Category Archives for "Alumni Reflections"
Rabiah Rahman, VCLA Cohort XXVI
Attorney/Founder, Rabiah At Law
VCLA Cohort XXVI has once again demonstrated why we are #Virtutallythebest! On Feb. 5, 2021, we convened on Zoom to discuss education and how Ventura County’s educators are leading during this time of crisis.
Nearly a year into the COVID-19 global pandemic, educators have had to navigate uncharted territory. They shared some of their lessons learned and shed light on where we may be headed from here.
The day began with Dr. Joe Mendoza sharing his reflections and a historical perspective on the changes to Ventura County’s education system throughout the last 50 years. Dr. Mendoza is the director of the Special Populations Educational Support Department for the Ventura County Office of Education and a life-long educator. He addressed the importance of cultural competency in education and gave suggestions on how leaders can be more inclusive. The first tip was to listen to the community you are serving to better understand their needs and cultural dynamics. I appreciated that we began with this presentation, as it framed the rest of the day. By now we should all be aware that the pandemic has highlighted and expanded inequities within and access to education. The question now is how do we create a more equitable system as we rebuild and recover, and what is the role of cultural competency in that process?
The rest of the presentations addressed the pandemic’s impact on primary education, post-secondary education and early childhood development. We were also introduced to the unique circumstances and obstacles impacting educating a growing homeless population. We covered a lot of territory. The speakers were particularly exceptional. It was also nice to have panel presentations that offered various perspectives and diverse opinions. When the topic of school resource officers and their role on school campuses came up, the panelists were able to offer their opinions on the downsides, benefits and alternatives to having law enforcement officers in schools. It was a riveting discussion, especially noting that we have a few law enforcement professionals in our cohort, and one that I hope continues.
It was also interesting to learn about the family engagement programs being offered to bring parents together during the pandemic to help them feel less alone. I was further impressed when I learned that some educators were also being put through extensive training on how to deal with and recognize trauma. We learned that, across the board, professional development has played a large role as educators navigate these new challenges.
Another enlightening presentation came from a Ventura College student leader. The speaker offered us a glimpse into the ongoing struggles our local college students are facing as they navigate the shift to online instruction. The impacts have been great. For example, students who rely on on-campus jobs and other on-campus resources are having trouble bridging those economic and technological gaps and accessing available assistance. Many students without home access to the internet find themselves learning out of their cars, in the school parking lots, where there is WiFi access accessible.
At this point, I think it is safe to say that most of us are all “Zoom’ed out.” I really want to take this opportunity to thank Pattie Braga for continuing to work very hard to ensure that Cohort XXVI has a fulfilling and meaningful VCLA experience. One way that she has been able to create a bonding experience for us was to build in “Cohort Reflection/Discussion” time into the agenda. During these cohort discussion periods we had an opportunity to debrief and unpack some of the information discussed during the preceding panels. Also during this time, we had an opportunity to share some of our personal stories related to education and experiences in overcoming access barriers. It was a moving exchange and one I will not soon forget.
I would also like to give a special shoutout to VCLA Cohort XXV members who were able to join us for the day! It was nice to see some familiar faces and many new ones. I look forward to meeting you all in person one day!
The pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated societal inequities, and there has been no clearer demonstration than in our education and medical care systems. As leaders continue to navigate a path forward, based on the leaders we had the honor of meeting with during our session on education, I have high hopes that Ventura County schools will come out better on the other side.
Katlyn Simber-Clickner, VCLA Cohort XXVI
Recreation Coordinator, Pleasant Valley Recreation & Park District
As I began to write this reflection, I wanted to highlight all the things that Distance Learning has taken from students and I wanted to highlight all the positives that have come from Distance Learning. As I went down that rabbit hole it became apparent that I could write a novel and that is not my goal. My goal is for others to learn, to grow, to think. These are questions and options that teachers, educators, administrators, elected officials, etc. must think about daily. Our school systems are not making a choice that relates to them but to thousands of children, parents, caregivers, social workers, etc. every day.
There is no charted path to take. There is no easy answer. I fear what happens when we look back in 20 years and think well, we messed that one up. So how do we fix this now?
We began our day learning about segregation in Oxnard and how things were in the 1930s through the 1970s. The 1970s were only 50 years ago. This is within our lifetimes, not so long ago. We are constantly learning and changing as we grow; we do not know right from wrong until society changes its views. So, what happens to this generation?
There was a strong statement throughout this whole session. Our students are suffering. They are suffering from technology issues, suffering from location issues, suffering from basic needs issues. Are we truly trading one pandemic for another? Just like the rest of us, our student’s basic mental health, physical health and true well beings are suffering. Why is it okay to say, “Oh well, we are addressing the COVID pandemic,” but not truly addressing the pandemic that is occurring with this turmoil of our “new normal.” Now, for some this pandemic has been a blessing and some have excelled. However, Howard Gardner taught us there are multiple intelligences and we need to address students on their level of learning. How is Distance Learning helping those who are visual learners when they only get 10 minutes with their teacher? How is Distance Learning helping those who are auditory learners when the connection keeps cutting out? How is Distance Learning helping those who are tactile learners that no longer have the cubes in front of them to help count?
After spending years of being trained to be a teacher and to be a student advocate I look at things very differently. Put your thoughts, training, and beliefs, aside for a minute, and on the basic level ask yourself are students truly okay? Yes, your children may be but what about the child that lives in a group home? Does the high school student who leans on their friends to help with everyday issues of living with an abusive parent, are they truly okay? The college student who is already working two jobs to pay tuition, who has lost a job and cannot afford a hotspot or internet, are they truly okay?
Yes, we say children are resilient. They will bounce back. But what happens when they don’t? What happens when that gap from being out of school has lasted too long? What happens to the ones that fall behind? Do they suffer because they need to be held back? Will this generation be known as the broken generation? How are they going to cope? How are we going to help them?
So I am asking not to look at how we are treating our students and how we are doing the “best” we can during this time. I am truly asking each of you to really think, “Is this the right thing to do?” If not, how can you help make this easier for your children or your friends that are students. How can you help take care of our true basic needs to include mental health? How can you be proactive during this time instead of taking a backseat and being reactive?
If one good thing comes from COVID, I hope we learn humility and we learn to truly care for those around us.
Erika Singletary, VCLA Cohort XXVI
Operations Specialist II, Ventura County Office of Education
The temperatures this winter in Ventura County have been higher than average and we are behind in the average rainfall. For some, this represents drought conditions, to others however, it means that they may be able to cope with the elements a little easier while they are experiencing homelessness.
A few weeks ago, while running holiday errands with my husband, I noticed a middle-aged woman who was using the entrance of a vacant building to shelter herself from the elements. She had a coat, some blankets, and a shopping cart filled with her belongings. I asked my husband to stop by a drive through on our way back and we gave her some food. I remember feeling powerless and wanting to do more. I’ve been praying for her ever since. As I tuck myself in my cozy bed, I wonder if she is warm enough at night, I wonder when it was the last time she spoke with someone she cared about, but most of all, I wonder if she is safe.
As we began our VCLA session on Housing, Land Use, and Homelessness held on January 8th, I was eager to learn how I might be able to help those members of our community who are experiencing homelessness. The morning opened up with former VCLA member Tara Carruth, MSW, from Ventura County Continuum of Care at the County of Ventura. She shared the solution to homelessness is housing. Tara reminded us of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Housing is part of the basic needs of a person. When someone doesn’t have to worry about their basic needs, they can be empowered to seek help for any other conditions that may have led them to be without a home. These conditions may be substance abuse, mental or physical illness, or a natural disaster. Tara shared data on how our county is struggling to meet the needs of people who are experiencing homelessness.
The lack of affordable housing was a consistent message we heard from our speakers throughout our session. Which is one of the biggest reasons there is such a big gap between the number of people served, and people moved into either housing or temporary placements.
Nicholas Deitch, Founding Partner of Mainstreet Architects shared what are very promising plans to address the affordable housing shortage in our county. He shared plan renderings of mixed used buildings where people can access affordable housing, close to where they work, access to small shops, and beautiful rooftop lofts where residents can enjoy a sense of community. The challenge comes from residents who fear building multiple story apartment buildings, may change their neighborhood in a negative way. Traffic, safety, and property value are among the higher areas of concern. However, there is no data that supports those concerns.
We also had the privilege of hearing from Rafael Stoneman, Mobile Veteran Outreach from the Gold Coast Veterans Foundation. He shared his own anecdotes in his efforts to connect veterans who are experiencing homelessness with resources, services, and in the best-case scenarios, housing. It was very moving to hear from him and the stories he shared. They illustrated the different levels of challenges people are faced with when for example, their car which they are using as shelter, is taken to the pound leaving a person completely without resources. If they don’t have the money to pay the many fees to the pound and the city, the car eventually gets sold for scrap. It seems we should be able to provide some sort of leniency to those that are in dire need. Particularly, in these times of a pandemic where those who are most underserved are at such higher risk of contracting and transmitting COVID-19.
Just as I was connecting the pieces and wondering how we can take action, as I am sure it was the case with all of my cohort, Max Ghenis, Co-founder & Co-lead of Ventura County YIMBY, shared ways in which YIMBY is organizing to support building plans to address the affordable housing shortage very much like those Mr. Deitch shared. When these plans are submitted to city councils for approval, it is more often you hear from those who are afraid these plans may compromise their community. Becoming more involved voicing our support for housing plans during these meetings, sharing the housing need, the positive effects it will have in the county as a whole, is extremely important to be able to help these plans move forward. Anyone who is interested can visit https://cayimby.org/ for more information.
A virtual tour to the River Haven tiny homes was one of the highlights of our session. Suki Sir virtually walked us through the site where 23 tiny houses are currently sheltering members of our community. Community members who are currently River Haven residents, are connected with services and resources including mental health, rehab centers, job placement, etc. Because, as we mentioned at the beginning of this blog, once a person has the basic needs, they can move forward with the other conditions that contributed to their inability to secure a home.
During our session, we also heard from; Eric Harrison, President & CEO of United Way of Ventura County, Barton Stern, President of Ventura Investment Co., and Tim Gallagher, Vistage Advisory Group Chair and President of The 20/20 Network. All of our speakers were informative and inspirational. I know I share the feeling with my entire cohort of giving ourselves a call to action to collaborate with each other and the entire VCLA Alumni to support our efforts to address the high need for affordable housing in our county. I very much look forward for opportunities to make a difference and a positive impact not only for that one woman I encountered, but for the many who are experiencing homelessness.
Nick Odenath, VCLA Cohort XXVI
President, Ventura County Deputy Sheriffs' Association
I found this VCLA session of particular interest. The focus of this session was on public safety in Ventura County. You might be asking yourself why is this a session Nick was looking forward too since he has spent the last 19 years in public safety. Although, it is true, I have spent most of my adult life as a deputy sheriff in Ventura County and have a good sense of the work that is being done. However, what I have learned about VCLA is these sessions are not simply designed to
educate cohort members on the general topic of the day, but rather challenge you to think about the many facets of the respective topic and how it impacts the community in which we live and serve in one respect or another. In addition, VCLA affords cohort members the opportunity to engage with members of this community that you otherwise may not engage. VCLA certainly did not disappoint.
The day started with the ability to choose from several of our public safety leaders in the Ventura County. Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub, Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen, Thousand Oaks Police Chief James Fryhoff, California State University Channel Islands Lieutenant Drake Massey, Oxnard Assistant Police Chief Jason Benites and Ventura Police Chief Darin Schindler were all options for the cohort members. I opted to hear from CSUCI Lieutenant Massey during the morning session and VCFD Chief Lorenzen during the mid-morning session.
Given the COVID-19 restrictions, we met virtually with Lieutenant Massey. I was interested to hear about the issues specific to campus public safety. Lieutenant Massey explained that the campus, during normal operations, can experience an increase in population of 7,000 people on any given day. This creates logistic challenges such as parking and response times to emergencies. Given the geographic location of the campus, there is a constant concern for potential wildfires and the campus has experienced wildfires in the recent past. Lieutenant Massey talked about the work being done to improve their evacuation plan and how they are using new technology to decrease the time it takes to notify staff and students of an emergency and coordinate evacuation planning. What I found to be of most interest was CSUCI and all California State Universities’ adoption of community relations protocol. Lieutenant Massey said the California State University system has committed to the six pillars of the 2015 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing Implementation Guide (https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/department-justice-announces-new-guidebook-21st-century-policing). These six pillars focus on areas that are very much in discussion throughout the United States and speak to building trust between peace officers and the communities they serve. Although this commitment is a first step, it is a step in the right direction and speaks to the essence of our role as public servants.
We were fortunate to meet VCFD Chief Lorenzen for an outdoor in-person meeting (with masks and socially distanced, of course) at their Camarillo-based training center. Chief Lorenzen talked about the challenges for VCFD and how they are addressing them. Unlike peace officer agencies, VCFD has no shortage of applicants. However, they are working on targeting a more diverse population in their recruitment efforts. Chief Lorenzen said they are actively seeking out female applicants as well as applicants of different ethnic backgrounds. Chief Lorenzen wants a fire agency that better reflects and relates the communities they serve. He, along with their leadership team are actively recruiting at colleges, universities and CrossFit gyms in the region. As a result, they are starting to see an increase in diversity among applicants. Chief Lorenzen addressed the issue of wellness among those employed with VCFD. He said that nationwide, an alarming trend has developed. There are more firefighters committing suicide than dying in the line of duty. Chief Lorenzen and his staff have worked to develop a wellness plan to address this trend within the agency, including having resources such as a peer support team, training specifically regarding first responder wellness and education regarding the signs of post-traumatic stress injury.
After our lunch break, we reconvened as a cohort virtually. Each member of the cohort was able to offer some of their takeaways from their respective morning public safety sessions with our public safety leaders. I find these opportunities to share our takeaways important. Another special part about VCLA is the diverse backgrounds we bring to the discussion. I find it refreshing to hear from each of my fellow cohort members on their perspective and takeaways. It allows me to see issues from a different lens. To be clear, we do have a special cohort, I mean we are “Virtually the Best” if not the best cohort (yes, I am bias)!
During the afternoon session, we had an opportunity to hear from our public safety members that are often forgotten, our dispatchers. Specifically, we heard from Kelly Brown, Director of 2-1-1 Ventura County, Interface Children and Family Services, Dr. Jim Norris, IT Director, Ventura County Fire Department and Mallory Crosby, Dispatch Supervisor, Ventura County Fire Department. Kelly shared how COVID-19 and the restrictions have really changed the landscape for 2-1-1. Kelly said those calling the center are often in need of housing resources. Given increased unemployment and the related issues, the call center has seen an increase in calls. Kelly shared how she and her supervisors have monitored the well-being of their call takers to ensure they are taking care of themselves and also able to properly address the concerns of those calling for assistance. Currently, the 2-1-1 handles service calls for 40 of the 58 counties in California, making it the largest such call center in California.
Dr. Jim Norris and Mallory Crosby shared their experiences managing the VCFD call center. Dr. Norris shared some exciting work about improvements to the call center system that will allow information to be pushed to firefighters faster and more efficiently, as well as address mutual aid concerns and communication. Mallory shared the experience of the dispatchers she supervises and how the calls they receive can be both stressful and rewarding. Mallory said the dispatchers are often providing instructions on how to perform lifesaving CPR to family members calling during a medical emergency. She also said many of her dispatchers have had the opportunity to coach soon-to-parents through pregnancy delivery. Mallory described the bond of the dispatchers who work together as a team to help community members who are often calling during the worst moment in their life.
We ended the day having “Coffee with a Black Guy” (https://www.cwabg.com/). This was the part of the session I was most interested in listening too. Community Leader James Joyce III started “Coffee with a Black Guy” a few years ago with the goal of creating a forum in which black men and women share their experiences for better community understanding. James shared historical perspective on policing in America and talked about some of the racial ideology in which American policing was based and how those ideologies still plague communities of color today. James has a unique gift of raising questions that promote discussion. What does defund the police mean? Why aren’t the police more transparent.
Christina Tokatlian, VCLA Cohort XXVI
Forensic Scientist and Local CODIS Administrator
Ventura County Sheriff's Office
November 8, 2018 is a day I will never forget. I remember waking up that morning to go to work and the first piece of news I heard about was the horrific Borderline shooting that took place the night before and the tragic loss of twelve innocent souls, one of whom was one of our own in the VCSO family. The weight I felt in my heart was so incredibly heavy.
I was in shock that such a tragedy could occur so close to home. The grief could be felt throughout the entire department for our fallen hero and victims. Then, as if this tragedy wasn’t enough, a fire started that afternoon and spread quickly burning our county. I left work a couple of hours early to be able to get home to my family but the 101 freeway had already been blocked. It took me four hours to get from Ventura to Thousand Oaks using Santa Rosa Road. I distinctly remember as I was sitting in my car inching slowly forward in the traffic, I was watching those bright hellish flames burn against the dark evening sky, engulfing miles of hillside and all I could think to myself was: God bless the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office and the Ventura County Fire Department. This overwhelming appreciation and tremendous pride was exactly what I felt in today’s VCLA session on public safety.
Given the hurdles presented by this unprecedented global pandemic, it has been so inspirational to see our community leaders working together to provide us with options to continue our education. The morning started with a variety of different options of speakers including Sheriff Bill Ayub, Thousand Oaks Police Chief James Fryhoff, Fire Chief Mike Lorenzen, Ventura Police Department Police Chief Darin Schindler, Lieutenant Drake Massey from CSUCI Campus Police or Assistant Police Chief Jason Benites from Oxnard Police Department. Each student was asked to pick two sessions and then the entire group would meet via Zoom in the afternoon to discuss the takeaways of the day. My day consisted of a Zoom session with Police Chief Fryhoff and an in-person session with Fire Chief Lorenzen.
The dominating theme from these discussions was positive and effective relationships. In speaking with Chief Fryhoff, the major issues facing the Conejo Valley (and even a lot of the other cities in our county) were vehicle thefts, residential burglaries, organized retail crime, and homelessness. Other citizen concerns also include providing threat assessment and active shooter training tools. Chief Fryhoff described a few of the amazing programs that he and his colleagues engage in such as working with the school district to put together a council including the school principal, a counselor, and a law enforcement officer. They help put together programs to allow children to step out of their comfort zone and understand one another in hopes of preventing bullying or other negative behavior. This also helps enlighten everyone to keep their eyes open for any signs of a possible shooting incident. Another wonderful program is Safe Passage. This program works with California Lutheran University and the Conejo Recreation and Park District to provide tutoring centers where children can go to for tutoring help or any other needs they may have. This ultimately helps guide them in a positive direction and has helped to bring the numbers of gang communities down. The greatest challenge today is finding virtual means of communication due to the pandemic and it is precisely these relationships that VCSO has built with its community and other communities that allow for such wonderful programs to be created and made available.
In speaking with Fire Chief Lorenzen, it was amazing to hear about the solid relationship between the Sheriff’s Office and the Fire Department in our county. Not all counties are fortunate to have this type of relationship, and it is this which has helped us through many disasters. The Fire Academy and Sheriff’s Academy share training grounds in Camarillo and they lean on each other and work in unison. Not only does the Fire Department have a solid relationship with the Sheriff’s Office, it also has a solid relationship with other county and state fire departments as well. This allows for mutual aid in times of need. The Thomas Fire was a great example of our public safety heroes coming together to help out our community. This included long hours of work and resources such as helicopters, police officers, firefighters, the Office of Emergency Services, as well as fire engines and help from neighboring counties. It is exactly this type of dedication that makes me feel safe to live in Ventura County.
The day concluded with a Zoom session with Kelly Brown (Director of 2-1-1 Ventura County), Dr. Jim Norris (IT Director for the Ventura County Fire Department), Mallory Crosby (Dispatch Supervisor for the Ventura County Fire Department), and James Joyce III (Coffee with a Black Guy). These conversations continued to drive in the point that we all have and need to establish relationships with one another to help each other in times of need. Communication and unity are the strongest tools we have to move forward together towards a successful future. I am so proud of the leadership in our county and feel honored to be able to contribute my part to its continuous improvement.
Julius Sokenu, VCLA Cohort XXVI
Interim President, Moorpark College
Ventura County Community College District
Prior to Friday, November 13, I did not know what it felt like to hold a drum between my legs and place my palms in a V to drum. Now I have proof that drumming is good for the heart and elevates the spirit. I did not know that Ventura is home to the eclectic Art City, an outdoor stone center created by world-renowned sculptor Paul Lindhard. Neither did I know that at one time the city billed itself as the “Art City”.
If you asked me a month ago, I could not have told you that California gas tax is the sole source of funding for Ventura County’s public transportation system. What shall we do when gas vehicles are phased-out as Governor Newsom proposes? Prior to last Friday, I had heard about V, K and L shaped recovery from the pandemic. Matthew Fineup, Executive Director of the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting at California Lutheran University underscored that when it comes to the economy, nationally and in the county, “it’s a tale of two pandemics”. What you do and how you work defines how you experience the economic effects of COVID.
I did know that high quality arts education motivates our children’s academic achievement and that public art and the arts and entertainment sector influences the economic success of our communities. I did not know that Nobel Laureates were seventeen times more likely to be painters and fourteen times likely to be poets. Thanks Tracy Hudak for those fun facts. Yes, I did know that artists contribute to the economic vitality and the revitalization of our cities and towns. I now have some very concrete proof of that by referring to the community installations of Michelle Glass. A distinguished panel of directors of arts organizations confirmed what I suspected about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our local economy and particularly the financial devastation experienced by local arts organization. What I know is that anytime Cohort XXVI gets together it is destined to be a fun and inspiring time. Of course, it is; we are virtually the best. Session 3 was no different.
I learnt that our county is resilient and the people and organizations continue to innovate and recommit to their mission while dealing with a global pandemic. I also learnt the aerobic value of drumming and the euphoria that resonates in the spirit after taking part in a drum circle. High fives to John Lacques of Drumtime. I promise to attend an event of each of the art organizations that presented on Friday in the coming months. Kudos to Pattie Braga and our remarkable guest speakers for another drink at the VCLA fountain of knowledge and inspiration.
Tracy McAulay, VCLA Cohort XXVI
County of Ventura
Like the first two VCLA sessions, session 3 was a whirlwind. We delved into the economy, transportation and the arts – no small task for a single day. All of the presentations were fascinating, and I could write pages. As I reflected on the day, I decided to stop short of writing the novel I wish to write and focus my comments (somewhat).
We started the day with a presentation by Matthew Fienup from California Lutheran University’s Center for Economic Research and Forecasting. Every time I hear him speak, I wish I had studied economy instead of music and psychology. Ok, maybe not instead of; perhaps in addition to.
The news was unsurprisingly concerning. The County’s pre-COVID economy was lagging and we are now working our way through a world-wide pandemic with economic impacts that dwarf the 2008 recession. Eventually, we will come out the other side, but the recovery is not projected to be as robust, as fast, or as complete we may wish.
Matthew shared a slide of his adorable puppy and asked a simple question: “whose eyes do you see this crisis through?”. For his new puppy, coming into his home slightly before the onset of the pandemic, sheltering in place probably seemed like the greatest idea ever. Everyone in the family was home 24/7 which translated into frequent walks and a non-stop stream of affection and human companionship – a dog’s dream.
Some of us are experiencing something similar to the puppy. Those who can easily work remotely remain employed safely at home and are less likely to contract the disease. Sometimes, the results of sheltering in place can even feel like blessings. For example, I traded my minimum 65-minute round trip commute for a very long walk through my neighborhood in the mornings and some parts of life seemed to slow down, a relief from the constant movement of life before. I was in a unique position to be able to support my daughter as she embarked on the strange journey that is distance learning but even more than that, I am suddenly a part of her kindergarten experience in a way that I never would have been had she started in 2019 instead of 2020. For this group, some things are better than they were before. This group is fortunate.
Unfortunately, this way of experiencing the pandemic is not universal. The pandemic is disproportionately impacting some groups more than others. Matthew stressed in his presentation that there are families who did not recover economically from the 2008 recession and there are those who will not recover economically from this most recent crisis. Job loss, illness, reduced hours and sudden and prolonged unemployment will have long-lasting impacts for many families in our community. I think it is important to note as well that this presentation was focused on economy – it didn’t delve into the physical and emotional impacts of this crisis, which will also disproportionately impact some members and groups in our community more than others.
We are in for rough times, but the impacts have not been and will not be felt equally. There is concern of a K shaped recovery, in which people in higher paying, technical and remote sectors recover strongly while lower-paying, non-remote industries decline and fail to recover as quickly or as fully. Two separate, side-by-side recoveries with significant and lasting repercussions which would exacerbate existing inequalities in our community.
One would expect, based upon the lack of pre-pandemic local economic growth followed by pandemic fueled job losses, that the housing market would soften. Ventura County consistently defies these expectations. Pre-pandemic, rent and home prices continued to increase while incomes since 2000, after adjusting for inflation, decreased . Stranger still, home prices and rent continue to increase even in the wake of the pandemic. It is staggering and almost incomprehensible; but 15 years of working in the housing industry have frequently caused me to pause and wonder if housing here will ever be attainable for all members of our community.
After the seriousness of the morning presentations, the drum circle was a welcome respite. There is something about the rhythm and resonance of a drum circle that speaks to our soul. It’s an external, shared heartbeat. A community.
We came together in the courtyard of the Museum of Ventura County, masked and distanced in a large circle. Instantly dubbed “The VCLA Cohort 26 Percussion Ensemble”, John Lacques from Drumtime led us in call and response and then randomly called on each of us to play a solo – a connected series of short performances by VCLA’s finest and truest drum amateurs (well at least most of us were amateurs – I have my suspicions about a few of you!). I was nervous. I like to be prepared. Even as a musician I was not an improviser; I diligently practiced so that I would be ready for every performance. As I anxiously waited for my turn to solo (have I mentioned that the primary factor that ended my musical career was chronic and debilitating stage fright?), I placed my hands on my drumhead so that I was ready to go when I was called. It was then that something magical happened. My drum wasn’t sitting idle. It was immediately clear that it wasn’t tensely waiting, worried about what would happen when it was our turn (traitor!). It was engaged, vibrating sympathetically with the current soloist, quietly understanding what was being said and singing along.
We are connected, it softly reminded me. Even when we are socially distanced, even if we seem completely detached, alone and disconnected. We are part of a bigger whole.
Shortly after this realization, I managed to mess up my very short solo. Somehow, I got off beat. As a former musician, it was humbling. I don’t exercise my creative muscles often enough anymore. I am pulled in so many exhausting directions every day as I multi-task my roles as a wife, parent, friend, employee and concerned local citizen. I am out of practice and out of touch with my own creativity. I have felt it before, and I felt it again, calling to me to return. One day, I will find a way to answer that call.
Live music exists in the moment. It dawned on me that even as I had stumbled, the other drums (and drummers) had been there, quietly beating in support. Once again, I placed my hands on the drumhead, noting that my drum was already actively responding to the beat of the next drummer. We are connected.
As I looked around the circle, I reflected that sitting in community with people outside of my household has become a novel experience. Something I used to take for granted was suddenly a profound and specific joy. One of the most impactful consequences of prolonged orders to shelter in place is that we are isolated from family and friends. Less often, we think about how isolated we are from our community as a whole. Interacting with acquaintances and strangers is an important and under-rated part of our social fabric. The arts are critical in connecting us, before, during and after this pandemic finally ends. For a brief time, music brought shared experience and community to our cohort.
My thoughts wandered back to the question posed earlier in the day – whose eyes do you see this crisis through? By default, we see and experience the world through our own unique lens. It is easy to feel connected to and understand those with similar experiences. It is much more difficult, and correspondingly more important, to remember that we are also connected to people with experiences and perspectives drastically different from our own. We are connected to those who appear to be perfectly fine, just as we are connected to those who are clearly struggling. As humans and especially as leaders, it is important that we take the time to step away from our individual points of view and choose to actively listen, and maybe even hum along quietly for a time, to everything that is happening around us so that we can gain a comprehensive and deeper understanding of the challenges and successes facing our community.
We are connected.
Jennifer Duston, VCLA Cohort XXVI
As John Quincy Adams so eloquently stated, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, & become more, you are a leader.” I couldn’t choose words more appropriate to describe Cohort XXVI and our day of learning with community leaders as a part of the Ventura County Leadership Academy.
Although we began the day in the ever so normalized
Zoom meeting that has come to be the standard for group meetings these days, let me tell you it did not disappoint. We were guided through a beautiful history of leadership by the knowledgeable and thought provoking Genevieve Evans Taylor (VCLA Cohort XVI), Chief of Staff to the President at CSU Channel Islands. We examined the evolution of leadership throughout the years and began on a deeper dive into the journey of relational leadership. We each explored the concepts of being inclusive and ensuring diversity is at the table, sharing our power to empower others, as well as the importance of leadership being purposeful, ethical, and process oriented. We leaned into and celebrated the idea that anyone can be a leader, being reminded it is a choice one makes and does not happen by accident.
Next up, we were headed to our very first on-site meeting as a cohort at The Search Dog Rescue Foundation in one of the most beautiful facilities I’ve experienced in our county. With lots of open space, we were each given our own chair, doused with hand sanitizer, and told to pick a space on the grass of what seemed like the size of a football field. We are the FIRST VCLA Cohort to meet in-person in the midst of a pandemic and we handled it well...socially distanced, masked, and hand sanitizer flowin’! As VCLA Director Pattie Braga gave us the rundown, it became evidently clear that the opportunities abound for our group and the importance of taking advantage of connecting with and learning from the leaders around us.
Thanks to Dr. Tiffany Morse (VCLA Cohort XVII), Superintendent of Ojai Unified School District, we got to know our fellow cohorts real quick! Who knew a group could have so much fun and learn so much about what another through “socially distanced icebreakers?!” We so appreciated Dr. Morse’s approach to facilitating this and going the extra mile to ensure just the perfect mix of fun and seriousness to begin forming the bonds that will carry us through this year.
Throughout the day we had multiple sessions that were nothing short of engaging and thought-provoking as well as welcomed by various county leaders. Brad “Brick” Conners, City Manager of Port Hueneme and President & CEO Pharos Leadership joined us and shared his excitement and admiration for our group and what we are doing. Chiany Dri, Anti-racism Educator and Consultant spent some time leading us through a series of Bias exercises and a very meaningful discussion around diversity. Rhett Mauck, Director of Development at The Search Dog Foundation gave us a tour and history of their work--simply amazing--I encourage you to reach out for a tour and learn more! Last but not least, Herb Gooch, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science (Ret) at California Lutheran University gave us a crash course in local and state politics.
We even had a visit from VCLA Alumni, Caitlin Barringer, it was so inspiring to hear her say that "The VCLA program gave me the opportunity to learn from the best and inspired me to engage more with my community, which is what made me want to run for Santa Paula City Council!”
By the end of the day all I could think of was how grateful I am to be part of such a quality organization, surrounded by so many amazing leaders. In just 2 meetings with my cohorts, I can already tell that we are being called to dream more, learn more, do more, & become more! We are after all, virtually the best!
VCLA Cohort XXVI
Program Manager/Transportation Planning
Ventura County Transportation Commission
If you don't like dogs or puns, this recap of VCLA Cohort XXVI Session 2 is going to be ruff. Please furgive me and I promise by the time you've finished reading you won't be hounding anyone for more.
Our second session (but first in person!) was held on Friday October 9th at the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, which is truly one of the most spectacular facilities I have ever visited. I highly recommend you sniff them out if you have a chance. Not only were we lucky enough to visit this beautiful spot tucked away in rural Santa Paula, but we also learned they didn't charge us a dime for the meeting space. If you thought this was a real treat like I did and are interested in throwing them a bone, I added a link to donate to their organization here: https://donate.searchdogfoundation.org/1170.
Before we set out for Santa Paula, we started our morning on Zoom diving into the basics of relational leadership with Genevive Evans Taylor, who laid the foundation for us to evaluate our approach to becoming a successful leader. Her presentation was enlightening and I appreciated that the tools she provided could be put into practice immediately. I look forward to using the lessons learned from our morning session as I move forward in my professional development. After the morning Zoom session, we drove to the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation where I was immediately comforted with the sound of barking dogs and also put at ease to find we were meeting outside, socially distanced, with my fellow cohort members wearing masks (so no bites!).
Dr. Tiffany Morse led us through a pandemic friendly ice-breaker and we were off to the races to learn more about each other and what we have in common. I felt encouraged to open up to my group because Dr. Morse did an excellent job fostering a positive environment where we could focus on our similarities. After our ice-breaker we split into groups to recap our Immersion Activities and it was great to hear about the wide spectrum of options we each had to choose from in our County. We went on to have lunch and go through a bias workshop with Chiany Dri, who did a fantastic job teaching us about our own inherent biases. It reaffirmed that we all have room for improvement and I was thankful to have a presentation on such a timely issue.
Afterwards we went on a facility tour guided by Rhett Mauck, the Director of Development for the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. Although there was much less dog-petting than I was hoping for, I was nonetheless fascinated by his overview of the work they do. Their mission is to strengthen disaster response in America by rescuing and recruiting dogs and partnering them with firefighters and other first responders to find people buried alive in the wreckage of disasters. The property is immaculate, the dogs sound incredible, and I will continue to talk about their organization to anyone that will listen for the furseeable future.
The final presentation was given by Herb Gooch, who gave us a crash course in Ventura County politics. It was refreshing to receive an unbiased overview of the political races and I appreciated the comprehensive background on our state and county history, which will definitely come in handy as we go through the upcoming election.
VCLA Alumni have often described the program as "drinking from a firehose" and after only two sessions, I couldn't agree more. Session 2 was informative and a lot of fun. I can only imagine how much work went on behind the scenes to make it successful. Thank you to Pattie, our speakers, and the VCLA Board.
I'm grateful for the opportunity to participate in VCLA and continue to learn more about our County and build relationships with my fellow Cohort members. Although we are transitioning to safe in-person sessions, Cohort XXVI will continue to be virtually the best!
Thanks fur reading.
VCLA Alumni, Cohort XXV
Development Manager, Kids & Families Together
The mission and purpose of Ventura County Leadership Academy (VCLA) is "connecting people & issues to strengthen our county" and it is something that they embody well. As a recent graduate of Cohort 25 (Aptly named “We Survived”, due to the COVID-19 pandemic cutting our year a little short), I had no idea the impact that VCLA would have not only on my career, but on my heart for our community as well.
Although I enjoyed and learned from many aspects of the program; our visit to Sacramento & meeting with our representatives, visiting the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Situation Room, touring the Waste Management Recycling Plant and the Colleagues Municipal Water District, it was being invited to attend the California Lutheran University’s Center for Economic Research & Forecasting (CERF) luncheon in 2019 that helped sparked my recent run for office. It was at this luncheon where I realized for the first time that Ventura County is experiencing negative population growth. Additionally, the city in which I reside (Santa Paula), is in the second year of population loss. I asked myself how this could be, as I see Ventura County as a gem on the coast, so beautiful that we are a tourist destination, with amenities that would attract anyone to want to live here. That is when I decided that while I may not be able to help the county at large, I can be more involved on a local level and work to shine a light on all the wonderful things Santa Paula is and can be. The VCLA program gave me mountains of great information which I learned from the guest speakers and presenters that were experts in their fields. This knowledge gave me the confidence to sit and have breakfast with the City Manager, ask probing questions and learn more about local issues impacting my community. I decided to get more involved and was soon appointed to the Measure T Commission, then eventually deciding to run for City Council, hoping to be that next generation leader and voice in our community.
I believe that I am qualified to serve on Santa Paula's city council not only because of my roots in the Santa Paula community, my experience in the nonprofit sector, but because I completed the VCLA program. It has taught me about the issues impacting in not only my own city, but throughout the county. I’ve built lasting connections with my cohort, many of VCLA’s over 600 other alumni, and I believe it has allowed me to build relationships with people that I can partner and collaborate with to make our community a better place. Thank you VCLA for staying true to your mission and supporting existing and emerging leaders like myself and giving me tools to go out and make a difference in my community.