To reach Mark Dyken call (209) 984-4704.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

The Motherlode Martin Luther King Jr. Committee’s annual event held Sunday afternoon at Sonora High School sought to inspire such a shift within the community to help those who are suffering from poverty.

Past events have typically centered around a special guest from outside of the area who would address a topic that ties back to the late civil rights icon’s legacy, but this year featured a panel of local speakers with differing backgrounds who shared their insights on the causes and effects of poverty in the community.

David Winslow, a member of the committee who served as master of ceremonies, explained why the change was made in an interview after the event.

“We’ve been bringing people in from all over the place for many years, but we thought if we want to make a difference, why not get some local people who can inspire others to action?” he said.

Hundreds gathered in the school’s auditorium for the event that began at 2 p.m. despite the pouring rain, but Winslow said the true test of its success will be what tangible work is done in the coming months to address the problem.

King was in the midst of organizing the Poor People’s Campaign to bring economic justice and equality to people of all ethnicities and religious beliefs when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated in December that 13.6 percent of the less than 54,000 people in Tuolumne County and 12.8 percent of the roughly 45,000 people in Calaveras County earned an annual income in 2017 that was below the poverty threshold, which varies depending on the size of the household.

For example, the threshold is $12,500 a year for single people, $15,900 for households with two people, and $25,100 for families of four.

Speakers at the event on Sunday said a wide-reaching collaborative effort will be necessary for the community to address the growing issue of poverty that afflicts many rural areas like Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.

Each of the speakers detailed some efforts they’ve been involved with that are intended to help.

“To me, there are two types of people – and not Democrat or Republican – but people who are trying to make a difference and those who aren’t,” said Steve Wilensky, a former Calaveras County supervisor.

Wilensky serves as chairman of the nonprofit organization Calaveras Healthy Impact Product Solutions, or CHIPS, which was founded in 2004 to improve economically depressed communities in Calaveras and Amador counties.

The organization now employs more than 40 people who work on projects aimed at restoring and sustaining the health of forests in the area. It is also working to establish a biomass power plant that will create living-wage jobs and generate electricity for more than 1,000 homes.

“An economy based on stewardship and restoration could take us a long way,” Wilensky said.

Wilensky was joined on the panel by Irvin Jim, chairman of the Hung A Lel Ti community in Alpine County, also known as the Woodfords Community, which is the southern band of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California.

About 18 members of the tribe are employed by CHIPS and working on restorative projects in the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Jim talked about hardships he has faced that stem from generations of social and economic injustices wrought upon his tribe. He said the tribe’s unemployment rate was nearly 70 percent before teaming with CHIPS in 2016.

Margie Bulkin, a recently elected Yosemite Community College District trustee and former Tuolumne County superintendent of schools, talked about the importance of education in reducing poverty and what she’s seen over her 34-year career in the field.

Bulkin also has served on the Columbia College Foundation Board of Directors, which launched the Promise program last year that pays for the first year of tuition for local students who enroll after they graduate from public schools in Tuolumne County and Angels Camp.

The cost for a year of tuition at the college per student is roughly $1,200, which is funded entirely by private donations given to the foundation. The program has funding in place through the fall of 2020.

About one of five students in Tuolumne County public schools take preparatory classes to be eligible to apply for enrollment at four-year universities, Bulkin said, adding that even fewer of than that will earn a degree due to attrition.

Bulkin said 15 percent of students graduating from Sonora High School enrolled at Columbia College last year, but that number has since grown to 32 percent because of the Promise program.

Mark Dyken was the final speaker on the panel and gave an impassioned speech that called people to get directly involved in efforts to help people in poverty.

Dyken has seen the impacts of poverty among families and children in the area while serving as director of the Jamestown Family Resource Center under the auspices of the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools for the past 15 years.

“It’s time for justice in our community, especially for those hurt by trauma and suffering in poverty,” he said.

Most people that Dyken said he’s encountered who are in poverty or homeless have experienced some sort of trauma, especially as a child.

Dyken said a coalition needs to be formed of government agencies, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and people in the community, including those who are afflicted by poverty. He said the community would benefit from restoring a sense of hope and dignity that can often be lost when living on the margins.

After the event, Dyken talked to about 30 people during a side session in the school’s cafeteria about his vision to establish a trauma center in the community.

The effort would be modeled after what was done in Bergen County, New Jersey, which was certified last year as the first community in the U.S. to end all chronic homelessness by taking a housing first approach.

“This is not as radical as it seems, it just makes common sense,” he said. “The root of your homelessness is you don’t have a home, while the root of your underlying issue is some kind of trauma.”

Dyken said all of the people he’s spoken with who are living in homeless encampments throughout Tuolumne County say they have experienced trauma.

At one point, Dyken pointed out the window to the heavy rain pouring down and reminded people about those who are trying to survive while living outdoors.

“When you look at this weather out here, I can tell you the people in the camps are suffering right now,” he said.

One of the tenets of Dyken’s proposal would include a low-barrier shelter where people could go for a place to sleep, regardless of their sobriety or whether they were actively looking for work.

There would also be behavioral health and other services on site to help those who feel motivated to change their lives.

The idea of a low-barrier shelter was discussed by the Sonora homeless task force last year, but no action was taken.

Dyken said he was unveiling the plan to those in attendance and didn’t yet have an organization or funding established. He estimated needing about 10 to 25 acres to fully implement the plan.

Robert Gelman, of Sonora, runs a web development company and offered to build a web-based communication tool that would help people collaborate. He said in an interview that he feared people will leave the event feeling inspired by the hope from the speakers, but nothing will happen.

During the main event, the committee also presented the first annual Laurie Aretsky Bailie Social Justice Award to Jeanette Lambert, who operates the David Lambert Community Drop-In Center in Sonora.

Bailie was described as a “tireless champion for social justice” who served on the committee for six years and volunteered for many years at the David Lambert Community Drop-In Center before her death at 65 in December 2017.

Lambert has run the center, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in March, for the past 16 years. The center is named after her late son, who suffered from mental illness that affected the quality of his life.

Rayna Roger, a junior at Sonora High School, also read her essay about the importance of social justice that was selected as the winner of the committee’s annual contest.

The event featured music by the Sierra Waldorf Choir, Dennis Brown, and Michelle Allison.

At the end, many in the auditorium stood and held hands with the person next to them as they recited a rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” the song that became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

“We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome someday,” they sang. “Oh deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday.”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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