PHOTO: Congressman Jay Obernolte, State Senator Scott Wilk, Assemblyman Thurston "Smitty" Smith, District 1 Supervisor Paul Cook

from left to right: Congressman Jay Obernolte (R), CA State Senator Scott Wilk (R), CA Assemblyman Thurston "Smitty" Smith (R), and District 1 Supervisor Paul Cook (R)

Black community leaders from several groups such as the NAACP 1028 (Victor Valley), the National Council of Negro Woman - High Desert section, and the Southern California Black Chamber of Commerce - High Desert Chapter and about 30 pastors, mostly Black, have all sent letters to the top elected leaders of the High Desert, requesting an open conversation about access to inclusion and providing equitable pathways to success and support for underrepresented racial groups in the region.

In interviewing representatives from the Black community, HDdailynews.com found local politicians such as Congressman Jay Obernolte, State Senator Scott Wilk, State Assemblyman Thurston "Smitty" Smith and District 1 Supervisor Paul Cook are disconnected and don’t really comprehend what underrepresented means to Black people.  Further investigation revealed that at the time of the inquiry from the Black community, only Congressman Obernolte's office reached out to one Black community group. And only Supervisor Paul Cook's office sent an acknowledgement of receiving an email to one Black community group.  

We spoke with Terrence Stone, President of the Southern California Black Chamber of Commerce - High Desert Chapter. In Stone's opinion, having an open conversation about racial equity is a great idea. He says that the highest population of African-Americans in the County of San Bernardino now live in the High Desert and that there is no representation on state, county or federal levels. Stone believes this is another example of how Black people are disregarded, again. "It's an easy fix, hire qualified African-Americans that can speak to our community and for our community because no one really can." Stone also says that Black leaders are willing to sit down and have a conversation.

A 2019 U.S. Census statistic indicates that Black and/or African Americans that live in the City of Victorville makes up 18.5% of the population. In Adelanto, it's similar at 18.9% of the population identifying as either Black or African American. Those numbers, nearly 1/5 of the population of each city are pretty high when one takes into account that the total population of San Bernardino County is 2,180,085 people and only 9.4% of the county identify as Black or African-American. Even the City of San Bernardino has a smaller percentage of Black or African Americans.

Stone went on to mention that the County of San Bernardino did adopt a resolution regarding racism as a public health crisis and the actions or lack of action from elected politicians demonstrates a lack of respect for the situation. "They do not think it's a big deal. When voting comes around, they'll think it's a big deal. We just want to be heard." said Stone.   

HDdailynews.com did a more thorough look into how local municipalities have taken on the acknowledgement of racial equity. In the very same day we requested information from the Town of Apple Valley, the City of Victorville, the City of Hesperia and the City of Adelanto, we were given literature about the topic and issue. 

On June 9, 2020 the Town of Apple Valley had a news release that denounced injustice and inequality.  The statement was posted on their official website June 10, 2020. The release appears to be as a direct result of the events that took place on May 25, 2020 when George Floyd was killed in Minnesota. Former Mayor Scott Nassif at the time of the release stated "“I’m proud of our community during this time, especially our youth, for having the courage to voice their concerns and the humility to listen to one another.”

Also on June 9, 2020 the City of Victorville posted a Facebook video that they produced with former Mayor Gloria Garcia called "Your Voices Matter." The one-minute video proclaims the City's beliefs that hate, racism, violence, police brutality and silence are wrong. 

On July 21, 2020, the City of Hesperia held a City Council meeting. According to the Deputy Manager, the City Council unanimously approved a resolution reaffirming its commitment to community unity and denouncing racism.

The City of Adelanto on September 23, 2020 passed, adopted and approved a resolution, declaring racism a public health crisis. The resolution also condemned police violence. 

When HDdailynews.com looked to Congressman Obernolte, Senator Wilk, Assemblyman Smith and District Supervisor Cook's websites and communications team, we were unable to find anything official that took a similar beat and path to identify racial equity. 

Black leaders told HDdailynews.com that they did not see Black people represented on the staff of any of the elected politicians in question. And that this was a reason for the partial misrepresentation of the community. 

HDdailynews.com did not receive a response from any of the four politicians’ offices about the process in order to work or apply for an open position in any of their offices or districts. Black leaders stated that there were no job applications or reaching out to the community. However, HDdailynews.com did find an internship application link on 3 of the 4 elected leader's websites. (Obernolte, Cook and Wilk). We were unable to find anything similar on Assemblyman Smith's website.  

On May 3, 2021 Dr. Shabazz, leader of the National Council of Negro Women - High Desert section contacted HDdailynews.com shortly after we reached out to Senator Scott Wilk's office. Shabazz reported to us that she received an email at that very moment in time from the Senator's office. In the email, which provided a letter dated for April 30, 2021, the Senator's office mentions a field representative, named Ms. Hill, who is identified as African-American, has been on staff for three years. The field representative duties include being the office's lead on issues relating to seniors, non-profits, district health and human services as well as for outreach services among the African American community. 

Dr. Shabazz voiced her concern to HDdailynews.com since neither she nor any other Black community leader was aware of this information. In a recent phone interview with Scott Wilk, HDdailynews.com learned from the Senator that he has not physically been in the Victor Valley community since February 2020. 

The letter that Dr. Shabazz received from Senator Wilk's office is a letter written by the Deputy Chief of Staff and states "we would appreciate the opportunity to set up a meeting with Ms. Hill, you and me to discuss ways our office and your organization can work more closely together." The Same letter was also sent to Pastors (specifically Bishop Denson) and the Southern California Black Chamber of Commerce. We've provided a reference to the full letter. 

Dr. Sarah Shabazz, leader of the National Council of Negro Women - High Desert section also spoke to HDdailynews.com about her organization's letters to the four elected leaders. At the time of our interview, Shabazz told us that not one office sent her any communication back.   

Dr. Shabazz, who has a PhD in Education, believes the Black community just wants to have an open discussion about the lack of Black people on staff. Saying "everyone should be included, and a lack of response says they are not interested in being inclusive or that they are probably not interested in representing us either." When we asked Dr. Shabazz what the next steps should be her reply stated that any open forum that elected leaders have moving forward need to make sure Black people are heard and seen. 

Dr. Shabazz took it a step further, discussing her area of expertise when it comes to the lack of job openings for Black women in the area and the achievement gap for grades K-12. She went on to explain "the difference in average white student academic progress vs black student academic progress is clear. Generally white students out score black students. Trying to support Black students to get the scores up needs to be priority." Dr. Shabazz is not familiar with any of the four politicians actively having a conversation or speaking up about the achievement gap.

HDdailynews.com reached out to the four elected leaders in question to ask about racial equity as it pertains to education and/or the achievement gap. Scott Wilk's office referred us to research online. By doing so we discovered a "Keep Education Going" thumbnail on the front page of his official website. As of May 6, 2021, the link just renders a "page not found" webpage.

We heard back from Senator Wilk’s office after 5:00pm on Thursday, May 6th with an official statement. In the email, Wilk states “There is no magic bullet for closing the education achievement gap, I wish there were. However, we do know that providing a quality education will open doors for all of our students.  That entails ensuring there is equal opportunity, choice and resources available – regardless of zip code.” The statement goes on to acknowledge how California schools on general rank among the worst in the nation.

The full response from Senator Wilk regarding the achievement gap has been added for reference.

Senator Wilk is not too far off. In fact, according to a US News article that cross-references college readiness, high school graduation rate and several other factors, California ranks 40th in Pre-K – 12th grade education.

Senator Wilk’s office was also able to provide in the same email several bills that he’s supported that pertain to education:

Sen. Wilk supported AB 331 (Medina, 2020)

-          This bill would have added a semester-long course in ethnic studies to the list of statewide high school graduation requirements, which also includes charter schools.

-          Governor Newsom vetoed the bill.

Sen Wilk supported AB 1460 (Weber, 2020)

-          The bill requires the California State University to provide courses in ethnic studies at each CSU campus, and requires the CSU to include the completion of one 3-unit course in ethnic studies as part of the CSU undergraduate graduation requirements.

-          The bill was signed into law.

Sen. Wilk supported AB 901 (Gipson, 2020)

-          The bill ensures that youth receive appropriate interventions and are not criminalized for academic reasons or typical child/adolescent behavior by:  limiting probation departments' overbroad discretion to provide services to any youth in the state they deem 'at-risk,' as well as ensuring that truancy or disobeying a teacher alone is not a reason to place a child under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court system.

-          The bill was signed into law.

Sen. Wilk supported SB 419 (Skinner, 2019)

-          Extends the permanent prohibition against suspending a pupil enrolled in kindergarten or any of grades 1 to 3 for disrupting school activities or otherwise willfully defied the valid authority of school staff to include grades 4 and 5 permanently; and to include grades 6 to 8, inclusive, until July 1, 2025; and applies these prohibitions to charter schools. 

Additionally, Wilk’s office in the same email stated that “Senator Wilk also serves on the State Allocation Board which has the responsibility to administer $42 billion voter-approved school facilities construction program. https://www.dgs.ca.gov/OPSC/About   Prior to being elected to the California State Legislature, Senator Wilk was a Trustee for College of the Canyons.”

When reaching out to Congressman Obernolte's office several times to discuss education and his involvement locally, our questions were not answered. Obernolte’s website provides minimal information about his views moving forward with education overall in the district and how it will benefit from whatever actions or plans he has. The site also says to contact the office for more information. We were not given any response.

As of May 6th, 2021, just before 4:30pm, HDdailynews.com did hear from the Congressman’s office. An official statement from his Senior Advisor and Communications Director says “Congressman Obernolte has a meeting scheduled with the NAACP and we are working to include other groups with similar concerns in this conversation.” The statement also gave mention to Congressman Obernolte claiming to be a strong supporter of racial equality and inclusion. The statement identified the nation in the midst of important conversations on racial equity and racial justice. We were also informed about the Congressman several weeks ago speaking about these issues with a group of high school students from Millionaire Mind Kids, a non-profit supporting underserved, largely minority youth and families in Victorville. The full response from Congressman Obernolte's office has been added for reference.

HDdailynews.com spent time with Bill Thomas - NAACP Branch 1028 Victor Valley branch's political action chairman and James Campbell, current President for the NAACP Branch 1028. The word at the time of the interview was that don't feel they (elected politicians) are on board with racial equity in the High Desert.

At the time of our interview on May 5, 2021, Thomas stated that "just trying to get something basic done, like a conversation seems to be a problem. We have no black people at the table."

Thomas mentioned that originally Congressman Obernolte had not reached out to the NAACP. A field rep made contact about one week prior to May 5th. And that's when James Campbell took over in the conversation. Campbell implied that the requests go back much further than just the past month or two. In fact, the NAACP says they've sent letters in regard to racial equity as far back as January 2021. 

It wasn't until recently that the NAACP received a response. 

Black Pastors (approximately 30) from the High Desert also co-signed a letter, supporting the action of an open forum and conversation with the elected politicians in question as well. That's when we spoke to Bishop Denson who said "the bible says all things work together for good. Not responding is really a jumping board for us to unify and come together to hear our voices. We have not had unification. We felt comfortable under former Supervisor Lovingood [who is the predecessor to Supervisor Paul Cook] because we had a representative that looked like us in the community."

Bishop Denson says the pastor's co-signed letter was sent off April 20 and at the time of our interview, had yet to receive any communication. Denson went on to tell HDdailynews.com about how frustrating the situation was because of the 10-year relationship with Paul Cook as the previous Congressman prior to becoming District Supervisor.

In one particular area of concern, Denson stated that an assistant named "Dakota" tried to reach out to explain the hiring process for Cook's office. But the pastors were requesting action about the situation in question.  Denson finished our conversation by saying that he's lived in the High Desert for "28 years and Lovingood is the only person who has ever reached across the aisle. Our time is to reveal what's dark in the daylight. We can't do anything if we work in the dark. Keep bringing light to the situation." 

Campbell says he also met with Supervisor Paul Cook earlier this year. It was agreed upon that a follow up/sit down would take place. But the scheduling according to NAACP never happened. Campbell advised that the group reached out to other Black community leaders. That's when a new email was sent out to Cook and the other 3 politicians to request a forum or conversation pertaining to racial equity within the last month or two.

On May 4th at the County of San Bernardino Board of Supervisors Regular Board Meeting an individual was appointed as a community liaison to Cook's district and will be official on May 8th. Page 5 of the May 4th agenda for the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors states that "Paul Marsh to provide support services to the First District Supervisor as a Community Services Liaison." Marsh is a Black community influencer in the High Desert.

At the time of our conversation with the NAACP on May 5th they had not heard from the Supervisor's office regarding an open conversation.

On May 6th, 2021, HDdailynews.com did receive an official response from Supervisor Cook’s office. His Chief of Staff told us that “Supervisor Cook prides himself on his diverse staff that includes men and women of many races. Beyond that, we do not discuss internal hiring processes or personnel issues. During his months as Supervisor, he has already worked closely with local leaders in the High Desert African American community to ensure equitable access to lifesaving COVID vaccines. He has and will always support his constituents in the African American community.” The statement went on to mention an open-door policy when he was a former congressman and how he remains steadfast in several areas of concern for the district.

For added reference we've uploaded Paul Cook's Chief of Staff full response to our inquiry.

As of May 4, 2021 the NAACP confirms that Assemblyman Smith’s office did reach out to schedule an open conversation sometime in June.

As of May 5th, NAACP has confirmed that Congressman Obernolte's office is now working with them to find a future date to have an open conversation about racial equity. 

After reaching out to Assemblyman Thurston "Smitty" Smith's office on May 3, 2021 about the lack of response to Black community leaders in the High Desert region, the Chief of Staff contacted HDdailynews.com. In an email sent this week, May 5, 2021 after 5:00pm, Assemblyman Smith's Chief of Staff has informed us that they have reached out to the concerned constituents to schedule a meeting when their District Office opens to the public. 

It should also be noted that the Chief of Staff also mentions that their district office has an "open-door policy" for those that live in the district and that the Assemblyman has conducted over 100 meetings with various stakeholders since being sworn into office. The Assembly Rules Committee do not allow for district offices to currently be open, however, the Assemblyman's team says it serves all constituents of all ethnicities, backgrounds, and political affiliations.  

We've uploaded Assemblyman Smith's Chief of Staff complete statement for reference.

It appears that the first steps in local, open conversations on racial equity, promotion of access, inclusion and anti-racism is underway with leaders of the Black community in the High Desert. Congressman Jay Obernolte’s office appears to have a meeting scheduled with the NAACP, Senator Scott Wilk is in the process of setting up at meeting with Black pastors, NCNW, the Southern California Black Chamber of Commerce. In addition Assemblyman Thurston “Smitty” Smith’s office has stated that they have reached out to their concerned constituents and that meetings are scheduled and Supervisor Paul Cook has taken a leap by appointing a Paul Marsh to act as the official community liaison in District 1.

HDdailynews.com will be monitoring the open conversations that elected politicians are planning to have with local Black community leaders.  Continue with HDdailynews.com for updates on this and other issues impacting the High Desert.