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Why Is This Man Smiling?

Geoff Green has played a pivotal role in Growing the Fund for Santa Barbara


As director of the Fund for Santa Barbara (FSB) — now entering its 25th year in operation — Geoff Green has played a pivotal role promoting many of the grassroots organizations now afflicting Santa Barbara County’s comfortable and comforting its afflicted. The Fund provided startup money to the organizers now poised to win passage of a Living Wage ordinance at the Santa Barbara City Council. Likewise, the nonprofit group helped transform a loosely knit gathering of frustrated South Coast mass-transit and commuter-rail advocates into a potent lobbying force countywide. And thanks to a small grant from the Fund, a retired attorney has waged a highly successful rearguard legal campaign against a Santa Barbara ordinance designed to make it easier for police to ticket poor people living in their vehicles. And when Santa Maria farmworkers showed up en masse at a government meeting last Thursday to testify about inadequate transit services, the elected officials in the room had Green and the Fund to thank, however reluctantly.

Geoff Green
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

Geoff Green

In  a region distinguished by its uncommonly vibrant — and well-endowed — nonprofit community, the Fund for Santa Barbara has quietly emerged as the biggest little foundation on the South Coast. Instead of dispensing traditional charity — as most nonprofits do — the Fund has successfully prevailed upon those of means to help those without to redress the basic inequities of race, sex, and class. For years, the Fund was the only such game in town, doling out modest grants to activists and organizers that could not otherwise have been funded. “Geoff is the venture capitalist,” said Tom Parker of the Hutton Foundation. “He and the Fund take chances a lot of us can’t. They go places we can’t go.”

Green didn’t create the Fund. It was a thriving concern by the time he started working there in 1997. But since being anointed director in 2003, Green has helped increase the Fund’s visibility, respect, and impact in political circles. He is quick to praise his fellow workers and boardmembers for their intelligence, creativity, and passion. He’s equally quick to acknowledge the rare opportunities the Fund has provided him. Green started his first day on the job by meeting with extremely low-income tenants — almost all recent immigrants — who were seeking to create a housing co-op. At lunch, he met with downtown business leaders open to or sympathetic with the Fund’s agenda. And in the evening he attended a staff retreat held at a large Montecito estate. “You had these three very separate worlds. But my whole purpose was — and is — to connect them by finding a common vision of what this community should be like and what social justice should look like,” he said.

For government officials on the receiving end of FSB-supported campaigns, the experience is not always pleasant. More than one Santa Barbara city councilmember has been heard fuming over PUEBLO organizer Harley Augustino’s uncompromising approach to any multitude of issues. PUEBLO (People Unified for Economic Justice Building Leadership Through Organizing) is among the Fund’s largest recipients. And mass-transit advocate Alex Pujo — with COAST (Coalition for Sustainable Transportation) — won few friends in high places when he threatened to sink a major funding initiative for road improvements if alternative transit needs were not addressed. Where Augustino and Pujo provide the vinegar, Green — now 33 — is all honey, radiating calm, savvy, and affability. “You’re not supposed to be a well-adjusted radical. It defies the stereotype,” said UCSB Professor Dick Flacks, one of Green’s longtime political mentors. “But Geoff combines an unusually strong social conscience with real social grace. It’s very unusual.” And it has led to some unusual alliances.

Just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, anti-war protesters in a weekly march down State Street had become so numerous that business owners complained they were losing customers. Downtown Organization chief Marshall Rose — who represents those stores — contacted Green, then actively involved in anti-war activities, for a pow-wow. Together, they hammered out a deal with the police that shortened the time needed to close the street. Later Rose invited Green — along with a few other progressive activists — to join a business coalition supporting Measure A, which sought to increase salaries for city councilmembers and the mayor. The pay was so low, few could afford to serve. Green found himself working on campaign strategy with the likes of beer baron and restaurant supplier Pete Jordano, a staunch conservative. “Regardless of our philosophies, the response when anyone, either a conservative or a liberal, was asked to run, was always the same,” said Green. “They couldn’t afford it.” The coalition won easy approval for the council pay hike.

“One big mistake progressives tend to make with people from the mainstream/conservative establishment is refusing to talk to them,” Green said. “Where does that leave us? Just talking to ourselves.” Sometimes even that can prove nearly impossible.

Some moderate Democrats have felt alienated, pushed aside, and even beaten up by the progressive forces at City Hall. Councilmember Iya Falcone — a bread-and-butter Democrat with strong support from the police and fire unions — managed to win reelection last November, but only after blocking an attempt to knock her off, orchestrated by more liberal council colleague Das Williams. That experience so soured Fire Department Captain Pat McElroy — a lifelong Democrat and longtime union leader — that he changed his party affiliation to Independent.

Meanwhile, the battles between homeowner/neighborhood activists opposing increased housing densities as environmentally unsound and the affordable-housing advocates supporting increased densities as essential for social justice, are causing a crisis of identity within liberal circles. “We have got to find the right model where progressives across the social, political, and environmental camps can come together and work out their differences. The key is to be appropriately respectful where people disagree,” he said. “Progressives have not been particularly good at this over the decades and it’s cost us a lot.” Starting Up Compared to many better-known foundations and nonprofits, the Fund for Santa Barbara is downright puny, giving just $200,000 a year in grants. By contrast, the Santa Barbara Foundation — the 800-pound gorilla of Santa Barbara’s fundraising world — distributes $20 million annually. But compared to the FSB’s early days, it is flush. In its first year, the Fund distributed just $19,500. Back then most of the money went as startup grants to organizations packing a progressive populist punch, including the Santa Barbara Tenants’ Union, Rape Crisis Center, the Legal Defense Center, the Legal Aid Foundation, and the UCSB Gay People’s Union. The Fund also supported the arts: El Teatro de la Esperanza, a Chicano theater troupe, and Rod Lathim’s Santa Barbara Theatre of the Handicapped — which would later mushroom into the critically acclaimed Access Theatre — got their first grants from the Fund for Santa Barbara.

Admittedly, the early days were bumpy. Co-founder and accountant Dave Peri carried the organization in lean times and no one was sure how the wealthier boardmembers would react to their tenants’ rights campaign. Some of FSB’s early donors owned rental property. “I always thought one of those guys was going to say, ‘Hey, this isn’t such a smart idea,’” recalled Ken Williams, one of the original boardmembers who is still active as a homeless advocate. “But you know what — that never happened.”

From the beginning, the Fund was designed to insulate those who decide where the money would be spent from those who donated the money. The grant-making committee is stocked with community activists, believing they will know best who is effective, doing good work. Though some Santa Barbara philanthropists have shied away from this setup, overall it has been successful.

The Fund for Santa Barbara has been blessed by a series of talented executives, including the founding director Nancy Alexander, Jeannie (Middle) Class, and Alice (Hasler) Gilaroo. In the early 1990s, Nancy Weiss became director. A fearless fundraiser and tireless worker, Weiss set out to put the Fund on solid financial footing. She expanded its donor base, established an endowment, and increased the number of grants distributed. The nonprofit’s annual Bread and Roses fundraising bash achieved critical mass when it became the stuff of society columns. Weiss also brought the Fund into Santa Barbara’s complex nonprofit world with a campaign of strategic schmoozing. By building good relations with other nonprofits, she could expand the range of resources the Fund could direct to an issue. It proved to be a fruitful strategy.

Weiss and others, however, began to worry whether they were pursuing their basic mission with enough vigor. “We were turning away groups and individuals who were doing really good work,” she said because many activists lacked an IRS-certified nonprofit status which they then believed legally precluded FSB from funding. Eventually, Weiss and Green concluded they’d been too cautious, and the Fund now routinely makes donations to groups and individuals without tax-exempt status — the only foundation in town to do so. “If we’re challenged, we’re ready to back up our choice,” said Green, “but to date we have never been challenged.” For example, it supported a group of Spanish-speaking tenants seeking to organize against their landlord, Dario Pini, because of extreme habitability complaints. Working with the Environmental Defense Center — which the Fund has also supported — the tenants took Pini to court and forced him to remove the lead-based paint on the walls and pay their relocation costs. (Weiss’s husband, Marc Chytilo, was director of the EDC at the time.) Greener Pastures It was in 1997 that Weiss hired Green as her assistant. At the time, Green was working as a park ranger in Yosemite. But before that, Green had spent more than 10 years reveling in the intense, inspiring, insane energy of Isla Vista politics.

When Green enrolled in UCSB in 1990, he was already politically precocious. As a high school student in Freemont, Green — then a self-described theater geek — had been elected to represent his peers on the local school board. His parents were politically active, but more in union politics. His father, a juvenile probation-officer, was shop steward. And Green recalls walking the picket line with his mother, a sixth-grade math teacher, during a teacher strike. But what Green remembers most about his childhood is that, “I couldn’t get away with anything.”

When Green entered UCSB — from where his mother graduated in 1967 — he became his dorm’s residential assistant, got involved in campus orientation activities, and won a seat on the Associated Students (AS) board. Initially, Green said the campus radicals regarded him as “just another AS lackey.” But over time, his political emphasis shifted as campus activism increased. Students were protesting fee increases and the dissolution of affirmative action; they were demanding an ethnic studies curriculum to fight racism. Green — who grew up in a multicultural neighborhood where “there was no majority anything” — said his experience with minority undergraduates as a dorm resident opened his eyes to the impacts of racism. “I had been naïve enough to think things were more equal than they really were,” he said. “That’s what I had to grow out of.”

Green ran for AS president in 1993 and won. He served on the committee that recommended Henry Yang to be the new UCSB chancellor in ’94. He had a show on KCSB radio and wrote a column for UCSB’s newspaper, the Daily Nexus. And he fell into the intellectual orbit of sociology professor Dick Flacks, who, since he arrived on campus more than 30 years ago, has encouraged left-minded students toward activisim. Normally somewhat reserved, Flacks actually giggles when discussing Green. “I’ve worked with a lot of talented people from his generation,” said Flacks. “But he is really exceptional in a really exceptional group.” But like many UCSB activists, Green came close to impaling his youthful idealism by serving a stint on the Isla Vista Recreation and Park and District (IVRPD) board, to which he was elected in 1994. At the time, the IVRPD was even more gonzo a governmental agency than the community it sought to serve. Relations between the board’s property-owner representatives and its student activist reps were toxic. Board meetings frequently devolved into encounter sessions full of spit and venom. At one point Green and the board majority were proposing planting flora native to the area. One of the boardmembers representing property owners turned to Green and said, “You know, that’s exactly what the Nazis did.”

Shortly after this meeting Green exiled himself to Yosemite National Park, where he stayed for two years. But Dick Flacks, then on the FSB board, wooed him back to Santa Barbara with a job at the Fund in October 1997. Tricks of the Trade As a tag team, Weiss and Green complemented each other uncommonly well. Where Weiss was intense, Green proved easygoing. Where Weiss focused her energy finding new sources of money, Green beat the bushes looking for new activists and new campaigns on which to spend it. And together, they expanded the Fund’s profile throughout the community.

Green also set out to translate passions into concrete political action. “Some people will come up with great ideas, but don’t know how to make it happen,” said Green. Longtime environmental agitator — and former Fund boardmember — Greg Helms marveled at Green’s capacity for tedium. “He’s willing to sink his teeth into the most boring behind-the-scenes work. I get a headache just thinking about it, but Geoff gets off helping people find a kernel of something fundable and even visionary in their passion.” Since the FSB lacked the capacity to give major grants, Weiss and Green initiated a training program for activists in grant-writing skills, fundraising techniques, and the rudiments of grassroots organizing. Much of this handholding involves explaining how to work the media, or how to approach elected officials. The trick? Be very prepared. The other trick? Know if anyone else is doing the same kind of work and, if possible, join forces.

Given the widespread respect the Fund now enjoys throughout the nonprofit community, a Fund grant bestows on recipients the nonprofit equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Frequently, Green will contact other foundation heads with funding recommendations for groups the Fund helped start. Increasingly, other foundations take such recommendations to heart. The Hutton Foundation’s Tom Parker said he was especially impressed with the Fund’s ability to find and sustain organizations working with Santa Barbara’s Latino Community. “That’s what we all need to focus on,” he said. “After all, that’s the future of this community.” Reflecting the Fund’s respectability, Green recently was selected by the Santa Barbara Foundation as the recipient of its Catherine Harvey Fellowship, which is designed to school promising young community leaders.

Nowhere is the Fund’s expanding scope more dramatic than in North County. As South Coast liberals bemoan North County’s growing political dominion on the county Board of Supervisors, the Fund — under Weiss and Green — has been supporting organizations seeking to establish a progressive constituency in the north. In 1996, the Fund issued the first of many grants to help Mixtec strawberry pickers organize. (It was believed by the farm labor recruiters who brought the Mixtecs from Mexico that they would be cheaper and more docile.) About the same time, the Fund issued a grant for the Central Coast Environmental Health Education Project, sponsored by the Environmental Defense Center and designed to help farmworkers deal with effects of pesticide exposure. Today, both projects remain vital.

Andy Caldwell, the irrepressibly conservative lobbyist with COLAB — a property rights advocacy group sponsored primarily by North County big agricultural and business interests — is quick to dismiss the work done by many of the North County groups sponsored by the Fund. Caldwell said he didn’t know Green personally, but added, “By looking at the names of the groups on their vile list, they’re the sort that couldn’t make it up here on their own.”

Such comments only make Green smile. And for good reason. Fully one-third of the activists now serving on the Fund’s grant-making committee come from North County. And the Fund can take credit for fostering at least three of the organizations making the loudest noise on behalf of public transportation in Santa Maria: PUEBLO, COAST, and SBCAN. At a recent Santa Barbara County Association of Governments meeting, so many Spanish- and Mixtec-speaking farmworkers showed up that 5th District Supervisor Joe Centeno, the conservative Republican representing Santa Maria, suggested the county fund translation services to accommodate everyone participating. This marked a small but dramatic reversal from Centeno’s previous vote against such services on the grounds that the county could not afford them. The Long Run In the meantime, Green has no expectations that members of the left will stop squabbling among themselves anytime soon or that poverty, racism, pollution, and environmental destruction will disappear within his lifetime. But in the long run, he remains that rare individual, a left-wing optimist. “If you look back over the past 30 years and ask yourself: ‘Have things gotten better?’ You have to answer yes,” he said. “And I have to think that 50 years from now, people will look back and say the same thing.” Maybe that’s why he’s smiling.

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