Sonoma County ranks third in the nation on a new index designed to measure the tolerance of U.S. communities, part of a study by a Toronto-based think tank that contends an open and inclusive social environment is a key to economic prosperity.
Based on census data that indicate high concentrations of both foreign-born and gay and lesbian residents, as well as relatively high levels of ethnic integration, Sonoma County trailed only San Diego and Napa in the 2012 index.
Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, on Monday called the area's diversity of perspective "part of our charm."
"It's not surprising that California has shown up in the higher ranks, because California is where you can reinvent yourself," Stone said.
But the label doesn't ring true with everyone, particularly where issues of ethnic tolerance are concerned.
The makeup of Santa Rosa schools is evidence the community is not fully integrated, said Santa Rosa Junior College student Karym Sanchez, chairman of the education task force for the North Bay Organizing Project. Students from wealthier, white families have left some of the city's schools to enroll at more affluent campuses, leaving behind schools with heavy concentrations of Latino and low-income students.
The ranking "is not a thorough assessment of what is happening in this community," said Elaine Leeder, dean of the School of Social Sciences at Sonoma State University, citing immigration raids, homophobia and racism in the community.
"I think there has to be more than demographics," Leeder said. "You have to do more qualitative interviewing with people in order to determine what's real on the ground."
The new Tolerance Index was put out by economist Richard Florida, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto. It was compiled for an updated 10th anniversary edition of Florida's controversial but popular work, "The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited."
Florida emphasizes creative talent as the engine for economic growth. Communities that welcome people of different stripes are open to new ideas critical to economic development.
To realize their economic advantages, communities must demonstrate substantial and balanced performance in "three T's" essential to economic development: Talent, Technology and Tolerance, said Kevin Stolarick, the institute's research director.
Out of 361 Metropolitan Statistical Areas, the Santa Rosa-Petaluma MSA -- basically synonymous with Sonoma County -- ranked 84th in Talent, 48th in Technology and third in Tolerance, for an overall "Creativity Index" of 29th in the nation, Stolarick said.
He conceded the indices are an imperfect measure of a community's potential, but said the theory has gained traction since its introduction and is being used around the country by political leaders and economic development managers looking for answers.
The Tolerance Index was so named in large part for its alliterative properties, when the theory more accurately depends on openness and inclusion, Stolarick said.
Each ranking is based on a metropolitan area's share of immigrant or foreign-born residents, as counted in the federal census; the number of same-sex couples counted in the census -- which, studies indicate, has a strong correlation to the number of gay and lesbian residents in a community, Stolarick said -- and the relatively even distribution of ethnic minorities across individual census tracts in a statistical area, he said.
Sonoma County is a demonstrably progressive community, by many standards. In 2010, the Board of Supervisors in passed a resolution commending the contributions of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. That same year, the county was declared the second "gayest" metropolitan area in the country, after San Francisco, by a UCLA demographer.
The economic development board Stone runs touts the county as the "West Coast's gay vacation playground," a tourist destination abounding with gay and gay-friendly accommodations.
Even rural neighborhoods in Sonoma County are "amazingly receptive and friendly" compared to rural areas elsewhere in the country, said Mark Vogler, a partner in Out in the Vineyard, which markets Wine Country tours and events to the LGBT community.
Vogler said he left Sonoma County after high school because of hostility toward gay individuals. After 20 years, he now finds it refreshingly receptive "not just from a gay perspective, but from a multi-cultural one."
Gail Jonas, a lawyer and mediator who focuses on immigration issues as a member of the Sonoma County Human Rights Commission, said she thinks early development of Guerneville and Russian River communities as vacation destinations for San Francisco's gay community helped spread acceptance.
But she called views on ethnic migrants "mixed."
Folks who might otherwise live happily across the street from a Latino family, for instance, might be less content if that family is undocumented or if their kids are still learning English, she said, reflecting "an undercurrent of intolerance."
High rates of deportations that split up families and refusal to consider alternative, legal solutions that work in other regions reflect a failure to appreciate the critical role of immigrants in the county's grape economy, Jonas said.
Hispanic Chamber of Commerce president Marcos Suarez said he attributes examples of racial intolerance to individuals who may not have had personal interaction with minority groups and thus fear, rather than embrace them.
But Suarez said the county is also filled with people of good will trying to improve the lot of underserved communities and make health services and education available to all.
"We're all in this big ship, like the Titanic -- right? -- with regard to our education system," he said. "If we don't do anything about it, we're heading into this iceberg and we all sink together."
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