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Behind the Scenes


Carol Whiteside
President, Great Valley Center

Profile produced by Jerry Blair


According to Great Valley Center president Carol Whiteside, when the Central Valley think tank first started she was using a card table for a desk. Today the GVC has thirty employees and her desk is a little more utilitarian. The organization she heads is arguably the institution serving as a beacon for others to key on regarding issues of growth in the Great Basin.

Ms. Whiteside founded the GVC in 1997. Before that she served as Director of Intergovernmental Affairs under Governor Pete Wilson, was Assistant Secretary of the California Resources Agency, and was elected Mayor of Modesto in 1987. Having served in both government and private sectors, she has clear views on how each can serve the cause.

Whiteside sees indications that the cohesive strategy lacking at the GVC's inception five years ago is beginning to gel. And as the Central Valley turns the corner into a new year and New Valley begins another season tracking its progress, Carol Whiteside and the Great Valley Center maintain the dream.

When we first spoke in early 2001, you said that there was really no cohesive strategy that you saw in terms of solving the issues of growth in the Valley. Are we developing one, or is there one in place now?

There are encouraging signs. I think it is unrealistic to assume that we'll ever have one for the whole Great Valley. The Sacramento area has the six-county process going on through SACOG, which is really looking at housing, and land use, and transportation, air quality... Mayor Allen Autrey in Fresno has convened the eight counties in the San Joaquin Valley to begin to look at how to deal with the air quality in the San Joaquin Valley. I think that just a few years ago that kind of multi-county, big picture look would have been impossible here.

Are we looking at the right things?

Well, I think we're looking at the things we have to look at and I think we've all learned that once you start looking at traffic or once you start looking at air quality that pretty soon you're talking about jobs, and transportation, and housing, and education -- and it's all connected to everything else and so it really doesn't matter where you enter the circle; you eventually will get to everything.

What kind of impetus is it going to take to get these things to happen?

I think it will take two things -- and I honestly think and I'm sorry to say, but I think it takes a galvanizing event. Something that is so stunning and so unavoidable and so dramatic that it galvanizes people into action. The environmental movement came out of the burning Cyanoga River, or the Santa Barbara oil spill. I don't know what that will be in the Valley but I think that's one way to get people's attention. The other thing I think it will take is a strong person who has a "big picture" view, who hopefully is above politics, who can work with people on both sides of the political aisle, who understands all the cultural diversity of the region, and can somehow earn the trust of people to function in a leadership role. Now, that may or may not be a formal leader. Sometimes those people are informal leaders and they don't have titles or roles and they just assume the mantle and go.

You say they have to be above politics...

I think so. I think that part of the problem is that the political system has become so entrenched with seeking votes, worrying about the next election, raising money that that becomes a distraction from what it seems to me to be a straight march down the road to get the region into a better position for the future.

Does it take some sort of catalyst in these various regions of the Central Valley, something like a UC Merced, to bring about some positive change?

I think all the things like UC Merced, like the SACOG process, like discussions on water which are enormous in the region, all of those help. But they still haven't kind of grabbed the attention and the imagination of people that say, "Here, this is where we really want to go." And just this week I was talking with people who said, "You know, we're really interested in the Central Valley because the Central Valley is still unformed. In San Diego or Los Angeles or Orange County we are just tinkering at the margins and there are so many choices that can be made in the Valley." And that leadership, that catalyst, that whatever it seems to me has to be way up here, kind of like the guiding star and says, "Here is what we are going to do. We are going to become a competitive region. We're going to function on parity with everybody else in the state and the nation. We're going to raise our educational levels. We're going to increase our economic prosperity. We're going to protect our environment." And those things have to happen by everybody giving a little. We can't just all be takers.

In the first interview we did, you referred to "capturing the vision". In your view has the vision changed at all?

I think the vision is pretty easy to see if you think about it. But I don't think many people are looking. Lots of people have their heads down. They're worried about tomorrow, they're worried about next week, they're worried about pay checks, they're worried about families, they're worried about retirement, or vacation. They're not looking up and they're not looking at the vision. And that's why I say that people just have to be willing to share in developing a community. It's a community vision, it's not a personal vision. And so much of our lives today are based on personal things. And so it requires a really big shift for people to say, "I want to be part of this bigger process. I want to build a community for my kids. I want to leave the world a better place than I found it." Now it's my personal hope, based on these gray hairs, that as people get older they begin to think about legacies. As the baby boomers age they begin to think about what they're leaving and this may be an opportunity for us to really work together on that instead of being so internal and selfish in our actions.

Are we doing the right things to attain that?

I think we're starting. And I think the budget crisis for the state will be a big test for us, because then people have to decide whether or not they're going to be competitive and clawing over every nickel or whether they're going to look at a bigger solution by working together. They're going to have to decide whether they can still afford planning, whether they can still afford vision. And sometimes I think people make false choices and say those things have to go away because we can't afford it, we don't have the money, we don't have the time, or whatever it happens to be. But I think I would argue that it's that kind of long term vision and long term view that gets us past these crises.

Over the five years how have your goals changed and what kind of differences are you seeing in your organization?

We started off saying we wanted to improve the social, economic, and environmental well-being of the region and now we really mean it. We started off believing that we could really be productive acting in the intersection between the environment and the economy. We were worried about farmland conservation and economic development/community development and what we found is that has to take place in an environment in strong communities, strong non-profit organizations, that young people have to be engaged so now instead of just working on land use and planning and technology and farmland, we're working in leadership development and working to build the capacity of non-profit organizations. We're working on youth development so that we have a much broader way of trying to impact the Valley and a much broader agenda, again because everything is related. How can you improve the lives of kids in the region if you don't have communities that support them? How can you have a healthy economy if you don't deal with education? So, it's that same issue about once you get into something -- they're all connected. And so GVC's agenda, I think, reflects that as we try to support communities in a variety of ways wherever they are in raising the bar, helping them become more competitive, and giving them resources so that they can get more effective.

What kind of hand-holding do you have to do? What do you have to do to keep these goals at the top of people's agendas?

We do a couple of things. First of al,l we have a big mailing list and anybody can be on our mailing list if they want to be. We mail most things to about 32,000 people, which out of five million isn't very many, but it's pretty expensive when you're paying postage. So what we try to do is say, "Here is what's available and if you're not interested, it's okay: go work with somebody else. But if we've got something that is useful or helpful or can be of benefit, then we're here to help." And so I think what we've found is that not everybody wants to work on our issues or wants to work at GVC or with GVC any day, but we're here for the ones that are and it's really like building blocks. You build this one for a while and then that one is okay and you build this one up for a while and that one is okay and you just keep doing that as you're raising things. We find there are communities like the Sacramento region that are really engaged in regional processes and to the extent that we can provide technical support or help focus foundation resources in that region, we're there. In Redding and Chico, they're not even sure they're on the same planet yet. They're not working together yet. And so we're not doing much there, but when they're ready, GVC will be ready to try to support them in some way that they're doing it. So we're really a resource rather than a…we're certainly...hopefully not dictators and I tell everybody that we're not advocates. We have a point of view, we believe in balance, we believe in a lot of things and you can find that easily. We'll never stand up in front of the city council, or the board of supervisors, or the state legislator, and tell people what they ought to do. We'll help them decide.

Are places like Sacramento sharing the wealth? Are they going to other areas and saying, "Look, this worked for us and it might work for you too"?

I don't think there's a lot of cross-pollination yet, but I think what Sacramento needs to do is get some successes under its belt and then it will become a model for other regions. I think Sacramento is looking at Salt Lake City, and Salt Lake City looked at Atlanta, and so there's a lot of learning that takes place over time. I think Sacramento is just entering that process and everybody will watch to make sure they can actually do it. Can they get a consensus out of six counties? Can they change the base case and change the assumptions about what land use looks like in California? Boy, if they can, they'll be teaching a lot of people how to do it.

Let's end this on a projection. What are we looking at five years from now in your view -- if we continue on the course we're on now?

The economy will drive a lot of what happens. My dream is --it's never a prediction, it's a dream and it's what we work toward -- is that people will begin to understand how important their individual decision-making is. For instance, there's a huge controversy in the San Joaquin Valley right now over air quality and the potential that people will be regulated or asked not to use fireplaces in the wintertime on bad air nights and people are angry about that."How dare you tell me that I can't use a fireplace in my home and I can't do whatever…" Instead of thinking, "Wait a minute, there are kids that can't breathe, there are parents or grandparents who are sick." All of a sudden, you know, I'd like to believe in five years that we begin to understand that we all have a share in this, and that we all have a stake in what happens, and that we all share in making it better.

Do you think that their loss of trust in government aids that feeling?

I think there's a significant erosion in people's confidence in government, and so what that means is they're less willing to trust what government tells them to do and that comes back to your question about informal leadership and whether it's coming from the civic sector or whether it's coming from educators or business. We haven't found a new set of leaders yet that we're really willing to buy into and follow in a willing way. I'm hoping that will change. I think young people are tremendously important in this because...boy, those twenty- and thirty-somethings have a lot cynicism about government, but they would like to help. Many of them volunteer. Many of them do things. So figuring out how to engage them in this new challenge, it seems to me, is a big part of the issue.


The complete text of New Valley Episode 110 -- Movers & Shakers...


Presentation also made possible by a grant from
the Great Valley Center


New Valley Official Site