The Gonzales Way: A Can-do Spirit of Collaboration
In the Salinas Valley, the “salad bowl of the world” with fields of lettuce spreading like shag carpet between the mountains of California’s Central Coast, the town of Gonzales may be small (population 8,479), but its residents take pride in what they call the “Gonzales Way.”
Residents describe the Gonzales Way as a genuine feeling that they can be a force for improving well-being in their community. It’s heralded on banners hanging from streetlights and matter-of-factly mentioned in conversation by people who have lived there all their lives or just moved to town.
“Their can-do attitude allows collaboration to happen and to be successful and effective,” says Carmen Gil, manager of health in all policies for the Monterey County Health Department.
Gonzales reflects how a small community can tap the insight and power of its residents to create change and expand opportunities. City leaders have made intentional efforts to foster an inclusive environment, while leveraging resources and working together to encourage economic development, promote environmental sustainability, and create opportunities for youth. “We listen,” says City Manager René Mendez, “and we try to understand.”
With an abundance of sun and wind, the city is swiftly switching to alternative energy sources and, through the Gonzales Grows Green initiative, working with employers to reduce their carbon footprint. For decades, farmworkers, primarily from Mexico, have been drawn to this farming valley for jobs. Much of the land around town is planted end-to-end with varieties of lettuce, while the vineyards on the nearby Santa Lucia mountains produce some of the best pinot noir and chardonnay grapes in the country.
Gonzales faces challenges, and high among them are the need to increase the availability of affordable housing, expand access to clinical care, and provide public transportation. But the community displays a willingness and commitment to be open to ideas and to partner with others.
About 94 percent of the population of Gonzales is Latino, and more than a third of residents are under the age of 18. Young residents are seen as an asset and empowered to act on their ideas. Voters supported this focus on youth when they approved a half-cent sales tax in 2014 to pay for activities like after-school programs and summer camp; improvements in parks and recreational places; and summertime career training. The money also funds mini-grants of up to $5,000 that allow residents to suggest ideas and lead projects that will improve the town’s quality of life—small but important steps, such as upgrading a food pantry or adding new hydration stations for filling water bottles at schools.
Mayor Maria Orozco has witnessed how Gonzales has changed in her 25 years as a resident and views the Culture of Health Prize as reinforcement that the city is on the right path. “Now residents are more engaged where they feel they have a seat at the table,” she says.
(Text and video used courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, copyright 2019; Photos used courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, copyright 2019 Josh Kohanek.)