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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.
Lately, as the success of the Reel Guppy Outdoors program has surged, I have taken some time to reflect upon the people and events that have gotten us here. An important part of my success with this program has been the lessons I took away from my participation in the Ventura County Leadership Academy. What VCLA has done for me in my career and volunteer work is incredibly valuable: first and foremost, it taught me how to be a leader.
I have been active in my community for many years. I have long held a deep drive to serve others and to make my community better. What I needed were the tools for making connections, for building a network of leaders to support my vision, and for taking my dreams from vision to reality. From day one in VCLA we were instructed in a leadership approach that involved empowerment, personal connection, and ethical behavior. I grew tremendously; I learned how to be a leader in building my own company and brand. I learned how to identify a need and then step up to fulfill it.
In short, I want to share three key take-aways that I learned through my participation in VCLA Cohort XX.
These lessons have helped to shape who I am and how I approach my work in Ventura County. Since my participation in Cohort XX, I have built the Reel Guppy program from concept to action. I am proud to say that my leadership has brought in more volunteers, supporters, and media attention than ever. And it’s only the beginning! We are providing healthy, exciting, hands-on opportunities for kids – most of them low-income and at-risk. VCLA helped to give me some tools that I use every day in making Ventura County an even better place to live. I’d like to invite all of you to come out to see what we are doing and to get involved. Visit http://
VCLA is very near and dear to my heart. The lessons I learned have helped to propel me to greater things than I had ever imagined. I’m thankful for the opportunity to serve Ventura County, and to put my leadership skills into action.
Kevin Brannon, Cohort XX (“Dos Equis”), AKA the Best Cohort Ever
Founder, Reel Guppy Outdoor, a nonprofit corporation