Not long after the 2016 elections, a group of black leaders and community members in Sonoma County came together to discuss how to uplift and support one another during what was a tumultuous time for many. Several people from the group continued meeting over the following months.
“The Sonoma County Black Forum was birthed with the effort to support black people in Sonoma County; getting people the information they needed, financial tools, whatever that may be,” says chair and co-founder Nzinga Woods. “And to really support youth in the area as well.”
Fellow co-founder, Regina Brennan, says they didn’t initially know they’d be launching as an official organization, but they knew there were a number of themes they hoped to address. One was a desire to support local youth. Both Brennan and Woods have professional backgrounds as educators and have been advisors for the Black Student Union at Santa Rosa High School, where they took students to youth empowerment conferences. They decided to create something similar, a youth summit hosted at Sonoma State University.
“The Community Foundation stepped up for our very first youth summit,” says Brennan of the financial support Community Foundation Sonoma County provided. “They were taking a chance; they didn’t know us. We didn’t know much about the Community Foundation at the time, but were it not for the Community Foundation, we could not have had our first youth summit.”
Sonoma County Black Forum became an official nonprofit in April 2018 and hosted its first youth summit in September of that year. The event included keynote speaker, author and Tribal Chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, Greg Sarris, interactive workshops, entertainment, and meals. A subsequent summit included panels of students of color who shared their experiences of attending college, as well as informational workshops on law enforcement and other topics. The first summit was focused strictly on youth, but in 2019, they invited parents to participate in workshops designed specifically for them, focusing on topics like helping with college applications and financial aid.
Pivoting During the Pandemic
The summit has been on hiatus as of 2020 because of the pandemic, as they opted not to attempt hosting it online.
“As an educator myself teaching during the pandemic, what I realized was that students are Zoomed out. Their eyes were hurting. It wasn’t as relevant [online], and it wasn’t as beneficial because they couldn’t connect to the information,” says Woods. “After 15 minutes, they’re checked out. And we wanted to make this a really personable experience.”
Starting in 2020 and into 2022, Brennan says the group members kept meeting to assess how the organization could switch gears from organizing the youth summit to supporting the community while people were mostly isolated. They decided to go to the source and send a survey out asking people what they needed.
“When the results came back, the top need was to pay for rent, pay for mortgages. Another need was mental health support,” says Brennan. “So many things were beyond our ability, but one thing that was possible was food. A number of people indicated that they don’t have enough food for their family.”
“That survey really drove, and is driving, what we have been doing,” adds Woods. “From our own experiences as children, getting food that was donated or getting food that was a day expired, we really kept that at the forefront when getting food from our sponsors.”
Sonoma County Black Forum was able to secure donations of fresh organic foods and quality meats to distribute through their program. Initially, they served people who drove to the pick-up location, which also included an onsite free covid vaccine clinic. Later, they were able to make deliveries to disabled and elderly people and community homes.
The first round of financial support for food distribution in 2020 came from the Sonoma County Vintners Foundation’s Community Grants Program. At CFSC, our Community Impact Team worked with Brennan and Woods to let them know that their prior grant from our foundation, funds previously earmarked for the youth summit, could be re-purposed for food distribution. We also provided an additional grant from our Resilience Fund to keep their work going.
“They made it possible for us to provide food for more than 4,000 individuals and families, and we could not do that without the support of the Foundation,” says Brennan.
“One thing that was apparent is that the prices of food kept going higher and higher and higher. So again, that’s when those Resilience Fund grants came in handy because although we were addressing the needs of so many people, we were spending a lot more on food,” adds Woods.
Finding a new direction
As Covid restrictions loosened and people continued returning to work, the Sonoma County Black Forum wound down its food distribution program.
Returning to the list of community needs reported through their survey, the organization is now providing one-time financial assistance toward rent and bills for income-eligible Sonoma County residents and launched a fund in November 2022 to offer financial assistance and access to culturally competent therapy for black community members. The Black Therapy Fund can provide funding for 234 people to attend 12 sessions of therapy based on income eligibility.
The program is still new, and outreach to get people enrolled is underway, but Woods points out that finding black or other POC therapists in Sonoma County has been a challenge. She says they’ve reached out to networks of psychology professionals in the East Bay and elsewhere to ensure the success of this program. She also points out the stigma and other challenges serving the black community when it comes to barriers to mental health services.
“Within cultures of communities of color, there’s a taboo around mental health; there’s a taboo around the medical field, but it’s specifically around mental health,” says Woods. “You can go through religious practices, you can talk to God, you can talk to whomever the deity is. You can talk to them before you need to go to a therapist. So, we really want to use this program to demystify the concepts and the taboo around mental health for people of color.”
Woods says the organization is working on partnering with black therapists and other therapists of color to create presentations and workshops to make it accessible for people to ask questions.
“Maybe that’s the dip the toe in the pool that they need to really move forward and sign up,” says Woods. “So, it’s slow going, but that was anticipated because, again, we know the taboo around the mental health piece.”
Moving forward, both Brennan and Woods say they’re focusing on processing applications for financial assistance as they come in, supporting access to mental health services, working toward their next youth summit, and eventually returning to the food distribution program as the prices of food skyrocket. They’ve even hosted urban gardening workshops to help mitigate the cost of food and empower people to grow their own. The Sonoma County Black Forum’s mission is to “Lead, Serve, and Thrive,” and they’ve certainly achieved all of this and more in just a few short years.
“We’re a small organization, but we’re powerful,” says Brennan. “And we’re doing a lot of work on behalf of the community.”
Story by Dani Burlison, photos courtesy Sonoma County Black Forum