A remarkable and important event took place on the Chico State campus on Feb. 22. The catalyst for the event was a public letter, a Call to Action, issued in January by 28 leaders of our community’s civic, government, business, educational, health, and safety sectors and agencies, including me. The call brought over four hundred representatives of these groups together for an Action Summit to address issues of alcohol and drug abuse and many other matters impacting the wellness and quality of life of our community. The gathering also included about 150 students and several dozen parents of our students.
The tone for the day was set by four speakers: Chico Mayor Mary Goloff, retired sociology professor Walt Schafer (who had co-authored with former University President Manuel Esteban a powerful study in 2005 on drinking issues on our campus and in our community), Chico State Health Center medical chief of staff Deborah Stewart, and me. We had not rehearsed our remarks, but we all struck the same central chords. First, we emphasized that understanding is a necessary requisite for effective and informed action. And we made it clear that we expected meaningful and consequential action to flow from the day’s conversations and exchanges. Second, we stressed that we were not here to wring our hands in frustration or desperation; not here to wag our fingers in rebuke or warning; not here to point our fingers to blame or demonize. We were here to define our threats and challenges; to listen, carefully and respectfully, to all points of view on what they are; and to raise expectations that we will address them.
What was especially remarkable about this event is that the speakers set the tone. But they did not establish the agenda. Rather, the format that was chosen was particularly designed to enable the attendees to talk about what they thought was important and to identify the solutions that they wished our community to pursue. And they did not hesitate to do so.
Fifty-six different topics were identified, many effectively and impressively articulated by our students. It was another lovely reminder of how responsible our students can be, how thoughtful and engaged they often are when it comes to matters that affect their experience in Chico. The topics ranged from the low cost and plentiful availability of alcohol in our community to alcohol prevention, counseling, and education; from improving lighting in certain streets and neighborhoods to providing more alcohol-free entertainment and activities; from eliminating a Greek system at Chico State to taking steps to ensure that, if we have one, it is a national model; from communicating more clearly to prospective students and visitors our expectations for their social behavior in our town to ensuring that the residents of Chico set positive example in these regards; from emphasizing personal responsibility to promoting wellness as a community value.
I was struck, in particular, with how often the topic of wellness came up. Many linked wellness to some of the defining characteristics of our community, such as our commitment to the arts, outdoor recreation, a charming downtown, and sustainability. Others talked frankly about wellness as a value that represented a holistic gauge on the health of our community and our quality of life. Indeed, this was a discussion as much about wellness as goodness, and it felt very good to be a part of it.
I am always pleased when a discussion focuses on values. For, after all, a community is formed around shared values, and a key mark of a community’s strength is the extent to which its enacted values are aligned with its professed values. This, of course, will be the test of both the Call to Action and the Community Summit—that is, translating good talk and best intentions into effective action and lasting commitments.
None of us—especially those who have been in these conversations before—are naïve enough to believe that one event will solve all of our community’s problems related to alcohol and drug abuse. But so many attendees told me that this one felt different. They were encouraged by the turnout, energized by the format, and hopeful of the next steps. Those next steps include a University-specific forum on alcohol and the establishment of several work groups to focus on the main issues that emerged at the summit and to identify and prioritize actions that we might take to address them.
This is an action-oriented agenda, as it must be. Its goal is not just to keep busy those members of our community and campus who are interested in the work before us but to ensure that our conversations positively impact our community, our neighborhoods, our streets, and our schools. Lives are in the balance. And Chico—the wellness community—understands this.
Paul J. Zingg