Fresno State professor Dr. A. Sameh El Kharbawy speaks with President Joseph Castro before the Fresno Future Project’s third annual conference Friday morning at the Fresno Art Museum. Photo Rachel Taylor
A clear message from Friday’s Fresno Future Project was that Fresno State would be an integral part of the city and Valley’s future.
It was the third edition of an annual forum designed to give people in Fresno an opportunity to share ideas about shaping “Next Fresno.” Dr. A. Sameh El Kharbawy, a professor of art and design and chair of the Fresno Future Project organizing committee, said the idea began simply.
“The idea from the beginning was that we would get a group of people together each year, and we would talk,” El Kharbawy said. “We would talk about the issues of the day. We somehow got on to the idea of thinking, dreaming, about the future of Fresno.”
Fresno State President Joseph Castro was the first to speak before about 70 people at the Fresno Art Museum about his vision for Fresno and the university’s role in plans to positively affect the Valley.
“Dr. Castro said it best. The fundamental function for a university is that it’s a forum for the exchange of ideas,” El Kharbawy said. “For the extended community, if you believe that ideas have a way of influencing what happens inside the city, then you believe a university is an agent of change.”
Castro said an all-time high enrollment and recent hiring’s of faculty “from around the world,” has made it an exciting time at Fresno State. He emphasized that student success is critical for Valley communities flourishing and outlined his plan to make that happen.
“I want each one of our students to graduate in a timely way, to go on to graduate school or get a job in a relatively short period of time,” Castro said. “We’ve made strides, but still have a long way to go.
“Over two-thirds of students at Fresno State are the first in their family to go to college. What that means is that Fresno State is a vital institution that transforms lives. If we can enhance student success, then we are going to make enormous leaps as a community and the San Joaquin Valley.”
As if to reinforce the idea that Fresno State student success could help shape the Valley, alumna Paula Castadio (1989), president and CEO of Valley PBS, took the podium to explain the program’s impact on education.
Castadio said 74 percent of teachers say educational technology is a student motivator, and two-thirds want more. She said PBS is the No. 1 source of educational content for preschool teachers.
A site called PBS LearningMedia, Castadio said, is a free asset for teachers to use that includes video lesson plans, coloring activities and handouts. She said a grassroots movement is needed to spread knowledge about education tools on PBS to help the Valley.
“People are desperate for a more-informed community,” Castadio said. “Active and informed citizens will strengthen the community.”
Fresno communities were the focus of Dr. John Capitman, director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State, for different reasons: public health and questions about justice.
Capitman said there are questions in Fresno about “distribution and process” that need to be asked in connection to the general plan being drafted to improve Fresno.
About distribution, Capitman asked, “Are all neighborhoods treated equally in the distribution of the city’s benefits? Do all equally share in what is great about Fresno?”
He said it will never be completely equal, but they should debate fairness, especially when things are blatantly unfair.
About process, Capitman said, “Do they [neighborhoods] have equal opportunity to be a part of the decision-making process? Do they have equal voice?
Those questions, Capitman said, frame the criteria of justice within which he addressed issues of public health in the Valley and Fresno. Part of the discussion focused on life expectancy and the disparity between poorer counties, communities and even neighborhoods compared with more financially stable areas.
“We’re talking about differences of 10 to 15 years [life expectancy],” he said. “There has to be something going on that’s more than just individual choices. There’s something else going on beyond individual behavior. For example, the life expectancy in New Orleans can vary by 20 years or more [in neighborhoods] just a few miles apart.”
He said the poverty that leads to a disparity in life expectancy is also present in Fresno and the rest of the Valley.
“It’s like comparing Japan and Tonga,” he said. “It’s comparing best in the world to some of the worst.”
There are neighborhoods in Fresno, Capitman said, that seem to be isolated from the opportunities that exist in other places in Fresno.
“Kids in southwest Fresno I’ve talked to have literally not been to Downtown Fresno or River Park,” he said. “How do we make sure we are serving all neighborhoods? We need to think about job creation to draw assets to people who already live here. We need to have a richness of opportunities in neighborhoods.”
Alumna Sabrina Kelley (1987) has worked to improve those neighborhoods at the ground level as coordinator of neighborhood revitalization for Habitat for Humanity. Kelley shared videos and images of a west Fresno neighborhood the organization has been helping for several years.
“It looks like a Third World country,” Kelley said in the video as she looked at crumbling streets and buildings.
“Who are casualties of this injustice?” she asked rhetorically to the audience. “People in these neighborhoods bear a disproportionate economic burden.
Impoverished neighborhoods affect the ability of children to learn. These environments are food deserts that lead to childhood obesity and other health problems.”
Kelley said her organization and other partners are reaching out to kids to give them a second chance.
They recruit fathers who used to be gang members, she said, “empower them to be agents of change.”
El Kharbawy said listening to the speakers reinforced something Mayor Ashley Swearengin said.
“Where Fresno goes, California goes,” El Kharbawy said. “Where California goes, the U.S. goes and where the U.S. goes, the world goes. We are a mirror for what happens in the rest of the world.”