Whose Job Is Sonoma?

Leadership takes money and money requires leadership.

Story David Bolling

Katherine Fulton defines herself as a change agent, helping individuals, organizations and communities “learn to be better, braver and wiser.” She is a nationally known expert on philanthropy, advisor to numerous leading foundations and a former journalist and teacher. As a Sonoma resident, and a board member of the Sonoma Valley Fund, her fingerprints are all over a host of civic initiatives focused on guiding the future of the Valley of the Moon, including the initiative called “Sustainable Sonoma.”

Anyone seeking to make sense of Sonoma Valley’s future would be wise to seek Katherine Fulton’s counsel. So we did, in a wide-ranging conversation.

Sustainable Sonoma, the multi-partner “forum” launched by the Sonoma Ecology Center, has tackled what some people would call the impossible challenge of trying to find consensus on a common vision, agenda and plan to guide the Valley in the decades ahead, with affordable housing as the top priority. We asked Fulton about her take on that effort.

“Sustainable Sonoma is exactly right about partnerships. We need partnerships across sectors, across the issues. They’re building legitimacy and authority to move forward, and they’re trying to build the capacity to have hard conversations about things like the Urban Growth Boundary.

“The problem is, there are too many people who want to say, ‘Well, why don’t you do this and why don’t you do that?’ but don’t give the money, don’t give any time to make things happen, just want to critique anybody else doing it.

“I see three or four dimensions to the leadership issue in this community. First of all, this town has the ‘distress of success,’ and it’s hard to galvanize people to act when there’s the appearance of success. In many smaller communities around the country that have successfully brought people together, it’s because they have a sense of crisis, or a sense of need that overrides the things that separate them. Here, there isn’t that. There are too many people doing too well who have resources, who can just sit it out, or throw potshots from the outside. The question is, how do you galvanize a community the way this community was galvanized in the fires? If you just look at the basic mood of the place, with tourists pouring in and people wanting to buy houses and pumping house prices up and the gentrification of the Springs—I mean, it doesn’t, as a whole, feel like a failed place. So the question, again, is how do you galvanize a community in these circumstances?”

Fulton sees a leadership vacuum in the Valley, in part because there aren’t sufficiently large local institutions to provide it.

“You’ve got the peculiar thing that there are no institutions in the private or semi-private sector that can be the focal point to overcome obstacles, to get momentum going. Here, you have no business, no university, no foundation that can truly galvanize things. So, it’s a vacuum in that sense. You’ve got a community foundation that I think has aspirations to be more helpful here, but it’s based in Santa Rosa.

“Then you’ve got the governance situation. You have a city—and God bless the city—but the city has 12 employees. The City Council is volunteer, and the city is only 2.75 square miles of the whole Valley. And the Valley is 40,000-plus people and much more complexity. That’s where the problems are held, not in the city. The city is the heart and the soul and the focus of the whole, but no actor in the city can act on the regional problems.”

Fulton sites Tulsa, Oklahoma, where “a billionaire is galvanizing immense civic projects,” and Chattanooga, Tennessee, “which was completely turned around by the Lyndhurst Foundation. So when you have some serious private resource that can actually invest in what’s needed to pull things together, things can happen.”

But, she cautions, when you’re trying to address fundamental issues—truly affordable housing, traffic congestion and a lack of public transit, decaying infrastructure, a more diverse and job-rich economy, preservation of historic resources and community values—these are the problems of the region, the state, and the world. They are huge, complex problems.”

Issues of that magnitude, she suggests, in the context of a community like Sonoma, are largely beyond the existing civic/philanthropic infrastructure.

“This place is rich and involved in nonprofit energy,” Fulton says. “We have six or eight organizations on the million-dollar scale, but mostly the nonprofits are small, so small that they’re mostly volunteer-led. And that means that all their efforts go in to discrete projects, at the program level, each of which is important. But because they’re so busy trying to solve the discrete thing they’re doing, they have no capacity to give a third of their staff or a half-staff, to do this larger thing, which sits at the community level, not the organizational or program level.”

Which brings us back to leadership.

“A fundamental issue we’re talking about is this: What is the leadership that the community needs, where does it come from and where does it have legitimacy?

“I’ve been looking at this situation seriously and challenging myself to learn about it actively for five years. And the thing that I think has to happen is that we have to build some superstructure of which, right now, Sustainable Sonoma is the early edge, that sits outside government, that has real resource and real skilled staff, that can actually take on big important things that are game-changing for this area. And one of the things you have to step back and ask is, what is influenceable?

Fulton pauses to frame the answer.

“We can’t, right from here, change the immigration policy of this country. We can’t deal with the climate policy of the U.S. But there are a lot of things we can do. The lack of forward-looking civic leadership that needs partnership with government is the reason that the housing crisis has gotten to this place. But nobody’s saying, ‘We needed to be doing something about it five years ago, 10 years ago.’ It’s been really clear for a long time, but there’s no place to organize that. At least, that’s how I look at it.”

Fulton thinks the fact the housing crisis actually is a full-blown crisis offers hope, if only because now we are asking questions and trying to take action. But the need is dire.

“Sustainable Sonoma,” she says, “brought together a panel, that had the fire department, the schools, the hospital, an array of people from the service sector, and it was a revelation. You listened and you just went, ‘Oh my God.’ I mean, only a third of the firefighters can afford to live here. So now, at least, we’re having awareness of the nature of this and how it affects everything.”

The absence of a nonprofit housing agency in the Valley has contributed to the lack of action, says Fulton. “That’s part of what Sustainable Sonoma is now trying to do and what the Community Foundation is trying to do. I don’t know why the City hasn’t done that. But I think the effort they’ve got underway right now is to try to come up with a real strategy.”

Community Foundation Sonoma County, says Fulton, “interviewed 40 people about what the solutions are, because the foundation has money in their resilience fund to seed some of these things. The dimensions of the problem are such that the cost of building things is so high that developers can’t do it without being underwritten in some way. So then you have to put together money. The deals are complex, and I think you need a holistic effort. The thing I’m dying to do is to have somebody put up money, get the right person and literally map every available piece of land and who owns it, because you can either go up and get denser, or you can go out.”

One of those options automatically invokes the Urban Growth Boundary, which is set for renewal, revision or rejection in 2020. Some housing advocates argue the UGB contributes to a housing shortage and escalating home prices. UGB supporters suggest changing it would be eco-sacrilege.

“We have a pending debate over the Urban Growth Boundary,” worries Fulton, “where people are just going to go yell at each other.”

Which leads her to the core of the sustainable Sonoma conundrum.

“The problem is, this is no one’s job,” she says. “No one has this job. The basic essence of the leadership problem is there’s no community relations person from the university, or there’s no CEO of a local business, or there’s no head of the Community Foundation sitting here with resources that could actually get it done. This is no one’s job. Whose job is it? We live in a community in which it’s nobody’s job and everybody’s job, and that’s why it’s very hard to make progress.”

Fulton might prefer we think in terms of a resilient Sonoma rather than a sustainable Sonoma. “A resilient community is one that can maintain its essential identity while adapting to these and other challenges,” she says, “like the looming economic, energy and environmental challenges of the 21st century. So, I think that is our job. That is our task here.”

The good news, says Fulton, “We’re talking about the problems. There is astonishing talent here, and it’s a knowable and influenceable place. It’s amazing. So many places you feel like you’re small, and you don’t know people, and it’s overwhelming. This is a place that, if there was the right roadmap and we could figure out whose jobs it’s going to be, we can get it done in this place.”

The bad news? “Basically, we’re freeloading on the love and energy and investment of generations of people already on the land, and we can’t do that forever. Generally, money follows leadership. So, it’s a circular thing. That’s where we are right now. We’re in the stage of need and crisis and also opportunity. This moment is an opportunity, it is growing, and it isn’t clear how we will get through it.”

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