This blog is part of a series of conversations with rural leaders that FSG is publishing in conjunction with the release of our report Rural America: Philanthropy’s Misunderstood Opportunity for Impact. In this conversation, Joelle Cook of FSG interviews Roque Barros, Jr., executive director of the Imperial Valley Wellness Foundation (IVWF), who discusses how philanthropy can help support rural communities facing health inequities through partnership, capacity-building, and community-building. Neyat Daniel provided editing support. 

How have you seen the health of the community change over time in the Imperial Valley? To what extent do you feel that these trends mirror changes in health in other rural communities?
As a child, from my perspective, the Imperial Valley was a great place to grow up. The area was rich in natural resources—we had land, water, and a beautiful place to live and play. Today the Imperial Valley I see is challenged by poverty and health disparities. One in 5 kids has asthma, we have the number one rate in diabetes deaths per 100,000 people, and we have high rates of stroke. All communities in the Imperial Valley have a social vulnerability score in the 90th percentile and above, meaning they are highly susceptible to adverse impacts of natural hazards, including disproportionate death and injury. In addition, they experience social and economic inequities through environmental exposures such as air pollutants, pesticides, and hazardous waste, and socio-economic stressors like a high poverty rate and linguistic insolation.

Overall, there is a 25% rate of poverty, but some communities are even further challenged, such as Niland, a frontline community on the Salton Sea, which has a poverty rate of 60%.

The foundation is organized around serving as a rural development hub. Can you talk about what that looks like in practice?

When I started my role with the foundation, I started by listening and letting the communities guide me to determine the most appropriate role for the foundation. I realized that the region lacks voice and visibility due to the small size of our county (180,000), plus being nestled between two large counties with 2-3 million people. In addition, I found that the smaller towns in Imperial Valley were even further underrepresented, as they also lacked voice and visibility locally, within the county.

To address this problem and support the implementation of the changes needed, IVWF has embarked on a process to create a Rural Development Hub in the region. This is more than just a convening mechanism, it is a way for the community to be reimagined as a whole, to build capacity and to gain more voice and visibility.

Read the full article about philanthropy supporting rural health at FSG.