Kathleen Kelly Janus

Kathleen Kelly Janus, a social entrepreneur and author, is the senior advisor on Social Innovation to Gov. Gavin Newsom, kathleen.kellyjanus@gov.ca.gov. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

After months of being confined to our homes, thousands of people have been shouting in the streets, risking their lives in the midst of a pandemic to fight structural racism and to be heard. It’s time to listen.

When Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed me the first ever senior advisor on Social Innovation for the state of California one year ago, it was clear that my job wasn’t about bringing partners to the same old table in Sacramento. It was about building a new table entirely, one with room for all Californians. 

During my first eight months, I embarked on a border to border listening tour, visiting 80 organizations across 16 cities and convened with 750 nonprofit, philanthropic and business leaders.

As a seventh generation Californian, I thought I understood the challenges we face. It turns out I had a lot to learn. 

What I discovered, and what we are all seeing unfold before our eyes, is that showing up matters. Listening matters. In California, equity isn’t just about demographics, it’s about geography. Innovation isn’t just about the tech titans of Silicon Valley or the entertainment moguls of Los Angeles, it exists in every community across this state. While each community is unique, every community is working creatively to address seemingly intractable problems, from homelessness to climate change. 

Government doesn’t have all the answers. Community-led social innovation must inform statewide policy. In the wake of COVID-19, emergency cash assistance programs like California’s Disaster Relief Fund for undocumented immigrants didn’t germinate in the head of a policymaker in Sacramento, they come from grassroots leaders who know first-hand how cash assistance can stabilize families during a crisis. 

Mayor Michael Tubbs’ universal basic income pilot, in partnership with the Economic Security Project, gave 125 Stockton residents $500 a month over the past year. They demonstrated that if you give low-income families an extra cushion, it can prevent the much more tragic – and expensive – problem of living on the streets. Armed with this evidence, Newsom is doubling down on the 

Earned Income Tax Credit to help California’s most vulnerable families get back on their feet.

If we want to offset the devastating economic downturn and budget cuts, California also needs innovation that actually saves money. 

Last fall, I met Steve Wright, a surfer from Imperial Beach on the border between California and Mexico, where the Tijuana River dumps 60,000 cubic yards of sediment, 3,000 tires and thousands of empty plastic bottles into a California State Park. The state was spending $1.8 million annually to dispose of the garbage, so Wright started a cross-border job training program to clean up the trash and give people jobs at the same time. His organization, 4 Walls International, recently created a social impact bond that will save the state $7.5 million over six years, while paying back investors.

Newsom also wants to ensure those who have traditionally been left out of our state’s economic prosperity, help lead the way to recovery.

Judge Abby Abinanti, California’s first Native American female lawyer, is leading a model for justice reform by integrating Yurok cultural practices and healing into her Yurok Tribal Court, rehabilitating individuals who would be otherwise swept into the criminal-justice system.

The Blue Lake Rancheria, located in rural Humboldt County, built a low-carbon community microgrid to help power government offices, businesses and a local Red Cross safety shelter, which helped save lives during the Public Safety Power Shutoffs, a model we can scale as we face the threat of wildfire season this year.

The challenges we face as a state and nation are daunting. But even through the crisis, so many Californians are waking up every day committed to and calling for change. 

Equity will not be achieved through projects and policies alone, it is a lens through which we must see all of our work, and it should be the lens through which we see innovation as well. If we truly want to build a California for all centered on the spirit of innovation, we need to keep listening to all Californians and meet them on the road to recovery.

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