A girls' soccer team walks by an outdoor wall mural.
A girls' soccer team walks by an outdoor wall mural.

2017 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner

A Place Where a ‘Different Experience’ Means Jobs, Fitness and a Better Life

The people of San Pablo, California—a small, diverse, working-class city in the San Francisco Bay area—deeply understand the connection between economic well-being and health, having faced tough times together.

During the worst of the last recession, one out of five workers in this community of 31,000—one of the poorest cities in Contra Costa County—was unemployed. The city’s jobless rate has subsided to a current level of 6.9 percent of the workforce, but still ranks significantly higher than the state (4.8%) and national (4.9%) levels.

Local leaders have made removing barriers to employment and job training two of its top priorities. Voters have registered their strong support: In 2012, they approved increasing the local sales tax to fund more job training, youth services and safety initiatives.

“Poor people have typically the worst health outcomes,” says former mayor Leonard McNeil, who now is president of a local wastewater treatment district. “In order to effectively address health disparity, a city has to address the root causes of it.”

San Pablo, California

Residents have drawn a direct line between economic wellbeing and health.

A new nonprofit, supported and partially funded by the city, has taken on the job of expanding opportunity through job creation, cultivating and supporting small businesses, and preparing more people to start businesses of their own.

Attitudes are changing. “You see people who now believe that they can have careers versus jobs,” says Leslay Choy, general manager of the San Pablo Economic Development Corporation (EDC). “That’s a huge piece, that they understand the value of what it means to work and move themselves into a living-wage career.”

San Pablo is a young city (55% are 40 or younger) and diverse (89% are non-white). Most jobs come from small businesses in the city’s many shopping centers, as well as a tribal casino and nearby East Bay refineries.

You see people who now believe that they can have careers versus jobs.

Leslay Choy, general manager

The San Pablo Economic Development Corporation

San Pablo’s children are getting particular attention. More than half of them are overweight or obese, the highest rate in the county. The city is increasing ways for families to live more active lives and to engage young people, so that they are more deeply woven into the fabric of the community.

The city partnered with state and federal agencies to remediate vacant railroad land into the Rumrill sports park, raising some of the funds through the New Markets Tax Credit program. It also used these federal tax credits to build a new community center, adjacent to a middle school, giving students easy access to free or affordable after-school activities, such as the teen lounge and classes like ballet and karate.

The Culture of Health Prize gives San Pablo encouragement. “We’re going to continue along a path that is truly going to take folks to a different experience of living in San Pablo,” Choy says.

Job Well-Done: Removing Tattoos, Training a Workforce

Job Well-Done: Removing Tattoos, Training a Workforce

A woman removing a tattoo from a man's arm. Kirsten Hamilton works on removing tattoos for Roger Gutierrez, who thinks they will get in the way of starting his own contracting business.

At her last job interview, Nora Ruiz wore long sleeves to hide a tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe on her forearm. “It’s hard to get past it,” Ruiz admits.

She got the job. Now as a senior program associate for the San Pablo Economic Development Corporation (EDC), Ruiz organizes one of the nonprofit’s most popular programs: affordable tattoo removal. The service—just $50 a visit—is one of the ways the EDC helps residents to remove barriers to employment.

It’s a theme at the EDC. Mostly funded with taxpayer dollars, the nonprofit is on a mission to put more city residents to work by improving their readiness for employment, training them for new skills and encouraging entrepreneurial efforts. It works closely with the city, and includes San Pablo’s city manager as its executive director.

The work of the EDC reflects a broader community value that social and economic factors, particularly financial well-being, strongly impact the ability of people to maintain and support healthy lives.

“How can you participate in your community’s economy if you don't have the skills or the education to go to work,” says Leslay Choy, the EDC’s general manager. “We can talk about all these great higher education programs and career paths, but if they’re not accessible, if you only have a GED, what are you going to do?”

The tattoo removal service, called Removing Barriers, is a partner program jointly run by the city and EDC as a way of making people stronger job-market candidates. On a recent Saturday, the EDC’s waiting room included a grandmother who wanted to erase “Sexy” from her arm, and a 35-year-old father and soccer coach who didn’t want a constant reminder of the mistakes he made as a 17-year-old.

That man, Roger Gutierrez, a construction machine operator, will end up paying about $500 to have all of his tattoos removed, versus $5,000 that he was quoted elsewhere. He wants to present a more professional image. “Removing Barriers has definitely changed my life,” he says.

To get people into jobs that pay a living wage, the EDC partners with businesses and organizations that teach skills, such as barbering and cosmetology, at the Moler Barber College; information technology certification at the Stride Center; and hazardous materials handling with the Teamsters Union. The EDC takes on training costs and helps defray the cost of childcare or professional clothing, two common barriers to staying in training.

Lorena Medel, 31, who has an 11-year-old son, received a San Pablo scholarship for $500 upon completing an associate degree at Contra Costa College. The money helps cover the cost of tuition at San Francisco State University, where she is now studying business and marketing. “I know the struggles of being a student and mom,” Medel says. “Education is what will open opportunities.”

Thirty-six-year-old Danielle Agnew, who has five children, was driving a school bus part-time, while also attending the barber college. The EDC helped reduce tuition and childcare costs, as well as provided low-cost tattoo removal and professional clothing. “I was able to succeed,” Agnew says, in her daily juggle of work and school. Now licensed to cut hair, she says the additional work helps her to better support her family and gives her the tools to open her own business.

“Barbering is still a very entrepreneurial trade,” says Frank Quattro, director of the Moler Barber College, which has 200 students, at least a third of whom were formerly incarcerated. He says a grant from the city can mean the difference between students attending school or “losing their way.”

A mother teaching her son to cook. Lorena Medel, recipient of a scholarship from the San Pablo Economic Development Corporation, gives her son Chris a cooking lesson at home.


A barber teaches students the skills of the trade. Moler Barber College owner Frank Quattro (left) speaks with student Jamon Smallwood.
Adults participating in an exercise class.

Inclusiveness is a Language Everyone Here Understands

At a Friday night party in the San Pablo Senior Center, dancers swinging to “Johnny B. Goode” can be overheard speaking Tagalog from the Philippines, Mandarin as well as Cantonese from China, and, of course, Spanish and English.

San Pablo is a kaleidoscope of people. Residents of Hispanic or Latino descent now make up the majority, with 57 percent of the population. Two out of three residents speak a language other than English at home and 45 percent were born outside of the United States.

Diversity is part of the legacy of San Pablo, a stagecoach stop during the Gold Rush, and the city has taken intentional steps to make the community as inclusive as possible and across many areas. By improving interactions, the city hopes to become a more cohesive place to live.

Some efforts have been small, but meaningful, gestures to build connections. To bridge the generational gap, the senior center makes a point of bringing young visitors to mix with older members, programming activities like a top chef-style cooking competition with intergenerational teams or a tutorial on how to take cellphone selfies.

“There’s a disconnect between generations that we are trying to bring together,” says Vicky Voicehowsky, the senior center recreation supervisor.

The city, meanwhile, tries to remove barriers so as many residents as possible can participate in planning meetings or forums on issues that affect them. It holds events at multiple times and different venues, often offering childcare and food, as well as translators. “By including every sector of the community, we actively engage our residents and encourage them to be a part of the decisionmaking process,” says Greg Dwyer, the city’s director of community services.

Other initiatives in San Pablo have been more deliberate attempts to foster a deeper sense of connection for the well-being of everyone. On that front, the San Pablo Police Department has led the way.

The department was the first in the region to offer free certified emergency response training in Spanish, a clear example of how the city’s commitment to being inclusive is a benefit for not just a few, but for everyone. San Pablo sits on an earthquake-prone fault line and has two refineries within eyeshot, so having the Spanish-speaking majority trained in safety procedures would help the community at large in the event of an emergency, says Brian Bubar, a commander in the San Pablo Police Department.

By equipping people with the skills they need to take care of themselves and their neighborhoods, “it builds a sense of ownership, and that partnership is strengthened,” he says.

The emergency training is just one piece of a broader community policing approach, which includes locating officers within the middle school, offering youth programs, and sponsoring a Community Police Academy, which gives anyone an up-close look at how the police department works. Once a week over the course of 10 weeks, the department opens its doors for talks and demonstrations, such as showing a K-9 unit or taking participants on ride-alongs. Not only does that give people a better understanding of policing, it also gives the department insight into what the community is thinking.

“We want to hear how the community wants us to police them,” says Bubar. “If we have a community that feels safe and can work, play, live, then that community is going to thrive.”

A police officer teaching a community class. The San Pablo Police Department's Sergeant Jeremy Johnson and Alma Pelayo address a Spanish-language emergency response class.

We want to hear how the community wants us to police them. If we have a community that feels safe and can work, play, live, then that community is going to thrive.

Brian Bubar, Commander
San Pablo Police Department

Teens participating in a town council meeting.

An Investment in Youth With an Eye Toward the Future

Inside the chambers of the San Pablo City Council, a discussion is unfolding on whether California should give 17-year-olds the right to vote.

Raising this issue are five teens sitting in seats usually reserved for elected officials.

The San Pablo Youth Commission is in session. Launched seven years ago, the group is an example of how San Pablo is cultivating a new generation of leaders and engaging younger people in the direction of their community. It’s seen as an investment in the city’s quality of life, both present and future.

Genoveva Calloway has served on the city council for 15 years and sees a “knowledge gap” that isn’t good for her hometown. “All of us on the City Council are senior citizens practically,” she says. The Youth Commission helps to bridge that gulf. “We need the youth to tell us what they need and also to spread the news of what we’re doing. We need to cultivate the next generation of community leaders.”

One of these generational ambassadors is 16-year-old Vicente Mancía. The high school junior joined the Youth Commission in middle school. “I felt I had to give back to San Pablo,” he says.

The group advocates for young people: On lowering the voting age, it sent a letter of support to legislators in Sacramento and got the San Pablo City Council to back its position. It also sponsors community events like a “Back to School Closet” at a local park, where families and children can select free, gently used clothing, toys or sporting equipment, as well as school supplies.

Another 16-year-old, Bryant Rodriguez, says the work of the commission inspired him to join, and hopefully, he will have the same effect on even younger students. “I saw older kids volunteering and passing out toys, and I wanted to be part of that,” he says.

2016 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner
Students working as a team in carpentry class.

Louisville, Kentucky

Young people at YouthBuild Louisville do their daily chores, picking weeds in the garden and courtyard of their LEED-certified green campus—just one beat in the rhythm of this vocational training, education and community service program.

The San Pablo Police Department also is engaging with students and helping them to become empowered. In the five elementary schools, an officer goes into every sixth grade classroom to instruct students on how to avoid drugs and gangs. The Gang Resistance Education and Training Program (GREAT), an evidence-based national initiative, builds life skills, with an officer showing students how to mediate conflict or how to react to bullying on social media.

Juvenile arrests have steadily declined from 139 in 2011 to 37 in 2016. Commander Brian Bubar says the relationships that officers build in schools carry through with students when they graduate.

“We don’t just want to give them the lesson plan and walk out,” he says. “It is a matter of building those relationships and making sure that the foundation is there to carry it forward.”

Mancía, one of the youth commissioners, went through gang-resistance training in elementary school and, now as a high school junior, maintains ties with many police officers. Over the summer, he helped officers to take recent graduates of the GREAT program on a camping trip.

“I love my community,” says Mancía, who plans to become even more involved this fall by coaching a flag-football team for younger kids and volunteering at a new library. “I know we are poor, but there are programs to help me to stay active and involved.” The changes in San Pablo, he adds, “are really going to be noticeable.”

Students participate in a youth commission meeting. A meeting of the San Pablo Youth Commission.
Children playing flag football on an outdoor field. Children play flag football at San Pablo's new Rumrill Sports Complex.
An aerial view of a downtown street. A view of San Pablo from the air.
A group discussing the plans for a new community project. Community members and city representatives view and discuss plans for a new public works facility.