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Reflections on Equity from Coachella

Earl Lui

The community partnered with Kounkuey Design Initiative to co-design the five-acre park, Nuestro Lugar. (Photo credit: © Studio Los Feliz 2018)

(Nov. 8, 2018)—I'm driving in the Coachella Valley near sunset on a Friday night. As far as my eye can see, cars have pulled off the side of the dusty road to park. Crowds of people are walking in the same direction to an event. I see a pavilion in the distance.

No, I'm not attending the music festival held each April, but something infinitely more gratifying. The crowds of people are not out-of-town hipsters but local Latino families with children eagerly going to the grand opening of Nuestro Lugar ("Our Place"), aka North Shore Community Park. It's Friday,  October 12, 2018, and I'm lucky to be here. (You can get a sense of the planning process for the five-acre park in this video clip.)

About a week before the event, Chelina Odbert, executive director of our Fostering Healthy Environments grantee Kounkuey Design Initiative, sent me a last-minute email inviting me to the grand opening ceremony for the North Shore park. KDI is the nonprofit architecture and design firm that engaged with community residents to develop the plan for the park. Amazingly, the stars aligned because my colleague Alex Johnson and I had already scheduled a site visit that same afternoon with Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine, a free health clinic in Indio, only 30 minutes from North Shore. I quickly changed my travel plans and told Chelina "I'll be there."

Chelina Odbert of Kounkuey Design Initiative and Margarita Luna of The California Endowment worked together to help create the park.

When I get to the pavilion for the opening ceremonies, it looks like everyone from North Shore (population approximately 2,500) is here. Chelina, speaking first in Spanish, then English, thanks the residents for the hundreds of hours they put in on the planning effort. One of the resident leaders, Violeta Lopez, calls this "the park of our dreams." She tells the crowd that before this place, children had to play in the old, small park in the dark or with cell phones as flashlights. Of course, they had to play after sundown, because the valley is far too hot most of the year for daytime play. After the speeches come musical and dance performances from local children.

Since it's dinner time and I always need food, I head over to the concession stands with Margarita Luna, program manager for The California Endowment's local initiative in Coachella, who I've worked with for several years. Catering the event is Delicias Laguna Azul, the local women-led food cooperative featured in the video. Sitting down with our delicious taco plates, Margarita and I marvel at the accomplishment of this park here at what feels like the edge of civilization.

This Google Maps photo shows the site before the park was built.
Pre-construction: Before the park was built, there was little in the space.
Before-and-after: These two photos show what the park looks like today.


Margarita has been funding the community organizing, as well as KDI's work, that led to the building of this park. She tells me that when the community first started talking about a park, she envisioned making improvements to the old, 300 square-foot pocket park mentioned by Violeta that had no lights. But the community wanted more. They wanted a five-acre park.

I've been to the Coachella Valley many times over the years for site visits. Every time I go to this desert place, I'm struck by the vast and visible wealth and racial inequities. Those inequities are in your face here, maybe more so than in most other places.  It’s why Cal Wellness has supported underresourced communities in creating well-designed parks in neighborhoods that don’t have them – we know these parks help boost physical and mental health.

Driving through the affluent cities of Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, and Indian Wells, I see lush landscaping, immaculate green lawns everywhere, water flowing out of fountains, and tall beautiful palm trees.  An artificial world, like Disneyland sprawling across the desert.  A world and economy dependent on high energy use, imported water and low-wage, immigrant Latino labor. Housekeepers, hotel and restaurant workers, home care workers, pool cleaners, gardeners and landscapers, construction workers, and further east, a host of farmworkers in the fields. Most of the employers of these workers don't provide health coverage, so they have to go to places like Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine to get health care.

Driving further southeast towards the Salton Sea to North Shore, the word that keeps popping into my mind is “post-apocalyptic,” like one of those Mad Max/Road Warrior movies. There are no sidewalks, no grass, or landscaping, and certainly no flowing water fountains. The few trees are mostly half dead, palm trees with no tops, or with trunks cut in half. On the way to the park, I drive by a sign for St. Anthony's mobile home park, which is operated by another of our grantees Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation,  led by Sergio Carranza. His organization works with residents of mobile home parks saddled with unsafe, makeshift drinking water or septic systems, just a few miles from places where a seemingly endless supply of water flows out of fountains and sprinklers for lawns and golf courses. KDI worked with Pueblo Unido to build a park at St. Anthony's featured in a glowing New York Times article in 2014.

I walk around North Shore Park and take in the sights. Kids playing everywhere, yelling with delight. Soccer fields, basketball courts, play and climbing structures, outdoor fitness equipment, a water play area, and several mounds or little hills, perfect for climbing and imaginative play. I think to myself "it's as nice a park as I've seen anywhere." And then it hits me – this is what equity is all about. All kids and families deserve a place like this, even in one of the most isolated communities in California.

It's not every day I get such a tangible reminder of why all of us here at Cal Wellness do the work we do. Seeing this place now, and knowing what it looked like before, it's a miracle. Just one of many miracles created by the hard work of all our grantees like KDI, Pueblo Unido, CVVIM and the people with whom they partner. Goosebumps.

Earl Lui
Program Director Earl Lui

Earl Lui leads grantmaking related to advancing health care reform and the Affordable Care Act and fostering healthy environments.

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