Young, tough, and ready to rumble, a new crop of South Coast activists has quickly become a force to be reckoned with. They’re jumping into demonstrations and debates, digging in for a siege of resistance, and spreading an infectious enthusiasm for a better Santa Barbara and country that’s impossible to ignore. Some have lived a life of organizing for some time; others were freshly energized by the words and laws coming out of Washington. All recognize the groundwork laid by a long line of progressive activists before them, and each is ready to carry the torch forward.
by Tyler Hayden
There’s a place at the end of a Westside cul-de-sac that buzzes with the spirit of true grassroots activism. El Centro is a newly revived community center that had sat vacant for years until last January, when Santa Barbara benefactor and agitator Russell Trenholme leased the single-room space and turned it over to the organizers of CAUSE, Black Lives Matter, Ethnic Studies Now!, and other social-justice groups. They’ve since formed a tight-knit and growing collective that doesn’t look or feel like anything else in town.
“We push the boundaries in terms of activism,” said Chelsea Lancaster, a student program advisor at Santa Barbara City College and a board of directors member at the Fund for Santa Barbara. Compared to other resistance coalitions, El Centro is younger, scrappier, and “a little more radical,” said Lancaster. “And we’re okay with that.” Right now, they’re fighting for more transparency from the Sheriff’s Office and its relationship with federal immigration officials, and supporting a set of proposed protections for city tenants.
Inside the airy room at 629 Coronel Place that’s adorned with murals and hand-painted signs, they plan marches, hold open-mic nights, form political action plans, and, perhaps most importantly, create an atmosphere of safety and healing for the marginalized among us. “The coalition represents our communities in a positive way and meets the needs of the people in the homes right next door,” said Gabriel Cardenas, pointing to nearby apartment complexes filled with working-class families, many of them Latino, and nodding at the lawn in front of El Centro, some of the only green space for blocks around.
No single leader makes decisions at El Centro. “Someone has an idea, and we all get excited about it,” said Lancaster. Meetings are held in a circle, members call each other comrade, and those old enough to remember him look up to former S.B. city councilmember Babatunde Folayemi and his work with the young and the disaffected. Anyone can book the space. Someday, said Lancaster, El Centro wants to become financially self-sustaining, but in the meantime, “part of its commitment is no one is turned away for lack of funds.”
Bianca Sunnadeniyage, a single mom enrolled in a nursing program, regularly brings her two young sons to El Centro. On a recent Tuesday, they played outside as she described how Ethan, 9, came home from school crying the day after the election. He doesn’t feel safe there anymore, said Bianca. El Centro has been a comfort. “To be coming here, to be around people like you and know you’re not alone has made a huge difference,” she said.
The Bern’s Main Man
by Keith Hamm
August Hirschkorn grew up on both sides of the political aisle, so to speak, living in Isla Vista as a boy while his mom earned a PhD in religious studies from UC Santa Barbara and then moving to Livingston, Montana, when he was 10. He moved back to Santa Barbara for his senior year at Dos Pueblos High School, where, right after reading George Orwell’s 1984 in English class, a Bernie Sanders quote on the reauthorization of the Patriot Act caught his eye. “I worry that we are moving toward an Orwellian society,” Sanders said in 2015, “and this is something I will oppose as vigorously as I can.”
Hirschkorn admired the senator for standing up for his beliefs, and when Sanders threw his hat in the presidential ring last year, he took a special interest in the race, especially as it meshed with his political science coursework at Santa Barbara City College. Today, Hirschkorn’s the president of SBCC’s chapter of Our Revolution, Sanders’s movement to reclaim democracy and advance progressive politics.
Before the primary, Hirschkorn made more than 2,000 phone calls and knocked on more than 1,000 doors — both in Santa Barbara and Livingston — to drum up support, he said. “Even in a red state like Montana, Bernie’s message really caught fire.” (Hirschkorn’s mom, now an assistant teaching professor, is the faculty advisor for the Our Revolution chapter at Montana State University, in Livingston.)
Even after Clinton won the nomination, Hirschkorn didn’t want the momentum of Sanders’s narrative to fall off, so he stayed active with the SBCC for Bernie Club, which picked up speed on November 9. “We rarely see [Hillary] Clinton anymore,” he said. “But Bernie’s still out there, standing up against Trump and staying at the forefront of the conversation.”
The college’s Our Revolution chapter officially launched on January 31 and has hosted well-attended documentary screenings, tabling on campus, and a letter-writing get-together opposing oil by rail along the South Coast. Come April, the chapter’s helping organize the Global Climate March at La Playa Stadium, among other Earth Day events.
Out of Necessity
by Kelsey Brugger
As a teenager, Izeah Garcia would leave his Republican community of Fullerton and campaign door-to-door in Long Beach, where now-Congressmember Alan Lowenthal, a Democrat, was running for office. He knew the Democrats had no chance in his home district, and a friend told him he might even get to meet Joe Biden. Politics, after all, were in Garcia’s blood. His uncle had been a union organizer in Mexico.
He loved it. “That was the thing that ultimately got me really enthralled and engaged in the electoral process,” he said. Though he said he never really viewed the work as activism — “just the work that had to be done” — he came to appreciate one key value he learned as an intern: Voting is the bare minimum; activism is turning your one vote into hundreds.
Garcia, 21 years old and a UCSB history of public policy major, now finds himself in a community that shares his political values. When he started at UCSB as a first-generation college student nearly four years ago, he volunteered for State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson by calling Spanish-speaking voters. Two years later, he phone-banked for Measure P, the proposed ban on enhanced oil drilling in Santa Barbara County. Now Garcia is the president of the Campus Democrats.
Given the presidency of Donald Trump, Garcia again finds himself with more — much more — work to do. He recently organized a lobby trip for six students to Washington, D.C., to advocate for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and federal financial aid. He is planning another trip to D.C. for 30 students before he graduates in June.
Garcia remains close with his family in Fullerton, sending extra money to his mother when he can. “Whenever we go on lobby trips to D.C.,” he said, “my mom tells me to be careful.” When she thinks of politics, she remembers they were dangerous in Mexico, Garcia explained. But she certainly encourages him to keep going. “She told me people are here for a reason,” he said. “She said, ‘You like to do this thing, so you have to do it well.’”
Sage Desiree Gaspar
Growing Up Fast
by Richie DeMaria
Before the election, Sage Desiree Gaspar was your typical teenager. “I liked going to concerts and the beach,” she said. “Now, my whole life is organizing.” The Santa Barbara High School senior — who led the campus-wide walkout to the courthouse on November 9 and a sit-in on State and Anapamu streets on Inauguration Day — speaks with a mix of wisdom, strength, and some weariness. “But I’m super, super honored to be a leader,” she said. Beyond acting as a facilitator of her school’s Ethnic Studies Now! group, Gaspar is a member of the Gender & Sexuality Alliance, a volunteer at Bici Centro, and, in the summers, enrolled in the CDF (Children’s Defense Fund) Freedom Schools program in Los Angeles.
Gaspar is driven by a deep sense of purpose, one initially instilled by the communally active grandparents who raised her and took her along to labor union rallies. It was only recently that she realized how close to home the reality of Trump would hit. “I really didn’t focus on immigration issues growing up,” she said. “I was born here, my grandfather became a citizen many years ago, and my grandmother became a permanent resident when she got married,” she said. Gaspar’s birth mother, however, had been deported. And now she’s seeing community members arrested by ICE agents. “All of a sudden, it’s become super real,” she said.
Through Ethnic Studies Now! — which advocates for mandatory multicultural curriculum in Santa Barbara schools — Gaspar works in tandem with Just Communities and CAN DO (Change Agent Network for Dismantling Oppression) to provide resources to undocumented students and help some apply for DACA protections. S.B. High School is an intersection of two very different Santa Barbaras, she said. “Our student body is really split in half just because of our location on the border of the Riviera and the lower Eastside. A lot of privileged, conservative students go to our school, and a lot of very low-income students do, too.”
Gaspar said she can’t allow herself to sit on the sidelines as she watches friends endangered by stricter immigration policies. “There wasn’t a choice. We all have to use our privilege in a positive way,” she said. “If I’m not fighting for my family and my friends who run the risk of being deported or arrested, I’m just wasting space.”
Allysa De Wolf
Faith in Humanity
by Tyler Hayden
Reverend Allysa De Wolf doesn’t fit the traditional minister mold. She’s openly gay and married, and you’re just as likely to find her at an LGBT rally as up on the pulpit. That’s because De Wolf, lead minister of the First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, doesn’t separate the secular from the sacred. “If your faith doesn’t apply to real life,” she asks, “then what’s the point?”
Under De Wolf’s watch, the church on the corner of State and Padre streets — long a place of progressive thought — has become an even stronger refuge for people now under threat from Washington. It’s a warming center for the homeless on cold nights, serves the only free Christmas Eve dinner in town, provides space to a transgender advocacy group, partners with Muslim and refugee organizations, and is studying the possibility of becoming a sanctuary site for the undocumented. “Churches can no longer sit on the fence,” said De Wolf. “It’s time to let it all hang out.”
De Wolf grew up in conservative Orange County, attending an orthodox Pentecostal church. She remembers always being different. While her peers were reading about lions, witches, and wardrobes, she was poring over the writings of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. She believed hopeful aphorisms. When someone said, ‘You can do anything; you can change the world,’ I actually believed that,” she recalled.
At New York University, De Wolf, 29, studied nonviolent resistance and protest movements. She served as a hospice chaplain for veterans and was working as an associate minister in Newtown, Connecticut, during the Sandy Hook massacre. Three years ago, she was chosen to lead First Congregational. “I’ve always held this deep-seated idea that when a church works well, it’s on the front lines of social justice movements,” said De Wolf. Her personal methodology for justice is breaking bread with others. “If you get people who have nothing in common around a meal,” she said, putting “nothing” in air quotes, “you will create friendships and relationships, and suddenly you understand other people’s problems. Suddenly, you care.”
The pain and fear she sees every day can be overwhelming. “But” she said, “I believe deep down we’re good people, and if we can acknowledge the good in one other, we can truly make change. More than ever, we need each other.”
The Bonfire Within
by Keith Hamm
When it comes to Santa Barbara’s young generation of activists, Zack King is among the old guard. About 15 years ago, as a student at La Colina Junior High, King organized protests against Operation Enduring Freedom. But those antiwar sentiments arose after what he describes as a 180-degree “change of heart.” When the Twin Towers fell, King’s knee-jerk response was to hurry up and get old enough to enlist in the army to help avenge the 2,996 deaths of September 11. But as he got turned on to politically charged punk rock — and paid attention in a social studies class that covered Islam and Middle Eastern history and culture — the military conflict took human form, “and when the bombs were falling on Afghanistan, I couldn’t help but think of the innocent people below,” he remembers.
Since then, he’s expanded the scope of his activism, rallying for cost-of-living raises for teachers, for example, and joining the “Right to Write” campaign. In 2013, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office limited inmate mail correspondence to postcards, citing recent contraband smuggling via envelopes. King and his crew met with families, read inmate letters at public meetings, and got the ACLU onboard. The Sheriff’s Office reversed its position after a federal judge ruled Ventura County’s postcard-only policy was unconstitutional. “It was a swift, successful campaign,” remembers King, now 27, and a UCSB sociology grad student studying the impact of climate change on society.
For the past seven years, his main project has been the Bonfire Collective, a twice-a-month bookstore or coffee-shop pop-up “to provide books, art, resources, and social space to support progressive leftist activism,” he explained. Their last event, held at El Centro, featured a workshop on the rights of the homeless, led by older-guard activists who had been part of the 1980s campaign against Santa Barbara laws discouraging loitering and sleeping in public spaces.
In general, King said, “there’s been a huge surge in activism since November 8, and we’ve been trying to channel all these new people into long-term organizing projects to confront Trump’s policies.” The collective’s next pop-up is March 26. For details, go to bonfirecafe.org
by Tyler Hayden
Simone Baker leads marches down State Street and shouts through bullhorns in De la Guerra Plaza. She just delivered her first sermon at Trinity Episcopal Church. But before Baker is an activist, she is a listener. As a caseworker, she listens to her clients. As a UCSB graduate now married and living on the Eastside, she listens to her neighbors. And as a leader of Black Lives Matter Santa Barbara, she opens her ears to our city’s “tiny but mighty” black community. “Listening isn’t just hearing,” Baker said. “It’s a promise to act on the concerns people voice to you.”
In person, Baker, 27, is easy to laugh but full of purpose. She grew up in Oakland, where the women in her family taught her early about the power of protest. She remembers, as an elementary school student, participating in a walkout demonstration alongside her mom and educators over salaries and campus conditions. When her teacher began holding class in her own home, the young Baker realized, “If you want to make real change, you have to put yourself on the line.”
Through Facebook messaging and word of mouth, Baker and others started Santa Barbara’s Black Lives Matter chapter two years ago as they and the rest of America watched video after video of police brutality inflicted on black citizens. They learned from Los Angeles chapter leaders how to home in on local issues and started gathering concrete data, notably a government-funded 2015 report by the Burns Institute detailing stark racial disparities in Santa Barbara’s justice system. They’re also laser focused on our law enforcement agencies’ use-of-force policies, contending that Santa Barbara police and Sheriff’s Office deputies are not required to attempt de-escalation techniques when confronting suspects. As a result, these encounters too often end in violence. “All life is beautiful,” said Baker, “so we will push and prod and do whatever we can to make sure this training happens.”
The group is also nurturing up-and-coming black leaders to create more safe spaces for kids, women, and families, and actively partnering with other community organizations on the common goal of social equity — all efforts, Baker was quick to point out, that were taking place behind the scenes well before the election. But now, she admitted, the heat has been turned up, and that means taking public stands. “Because there are not many black folks in Santa Barbara, it’s even more important to make myself a little uncomfortable to make sure someone is saying what we need to say,” she stated. “We cannot rely on other people to give our message for us.”
Return of the Native
by Nick Welsh
I want to waste my youthful energy doing community organizing,” Frank Rodriguez likes to joke. After that, he wants to settle down to the academic life of a policy wonk. Given the meteoric impact of Donald Trump’s presidency, however, Rodriguez — who just turned 30 — might have a long wait.
In the past few months, Rodriguez, a Santa Barbara native on the rebound from graduate school in Texas, has managed to be everywhere all of the time. As the Santa Barbara Progressive Coalition dragged itself out of the mothballs, Rodriguez jumped feet first into a leadership role. Just this Tuesday, he spearheaded the charge for tenant protections in front of the Santa Barbara City Council.
Most profoundly upsetting has been the intense fear of deportation. Rumors of raids abound. Exaggeration, fueled by Facebook, is rampant. “This morning it was ‘Fourteen people picked up at Winchell’s!’” Rodriguez recounted. “It wasn’t true.” Rodriguez, who began work for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) less than a year ago, has joined a community response program to separate smoke from fire. He is also part of an effort to determine just how much cooperation is taking place between the county jail and immigration authorities to facilitate deportations.
For Rodriguez, who grew up on the Eastside, none of this is new. He remembers being in 4th grade in 1994 when the now infamous “They’re coming!” ad campaign was launched to pass Proposition 187, the equally infamous anti-immigrant ballot initiative. “I played soccer all the time, and I remember how empty the soccer fields were after that,” he said. Both Rodriguez’s parents were Mexican immigrants. His mother — with whom he now lives — cleans houses. His father — now living in Mexico — worked as a bartender at La Cumbre Country Club. Rodriguez sometimes worked there, too.
At La Cumbre, Rodriguez experienced the very mixed message that Santa Barbara’s Anglo society sends the children of immigrants. He hasn’t forgotten being called, on occasion, “stupid Mexican.” Neither has he forgotten the generosity of country club patrons whose financial help enabled him to attend Bishop Diego. From there, he jumped to UCLA, where he immersed himself in the theory and practice of progressive — with a capital “P” — political organizing.
In person, Rodriguez betrays no hint of the doctrinaire. Both good-looking and goofy, he’s friendly and uncommonly up-beat. Once an avid skater and runner, Rodriguez now pedals an old 10-speed around town. But even sitting still, he moves. It’s all that youthful energy, and none of it is going to waste.
by Tyler Hayden
It was the Women’s March that jump-started Jorie Mitchell’s fledgling career in environmental activism. She and her friends, all nature lovers, chanted down State Street in a protest that echoed across the globe. They were inspired by the experience and wanted to do more, “especially since the science community is taking such a blow under the new administration,” said Mitchell. She’s now organized the Santa Barbara March for Science, a sister march to the pro-science demonstration in Washington, D.C., on Earth Day.
The goal of the April 22 protest, said Mitchell, is to drum up attention and support for Senate Bill 51, introduced by State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson to direct California agencies to protect scientific information from censorship or destruction orders that come from Washington. It would also shield government whistleblowers and scientists who speak out against federal policy.
Like most mass movements these days, the event gained steam as soon as Mitchell — a City College biology major and volunteer extraordinaire with wildlife groups — created a Facebook page for it. Around 4,000 people want to attend, and that number is climbing fast. “I’m getting so many messages from people wanting to help,” she exclaimed. A number of organizations — including the Community Environmental Council, the Museum of Natural History, and Indivisible Santa Barbara — have been eager to lend a hand. The march is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. with speakers in De la Guerra Plaza before it heads up State Street at noon and ends among the Earth Day festivities in Alameda Park. Attendees are encouraged to walk, bike, or carpool to town.
Mitchell, 22, grew up in Bellingham, Washington, in a commercial fishing family. She was always outdoorsy but didn’t catch the science bug until her first class at SBCC, where she’s the Biology Club president and the Sustainability Committee’s water consumption officer. “Before the election, I was very opinionated,” she said. “But I never took action.” Mitchell, like many others, is alarmed by the views of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who stated this month, contrary to scientific consensus, that he doesn’t believe carbon dioxide is “a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” Mitchell shook her head. “The things that man says …”
But Mitchell doesn’t dwell. She’s cheerful, determined, and infectiously energized. And she’s hopeful next month’s marchers continue the momentum. So what’s next? “Maybe a march all the way to Washington,” she smiled.