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The Status Quo is Nowhere to Be Found During a Pandemic

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.

Agriculture, Water, and the Environment

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.

Societal Inequities in Education

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.

The Well-Being of Students During COVID

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.