Abundance in Imperial County: Leveraging Community Strengths for Philanthropic Engagement

An agricultural super-producer feeding the nation. A natural resource hotspot which could transform global tech industry supply chains. A binational hub for economic, environmental, and governmental relations at the U.S./Mexico border. A diverse and engaged community open to partnership and collaboration. Imperial County is all these things and more. So what are the opportunities for philanthropy and impact investing in this distinctive region, whose people and resources support communities across California and the country in so many ways?

Join Catalyst for Do the Work: Imperial County on September 29th for a bus tour and experiential learning opportunity developed in partnership with local activists and nonprofit organizations, including Campesinos Unidos and Catholic Charities. Together we’ll explore how philanthropy can elevate the powerful work currently being led by Imperial County community members as they seek to define a better future for themselves. Not familiar with Imperial County? Not a problem. Keep reading for a look at some of the key characteristics of this vibrant region as well as how it’s uniquely positioned for high impact philanthropic investment.

A region built on agriculture
Imperial County occupies a former desert region which now boasts some of the most productive agricultural land in the country. Its ag sector is considered so crucial that the county receives 70 percent of California’s Colorado River water allocation. The county’s half a million acres of farmland generate incredible amounts of produce for national and global markets, and in the winter season, these farms produce approximately two-thirds of the vegetables consumed in the United States. The county is also consistently ranked as a top producer of beef cattle in California. Paradoxically, Imperial County also experiences high food insecurity rates. More than 19 percent of the population does not have consistent access to adequate amounts of nutritious food (a rate 75 percent higher than national average). This disparity is attributed in part to a lack of processing facilities within the county, which means much of the food grown on Imperial County agricultural land is shipped out to other regions for processing, packaging, and delivery to retailers. (It should be noted, however, that food insecurity is a multilayered, systemic issue, and there are many contributing factors beyond this.)

Clearly, agriculture dominates the Imperial County economy — 2019 calculations put the agriculture industry’s total contribution to the local economy at $4.3 billion. One in six jobs is directly tied to agriculture (i.e., farm workers) with nearly as many jobs indirectly connected to the agricultural industry (i.e., businesses supplying goods or services to farms). At the same time, reliance on seasonal farm work is one factor impacting high poverty and unemployment rates. These rates are not, however, connected to the many farm workers employed during peak harvest season who commute from Mexicali and crisscross the U.S./Mexico border regularly to work on Imperial County farms.

Given its economic impact, a key strength in this region is a deeply rooted agricultural community. There’s a wide range of leaders — often underutilized — who are highly knowledgeable about the region’s challenges and most promising solutions. A growing number of farmers, farmworkers, and nonprofit organizations are now working to ensure greater social, environmental, and economic justice for all community members.

A natural resource hotspot
In addition to its status as an agricultural powerhouse, burgeoning renewable energy industries and mineral resources have garnered global attention. The region is estimated to have one of the world’s largest deposits of lithium in and around the Salton Sea. This sought-after mineral enables battery charging in cellphones, laptops, electric vehicles, and other tech products. It’s anticipated that the county’s Lithium Valley development project, which entails both geothermal power generation and lithium extraction by mining companies, will draw $10 billion in investments to Imperial County in the coming years. The envisioned project seeks to establish the region as a clean energy global production hub employing thousands of residents with jobs paying competitive salaries. Local advocates are pushing to ensure that health, environmental, and economic concerns are addressed transparently and in close partnership with the community.

A rural community, a binational hub
While the population is small (it’s the least populous county in the state) and the landscape is dominated by farmland, Imperial serves as a major binational hub with Mexico. More than 50,000 legal northbound crossings occur at Calexico’s two ports of entry each day, representing commuters who work, shop, and/or attend school in the United States—and spend one billion dollars annually in Imperial County. Strong regional ties are supported by the Imperial-Mexicali Bi-National Alliance, which builds cooperation around environmental and economic issues among government agencies on both sides of the border. And while better adapted transportation and workforce housing solutions are still sorely needed, the deep-rooted connections fostered between Imperial County and Mexican communities serve as a bedrock for our binational relations.

An underestimated asset: The people of Imperial County
Rural regions historically account for a tiny slice of overall philanthropic giving in the U.S. But as the movement toward equity-centered work builds across the sector, funders are beginning to recognize the power of investing in agricultural areas. At the same time, the people of Imperial County are driving a movement toward greater civic engagement across the region. At Catalyst’s 2021 All In Conference, we explored the resilience of Imperial County residents seeking to create change with relatively few resources. Community groups are actively engaged in a wide variety of issue areas, but they have limited voice and visibility to amplify their work.

And while generations of residents here have demonstrated a commitment to serving their communities, there is a growing alignment around the desire to build partnerships and enhance the lives of residents now and in the long-term. Many of Imperial County’s community groups and nonprofit leaders are ready to be at the table in partnership with organizations in neighboring San Diego County and beyond. Authentic relationship-building with Imperial County’s close-knit communities and comparatively small population can also give a powerful boost to philanthropic and cross-sector efforts. This creates an environment ripe for pilot projects in collaboration with philanthropy. In this unique moment, funders have an opportunity to foster greater equity across our region by partnering with, and supporting community-led change in, the communities of Imperial County.

To explore how you and your organization can get involved, join Catalyst on September 29th for Do the Work: Imperial County.