National City, California
2020–2021 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner
In National City, Residents Have ‘A Real Vision of What’s Possible’
National City, California, one of San Diego County’s most ethnically diverse and densely populated cities, has what you could call “bayanihan” or “familia.” Bayanihan is a Filipino value encompassing a spirit of communal unity, work, and cooperation to achieve a shared goal, and familia is the Spanish word for family and the culture of a community. Those concepts are integral to the city’s efforts over the past decade to create better health and well-being for all.
People here describe a community where everyone has a connection to everyone else, even if they don’t know each other directly. Generations of families stay in the city, often living in the same neighborhood or working together in the same place, at the port, schools, naval base, or in one of many small businesses.
“I’m very proud to say I’m third generation, my daughters are fourth, and this is home,” said the city’s mayor, Alejandra Sotelo-Solis.
The sense of connectedness and cooperation has resulted in a community relentlessly focused on strengthening itself so everyone can thrive—now and in the future.
In keeping with bayanihan and familia, in recent years, National City has made efforts to let residents, regardless of their preferred language or citizenship status, determine the city’s growth. New policies require city council meetings, which many residents felt excluded from in the past, to feature two-way Spanish-English interpretation, and the city government removed citizenship requirements for residents to serve on boards and commissions. The goal is to create a city where everyone’s voice is heard.
Dozens of community partners and hundreds of residents, for example, helped shape the city’s new Paradise Creek apartments and park complex, which brings food, transportation, and environmental justice to a part of the city where many people had felt left behind. This transformation started in 2005, when local teachers spearheaded an effort to turn a public works maintenance area and a charter bus lot into a wetland conservancy and small park.
Next to that protected land was an informal dumping site filled with worn-down mattresses, old tires, and broken grocery carts. But community members saw that the area could be so much more. For years, they worked to build a new state-of-the-art, low-income housing and parks facility that would put residents near public transportation options. They applied for and received $9.2 million from California’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to pay for the upgrades. Residents took center stage, participating in a series of community workshops organized by the city and local nonprofits and lobbying for a community garden to be included in the final plans.
In 2020, National City residents were finally able to see tangible proof of their efforts: A new apartment complex opened next to Paradise Creek. It includes 200 sustainable and energy efficient apartments for low-income families, a boardwalk where community members can stroll along four acres of protected wetlands, a playground, and a community garden.
The new Paradise Creek apartments and park are “a real vision of what’s possible and a reflection of what the community wanted,” said Dominique Navarro of the Environmental Health Coalition, a local environmental justice organization that was involved in the project. “It’s exciting after all of the discussions for it to come to fruition in such a beautiful site.”
To prepare people who live and work in National City to advocate for change, the Environmental Health Coalition runs leadership training programs, as do other organizations in the city. Graduates of Olivewood Gardens’ Cooking for Salud® program become “Kitchenistas,” community leaders dedicated to sharing and advocating for health and nutrition information. Participants in National City’s leadership programs also have gone on to serve on the school board and push for policies that fight pollution.
“Graduation is just the beginning,” said Janice Reynoso, one of the leaders of Paradise Creek’s community garden. “Graduates go on to change entire systems.”
The Prize is vindication that we are here, and that our community is doing the work to achieve health equity, that we’re doing it together, and that it is led by our community.
National City, California
The Culture of Health Prize is a powerful symbol that National City is a vibrant municipality with a bright future.
“The Prize is vindication that we are here, and that our community is doing the work to achieve health equity, that we’re doing it together, and that it is led by our community,” said Claire Groebner, Olivewood Gardens’ director of development.