We have been on the road for almost a month now. If I have learned anything during this March for California's Future, it is that people in the San Joaquin Valley have lost their faith and their hope along with their jobs and homes.
At the intersection of Route 99 & 41 in Fresno, we came upon a 10-block long area of homeless people sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk flanked by rows and rows of tents, their only possessions being their sleeping bags and the clothes on their backs.
They are surrounded on all sides by boarded up homes. The empty, unoccupied houses, the foreclosed properties that many of these men and women once occupied, look down on them daily and seem to taunt them.
They have nowhere to go; no jobs, no prospects, and apparently no help of any kind. Where are the public services that could give these men and women a fresh start and a helping hand? The retraining and rehab centers? The medical clinics? The supportive services?
It wasn't always like this.
I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, shuttling between foster homes in Tulare, Visalia, and Atwater. My foster parents used to own a flower shop in Livingston that doesn't exist anymore. I have roots in the Turlock/Modesto area, and my grandmother is descended from the Picayune Ranchera of the Chukchansi tribe of the Fresno hills. I remember what the Central Valley was like before.
I remember how people used to go out with their kids on Sundays and walk around town window shopping or taking in the sights. Now weekends in places like Visalia and Merced mean empty streets and shuttered storefronts. There is no local economy to speak of and no decent jobs.
Most have left for the big cities, and for the families left behind, there is neither happiness, nor hope for a better future. Poverty and hardship have become a way of life here now, while prisons and casinos are currently the only game in town.
Over the years, we have failed to reinvest in the social and physical infrastructure that make life possible in a modern economy. Politicians of both parties have by and large chosen to prioritize tax breaks for multinational corporations and the wealthy over the rest of us--that is, anybody who has to work for a living.
As a result, the human, social, and physical capital that once made California and our nation great have deteriorated along with our ideals of equal opportunity and fairness.
There is much need throughout the state, and although it's clear that our people need help, that we as a state have the moral responsibility to provide that help, there is none to be had. All that seems to have been offered to the legions of homeless we encountered in Fresno are port-a-potties. In the meantime, the local government has fenced off the area, imparting a concentration camp feel to the entire project.
Up and down California's San Joaquin Valley, similar scenes of abandonment play out to varying degrees.
Although disillusioned, dispossessed, demobilized, and demonized, many of the men and women we have encountered on this march, who are at the lowest points of their lives, still get up and welcome us and applaud us when we march into town.
This is because they know that something is deeply wrong in our state and in our neighborhoods. They know that government can and should do more to help. They also know that government has turned its back on them to bail out rich executives and big banks while their own families are torn apart, their jobs disappeared, and their homes foreclosed.
I feel the same way, and I know that I am not alone.
This week, hundreds of public service employees, students, teachers, and local residents are joining up with us on the March for California's Future as we enter Merced County, which the Associated Press has ranked as the second most economically depressed county in the nation.
In fact, California is home to nine of the worst off counties in the nation, and we are entering a stretch of road that will take us through three of these places: Merced, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin Counties.
This march is about restoring the California dream. At its core, that means restoring faith in the notion that we as a people will help those who need it, that justice and fairness are indeed for all, and that every individual has the freedom and wherewithal to reach their full potential. These are the ideals to which we as Californians and as Americans have pledged ourselves.
That is why I am marching, and that is why our numbers will swell as we near Sacramento.
The March for California's Future is an historic 48-day trek from Bakersfield to Sacramento in support of public services and public education, a government and economy that work for all and fair, progressive taxes to invest in our future. Irene Gonzalez is walking from Bakersfield to Sacramento as part of the March for California's Future. Raised in the Central Valley, she is now a juvenile probation officer in Los Angeles and an executive board member of AFSCME Local 685.