When I first arrived in Santa Barbara in 1995 to attend UCSB, I struggled to find people of color on campus and Goleta and in downtown Santa Barbara who occupied positions of decision-making power. Having been raised in the City of Detroit, I had witnessed the legacy of a relentless culture of punishment statewide that sought to use electoral, financial, and media advantage to exacerbate the institutional vulnerabilities faced by minority populations in the city. Not only this, Detroiters themselves were stigmatized by living there. Local and national news regularly smeared us regardless of age, political ideology, class, gender, or nationality. We were subject to spatial segregation and being pathologized for who we were and where we lived and the kind of ideas and values about community life that we and our parents voted for.
Coming from that kind of urban politics, I recognized immediately that certain places in Santa Barbara were havens for minority populations, were places where other people would regard you as a person with ideas worth listening to. La Casa is a place where people are encouraged to participate in the community in ways that the public comment section of School Boards and City Council meetings cannot provide.
In my view there are two ways to think about La Casa: 1) as a potential cash cow for developers, underwriters, and banks, or 2) as a nearly half-a-century-old community center that provides direct services and brings together all kinds of people to deepen their ties to community and civic engagement.
If one views La Casa primarily through the former view, then the Chapter 11 filing on February 17 seems like a convenient opportunity to discharge debt, to acquire 26,000 square feet of high-rent building space, and to use local politics to finally show the Latino community that they are truly unwelcome in the political life and decision-making of Santa Barbara.
If one views La Casa primarily through the latter view, then a higher level of scrutiny and critical thinking has to be brought to bear on the Chapter 11 filing. The potential of a foreclosure of this anchor institution and the displacement of the dynamic and vibrant community that animates its social vision and cultural mission has to be understood as a tragedy worthy of mobilizing against.
If we are honest there are far too many barriers for everyday people to participate in public service and community and civic life in Santa Barbara. One should not have to run for elected office or become a full-time activist in order to learn about and contribute to making sure that fellow-feeling and community building are sustained. Organizations like La Casa bring together people from across the range of constituencies and interests in the Santa Barbara community. They build relationships and trust; they identify needs that can be addressed by regular folks. La Casa broadens people’s agendas and political goals so they can work together, build solidarity, and treat each other as human beings deserving of dignity.
You don’t have to be a young urban professional with multiple degrees to have a voice at La Casa. You just have to be someone who cares about wages that people can live on, making sure children are getting the best quality education, elders having access to health care, and that members of the Latino community are respected as individuals and as political and social collectives.
And if you happen to be that young urban professional, if you walk through the doors of La Casa you will have the opportunity to hear from and collaborate with the people whose experiences are most unlike yours in Santa Barbara. But, in that space you will be on an equal footing. You will be reminded that everybody counts and that public service and public policy are not just career tracks. They are callings for people who wish to commit to learning and service.
In this era of politicians — local, state, and national — using vile demagoguery and narcissism to steal airtime and space for thinking and problem solving about some really serious and important concerns, more than ever we need the kind of community dialogues on democracy, town halls on immigration, presentations on where marijuana dispensaries fit in a context of an epidemic of mental illness, and cross-cultural dialogues where people have honest and real debates that can become the basis for meaningful public policy.
I stayed in Santa Barbara and completed my education not just because of ambition or drive or dedicated mentoring. I was able to thrive because anchor institutions that supported the Latino community made space for me as a young black woman when other places considered my plight and loneliness something to laugh about.
Being disregarded because one is member of a disparaged and even hated racial or ethnic or linguistic or sexual or gender minority causes despair. Despair kills the will to survive and the will to fight back to make things better for oneself and for others. Today people around the world know about the water crises in Detroit and Flint, Michigan, because people stood up and fought back and demanded better health.
La Casa is important because it fosters ethics and grows leaders. We need La Casa de la Raza now more than ever.
La Casa is a gem that represents the very best of the heart and soul and wisdom of Santa Barbara. And it needs our support. The folks who wish to have it be sold or foreclosed are playing a very high stakes and very unethical game that will result in untold suffering and despair.
It is not development to push people out of the community they have built and created. It is not growth. It is not empowerment. It is not a partnership. Development that requires foreclosures is violence — protected, legal, and court-approved though it may be. In a 2016 where millions of refugees have no place to lay their head and when black and brown youth are being slaughtered every day and where some people think providing safe harbor is a crime, none of us should be sowing despair.
We have a choice in the matter. We can ask different questions. We can be on the side of the marginalized and the oppressed, or we can build more walls and be remembered by the future as that shameful generation that foreclosed on hope.
Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, who completed her PhD at UCSB in 2003, is an associate professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and editor of National Political Science Review.