How to Advocate: Public Sector (Local) with Belia Ramos

"Advocate for each other. Come up together and rebuild together." -Belia Ramos


SERIES: Role of the Public Sector

Communication is a crucial factor in a successful recovery and rebuild project. But with all the chaos, communication is also the first defense to fail. In this episode, Jennifer interviews Napa District Supervisor, Belia Ramos about effective communication strategies. They talk about the major elements of getting the message out: the message, the spokesperson, and the manner of transmission. Belia also stresses the vital role of the board and its constituents in ensuring that communication within and outside the community is supervised. You are an important part of the rebuild work! Tune in and learn where you are most effective and how you can advocate for your community to be able to pay it forward.


  • 02:16: The Role of the Board
  • 08:45: Management Amidst Chaos
  • 16:32: Communication Failures
  • 26:01: Finding the Right Messenger
  • 30:16: The Work Has Just Begun
  • 39:46: Learn to Distinguish Yourself
  • 45:02: Find Your Groove
  • 52:54: The Simplest Thing You Can Do



03:17: "One of the things that are important as boards is to know how each plays a role in the disaster."  -Belia Ramos

08:47: 'It's important for everyone to know, not just the electeds, but also their constituency, that when a disaster happens, your decision-maker hat goes away." -Belia Ramos

14:37: "You have to be flexible. You have to have tremendous situational awareness of where you are needed." -Belia Ramos

19:14: "It takes a lot of courage to know when you're at your max because the strength of your community comes from the pace you set as an elected." -Belia Ramos

23:36: "Understanding your boundaries in communication also requires you understanding where you are no longer effective." -Belia Ramos

28:05: "We always focus on what is the message. We need also to focus on the who and the how." -Belia Ramos

32:24: "When we are looking at advocacy, we need to not look at it in an insular way. We're all interconnected." -Belia Ramos

35:39: "Advocate for each other. Come up together and rebuild together." -Belia Ramos

40:08: "Part of the job is to distinguish yourself and what makes your circumstances so unique, doing it in a way that doesn't minimize other people's disasters." -Belia Ramos

42:27: "You play a role in how you tell the hardship and the resilience of your community. It's going to make a difference in someone's life." -Belia Ramos

48:38: "You don't need a huge amount of money and you a formal organization to build relationships. It's often picking up the phone and calling." -Jennifer Thompson

Meet Belia: 

Belia Ramos

Belia Ramos is a business owner, professor of law, and community advocate. From 2010-2016, Belia served as a member of the American Canyon City Council, where she focused on transportation, economic development, public art, public safety, and community engagement. Her community involvement includes the incorporation and governance of nonprofit organizations, such as Napa Valley Crime Stoppers and others. Belia resides in American Canyon with her three children.






Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to How To Disaster. My guest today is supervisor Belia Ramos from Napa County. I've invited you here today because we're going to talk about advocacy. How do you advocate at the local level? And then how do you take those skills and actually take them to the federal level to make sure that your region is getting the maximum amount of federal dollars that you actually need in order to recover. Belia is a fierce advocate. She is an attorney by trade. She is a Professor of Law at Davis, and she is a fierce advocate for the Latinx community. She's also a single mother of three children, to say that failure is fierce is an understatement. And I'm so pleased to have her here today. Welcome Belia. I'm so excited to have you here today because I've really enjoyed our work together on advocacy, particularly at the federal level. And I enjoy watching you as you serve your community and your role as a county supervisor. Welcome Belia.

Belia Ramos: Hi, Jennifer, how are you?


"One of the things that are important as boards is to know how each plays a role in the disaster."  -Belia Ramos


Jennifer Gray Thompson: I'm good. I'm so excited to have you on the podcast, because I really enjoyed our work together in DC. And I also enjoy watching you as a fierce advocate for your community in the county of Napa. I wanted to start today to hear about your own personal fire story. And if you could start there and talk to us about what role you took on during that disaster, and how that served the community.

Belia Ramos: It is a pleasure to be here with you with ReBuild to share these what have become numerous fire stories now in our region. Going back to 2017, I think to put it in context, I assumed my office, brand new supervisor on January 8, 2017. And on that day, we had our first disaster of my first term, and we had $40 million of road repair, mudslide and flood damage on that day. And then nine months to the day, 2017, fires broke out of Atlas Tubbs which became known as the Napa fire complex. At the time that the fires broke out, I found myself as Chair of the board. And also with an Interim CEO. We were at a point of transition. What that really meant for us, and I think you know, one of the things that's important as boards and local jurisdictions are dealing with this is to really know how you're going to play each role in the disaster. That's step number one. And fortunately, I say this now, looking back, the fires only came into a portion of my district in Napa County in 2017. Every single supervisorial district had fire in it, every single one. So what we really did is the fire kind of determined our roles, what we would do and where our focus would be. For me as Chair, it gave me the ability to have the big overview of the fires. And because my district was one of the least affected with only 13 structures burned, as opposed to one of the districts that had over 400 structures burned, it gave me the opportunity to really focus on what were our next steps. As you know, going through these disasters, you live hour by hour in the beginning.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: So one of the things I really admired, because I worked in Sonoma County, we had not experienced like the earthquake that you all had, we're not the same degree at all. I think it was 2015 or 14. So an external point of view, it looks like your communication systems were much more effective than ours. Having been through that before, I would say that our supervisors have definitely come a long way since then. But what systems were already set up in place with the County of Napa so that the supervisors had very clear roles?

Belia Ramos: That's a great great starting when it comes to communication and advocacy. One of the things, because of the earthquake in 2014, and then serving as the evacuation center for the Valley Fire in 2015, our numerous floods that we've had into the mix, we already had an informal Public Information Officer system in place with each of our jurisdictions. So the county's, PIO's and the city's Pio would kind of huddle figure out whose story it was to tell. That's the first one. Whose story is it to tell? Who is going to own the disaster? So what was different in the earthquake in 2014, it really was, city of Napa story to tell, with emergency services coming from the county. When it came to the fires of 2017, they were in the unincorporated area. It was our story to tell, it was our emergency, but we needed that support because of those numerous evacuations and impacts that you have into your neighboring jurisdictions. 

So first and foremost, it was, whose story is to tell, and who's going to be your spokesperson? We opted that the Chair would be the lead spokesperson. But understanding the nature of the fire, you could see early on in our press conferences, every single supervisor had a speaking role at our press conferences. To me, that was incredibly important because those people that were out in the Mount Veeder area, they would relate and know supervisor Gregory better than myself. The people that were in Carneros would know supervisor [inaudible]. The people in the Berryessa area would know supervisor Pedroza. And the people in Calistoga would know supervisor Dillon. It's important that people see familiar faces. And I think that with this advent of social media entering the government speak and the government communications platform, it's really enabled us to be forward facing with our constituents so that they know who we are, they know who to expect that information to come from. 

I think what 2017 brought us in terms of that communication is, you know your supervisors are going to speak on something. It's almost an expectation. I can't tell you since then, how many texts I've gotten. We get a disaster and they say: "When are we going to hear you speak?" And I say: "Oh, that disaster is in this area, you're going to hear this person speak." So really understanding and utilizing, it's the ICMA emergency model, the city manager's model of really looking at who is your leader. So you look to your mayor, or to your chair of the Board of Supervisors, and then look at your affected districts, your geographical areas, and use that to set up your communications platforms, expectations and systems. And from that point, understanding who was going to speak actually became quite clear. And even at this moment, as we're going through our extended disasters of this pandemic, we know who is going to speak. So even when I get a text or a call from a reporter who is familiar with working with me in past disasters, I can say, I'm going to steer you in this direction, because this is our point person on this item.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: So one of the things that is sometimes difficult for us elected is to understand that they are needed for communication, but they're not really needed in the Emergency Operations Center. Can you talk to us about that?


"It's important for everyone to know, not just the elected, but also their constituency, that when a disaster happens, your decision-maker hat goes away." -Belia Ramos


Belia Ramos: Once you have a system in place, I think it's really important for everyone to know, not just the electeds but also their constituency, that when a disaster happens, your leader hat, your decision maker hat goes away. And the system, the ICMA model of emergency operations is set up that way. So you don't have too many cooks in the kitchen, that's exactly why you want it that way. So you have your emergency services manager and your emergency officer. And those are usually by delegated authority by the board. Those are the people that are running your emergency, and then you have incident commanders within your emergency. And those are people that are going to be running very necessary things like your logistics, like your road closures, like your food and sheltering that you also are going to need to make sure that you're on standby because while you're not in the room for those emergencies. At a moment's notice, you could have someone, say from the Office of Emergency services that shows up, needs a tour. And you need to have that information, be ready to speak and introduce your emergency to the people who have the ability to funnel the Emergency Relief Services and the funds to your county as necessary.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: So did you see incidents where the puck is, not a lot of times in disaster politics you get in the way, or like the jockeying for a position. Like, you had it all worked out. But were there any moments where you had to learn a lesson, or you had to say, okay, that's not exactly working out. And if so, who goes to be elected official to say, here's a lane for you, but the lane you've been in is not the lane that you were assigned because that's a difficult thing for even a county administrator to do.

Belia Ramos: It is. It is, I'll give you a great great example that we had in the 2017 fires. And this was agricultural access. Agricultural access had not been done before. But as you know, 2017 fires were coming in at the tail end of our harvest, and we needed people to get to their tanks, we needed grapes to be picked. I have a photo that to this day, just gives me chills of my father picking grapes with the fire, the Atlas fire coming over the hill. And my dad was simply trying to get 15 times off the grapes and get out of the area. Agricultural access became that very politicized issue. We are from the wine growing region. It is an economic force here in Napa, as it is in Sonoma County. So getting the pressure of, I need access, and how do you balance that with the person that says, I want to go feed my dog that I wasn't able to get into the car. And dealing with road closures, and having people drop names of supervisors in that road closures and say, I know so and so. Having to have that conversation in the middle of a disaster. And to say, this is not working. That was a really tough one. In that circumstance, the person who came to us was the person responsible for the road closures, our sheriff. 

Our Sheriff came to us and said, this isn't working, don't handout, people are coming to road closures with your business cards, this is not the best system in place. What came out of that was actually a great model that I'm proud to say is being used in other areas by callfire and incident management teams when running incidents. And that is through the agricultural commissioner's office. You fill out a request for a permit, they are processed by need at the agricultural level as it being a true agricultural need. And as those permits get issued, there are escorts that take people up. Or at least, if a road has been cleared, allow them access into that area for a limited time period provided in a safe. They are difficult conversations to have with Jennifer. 


"You have to be flexible. You have to have tremendous situational awareness of where you are needed." -Belia Ramos


Another one I will say a very difficult conversation was one I had with an elective from a city who had a very emotional statement on camera during a press conference that turned out to be a not so great headline the next day, and it was, you are not welcomed here headline. And it was one of those moments where you have to lean on the relationships you have prior to these disasters. Because no matter how well written your playbook is, I can guarantee you that the playbook is outdated for the next one. These last two fires, the LNU Hennessy fire that we had and the glass fire back to back, one not even contained while the other one started on top of a pandemic. Our 2017 playbook is not applicable here. It doesn't work, and you have to be able to pivot. You have to be flexible. You have to have tremendous situational awareness of where you are needed. I'll say in the Hennessy LNU fire where I was needed, I was not in that incident. What was needed for me was to lend my staff over to that incident, and for me to maintain the steady course on COVID related items. So it's just really about situational awareness. It's about offering up to your colleagues what do you need from me, knowing that people aren't always going to ask when they need the help, but we need to be ready and able to provide it.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think it's also hard for people to understand that in the public sector, government is made of people, period. And not everyone is equipped to lead in the middle of it faster. Not everybody can do it. It's like your emotional city person who said, whatever was construed as you're not wanted here, because you have to take on the dual role of having, you are undergoing the trauma yourself. And then you're having to be a leader in helping other people actually navigate during this time. And what I witnessed during 2017 was a huge mix of what elected officials were able to do emotionally, their styles of leadership became very apparent in both good and not so good ways. And it was difficult at times for them to be able to hear or to get to the place where they could say, what do you need? How can I help? Instead, they figure that they were supposed to fake it till they made it. And in some ways, that's true. But it's something that the public isn't always privy to is how difficult that spot can be when you're in a position of public leadership.

Belia Ramos: Now, emotional competence is something we don't talk about enough in these elected roles. I really think that ability to speak with people, honestly, yet not emotionally dump on them, give them the information they need to make prudent decisions about safety for themselves. And then to be able to give them that information that people want to know good, bad, or otherwise, they want information. But to do it in an artful way that is transparent, yet not venting, that is empathetic understanding that everyone is experiencing the disaster in a different way. And to not make it about your situation, but to also know when you must, to be able to be vulnerable. I've learned to despise the phrase trial by fire. Because that is exactly what happened to me, as a leader, as I was in this very public facing role. I had a friend in Germany that told me she saw me on BBC, and that I walked into Tahoe months later, and people recognize me as the lady from the Napa fires. It was being placed in a spotlight where I had to compartmentalize what was going on for me. 


"It takes a lot of courage to know when you're at your max because the strength of your community comes from the pace you set as an elected." -Belia Ramos


I had to compartmentalize that when the virus broke out, I'm a single mom. My three kids were sleeping and I had to go and deal with it, telling my parents, I need you here, knowing that there's a fire behind their house. And to be able in my five minute drive over to the sheriff's department to put that in a box. And for the world to not see on my face, I didn't see my kids for 72 hours. For the world to not know that I slept no more than three hours for a week each night. For the world to not know that when the cameras turned off, I cried in the hallway. It's a tough role, and it takes a lot of courage to know when you're at your max and you can't anymore because the strength of your community, and also for those of us working the disaster, the strength of our employees, 1,500 employees behind me comes from the pace I set. And being able to do that in an incredibly transparent, yet strong way is incredibly important as an elected leader in these disasters, especially when they are those quick and fast moving disasters.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think it's really important to be super honest about, when you are a leader in a community that you too have a breaking point or stepping off point where you need to grieve when you need to cry. I know that I cried probably every day for six months in 2017 and 18. Even if it was like a two minute cry in the car, okay, fine. But if necessary, and it didn't make me weak, it just made it necessary. Because it is. It's very, until you've been through a disaster, there's no way to describe how it feels to see that level of destruction, especially in your case. And in my case, we both grew up in the same area that we ended up serving during the disasters when you see this level of destruction, and very heartbreaking. Very heartbreaking. But I did want to go back, you said, you were talking about your dad. One of the questions that comes up, if you are in an agricultural area, which is the same as what we are, is that why we have these major fire events, there becomes also a health and safety of the workforce, in particular, our Latinx community. So that's one of things I wanted to talk to you about was, what comes up for balancing the needs of your agricultural community on the owner class, with the people who are actually picking and are often undocumented and don't even have, if that's the case, don't have access to a lot of the government services that documented people do, but it's incredibly important that they're also taken care of because they tend to be the ones who pay the largest price for a disaster in particular after. Can you talk about your advocacy in that area, and give us an idea of what that issue looks like?

Belia Ramos: Absolutely. I think during a disaster, especially, let's look at fires and COVID, making sure that employees understand the safety requirements to protect themselves individually. So making sure for COVID PPE, but also N95 during fires themselves. From afterwards, we've been just shaken as a community economically, the ebbs and flows of work availability have been tremendous. And this is where philanthropy comes in. Philanthropy is incredibly important to making sure you have the systems in place to protect all residents. Because as we know, when it comes to federally declared disasters, the levels of paperwork and the steps you must go through are quite numerous to be able to access funds. So making sure that you have those foundations set up much, like ReBuild North Bay was able to provide services. The Redwood Credit Union Foundation that was able to provide services here locally. The Napa Valley Community Foundation, that is able to support our Family Resource Centers. But I think this is a transition that I want to talk about in terms of who gives that message. 


"Understanding your boundaries in communication also requires you understanding where you are no longer effective." -Belia Ramos


Prior to the 2017 fires, I really just considered myself being Latina, being from the daughter of a Mexican immigrant farm worker, I thought, well, I'm a trusted communicator, but I no longer am. And having that realization that I am now government and I need someone else to deliver my message is incredibly important. Understanding your boundaries, in terms of communication also requires you understanding where you are no longer effective in communication. I am effective and doing an interview on a radio station. I'm effective to some degree of doing a Spanish print and put that one aside from the literacy standpoint where I'm most effective is to be seen with people who are the trusted partners, your family resource centers that have that direct communication with your Latinx population, with those health clinics that have that direct relationship of trust with the Latinx community to make sure that the information is getting to them and that they are also the messengers of where the services and support can come from. That is where the investment needs to be. I no longer am the communicator. I truly believe we need to use what's called the automotive model. And to find those people that are the better messengers of communication actually went to go and speak at a robotics symposium in Oakland to explain what a promo thought needs to do for the government. How you can be better at it, because I've become institutionalized, I guess in a way if you really want to look at it that way. You really want to make sure that it's that familiar face, that confidential person that is going and reaching out into your Latinx community to deliver those vital messages of health and worker safety, but also the resources that they need to access during these times.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: And to understand that a traditional shelter is often not an option for a lot of people who are undocumented, because they're afraid. Even though I'm pushing that message out that I think it's important for communities with a large Latinx population to understand that a traditional sheltering model may not work for them. Despite COVID, which it's not going to work right now during COVID. Anyway, but there's a huge fear of immigration being there. So the message that we've sent out repeatedly, same as I've seen in Napa, is to really put it out there through the Family Resources Centers, and the trusted partners, that immigration will not be a factor in these shelters. So I'm sure that you've seen some of that as well.

Belia Ramos: Yes. And this is where the relationships and the advocacy come through. So reaching out to your member of Congress, our mutual member, Congressman Thompson, that is able to get to a state of enforcement from ICE is incredibly important during disasters, so that you don't have to deal with any sweeps during any immigration sweeps during that time. So it's a suspension that's incredibly important. But then, using that information of the forcement suspensions, and getting the right messengers to send that out into the community. Those are those Family Resource Centers. I think one of the moments for me is really understanding how we each bring something different to the table, we're individuals. And I made a decision on the FLY during a press conference to make the announcement of the ICE enforcement suspensions in Spanish during a press conference. Garnered national attention, the fact that I did it, and I did it. Because in my mind, I thought to myself, well, what is likely the predominant language that people are speaking who need this information in our community is Spanish. 


"We always focus on what is the message. We need also to focus on the who and the how." -Belia Ramos


So making sure that we're meeting people where they're in terms of communication is just as important as the message you are delivering so that it is in the language that is most receptive, that it is in the medium that is most receptive. And as a government, we move sometimes slowly. It takes us a few times to get the right systems in place, and just in time for some platform of technology to change on us. But it's important for us to be able to understand who needs to get the message? And how do they need to get the message? We always focus on what is the message, we need to also focus on the WHO and the HOW.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think that's so key in any disaster is you have to be able to always ask, what do you need? And how can I help? I find that I'm starting from that space is what's really changed the efficacy of whatever program we're running, or whatever campaign we're doing. Because then, you start with meeting people where they're at. So I loved that you said that. I do want to pivot though now to federal advocacy. Belia has gone with us twice to DC, and I really value her presence there for a number of reasons. One of the main reasons is that we sort of will talk ahead of time about what's our strategy meeting. With ReBuild, we represent Lake Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties. And in doing so, that means that those counties have federal advocates, lobbyists, if you will, and two of them don't. So we need what I asked Belia every time for her to take a lead role in those meetings in order to also provide a voice of support for the entire region. Can you talk to us about why you take time out of your busy schedule to go on federal advocacy trips? And for a lot of people who just experienced disaster, they're not completely clear yet on how long this process is, and how many years they're actually going to need support from the federal government.

Belia Ramos: I think when you look at what your role is after, as we're moving with adrenaline through a disaster, and I'm going to say a short lived disaster like a fire, or an earthquake, or a flood, you're moving through it, and you get to that point where you say, okay, it's over. But what I would say to any elected official is, no, your work has just begun. The work that comes from disaster recovery is an incredible lift. One that each time I must say is, it can be overwhelming. But as with any situation in life, someone always has it harder than you. And I think that that's what has really helped me understand our partners in the region of ReBuild with Lake and Mendocino. And knowing that at the time when we went more than half of Lake County had burned. And I remember thinking about that, and thinking half of their county has burned, more than half of their population has relocated. There was one moment where they had $48,000 in the bank as a county, and they could not afford to purchase a plane ticket for a supervisor to go. And thinking, putting my mind around that, that's a harder situation for them than anything I've ever had to face here in Napa County. But I have a gift, and that is I am from Napa County. 


"When we are looking at advocacy, we need to not look at it in an insular way. We're all interconnected." -Belia Ramos


And when I say I am from Napa County, it opens doors, I don't ever need to explain where I'm from. Everyone in DC knows where I'm from, and I can share that gift, that blessing with Mendocino and Lake County. And for us, it's important when we are looking at advocacy, we need to not look at it in an insular way. We need to understand that if someone from Lake County is displaced, they are likely going to a surrounding County. And so, we're all interconnected. If I don't help Lake County, and Mendocino County, and Sonoma County for that matter, fix and help them through their recovery and their advocacy, their problem becomes my problem. And now, being in a position where 48% of my county has burned, as I am incredibly proud of how Sonoma and Napa County have stepped up in advocacy to help Lake County in that moment, because I know what that feels like. I now know how hard and how devastating it is to say nearly half your county has burned. And that's only been in my first term.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I do want to give a shout out though, for I am always forever impressed and in awe of the resiliency of Lake County in particular, it's an incredibly beautiful County, it's very under resourced. Mendocino County is much the same, under resourced, incredibly beautiful, very rural. So it's not exact, we're very rural in Napa and Sonoma counties, but we also have a couple of larger cities. And we're closer, we actually touch the bay. So that changes a lot of how people choose to have vacation homes here, how they invest here, and their emotional attachment which means that we garner far more in the way of donations when a disaster occurs. And it's why it's extra important to make sure that they get the federal funds that they actually do and have earned through there via disasters.


"Advocate for each other. Come up together and rebuild together." -Belia Ramos


Belia Ramos: One of the things that I think is important in understanding, especially if you are from California, if it's a great transition to understanding that a California disaster is not the same as a Midwest or an East Coast disaster. And we've had that experience and advocacy, I remember, I think one of my moments and bringing a little humor and levity into the advocacy room with FEMA was to tell FEMA that we needed to do California math, not Florida math in the room when we were looking at advocacy. Specifically for the rebuild of a fire station in Santa Rosa. When we went on our trip in 2018, our first advocacy trip, little did I know that when we got to our 2019 advocacy trip, part of my job would be advocating for Sonoma County as well, who wasn't able to join us on the trip because of the ongoing Kincade fire at the time. It's incredibly important that as a region, when you've had a region that's been affected by disasters that you come up together, that you come together to advocate for each other, that you understand that you are interconnected from the basic building blocks of your transportation systems to your housing stock. But also, the imports and exports have jobs that happen within a region, you're interconnected. And it's important that you all come up together and you rebuild together, because it's a slow process. It's an incredibly slow process. 

And as much as you'd like to say, Oh, you get your federal declared disaster, you get your FEMA assistance, you call it good. That's not the end of the road. Every single disaster requires something different. And the Tubbs fire, we dealt a lot with soil issues because of how fast and how hot the fire burned, and the amount of scraping of soil is very different. Now, in the LNU, we're dealing with water system issues because of how close these fires came to certain water systems and the replacement of pipes and pumps. I know in rural parts of Sonoma County, you had well issues as well.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Can I interrupt for a moment? Just to say that one of the things that I think surprised us, I know it surprised me was, I wasn't aware of how FEMA was on a learning curve, having to do wildfires. And with FEMA being much more setup traditionally for wind and rain events, they do understand earthquakes. But the thing about wildfire, especially the kind, we have these mega fires is that the type of destruction that they do is not the same. So it destroys the infrastructure under the ground, the cleanup is different. It's all very different. I just want to note that one of the things that I have felt really proud working with you and other public sector people is helping FEMA to better understand what it means to have a mega fire, what the damages are and what the needs are. So I just wanted to interject that.

Belia Ramos: Absolutely. And I think that's also part of the advocacy, that continual advocacy. And I remember having the meetings in my boardroom with FEMA and with Cal OES, and having to sit there and say, who's doing what? And not be afraid of asking the question. We have the systems in place through the federal government, through Cal OES and calrecycle to help us with cleanup and disaster recovery. Ask the question, who's doing what? That's incredibly important because sometimes, there might be nobody present in the room that knows the answer to that question. So you need to not leave the room till you have an answer to the question of who's responsible. How are you going to divvy up the work? As we go through another round, you know this well, Jennifer, the DOR's, the debri and ash removal forms that need to be filled out with another impending deadline coming up. Now, much like the Napa fire complex, we are consolidating the glass and the LNU, getting all of that together, dealing with it similarly as a complex, there are a lot of unknowns as you go through it. And part of the advocacy in 2017, it's not quite sure of which adjective to use. Because fortunately, it's not it. We were first. We were first in these mega fires, there was a lot of focus on us. There was a tremendous amount of love and empathy coming our way because of it. I still reflect back to when we had the benefit concert at AT&T part two--

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I have to say, I really had to leave after an hour because I was so weirded out by being part of the subject of a benefit concert. It was really nice, but it was surreal.


"Part of the job is to distinguish yourself and what makes your circumstances so unique, doing it in a way that doesn't minimize other people's disasters." -Belia Ramos


Belia Ramos: It is very surreal when you look back at the situations that we've been placed in, but when you haven't had the opportunity to be the first in line, you now then become the 8. And then now though, what? 14th and 18th, or something like that in these mega fires. Part of the job is to distinguish yourself, what makes your circumstances so unique, and doing it in a way that doesn't minimize other people's disasters. I think that's the artful part where we have to be cognizant of that when we had the opportunity to bring the ReBuild Paradise Foundation with us on our last advocacy trip, and to have them in the room talking about their situation and how different it was from ours. Yet, we were all unified by a terrible wildfire ripping through our communities, and we could still learn from each other. Understanding that, for us, a very big part for us here in Napa County, we only approve about 26 to 30 homes in our unincorporated area each year because of land use restrictions and citizen led initiatives. 


"You play a role in how you tell the hardship and the resilience of your community. It's going to make a difference in someone's life." -Belia Ramos


So to put that into perspective, I remember having to say in DC, we lost 26 years worth of housing. Having those numbers, putting that story in front of people for them to understand is incredibly important. Having the opportunity to sit with people that are going to make donations when the JPMorgan Chase group came with their CEO group just a month after the 2017 fires, and they kept their reservation, and to sit with those CEOs that were there and explain to them what the impacts were of the fires that helped them to be generous to ReBuild North Bay, to the Napa Valley Community Foundation, that's part of your advocacy as well. It's not just advocacy for the county, the formalized county with the Big C, it's the county with the small C as well. And to understand that you play a role and how you tell that story, how you tell the hardship and the resilience of your community to every single person, it's going to make a difference in someone's life. And to know and to still go out and about and be at Safeway, like I was last week, and someone told me: "I heard you speak at an event. And because of hearing about you, we made a donation to this organization to help with disaster recovery." That's the stuff that advocacy is really about it's full circle advocacy, it's not just what comes into your county general fund.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: There is another thing too that you sort of touched upon, which is that, especially because we are in a pattern now that we expect to continue for at least another 10 years of these mega fires. I was in Oregon a couple months ago, and they had the worst wildfires they'd ever seen on record that they had done a lot of mutual aid in California. But it never experienced these major fires up in Oregon, the same thing happened in Washington and in Colorado. 

So one of the questions from the communities that I'm doing outreach asked, how do we do this advocacy? How do we make sure that our voice is heard? And it's a funny spot to try to find, I don't want to call it a sweet spot, but that's sort of the analogy that might work for both, be very promotional of your own needs. And at the same time, partner with your neighbors and partner with other fire affected communities. I was really tickled on our second advocacy trip in October of 2019. It was our third or second with you where a supervisor John Haschak from Mendocino County had never been on one of these, who's a newly seated supervisor, such a nice guy, oh, my goodness. When we had one of our free nights that then you took him, and you guys were scootering all over DC. I also saw it as you taking an opportunity to sort of bring him in and show him like, how we do this? And then you and I, we'd be in the meetings together with the agencies, or with senators, or Congress people. And you and I would look and that, like the ideal finger fit. And then you knew to just kind of throw it to John so that while you were there helping Lake and Mendocino, you were also doing another sort of advocacy, which is showing John how to advocate for his community.

Belia Ramos: That's part of, we need to not reinvent the wheel. We found, I think sweet spot is the right phrase here. We found that. We found our groove, we found how to be effective at what we're doing, and it's important for us to share that. It's such a different way of looking at governance. I see it as, take my stuff and run with. You need to do this on your own. And here's my playbook, take it with you. And I think that that's incredibly important because we can learn from each other a tremendous amount. And to be able to share those experiences, to be able to know what is happening, and one can provide insight to what we experienced, but it can also help us guide others. And I think one of the things in communication where we learn the difference between the voice lines and the fiber optic lines versus the hardwired lines, and what happens in these communication systems. And to know that, when the fires it hit Ventura County, and we're going down to Malibu and you saw these, we heard the story, everyone saw the pictures plastered all over television that the fire trucks are at the beach, and everything's, Oh, well, the fires over there, what are the fire trucks doing over there? It was their only hardwired life.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah.

Belia Ramos: We were able to take that story with us to DC into the FCC and to say, someone needs to give us notice." Give us 20 minutes time to know when this is happening so that we can lift up other systems in place, so that we are not beholden to one hard wire line, it happened to all of us. To be able to then turn it over to a colleague and say, tell us what happened in your community when you lost your communications. That's incredibly important. Again, it's the same struggle. And we all experience it in different ways, and being able to tell that story so that we can improve upon it. And in fact, we already have improved from just our advocacy trip in 2019 when we talked to the FCC. We talked about how we had lost broadband. And because it burned, it was on telephone poles and it burned. So the last mile really became the last 10 miles in some jurisdictions because of loss of connectivity, and to see the FCC step into action and to start working on those deers reports. And before I had walked out of the building, they had already talked to one of the cell providers that they had already confirmed that with us, to see your work come about to impact not just your own community, but the entire nation when we deal with disasters. That to me makes it all worth it, jet lag at all.


"You don't need a huge amount of money and you a formal organization to build relationships. It's often picking up the phone and calling." -Jennifer Thompson


Jennifer Gray Thompson: And one of the things that I love about the model is that we're regional and multi sectored, and we try to keep the cost down as much as possible. It is a position of privilege. I understand that, for us, to be able to have an organization like ReBuild North Bay or have the relationships that we do, but you actually don't need a huge amount of money. You don't need a formal organization necessarily to build those relationships. It's often picking up the phone and calling like, I only knew about the Malibu story because I went to Malibu and sat in Riva Feldman's office, the city manager. 

So hearing that she was running the city from whatever, the lifeguard shaft, and that's why we saw, that's exactly why we saw these fire trucks on Zuma beach because there was no communication to go up there. I like the idea that the work that we do with you and in the advocacy that we've done, makes it so that future communities that are undergoing really one of the most painful and traumatic things that will ever happen to them, that we have in some way lessens the trauma and made the system a little smarter. And I've also found that the agencies welcome it, and the leadership welcomes it because they need to hear from us. They need to hear from anybody listening to this who's already, maybe recently undergone a disaster. You have to make your voice heard, and it is more accessible than you think. And it's more important than, it's like putting money in the bank. Even if that federal block grant may not come to you for three years, it will come.

Belia Ramos: Absolutely. And then those multi sector types of advocacies, many geeked out here for a little bit and say, I think the greatest accomplishment through rebuild that we had was my ability to be able to advocate to, I forget how many legislators at this point that we met with, but to be able to establish the CEQA/NEPA reciprocity on environmental work that is going to, at least in my County alone, in the long term to be able to save us on just the projects on the book, about $7 million on these FEMA funded processes. Making sure that we were able to look at all the challenges that disasters face to counties, and to be able to come up with those solutions, like you said, legislators welcome it. And when I talked about needing CEQA/NEPA reciprocity, and to have the statute of limitations line up between state law and federal law. And then when we were able to attach it to the FAA reauthorization bill, and it went through. 

I remember when I got that call and I thought to myself, this is probably one of the biggest advocacy wins I have ever had. And the only people that will really understand it are like my roads, crew people. But either way, it was a tremendous win that is going to benefit the entire State of California, and all those jurisdictions that have not yet had a disaster. Yet, it will help them in the event when they do. To know that we are not only able to advocate to help ourselves recover from the disaster, but we have truly paid it forward. And that's why I keep saying YES to doing this kind of work. I remember, it took me two advocacy, three advocacy trips to get it done. And lots and lots of meetings. But once it finally did, I'm like, well, now, what that one's done. Now, I need to go on, what do I come up with next that needs to get done?

Jennifer Gray Thompson: They are, and there is something wonderful about getting great work done, especially in DC because it is a magical city. We will look forward to the end of COVID so that we can return to that. I would like you to spend just a moment talking about how important it is to have a really fierce advocate at the federal level in the form of your local Congressman, in our case, Mike Thompson. Any of your federal representatives, it's really wise if you are an elected official especially to develop a relationship in advance that is functional, that is honest and that is effective. Can you talk about your relationship with Mike a little bit?

Belia Ramos: So my relationship with Congressman Thompson is quite unique. I am a former staffer for Congressman Thompson. I worked for him in his first term of Congress, first and second terms. So I come at all of this in a very different way because I have that staffer lens still on. So to be able to have a relationship with Mike where I can call and I'll say, here's my struggle. He knows I've already done the work on the back end. And that I've really honed in on what that next challenge is. Some of the things can sometimes be as simple as a phone call from the Congressman. I'll give you a great example. In 2015 when we were running the evacuation center for the Valley Fire and the Red Cross in order to have volunteers, we had over a thousand residents at the Calistoga fairgrounds. We had 1000 residents there. And at the height of it, we had 253 volunteers. I was, as a volunteer, not a supervisor. Then I was managing the volunteer station, and the Red Cross wanted every volunteer to do a two hour online training before they volunteered. And it was no exception, myself included. I remember in that moment, I called the Congressman and I said: "This is not working. We need people fed. We need items sorted. We need to get things moving." That was one call that he made to Red Cross Washington DC, and they flew someone out the next day and things started happening. And it was one call. Having that relationship in advance, I can't overemphasize the importance of it. You need to be able to have that relationship. 

And sometimes, it's as simple as me texting the Congressman and saying, Hey, I just talked to Congresswoman Eshoo about this broadband bill. He knows what conversations we have had to his colleagues so he can come back on the back end and follow up. And I'll tell you, sitting here on my desk, I have to write on my desk, it's a handwritten note from Congresswoman Eshoo who remembered that and had the Congressman follow up right behind me. And I have a note from her thanking me that both of us were on the same page. That's incredibly important to be on the same page, to have that same advocacy because it's going to be long term. It's absolutely going to be long term. We are all optimistic and hopeful. We'd like to say that, put a timeframe and to say that a disaster is going to end in one week, one month, one year, two years, but we still aren't rebuilt from the 2017 fires, and we've lost another 600 homes this year. So it's a long road. 

But having those good partners at all levels, being able to ask for help from your member of Congress, your state senator, your assembly member, and having that relationship where you can reach out to say, I need this from you. But that they are also confident to ask you for advice, what do you need from me? And to also have the relationship in New Jersey jurisdictions with your elected officials so that you can lean on them. So that it can be as simple as I've made the call now, three times, to the mayor of the city where I live, American Canyon, and to say: "Mayor, I need you to stand up a shelter for me." And he just says: "Okay, we're on it." And I can move on to the next task, as simple as that. But that requires relationships, that requires investment of time. And don't wait for a disaster to happen before you establish those relationships.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think that's a good place to actually leave off. I always enjoy you. I really appreciate you, and thank you so much for your support and for spending time with us today.

Belia Ramos: It's my pleasure. It's my pleasure. I'm in it for the long haul with ReBuild.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: I'm looking forward to also scootering with you in DC, and hopefully breaking them. You know I'm good for it. I know you're [inaudible], that's for sure.

Belia Ramos: Okay.

Jennifer Gray Thompson: All right. Thank you so much.