Vanessa Richardson is the founder of California Groundbreakers, a member of Solving Sacramento. (Photo by Fred Greaves)

An interview with Vanessa Richardson, founder

Q&A by Kate Gonzales

Solving Sacramento, a journalism collaborative, launched in early 2022 with the goal of covering the region’s most pressing issues. Up first: the lack of affordable housing. The collaboration includes seven local media outlets and one civic-engagement organization, which is California Groundbreakers. It is currently funded by the Solutions Journalism Network and fiscally sponsored by the Local Media Foundation.

Started in 2016, California Groundbreakers is intended to be a regular “gathering place,” hosting live events for leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators to talk about what they’re doing, and for people to come listen and get informed, engaged, inspired to help, and ready to make their own type of change in the Golden State. All of its past live events were recorded for podcasts, as was a 2021 series of recorded audio interviews titled “This Changes Everything: The Future of Post-Pandemic California.”

California Groundbreakers Founder Vanessa Richardson tells us about her organization’s involvement in the collaborative.

Why are you in this collaborative?

I am the person that’s going to be doing the engagement and events component, because I’m the one who doesn’t have a media outlet to publish anything in. Part of the whole grant funding and set-up of the collaborative is — besides articles — the engagement component, so I’ll be managing public events, roundtables and discussions.

Why does coverage of affordable housing in Sacramento matter?

Sacramento is definitely one big example of where the state, well actually the nation, is having housing issues. So much is happening here because California is a state where we try out so many things like innovations and pilots, but also because Sacramento is the state capital. It’s really interesting to see what’s going on at a local level and then we can also see what’s going on at a statewide level, and then how that can affect things on a national level.

Why is a solutions journalism approach important to your work?

I like it when a story presents: Here’s a possibility, here’s a potential solution, here’s something someone’s trying out. It gives you hope and it makes you think, oh, maybe something could be done. And then also, oh, maybe this is something I could help push along.

What other innovative projects or collaborations is California Groundbreakers involved in?

I did a lot of live events for California Groundbreakers prior to the pandemic. Basically, the theme was: What is going on in California that’s groundbreaking right now, in any aspect, and who are the groundbreakers who are trying to make that change? It was basically solutions journalism but live. During the pandemic, when I couldn’t do events, I did a podcast. What will California look like post-pandemic? And who are the people who are going to be trying things now or who could talk about what the state will look like going forward? I’ll be starting up again with those events.

Tell us about your role with California Groundbreakers.

It’s a labor of love, obviously, and I started it when I was a freelance journalist. But I liked the idea of events as a way of journalism because people absorb information in different ways. I just did it because it was fun and I thought it could fill a need that wasn’t being filled in Sacramento, which is cocktail conversations about really interesting things and you learn about something interesting and new. My main job right now is I work at the SMUD Museum of Science and Curiosity. I’m the director of public programming. That’s where I get my paycheck. But California Groundbreakers, I just feel like it’s worth continuing.

Tell us an interesting tidbit about your organization.

I used to put on events at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. They do a whole range of topics, which I thought: This is what Sacramento needs. So I put on an event called the State of the Arts in Sacramento in 2016. That was the first event: What’s going on with the art scene? I convinced the owner of Beatnik Studios to let me host a panel discussion at their place because it’s very lovely and fit the topic. My mom and I made fruit kabobs and charcuterie kabobs, and I convinced Ruhstaller to donate some beer. And I thought, well, nobody knows me. If I get 50 or 60 people from the Facebook post, I’ll be lucky and I’ll be happy. I think 275 showed up and it was a fantastic event. And that was really the template. … People were very interested in the topic and they came out to support. And all of that spearing of fruit and meat and olives paid off.