“In [central California’s] San Joaquin Valley, the need is very different.” That’s the voice of Amparo Cid, she’s the director of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation’s (CRLAF) Sustainable Rural Communities Project and she understands on a professional and a personal level what life is really like in California’s central valley. “When I travel to Gilroy or the central coast or to Southern California, or wherever it might be, the realities and the differences become very stark,” says Cid. CRLAF’s Fresno office, set up inside a house on a residential street not far from State Route 99, Fresno’s major highway, is deliberate, and much needed. CRLAF caters specifically to California’s farm workers, migrant workers, and the rural poor through community outreach, education, public policy, advocacy and litigation support. Having an office that is easily accessible with plenty of complimentary parking is just one of the many, important details that CRLAF makes sure to consider. It’s not enough to provide services; they must be the right services, offered in ways that make it easy for residents of the central valley to receive. Each client walks through the doors with a unique story, and no single case is identical. It is for this reason that CRLAF staff remains thoughtfully tuned into the social, cultural, and political landscape around them.
Through the Sustainable Rural Communities Project, Cid and her team focus on the systemic factors that result in poor health and degraded communities. “In disadvantaged, unincorporated areas there is a huge intersection with immigration,” says Cid, “and legal status is often dependent on whether or not you can even reach legal service providers.” It is clear in this light why outreach is such a crucial piece of the CRLAF strategy. It’s too easy for people, especially undocumented immigrants, to slip through the cracks.
CRLAF’s role in all this is unique and critical. As an organization that is rooted in the community, much of the work involves serving as a cultural translator between local community stakeholders to elevate the grassroots voice within a legal framework. As it is now, working with undocumented clients means strategizing on every level of the legal process. Sometimes this is straightforward, but more often than not a tailored, case-by-case approach is required. The daily realities of poverty and the dismal living conditions that often accompany it can be difficult for family and probate courts to understand. There are times when site visits for example, which are required for undocumented children cases, would ultimately do more harm to the client than good. In instances like these, CRLAF’s holistic knowledge of the communities it serves plays an integral role in the work. CRLAF understands that incorporating California’s farm workers, migrant workers, and the rural poor into a structured community framework means bringing everyone to the table, not just the county officials who oversee and implement legislation, but also the impacted individuals. “From the DACA youth to those who still aren’t eligible for services, there is a thirst for people to get involved,” says Cid.
In addition to legal services and community outreach, CRLAF also partners with local and national organizations to advocate for policies that have the power to make positive, lasting changes. In recent years, Fresno communities have been extremely impacted by California’s record breaking drought. Both the quality and quantity of the water available has shifted, and there are some areas that have been without safe drinking water for decades. In Fresno and its surrounding cities, housing is often developed in areas that cannot support the needs of its residents. In these instances, the norm becomes living without basic infrastructure, including clean and safe water. Recently, CRLAF in collaboration with Policy Link worked to get a law passed requiring that necessary living components like potable water and proper electricity are set firmly in place before anyone is permitted to move in to a neighborhood. This sounds like it should be a no brainer, but often various political and bureaucratic barriers make ensuring these basic community needs a challenge. “There is so much that can happen through impact litigation and policy changes,” acknowledges Cid, and CRLAF has no intention of slowing down.
In the coming months, CRLAF plans to continue engaging at the county and statewide level in an effort to continue strengthening its labor litigation and begin taking on more civil rights cases. CRLAF also plans to encourage the youth who have benefitted from its services to speak up on the issues that matter to them and to their community. With national elections on the horizon, now is the perfect time to elevate their voices. Internally, this is also the time of year that CRLAF staff members get together to discuss what they would do if anything were possible. In a world without legal restrictions and bureaucracy, where would they dedicate focus. This exercise is not only fun, it also casually sets a bar, because for an organization with the expertise of CRLAF, it’s important to think big.