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Jess Weihe, VCLA Cohort XXVI
Director or Marketing, Mustang Marketing
“Listen to their voices,” rung in my head — a sentiment expressed from an earlier speaker, as Michael Jump, chief deputy district attorney and director of victim and community services for the
County of Ventura, shared with us why the ceilings in the new Ventura County Family Justice Center are painted like the sky. It’s because a young girl who had experienced trauma suggested it, he told us. Sometimes, she had explained to him while they were walking down the hallways, that in order to avoid eye contact during difficult conversations, she’d look up at the ceiling, and it would be nice to have something pretty to look at. “And now our ceilings have skies.”
April 9 was our social services-focused day, and our first full-day, in-person cohort session since last year. Graciously hosted by Moorpark College (with a wonderful tour of America’s Teaching Zoo mid-day — Jasmine the monkey is a girl after my heart), Cohort XXVI — we’re virtually the best! — along with a few Cohort XXV members, listened to leadership from various county organizations and nonprofits share just exactly how they’ve been listening to those whom they provide services for.
This listening led to a lot of pivoting — that’s no revelation, to be sure. Hasn’t this year basically been declared the year of the pivot? If not, I’m declaring it. And with that being said, never have we seen such incredible examples of it than we have as through some of our local leadership and the work that has gone into restructuring and responding to a surge in need — not to mention a different type of need — during the pandemic. Janette Jauregui, the PIO for the county’s Area Agency on Aging, for example, spoke to us about the transportation services they’ve mobilized for our senior community members to receive vaccinations, as well as about the millions of meals they’ve delivered to seniors throughout our county this past year. Prior to the pandemic, the support requests the agency handled — while it did provide food assistance — primarily focused more on housing aid as a leading need. Food Share CEO Monica White described the more than 300-plus pop-up food banks they arranged, and have been arranging, six days a week, throughout the county to respond to increased food insecurity. The numbers are staggering: millions of pounds food, more than 150,000 residents served each month. We even learned about the challenges of zoom counseling sessions from both Patti Yabu (interim director of community counseling services at CLU) and Tess Allen (executive director of the Diversity Collective) related to patient privacy when patients may not be zooming from a safe, private space. For example, Tess shared respecting one’s gender identity via zoom, when they may not be in a home environment welcoming or aware of that gender identity, was new territory to navigate.
Through each experience shared, the resounding theme for me, always came back to that listening component. Organizations that provide resources and services to our community are already doing important, much-needed work — but that ability to adapt and change and expand services to meet the new needs of so many is really what leadership and service is all about. Any one of these organizations could have continued operating just exactly as they had been (an already important service) — but they did more than that. They challenged themselves to dig deep and find solutions. In a pandemic, the status quo, not surprisingly, is nowhere to be found. And, in a time of true crisis for so many, they rose up to be that critical lifeline, demonstrating the power and capability of social services, and what we can accomplish when we work together.
Mid-morning, we stepped outside for an exercise. Gathered around in a large circle, Shawna Morris, CEO of Casa Pacifica, tossed out a ball. “Tell me one thing you know about Casa Pacifica.” The ball was kicked and lobbed from person to person as we each shared a little tidbit. “I know about Casa’s Angels.” “Casa supports vulnerable youth in our community.” “One of our cohort members, Susan Santangelo works at Casa!” “Casa’s annual Wine, Food & Brew event is the best!” And so on. The exercise was a valuable one. I’ve heard about Casa Pacifica NUMEROUS times. I’ve been on their campus on more than one occasion when they’ve allowed other nonprofits to use some of their space. I “know/knew” of what they do … but when tasked with describing that, I found that there’s so much this organization provides that I wasn’t even the slightest bit aware of or at least not able to eloquently boil down to an elevator speech. By the end of Shawna’s presentation, I was ready to figure out how to move mountains for this organization. Rinse and repeat after each speaker visit — talk about igniting a spark.
I left the session truly inspired, motivated and exhausted — and I know I’m not the only one. Whether it was an organization, like RaisingHOPE, that started out as a weekend walkathon to raise awareness for children in need of foster families or an organization that started from a woman’s mission to glean leftover food to feed food-insecure families (Food Share) … each of these organizations and leaders has found a “gap” area of need in our community and addressed it — and then double down during a pandemic. Thank you.
How do you help? I’m so glad you asked. Your donations, your dollars and your hours. They need it all. Give what you can, where you can, when you can. And don’t underestimate the power of your words. Talk about these organizations with your friends and families. Help them raise awareness. We got this.
Dhruv Pandya, VCLA Cohort XXVI
Information Security Specialist, J.D. Power
Terri Anderson, VCLA Cohort XXVI
Labor Relations Manager, County of Ventura
What a day! Ventura County is known for many things, but one of THE top things for which our county is known for is Agriculture. And of course, how agriculture grows is affected by our water and the environment, so the day was filled with a wealth of information covering these three topics.
While several cohort XXVI members participated via Zoom, the excitement of session #8 topics were energized by the fact that our county moved into the red tier and we were able to meet in person; we screamed (inside of course), masked ourselves up, socially distanced and headed to the fields.
In preparation for our outdoor visits, John Krist, CEO of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County, (the region’s oldest and largest agricultural association), gave us a historical overview of the farmlands of our county via Zoom. A bit of history on John if his name sounds familiar: he was a journalist for the Ventura County Star for nearly 25 years, covering topics regarding land-use policy, natural resources and environmental issues. Additionally, Mr. Krist is also a published author.
For 150 years in Ventura County, farming has included sugar beets, grain, apricots, walnuts, and lima beans. Currently our top 10 leading crops include strawberries, celery, lemons, raspberries, nursery stock, avocados, tomatoes, cut flowers, peppers, and hemp. That’s right, hemp.
There are approximately 2000 farms in Ventura County. What sets Ventura County apart is the scale: the average farm size is about 122 acres and consists primarily of fruits and vegetables, for the fresh market. Labor-intensive costs associated with crops make it extremely expensive to farm the land here in Ventura County. California has higher-than-average energy costs; things like running water pumps are more expensive; manual labor cost more; and as we all know, the cost of living in Ventura County comes with a price. Yet we are #8 in the state and the nation in gross production value.
In 2019, the top ten crops were over $1.6 billion in gross production value, and in Ventura County our total crop value was over $2.2 billion gross production value. (Don’t confuse that with profit, however!)
We were lucky enough to visit two of those Ventura County farms: Terry Farms and McGrath Family Farms. Terry Farms planted their “roots” here in Ventura County in 1894, in the Montalvo area, now the Ventura Auto Center, and is currently run by father and son, Edgar and Will Terry. The climate, a major driving force for choosing this area, helped their crops grow to over 2000 acres of celery, cilantro, peppers, cabbage, and of course, various types of strawberries.
Fun fact: Terry Farms is one of two farms in California that grows the Albion strawberry (Betsy’s favorite), and Edgar was kind enough to grace each of us with a 16 ozs. pack of those Albion’s to snack on. Want to sample those Albion’s for yourself? Stop by Terry’s Berries stand in Ventura located on Telephone Road, across from the Kimball Park, where you will find those and many other great perishables.
McGrath Farms: the “Gateway” to regenerative farming!
McGrath Family Farms is a 300-acre farm dedicated to regenerative and organic farming. Led by the owner, Phil McGrath, this is a fourth-generation Ventura County farm. The sweet chirping of birds enjoying the farms is drowned out only by airplane noises from neighboring Camarillo airport, exhibiting a precise amalgamation of the modern world and nature.
Phil welcomed the cohort with excitement. He is a motivated mentor to many upcoming farmers, teaching them the importance and the art of organic farming. “A farmer knows his land better than anyone else,” goes the saying, which is certainly true of Phil. His knowledge pairs up with science to develop innovative and sustainable farming methods. Thanks to Phil’s curiosity and dedication, Rodale Institute, a leading research institute for organic farming, set up their satellite location for conducting regionally focused research, trials, farmer outreach and consumer education at his farm in 2019.
The farm has a dedicated acre space for researching on various forms of sustainable farming. This educational space is bounded by California native vegetation, which also attracts a lot of fauna that aid in the regenerative farming process.
Phil explained how Ventura County was ahead of the curve for water management regulations and agencies. Owing to almost a decade-long drought, in 2014, then-California governor Jerry Brown, passed legislation for monitoring ground water supplies. Farming water supply and ground water management also are well-known for complex adjudication and litigations. We learned about prescriptive rights to water supply and how the state has requested McGrath Farms to reduce their water consumption by 40% in next 20 years, which is a major shift in the way farming is accomplished.
Currently, the water supply cost for McGrath farms is around $270/ Acre Foot and is projected to go high through out the decade as the sea water intrusion increases in the ground.
Where I come from there is a saying in Sanskrit:
सुवर्ण्य रौप्य माणिक्य वसनैरपि पूरिता: |
तथापि प्रार्थय नत्येव कृष्कान भक्त तृष्णया ||
This translates to “Even after earning all the riches in the world, one has to depend on farmer for getting the food to the table.” As we grow in population and move towards advanced degrees, we are producing fewer farmers. Demand is far outpacing the supply and hence commercialization of farming has become common, which uses harmful chemicals to expedite plant growth. As much as it is harmful for a human body to consume such produce, it is also harmful to the environment, soil, air, etc. One can destroy the natural regeneration of minerals in the soil by using heavy pesticides.
Hence, Phil is more focused doing what he can to stem that tide of commercial farming: first, delivering food to our community, and then providing organic and sustainable produce to the Southern California region. McGrath Family Farm continues to serve as a beacon of hope for upcoming organic farmers through the mentorship of Phil McGrath and his wonderful team at McGrath Farms. They’ve been motivated to establish Farmivore; a program which brings local produce to be delivered to the local community giving local farmers and upcoming young farmers a place in which to sell their produce.
Like many other businesses, Covid hit the farming industry hard. Since March 2020, Ventura County, like the rest of the world, has basically been shut down. About 40-60% of what farmers produce goes to food services—restaurants and institutions, and usually, the average household spends approximately 50% on eating outside the home. Since restaurants and the businesses which support them were closed down, it’s easy to imagine the difficulty for the farmers. During Covid, many farmers learned the hard way about what ignoring the fine print of a contract can cost them. After several contracts were canceled, McGrath Farms reached out to companies who pointed him to force majeure, and pandemic clause was enlisted to help the farm survive.
Our next stop was the Ventura County Agriculture Museum, located in Santa Paula. The museum in housed in a historic Mill Building (1888), preserving the rich history of ranching and farming in Ventura County. The museum still preserves the original flooring from the late 1800’s and is a phenomenal exhibition of deep-rooted farming history. The building was originally part of the Southern Pacific Railroad, built as one of 8 warehouses. It was designed to be an agricultural storage facility. The museum is currently closed due to the Pandemic but we look forward to the time when it is open to public to exhibit the Cesear Chavez exhibit and its pristine and elegant gardens of flowers and vegetables.
The afternoon continued with a great information and learning on Ventura County’s Oil and Gas Industry. California is currently exceeding its demand far more than the available supply. Out of total requirement of 7830 Trillion BTU we import 5399 Trillion BTU. Petroleum continues to be the primary commercial fuel with 91% of transportation fuels based on petroleum. We have an increased reliance on other countries for crude oil. These countries do not necessarily hold the same values as California. Ventura County, 4th largest crude oil producer in the state, produces 18,000 Barrels per day leading to $21 Million in taxes to the County and directly employing 900 employees.
We learned that regulatory oversight for the petroleum and oil production is advanced and is overseen by over 25 local, state and federal agencies. This also directly impacts social equity. According to data released by Public Policy Institute of California, 17% of Ventura County residents live in poverty and another 18 % are “Near-Poverty.” Californians pay 55.8% more for residential electric power and $0.98/more per Gallon of gasoline than the average of another states. These high costs of energy disproportionately impact disadvantaged communities.
The above information is also evident of how much we need alternative, renewable sources of energy to fulfill our energy requirements.
We ended our day with visiting the Calleguas Municipal Water District (MWD) and bewitching Lake Bard, AKA Wood Ranch Reservoir. The Wood Ranch Reservoir officially became known as "Lake Bard" following a dedication ceremony in May 1967 to honor Richard Bard, a founding Board Member and the first President of Calleguas MWD. The property for the MWD originally belonged to Adrian Wood of the Wood Ranch.
A delightful walking tour of the water treatment plant led us to Lake Bard. The MWD supplies water to three quarters of the Ventura County residents directly or indirectly (via retail purveyors). Lake Bard procures its incoming water supply from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which in turn is supplied via the state water project from northern California. The tunnel carrying the water, comes all the way from Santa Susana mountains, is 8 feet in diameter and the only incoming consistent water supply to the reservoir. This poses a huge risk to the water district as a natural disaster can completely cut the water supply and cause a massive shortage of water.
At the end of the day, one of the biggest takeaways is how conscious one needs to be of the natural resources. Gone are the days when we had abundance of the resources gifted by nature. As the American novelist Wendell Berry says, “Earth is the only thing we have in common,” and preserving it any capacity one can should be the highest priority. That can be done through regenerative farming, water conservation and adopting more renewable energy sources.
The day started off a little unnerving. With the fires burning, we all had to rearrange our personal schedules a bit, whether that was traveling, daycare, work or even freeway access – they were small issues, but affecting us all. I was checking my email constantly that morning. Coming from West County, I wasn’t sure if we would cancel, move the location or have to jump yet again to another freeway to make sure I was on time-
Being late for the 2nd day of school is just as bad as being late for the first day.
Jump forward a few hours, and in spite of a few detours, Focus Session #2 was on course, barreling straight down the tracks to Local Government, and personal reflection, with #25toLife on board. Settling in to my seat at the Human Services Agency, I was excited and nervous to see what the day held.
Dr. Herb Gooch was wonderful and insightful with explaining (in the most easy to understand terms) how government works alongside politics, and even had helpful stories and (!!!) a PowerPoint to assist my visual learning brain.
He then introduced and moderated a discussion with County of Ventura Supervisor, Kelly Long, and City of Moorpark Council Member, David Pollock, beautifully icing and adding personal sprinkles to my government comprehension cake.
Moving forward, the day was a swirl of Simi Valley learning. From City Hall, to the Library and on to the Sheriff Department, learning the history, culture, and personality of the City helped me to understand the community and how each sector and neighborhood works together to build a strong and vital municipality. When Fred Bauermeister, the Executive Director of the Free Clinic of Simi Valley spoke about his work and place of business, I could grasp how non-profits were able to fill in the gaps in cities, and how those in Public work could still help while fulfilling their passions by volunteering at Private and Non-Profit organizations, further helping and strengthening their community.
Mixed in to the activities were two more personal leadership growth discussions and exercises. I enjoy learning more about myself, as well as my fellow Cohort partners through the guidance and expertise of previous Cohort members and mentors. Banks Pecht helped to grow us individually in a Leadership as Applied lesson, while as a group, we all collectively grew together in Genevieve Evans Taylor, Ed.D.’s Authentic Leadership exercise.
By the end of the day, I wholeheartedly believe I can speak for just about everyone, in that we all had a full, eventful, educating, enriching and fun day that left us all a little tired, mostly at maximum mental capacity, full in personal connections and experiences, more connected with our local communities and government, and definitely overly excited for what next month’s Focus Session will bring.
Driving home from work on Thursday September 12, 2019, the night before VCLA Day One, I was giddy with excitement and gratitude thinking about VCLA starting the next day. I have worked continuously, one way or another since I was 12 years old when I first starting delivering magazines on my bike. However, I have not previously had an opportunity for formal personal development. Therefore, I view my time in VCLA as a gift.
I have not ever really thought about my personal strengths or picking a career that built upon them. I have always loved solving puzzles. Aside from the summer after my junior year at CSUN, when I briefly thought about getting a teaching credential (which was an acceptable career for women in 1981), I thought I wanted to be an attorney-advocate since childhood.
As part of VCLA, all new cohort members are required to take the Clifton Strength Finder. On Day One, Hilary Howard shared her expertise in this area with us. She taught us that we can only build on our strengths, and that we cannot build performance on weakness. This message really resonated with me, especially after running for VUSD School Board last year, and losing. I have spent some time, wasted it seems, over the last year trying to figure out how to identify and improve my weaknesses. However, Ms. Howard’s message taught me that my worldview was backwards, I should be working on maximizing my strengths.
Ms. Howard taught us there are thirty-four prevalent talents, out of which there are thirty-three million combinations. These talents can also be arranged around four main themes: executing, influencing, relationship building and strategic thinking. If you had asked me before I took the Strength Finder which two themes best described me I would have said strategic thinking and executing. However, my top five strengths did not include one strength in executing. My top five strengths include two each in strategic thinking and relationship building, with one in influencing.
Over the last week, I have really thought about this assessment, and my lack of executing strengths. Maybe this explains some things in my life I had attributed to other causes. Clearly, (no pun intended), my strength colored glasses are foggy. However, rather than continue to dwell on improving my weaknesses, I am going to take reassurance in my strengths and use the Cohort 25 to Life community journey to become a more effective leader and change-maker.
Thirty-two individuals took the first steps to becoming a team months before the first session this past Friday. In preparation for applying to become a part of Cohort XXV, I visited the VCLA website and read thru the curriculum. When submitting my application, then again as I prepared for my panel interview, I looked at the website and re-read the expectations. Some weeks later, I received a welcome aboard email. The email was both a welcome and a comprehensive guide to the next steps. Step number one, read, sign, and return an agreement to fulfill the responsibilities and expectations for all cohort members; fourth look at expectations of future cohorts.
September, Friday the 13th I arrived at a remote building in the hills of Ojai. Men and women were in the process of taking seats. I had the agenda, my report, and note-taking materials. The day went mostly as expected. We presented reports, participated in icebreakers, and explored known and unknown information and topics. I had understood that diversity was an important goal for VCLA and I was mildly and pleasantly surprised to meet a couple of folks who I would not readily single out as “leaders” and many who embodied several traits of leadership. Great news, I was prepared to learn and grow with new people over the next year.
Six hours later, I found myself unprepared. My profession is as organizational communicator. “Public” is in my job title. As I looked around the circle of my fellow cohorts from all different backgrounds, motivations, organizations, and communities, and as the “call and response” of the drum circle made its way to me, I could feel my face getting warm and my heart rate pick up. I actually recalled to myself the agreement I had signed: be engaged, be present, communicate, and participate. This couldn’t be part of that requirement. I reassured myself that nobody was expecting a professional performance. I even assured myself that it would take 30 seconds and no one would remember a thing I had done. My turn came and I beat that drum with no expectation of making music or anything pleasant to hear. My 15 seconds (not minutes) of fame passed. I sat there feeling spent and allowing my face to cool.
In my mind, I will rename Focus Session #1, “Reorientation” instead of “Orientation.” I came in with my own expectations beyond the expectations provided to us. I am not shy and like many of Cohort XXV, I signed up to challenge myself. I can’t explain why this particular task was such a challenge to me and I guess that is the point. We are different and we will find things hard while others find them easy. Leadership means a lot of things. We may like, dislike, disagree with, and/or heartily endorse the topics, activities, and speakers over the next few months. For me, on session day one, I faced a challenge because a public drum solo is NOT my thing. Every moment was uncomfortable, and honestly, for me it was embarrassing. I did it. All discordant, disjointed, non-musical, and non-rhythmic all of it. I’m certain it was not as painful for all, maybe not for anyone else. We each will face the next months with our strengths and weaknesses. I will reorient myself. My drum solo is over. We somewhat know what’s coming and we’ll be mostly prepared.
Shortly after our January 11 VCLA session, I took a trip to Pittsburgh for work. As I write this, I am on Southwest Airlines, flying to Denver on my way back home via Burbank.
In the morning portion of the Local Government focus session, the subjects we covered about city government, county government and special districts may not have a greater available organizational and cultural juxtaposition in America than Continue reading
After a morning focusing on local government in Thousand Oaks, I drove the back way through the agricultural fields of Camarillo, a part of the city unfamiliar to me, and met the rest of the cohort at the Port of Hueneme. Upon arrival, we were greeted by Continue reading
How much water comes from the San Joaquin Valley (ie Sacramento) to support the Metropolitan Water District (serving you, me and the 18.999998 million people in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties)?
It seems like only yesterday that I took my seat at Camp Arnaz for Cohort XXIII’s very first session. I remember looking around the room at a sea of unfamiliar faces, not sure what to expect but excited to find out. And now I’m preparing to sit among my fellow cohorts — no longer unfamiliar faces, but instead cherished new friends — at graduation as we conclude Continue reading