Q&A with Bill Mueller, CEO of Valley Vision

They say it takes a village, but when local political and business leaders need help, it takes Valley Vision. This Sacramento-based nonprofit was founded in 1994 to assist public and private organizations in solving complex regional issues. And this November, it will host an event called Region Rising with the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. Valley Vision CEO Bill Mueller talks about civic cooperation, creating a “fun” public policy conference, and how this area can become the “best place to live on the planet.” 
Photo courtesy of Bill Mueller

On Nov. 20, you’re hosting an event called Region Rising with the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. What is the idea behind this event?

We had a strong interest in hosting a very large town hall that would bring together both official and unofficial leaders from all across our region for a single day where we could talk about major issues of the day like health care, job creation, urban and suburban growth, air pollution, water and water reliability. It is essentially a massive collision spot for our leaders to come together, talk and jointly plan, but also a place where we will be bringing inspiring speakers to challenge our beliefs and hopefully get us to imagine different approaches.

We want to celebrate the fact that there are so many amazing things that are coming together. I’ll never forget a comment I heard recently by [Sacramento Kings president] Chris Granger—[he] said this is a pivotal moment for the Sacramento area. How many times have you been part of a city and region that is able to remake itself? Those moments have passed, in many respects, for larger areas like Los Angeles and New York and San Francisco, but in Sacramento, our moment has come. We have the capacity to remake our city in the way that we wish with a high quality of life and built to 21st-century standards. It’s really an exciting time, especially for those who are on the younger side who can roll up their sleeves and really help make the kind of city and region they want to live in.

We also want it to be interactive. A public policy conference doesn’t have to be an eat-your-broccoli lesson in civics. It can actually be fun. We’re talking about the future of our home and our schools and our community and the place that we live.

So how do you make public policy fun?

Having attended my share of conferences, normally people show up and will be spoken at for seven hours. It’s very one-way. Region Rising is making a radical shift from that. We are planning on consistently engaging the audience in conversations about the data that we’re presenting. We’re going to be asking for instant audience reaction to that. We’re going to be using technology to note what the audience preferences are. Think of this as a massive focus group that is able to sort of weigh in on whether the region is on track or not and what we ought to do next in order to sort of achieve that high quality of life that we all want. In many respects, Region Rising is like taking the entire region to the doctor and getting a health check and sort of checking in and saying what’s working well and what can we be [doing] better so that we can develop a compelling agenda and make sure that everyone is engaged in doing their part to make this the best place to live on the planet.

Why did you choose Richard Florida to be your keynote speaker?

We think that Richard is an absolutely ideal person to bring in, not only as an acclaimed economist and author, but also as a thought leader around the creative class. [Florida is the best-selling author of The Rise of the Creative Class and a national expert on cities.] There are many conversations that are happening right now about what it will take for this region to really become one of the most attractive regions of the world—a global hot spot. To do so, we really need to make sure that we’re tapping into that raw talent of the younger creative people who have a disproportionate effect on our economy. Our recent college graduates are going on to other metro areas for opportunity. We need to do a better job of creating opportunity here and creating a vibrant environment for them. So Richard Florida will be able to talk about the importance of the creative class and the importance of creating a culture of openness and curiosity that’s critical for innovation and new job creation.

He’ll also be speaking about the importance of place—the importance of creating an exciting and vibrant downtown that engages people from all walks of life. We think he’s going to be able to really capture people’s attention and really send a message about the fact that Sacramento is a region that is rising and one that has the ability to be molded and shaped by all of us.

This conference is a one-day event. What is the ongoing mission of Valley Vision?

Valley Vision is an organization that is trusted by public and private sector leaders to bring them together to solve problems that no single leader can tackle alone. Public policy is complex and ever-changing, so it’s really important to have a trusted third party that can unite people around a common vision and provide impeccable data and evidence for sound decision-making. It’s problems that are really large, complex and difficult to solve that lend themselves to this approach—things like improving access to health care for the poor, improving air quality for the benefit of not just business but for public health, or to make sure that we have in place policies that encourage development in our urban core. Valley Vision brings leaders together to joint problem-solve and to develop actions that lead to breakthroughs.

How do you determine your direction? Are people coming to you or do you find yourselves wanting to tackle certain topics and bringing the right folks in the community together in order to do that?

It’s a combination of both. We have local governments, the State of California and businesses that all approach us and say they are in need of our collective-impact-style approach to problem-solving. We have a board of directors that also has a set of priorities. It happens that one of the top priorities expressed by the board was to address the crisis in our mental health system. So Valley Vision today is working with not-for-profit health systems, a variety of leadership organizations, including the Sierra Health Foundation, and others together with Sacramento County to improve access to our mental health system and to really rebalance it in a fundamentally different way. It is also a top issue for businesses in the city of Sacramento. And it’s clearly an issue for those who are experiencing a mental health crisis and they don’t have the access to the type of care in the appropriate setting.

When you talk about people in crisis, are you referring primarily to the homeless?

We know that by most counts, national as well as local, about one-third of the homeless population is experiencing mental health issues—or behavioral health issues, properly said—and many of them [are] in crisis. That’s a significant population here in Sacramento. But it’s also a fact that there are a number of people that many would consider just regular people who are facing a crisis and there isn’t a door opened or available to them, so in the absence of that they’re showing up in hospital ER rooms which are not set up to be able to provide that care. So in the absence of that, people—whether they are homeless or whether it’s a teen facing suicide risk or a working mom who is just trying to meet the needs of her family or a recent divorcé who is beside himself—all of those people in Sacramento County are finding it very difficult to find the front door for the type of mental health care that they need, and we need to change that.

In an effort to help them find that front door, do you want to build new brick-and-mortar locations or transform existing ones? 

Both. There are existing facilities within Sacramento County that have limited access for a variety of reasons. We’re taking a hard look at those, including a crisis stabilization unit that the county operates here in Sacramento, and working to expand access there so that it has the capacity to meet the needs of more people, as well as developing new crisis facilities that have the capacity to provide care to people outside of the home so they can be stabilized and then reenter their normal life. There are excellent clinics and health care providers and nonprofit organizations that do incredible jobs, but even they will admit that there is a crushing need and we need additional facilities as well as programs that can help people receive the care that they need.

Can you tell us about some of your other areas of focus?

We also work with our local higher educational institutions and economic development organizations like the Greater Sacramento Economic Council and the Sacramento Metro Chamber on accelerating job creation and new investment. The thing that binds us together is this notion that success is dependent on economic as well as social and environmental progress—what many social scientists call the triple bottom line. We believe that in order to have solutions that stick and meet not only our economic objectives but also our societal objectives and our environmental objectives, we need to look at our problems holistically. You can’t separate the economy from people and you can’t separate people from the environment. Many of these problems defy easy answers. Often the answers are in between our existing institutions. That’s why Valley Vision is necessary. We’re the place where everybody can come to tackle those really important questions for difficult issues that don’t necessarily have a single champion.