. Instead, let’s engage those who are closest to the issue into the decision making.

Weiyu Zhang, California Pan-Ethnic Health Network

An Equitable Recovery Requires a Paradigm Shift in How Local Governments Collaborate with Public Health and the Communities

When asked what's needed to ensure that the recovery from the pandemic is equitable, Zhang explained that we need to focus on building the capacity of both the traditional public health system and community-rooted life-affirming organizations. CPEHN captured this thinking in their brilliant 2020 report co-authored with ChangeLab Solutions and Prevention Institute, How California's Community-Based Organizations Filled the Gaps for Underserved Communities."

On the one hand, our governmental public health system has been chronically underfunded and under-resourced. We all saw how it struggled to deal with the pandemic. On the other hand, there is a parallel lack of capacity in community-based organizations, which are actively protecting and promoting people’s health and life conditions. The pandemic showed that our governmental public health system is not well connected to the community, especially those who are most disadvantaged and underserved, and therefore not able to respond to their unique needs and experiences, especially in an emergency. 

“There haven’t been many nonprofit, community-based or advocacy organizations that are directly working with our state and local public health departments to make sure that there is strong connection to the communities and issues that most impact community health,” Zhang said. “That's partly why our public health sector in the government is not always able to move progressive items forward. For example, there are not a lot of advocates sending letters or calling the public health departments out,” said Zhang. 

In this clip, Zhang explains the disconnect between the traditional public health field and the community-based organizations that are doing the work for public health. She argues that the two need to work hand-in-hand. 

CPEHN has been leading the Racism As a Public Health Crisis campaign on the state level, urging our state governments to acknowledge systemic racism and make changes, but a big lesson we learned during the pandemic is that we need to take a closer look at how governments at all levels have been investing their money.

Weiyu Zhang, California Pan-Ethnic Health Network

Second, Zhang explained that an equitable recovery won’t be possible without local governments prioritizing public health and racial equity in their policy development and budgeting. Local governments hold a lot of power, especially in terms of how public funds are allocated.

At this historic moment, local governments can choose to invest their budgets in the way they have always done (for example, a hefty portion going to law enforcement, while decisions are largely made behind closed doors) or they can reallocate resources to address long standing health inequities and chronic underinvestment in the public heath infrastructure in communities of color.

“I don't think a lot of policy folks on the state level have paid much attention to local governments in the past. But, we’ve seen, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, how little our state government has control over how the pandemic is responded to on the local levels. It's largely up to local health jurisdictions and local governments. During the pandemic, we've seen progress and we've also seen local jurisdictions that failed horribly,” said Zhang.

Until recently the local governments have avoided scrutiny from community-based organizations and advocates, many of whom have focused on state level policy. According to Zhang, that needs to change.

“As advocates, we have to build our own capacity while working hand-in-hand with our state government public health departments. But, at the same time, somebody has to hold local governments accountable. Someone has to go in and use the same sort of policy analysis and organizing skills that are used at the state level to make sure that local officials are making decisions with equity and accountability in mind,” said Zhang.

“CPEHN has been leading the Racism As a Public Health Crisis campaign on the state level, urging our state governments to acknowledge systemic racism and make necessary changes, but a big lesson we learned during the pandemic is that we need to take a closer look at how governments at all levels have been investing their money, and making decisions around equity."

In 2022, CPEHN published their research project called "American Rescue Plan Scorecards for California Counties,” which evaluated how 12 local governments spent their federal COVID-19 relief funds under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). They wanted to know if the counties are spending these once-in-a-generation flexible funds toward equity initiatives and historically disadvantaged and underfunded communities.

When it comes to organizing on the local level, people are jaded. Compared to the state, there's not an established public engagement process. The state has the administration and the legislature and you can leverage both entities' power to have accountability and oversight. On the local levels, there is a lot less structure. Local organizers have to get creative to ensure that community input is heard and amplified.

Weiyu Zhang, California Pan-Ethnic Health Network

According to Zhang, an equitable recovery requires that we reform the decision-making process around policy and budgets. That is, community residents and community-based organizations must have a say in "how the local governments are thinking about the process of deciding where the money goes.”

“Quoting our paper from our 'People Power for Public Health' research project, local governments are oftentimes the worst example of a white supremacist system. For example, some Central Valley counties have all white men on their board of supervisors and there is little conversation about structural racism. Now, we have this money, this once-in-a-generation opportunity. Let’s not go back to simply doing business as usual. Business as usual looks like exclusive decision making amongst those few people that have the most power at the county level. Instead, let’s engage those who are closest to the issue into the decision making.”

The Scorecards Reveled That Some Counties Are Reimagining Democracy. Others Are Back to Business as Usual. 

CPEHN believed that the decision-making power at the local level shouldn’t be in the hands of a few, privileged and predominantly white policymakers, but shared with “those who are closest to the issue.” Some counties agree.

“There are counties that are thinking 'Pandemic proved that there's something fundamentally wrong with how we're running our governments and making decisions. How can we change that? How can we not go backwards?' So they're hosting listening sessions and looping in their newly created racial equity offices and the stakeholder groups into their budgetary decisions. That has not happened before, and we would love for more governments to do that, including our state government," said Zhang.

Los Angeles County, which has an all women board of supervisors, is a perfect example of a country that is using the ARPA relief funds to undo some of the damage centuries of racism and disinvestment caused. CPEHN also found that San Bernardino and Ventura counties are also doing some innovative things around community engagement and promoting racial equity.

On the other hand, some counties have misused and abused the flexible public funds they received. Of the 12 counties that CPEHN reviewed, more than half sent money to the criminal legal systems including sheriff, probation and courts. In a few counties including Sacramento, Fresno, Kern, San Joaquin, and San Diego, the sheriff departments received funds to award “hero pay” to their officers. A few counties used the ARPA funds to replace “revenue loss” of their sheriff departments. And Ventura County, which CPEHN highlighted as a county that is doing moderately well in promoting equity and community engagement, proposed $20 million to upgrade their sheriff’s radio and IT systems. 

“It's complicated. A county can be focusing on equity and still not fully commit to it, because again, these are deeply rooted local issues of funding going to law enforcement.”

In their research, CPEHN discovered that some counties did not even mention race in their health equity analysis and in any of their plans for how to spend the money.

“For them, race was simply not a factor. These were mostly politically conservative counties in the Central Valley. I'd like to think that the entire county government is not ignoring race. I'm sure there are folks in their public health departments or behavioral health departments that do use race and racism as part of their health equity analysis. But the county as a whole is not focusing on racial equity.”

CPEHN Is Helping CBOs Engage in County-Level Policy and Politics

Zhang argues that advocates, activists, community-based organizations (CBOs) and community residents need to organize, get informed and put pressure on local governments.

“We want to see community residents exercise their civic muscle and say things like: ‘We do not like that you're sending $20 million to the sheriff when it could be spent on community-based crisis response or mobile crisis units.' Or, 'The money could be better used for reimagined public safety to better respond to the needs of communities of color that have been over-policed by traditional law enforcement."

Zhang continued: “In many of the counties that are problematic, there aren't a lot of community-based organizations or coalitions leading policy and budget advocacy. I am thinking about Stanislaus County or Kern County. These are very conservative counties that do not have an interest in supporting communities of color. We have to play closer attention to these counties. CPEHN's intent in doing the scorecards was to help local groups in these counties hold their elected officials accountable."

CPEHN supports local groups by providing them with research, technical analysis and policy expertise.

"We are here to provide that technical analysis and to be able to say, 'Here is this equity-focused language that the US Treasury said that you can reference in your letter. Here are the requirements for local governments that the Federal Government laid out. You can use these resources to let your local government know that you're watching them.' We are doing policy analysis to break down these complicated policy and budget documents and give our community partners the most useful information they need to take action."

For example, CPEHN worked with a group in Calexico City called the Imperial Valley Equity & Justice Coalition (IVEJC). This border town is predominantly Latinx and agriculture migrant workers. The city received $9 million dollars in ARPA funds, but the city council’s original budget didn't focus on the undeserved communities at all. The Coalition got engaged and transformed the budget. 

In this clip, Zhang explains how organizers were able to completely change the budget in their small town to benefit the people most in need. Learn more about the IVEJC coalition and their successful organizing efforts in this CPEHN publication. 

Back to top