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Partnering for a Stronger Valley

Partnering for a Stronger Valley

Remarks to Fresno Regional Foundation 45th Anniversary Luncheon

James E. Canales

President and CEO

The James Irvine Foundation

October 26, 2011 | Fresno

President John F. Kennedy had a plaque on his desk in the Oval Office. Inscribed on the front in brass were the words of an old fisherman’s prayer: Oh God thy sea is so great… and my boat is so small. That captures pretty well the thought of just about any foundation CEO. With seemingly infinite need and relatively finite resources, effective philanthropy can be a challenge. Moreover, when I look out at the problems swelling around California and then consider the scope of Irvine’s resources to do something about it… that sea looks quite vast, and the boat looks very small indeed.

I also find inspiration in the perspective of another “nautical” philosopher. In Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws”, when the character of Police Chief Martin Brody first sees the size and power of his foe… when he sees just how big that shark actually is... he kind of stumbles back a bit, but then recovers and calmly tells the scruffy captain: “You're gonna need a bigger boat.”

And that’s the spirit that we celebrate today. At the Fresno Regional Foundation, together we are building a bigger boat. Each of us here today plays a critical role as donor, supporter, advisor, champion or just a caring citizen who knows the value that a strong community delivers.

I want to thank Dan and Dewey for the invitation to be with you to celebrate this 45th anniversary milestone. And, thank you, Mas for bringing us together with your thoughtful words. As you know, we are fortunate to have Mas as a board member of the Irvine Foundation. But, we have clearly been underutilizing his skills at meetings — I didn’t know he performed invocations, too!

We are here today because we all believe that community foundations are critical resources. They are well positioned to understand the needs and aspirations of their communities and in helping to increase the resources available to meet these aspirations. Irvine has a long history of partnering with community foundations, and we have been proud to partner with Dan and the Fresno Regional Foundation over the years.

Today, we are taking steps to expand and deepen that partnership, because we remain convinced that this organization — with your support — is doing exactly what it has pledged to do for 45 years now: help residents give back to the place they love, and serve as a trusted steward for charitable giving in the San Joaquin Valley.

We believe in the potential of this place and its people and we seek your partnership to invest in a vibrant Valley that offers great opportunity for all who live here. The announcement of today’s generous gift from Mr. Ted Martin is another example of how much the people of this community love this area and want to ensure it remains a welcoming place for future generations.

James Irvine might have felt the same way. When he established his foundation in 1937, he specified that he wanted it to be for the benefit of the people of California. Not a national foundation making good efforts toward issues of national concern. Not a global foundation working on the problems of the world. He — like you — wanted his legacy to give back to the place that he loved… this amazing state of California, full of promise and opportunity and yes, its share of challenges and obstacles.

As head of the largest multi-purpose foundation focused exclusively on California, I often am asked how I see the State, its problems, and what can be done about them. I think people expect to hear a litany of woe… complaints about the system… words like “broken”, “dysfunctional”, and “crisis”. At times, it can be easy to give in to this sentiment and wonder where to begin in assessing our woes.

But, I don’t give in. And the reason is that the best philanthropy requires optimism and embraces the art of the possible. That optimism can’t be blind, and it has to be balanced with realism, but for us at the Irvine Foundation, we firmly believe Californians deserve better. And we must play our role to make it so.

Today our community discourse… if you can call it that… centers on complaints and blame, on blowing up problems to huge proportions or simplifying issues until there is nothing left but the extremes. People are shouting past each other. No one’s listening. And I think we have mistakenly substituted this exchange for actually working on the issues we face. We have come to accept the hyperbole as if it were data, the talking points as if they were dialogue and the zingers as if they were leadership. Regardless of our political ideology, we cannot play that game. It’s just not helpful and Californians deserve better.

California faces real challenges. And the future of this Valley — of Fresno and all the Central Valley — is indeed vital to the future of California. Up and down the state we have problems. But they are problems that can be solved. We should be actively working toward solutions rather than constantly redefining the problem. Let me share three ideas I have about how we should be moving forward, more constructively.

To get things moving, I believe we have to quit the waiting game and begin to act, together and in concert, to address the critical issues before us in the community. Framing our community discourse as a shouting match is a convenient technique to mask denial… to postpone having to actually work on the problems. I don’t know if you saw or heard about the documentary about America’s education system called “Waiting for Superman”. The title refers to a story told by one of the school reformers in the film, whose childhood belief in Superman was dashed when he discovered that there is no one coming with the power to save us… we need to do this ourselves. I think about that title when I see how California is responding to our problems.

Every time Sacramento patches over the problems and kicks the now-famous can down the road, I wonder: what do we think will happen? Do we actually believe Superman is coming to solve these issues and we only need wait? This is silly, and we should stop.

I saw in a recent LA Times poll that 75% of Californians think the country is on the wrong track. So if we are on the wrong track… and we opt to do nothing… won’t we just move further off track? We need to get to work actually confronting issues in our state and working toward constructive solutions. And, yes, that’s probably going to mean compromise… it’s definitely going to require taking a break from the polemic extremes and being practical about doing what we can with what we have.

And some people are already acting. I am hopeful when I see the work of California Forward, an organization that Irvine helped create along with four other foundations, with the objective of unpacking the gridlock and sparking positive, collaborative change. Their mission is to work with Californians to help create a “smart” government — one that’s small enough to listen, big enough to tackle real problems, smart enough to spend our money wisely in good times and bad, and honest enough to be held accountable for results. Sounds pretty obvious, doesn’t it? But even commonsense change is hard to stimulate in the current environment. This vision will require more Californians to be more meaningfully involved, as consumers of public services, as taxpayers, as voters, as neighbors, as citizens. California Forward believes we can revive the California Dream. But we must all get involved.

And that brings me to my second point; we need to bring more voices into the conversation so that we can work on solutions together. California has tremendous talent, diversity, and just plain smarts. Yet, we don’t do a very good job of harnessing this collective thinking when it comes to addressing the challenges we face as a state. From my perspective, we tend to hear the same voices — often repeating the same well-worn choices — and then we wonder why we aren’t making more progress. At Irvine we try to facilitate groups to move beyond narrow self-interest and work together for the common good. We are persuaded that alliances of unlikely partners can often lead to the adoption of long-term, sustainable changes. And, we believe in building such coalitions of Californians to advocate and support change.

One example is how we are working to improve educational outcomes for young people in California. Our foundation is advancing an approach called Linked Learning that seeks to transform the high school experience by bringing together strong academics, demanding technical education, and real-world experience to help students gain an advantage in high school, postsecondary education, and careers. Used in schools throughout California, this integrated approach has been shown to lead to higher graduation rates, increased postsecondary enrollments, higher earning potential, and greater civic engagement. Going beyond just funding this good idea, we are actively working to bring together a statewide coalition of education, industry, and community organizations dedicated to improving California’s high schools and preparing students for postsecondary education and career.

Here in Fresno, the Regional Foundation has the ability to bring together many different actors so that we can work on the key issues facing our community. This region has productive land, great institutions and a culture of caring. As a community, we know how to work together and we know we can improve quality of life for everyone – young and old, first- and fifth-generation, rural and urban, employees and employers. That’s one of the ideas behind the joint project we are launching today: to leverage a broad range of voices and talents across the Fresno area to focus on programs of critical importance to Valley residents. Participation is key. Your participation is needed. We have brought the resources of our statewide Foundation to this effort because we believe it’s focused on the right actions at the right time… and with the right collection of participants from across the community, I believe we can break through to success.

And finally, we need to acknowledge a basic reality: California has all the resources to make change… and we aren’t likely to get any more in the short term. When you look around the global economy, it’s immediately clear that we are living an era of scarcity. We know all too well the weak state of America’s economy. Europe has a debt crisis. Asia is suffering growing pains. Of course, California’s economy — among the top ten in the world — is not doing much better, but we have a large number of assets ranging from our entrepreneurial capacity to our position on the Pacific Rim to our diversity. California may face the same challenges as other places, but I would argue that we have more going for us if we can summon the courage to act and begin to utilize our assets to build up our state and strengthen our competitiveness. We need to do this ourselves.

Here today we celebrate an institution — a community asset, really — that has does just that… and demonstrates the power of local people bringing their talent and resources together to make a difference right here at home. It’s a simple concept, but you’d be surprised how few communities have done it right and how rare it is for a place to be able to make the kinds of strides that you have made with the Fresno Regional Foundation.

Last year, we held one of our board of directors meetings in Fresno, spent more than two days visiting organizations and meeting more than 75 different community leaders. One message we took away, is that despite the challenges, Fresno is a can-do place. Don’t believe otherwise. Don’t act otherwise. That’s why we are excited about the work we will begin together. The partnership we launch today between Irvine and the Fresno Regional Foundation is a framework for action, with some resources, but it needs to be activated with your support, your encouragement and your commitment.

And so, I remain hopeful about California. Not out of blind optimism, but because I see the assets we have as a state and the potential for us to use these assets to make progress. We do deserve better, and so we must shift our tone and commit ourselves to a more constructive, results-oriented approach where we can all work together. Let’s remember what California once did: when it led the way in creating the best system of higher education in the world, when it invested appropriately in its physical infrastructure, and when its pioneering spirit created the place we know as Silicon Valley. That’s what we must return to.

And that’s what brings us here. I’m encouraged when I come to Fresno. It’s an honor to be able to help acknowledge and celebrate this 45-year milestone. And as we honor the past, we must look to tomorrow, to the great work that lies ahead, and to the community we can leave to Fresno’s children. This is your foundation. We are proud to be a partner in its success, but together we have responsibility for its future.

You all know the saying that “as California goes, so goes the nation.” Let me add today, “as Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley go, so goes California.”

We have seen the shark and we are going to build a bigger boat. Today, with your help, we begin…

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