The Grand Junction Report: Issues of Equality in the Mesa Valley

Chapter 4

Summary Observations and Recommendations

The Colorado Advisory Committee is grateful to the leadership and all citizens of Grand Junction and Mesa County for their cooperation with its fact-finding efforts. During its two-day visit to the Grand Mesa Valley in May 2001, the Committee was fortunate to hear from many community members. A broad spectrum of views, interests, and opinions was brought before the members of this advisory body. The Committee confirms the positive and optimistic outlook of civic leaders who are justifiably proud of their vibrant, dynamic, and progressive region. Grand Junction and Mesa County are well positioned to continue their energetic efforts for achieving even greater prosperity and success.

Despite this encouraging outlook, it is important to note that the socioeconomic divide in the region has been persistent, and as measured in the demographic overview provided in this report, continues to cast a shadow over the state of equal opportunity in the region. Indeed, the gap that separates the affluent and those that struggle to survive is not being narrowed. This is a finding that demands the full attention of political, economic, and civic leaders in the community; for it portends severe problems that will place increased pressures on social services, housing, education, employment, health services, the criminal justice system, and public services in general.

The Advisory Committee is convinced that this region has the resources and capability to deal effectively with problems of racial and ethnic tensions, disparities in education and income, and the general socioeconomic divide that so obviously affects its population. However, it will require commitment, dedication, and a concerted and ambitious plan of action that is not yet in place.

Grand Junction is not unique in struggling with issues of social and economic justice. However, it does have an opportunity to set itself apart by acknowledging the dimensions of the problems and working in a collaborative manner to overcome these difficult realities.

The issues of race and discrimination are a constant in America today, and Mesa County is not excluded from these considerations. The region has a significant and well-established minority community (largely Hispanic) that has been in the area for many generations. New immigrants moving into the area to fulfill necessary needs for labor in agriculture and other industries augment this population. The growth of the Hispanic community presents a challenge to the traditional white leadership base in Grand Junction and Mesa County. If the minority population, both longstanding and newer immigrants, can be incorporated into the economic, civic, and political leadership of the community, this can only enrich the entire community. Conversely, if dominant white attitudes are allowed to prevail, perpetuating exclusionary practices and behaviors (individually and institutionally), the region will likely be left behind in terms of economic advancement; for the future of Colorado and the nation are dependent on embracing, not resisting, demographic changes that are creating nothing less than a sea change in the fabric of our nation. Diversity is not a matter of choice, but in fact a reality that will grow exponentially in the years to come. The challenge can be met with fear and resistance, or it can be embraced and celebrated. Every growing community in America must make that decision.

What the Committee heard during its two days of public testimony in Grand Junction was disturbing. There was consistent information presented that provided a general perception that minority youth are not being well served in public education and the criminal justice system. Because of poverty, low wages, inadequate housing, health care, and educational attainment (possibly complicated by discrimination) many minority households are not able to provide the climate of support necessary to ensure that their children will not suffer the same adversity in their own lifetimes. So the cycle may continue, unless a dramatic and concerted set of policies, initiatives, and programs is instituted to break the cycle and achieve vastly different and more positive outcomes in the future.

This will certainly require financial resources; however, that is only part of the solution. Equally important is the recognition by elected officials and civic, educational, and business leaders that this challenge exists and is worthy of their full attention and devotion to ensure dramatic reforms and changes. This Committee believes that Grand Junction and the Mesa Valley are equal to the challenge.

Among those policy considerations that we recommend are the following:

1. The County Commissioners of Mesa County and City Council of Grand Junction should, without delay, establish an official city-county human relations commission.

This commission should be appointed from a wide cross section of the community and should accurately represent the region’s diversity. The membership should be composed of individuals who have a demonstrated concern, commitment, and history of working to improve community relations in Mesa County. The commission should be an official governmental advisory body, and it should be supported with staff and a limited budget. Its primary purpose will be to advise elected officials, governmental bodies, and public institutions; and to make appropriate recommendations.

The commission should be charged with examining issues relating to race relations, the disabled community, youth, seniors, women, migrant farm workers, and indeed all residents of the Mesa Valley. The commission should collect data, undertake surveys, studies (and other research), and conduct public meetings to obtain views, perspectives, and information on matters under its jurisdiction.

Successful models for human relations commissions are available within Colorado, and in other states and communities. Technical assistance is available to assist in the planning and execution of such a body, and this Committee pledges its assistance and support.

2. Based on the consistent testimony of persons appearing before the Advisory Committee, including school officials themselves, it is apparent that the matter of public education is at the heart of any realistic plans to address social, economic, and racial disparities in the Mesa Valley. Data revealing the alarming gaps in student achievement, supplemented by other statistics on discipline and graduation rates, confirm that these issues have been persistent over a long period of time, and that effective solutions have yet to be implemented.

For this reason, the Colorado Advisory Committee urges that a task force be established by the school board to address this crisis in educational equity.

a. The task force should be diverse and include leaders from the minority community (the Latin-Anglo Alliance should be called upon to be a full partner in this endeavor). Minority staff within the district, and concerned parents and students, should be included as well.

b. The task force should include representatives of leading community institutions, including Mesa State College, business and economic development interests, and county and city governments, all recognizing the importance of public education to the future of the Mesa Valley. The objective of providing quality education for all students is critical to the future growth and prosperity of this region.

3. Mesa State College represents a valuable asset to the community and to the region. Not only does it provide degree programs, it also has the capacity for institutional research and community outreach. This leadership role should be enhanced. Additionally, since the college recruits students extensively in metropolitan areas, it has a vested interest in making Grand Junction a welcoming environment for students of all backgrounds. This Committee urges Mesa State College’s governing body, its president, and other faculty and administrative leaders to accept this challenge as a mission for this important higher education resource. It should also consider broadening its curriculum to include more courses that emphasize multiculturalism.

4. All significant employers in the region need to examine their recruitment and employment practices, and more aggressively promote diversification in the workforce. Those agencies, institutions, and businesses (public and private) that provide services directly to consumers and the public must set a priority of ensuring cultural competency in the provision of these services. (Federal, state, and local government agencies, educational and health care providers, the justice system and law enforcement are included.) This requires training of current staff, recruitment of bilingual personnel, and affirmative action in hiring and promotions. It is critical that minorities and women are represented at all levels of an organization, including management and policy positions.

All significant employers should conduct an analysis of their workforce and identify areas of underrepresentation. Based on this, priorities and specific action plans should be established. The Mesa County Commissioners, City Council of Grand Junction, Mesa State College, and Mesa County Valley School District 51 should take the lead and set an example for other employers.

5. The Committee heard many presentations alleging problems in the criminal justice system, including racial profiling, selective enforcement, and disparities in sentencing. We wish to commend the excellent and productive efforts of the Mesa County Minority Overrepresentation Committee. Its work has clearly had a positive impact. However, police-community relations and the justice system need continuous scrutiny, especially since minorities, youth, and immigrants so often come into contact with these agencies. Youth who fall out of the formal public education system are especially likely to have problems that lead to criminal justice intervention.

This Committee recommends that all significant law enforcement agencies in Mesa County establish and enforce policies that prohibit racial profiling, including establishment of data collection systems to assess their effectiveness. Community-policing strategies and citizens’ involvement in police practices should be instituted or expanded. Law enforcement agencies should establish community advisory boards and make specific efforts to engage youth in this dialogue. Governmental bodies should consider establishing civilian oversight boards that monitor law enforcement policies and practices.

Furthermore, the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices must be engaged in dialog with minority communities and greatly enhance their efforts to achieve cultural competence and hire minority and bilingual attorneys and professional staff.

6. Migrant farm workers and immigrants provide a critical supply of labor in Mesa County; yet, they often suffer from inadequate housing, health care, education, legal representation, and social services. Their problems are often exacerbated by language and cultural barriers. Employers sometimes exploit them. This community is often invisible, alienated, and disenfranchised from mainstream society.

The Advisory Committee urges private and public sector attention to critical needs of this population. Human rights should not be exclusive to those who are advantaged.