Analicia Cube, Doron Comerchero, Deutron Kebebew and Cliff Hodges think outside of the box to better the community. Here’s how.
January is National Mentoring Month. In a recent proclamation President Barack Obama declared that this is the time to honor “important individuals who unlock the potential and nurture the talent of our country.”
It’s fitting that this week our progressive networking group that seeks to encourage and connect new generations of local leaders, Santa Cruz NEXT, is doling out its 2011 NEXTie awards to four locals who not only think big, they’ve put their big ideas into big actions.
Embodying the spirit of National Mentoring Month and the key words promoted by Santa Cruz NEXT—“inform,” “inspire” and “involve,” Analicia Cube, Doron Comerchero, Deutron Kebebew and Cliff Hodges each brim with the kind of passion and proactive resolve that is taking Santa Cruz to new heights. The results of their disparate work—out on the streets, in the classroom, in volunteer programs or in business—have had transformative effects throughout the community. The fact is this: they’re teaching us more than a few things.
The public is invited to celebrate the achievements of these honorees during the NEXTies party at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 22, at the Top of The Ritt in Downtown Santa Cruz. Tickets are $45 and include champagne, appetizers, music and more.
Here, we take a look back at how each of their stories started—and how they’ve proven to be some of Santa Cruz’s brightest forward thinkers.
How one mom decided to clean up the neighborhood with Take Back Santa Cruz
It’s a cold, sunny January afternoon, and Analicia Cube wants to meet at the San Lorenzo River levee because, she explains, “it’s a place that means a lot to me right now, we’re focusing on cleaning it up.”
As we take a long walk along the babbling post-rain river, students zip by on bicycles, a woman walks home with bags from CVS, a young family saunters by, and homeless transients linger.
Cube, a 37-year-old small-business owner and mother of a 2-year-old, wears a “California Republic of Santa Cruz” T-shirt and unabashedly says hello to passersby. At one point she gives an assertive “Thank you for your work” to a First Alarm security officer patrolling the path. He is surprised and appreciative of the acknowledgment.
Cube is the founder of Take Back Santa Cruz (TBSC), a network of locals whose base of operations is simply a Facebook group page that’s nearly maxed out after spawning more than 4,600 members in just over a year.
There is no office and there are no regular meetings. Cube admits, “We started with just a couple of us and it’s way more than I ever expected. We’re learning; we’re just regular people with jobs.” She makes a point to emphasize: “I’m not a professional organizer.”
With an “Action Above Words” motto, TBSC has united the community in response to, and against, “drugs, gangs and abusive behavior” throughout Santa Cruz. It began in October of 2009, when 16-year-old Tyler Tenorio was murdered in Downtown Santa Cruz by gang members. Cube was saddened and incensed. She took her frustrations to a city council meeting to say, “I don’t care how many generations your family has been here, what I care about is how many generations are going to stay here.”
Her message, she continues, is that “we want to be an eclectic, open-minded, compassionate Santa Cruz. But we don’t want gang bangers or meth tweakers coming to Santa Cruz and taking advantage of our neighborhoods and robbing our cars and homes and friends.”
Cube is a mom not to be messed with. She speaks with impassioned candor, making firm hand gestures and exclamatory points, while still retaining a warm demeanor. Think Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, but in cool-and-casual Santa Cruz form.
After creating a page on Facebook (“because that’s where all of us hang out with our friends”), she took a cue from activists in Chicago by organizing “positive loitering” events and inviting the public. No signs, no yelling, just concerned citizens assembling to hang out in downtrodden areas like crime scenes and drug corners, in an effort to “take back what belongs to the community.”
At first, she thought she might be the only one to show up with her thermos of coffee and cups. She was wrong.
Hundreds of people have congregated at the five positive loitering events held thus far. Gatherings were especially poignant at the separate occasions honoring murdered locals Tenorio, Nikki Shrock, Alejandro Nava-Gonzalez, Oscar Ventura and Carl Reimer. All were killed in untimely and tragic manners.
“We’re showing everyone in this community that the people in this community respect human life,” Cube says. “We’re not going to let somebody gun someone down, it’s not OK.” She adds, “We don’t care what color your skin is, what your sexual orientation is, who you are—you’re a human being and you deserve to live.”
There’s more than just the positive loitering on TBSC’s busy agenda that’s gotten the attention of politicians and the media. Cube and cohorts have only been gathering strength in their myriad attempts to steamroll harmful behavior throughout town.
TBSC has monitored and performed expansive clean-ups at the Evergreen Cemetery, the Pogonip, Lighthouse Field and, most recently, the San Lorenzo River levee, all to help eradicate these areas of criminal behavior and hazardous waste.
While the Facebook site is active and constantly updated to keep the public’s awareness and dialogue current, the group has started a new CourtWatch service to organize people to attend court proceedings as a means of directly bringing a community voice into the local legal system.
TBSC has collaborated with other local organizations in its efforts, including the Santa Cruz Police Department, Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women, Museum of Art & History, Save Our Shores, Friends of Lighthouse Field, Homeless Services Center, Santa Cruz Neighbors, Spokesman Bicycles, and Finishline Productions.
Despite her uneasiness at being awarded a NEXTie because she feels “I’m nothing without each and every person in the Take Back Santa Cruz community—too bad we can’t give little NEXTies to everyone in the mail,” it’s clear she’s at the heart of the group. Recently, bags of toys showed up in front of her house when people responded to TBSC’s December Toys for Tots drive held in concert with the 5 km. Jingle Bell Jog (which TBSC helped keep in Santa Cruz by cleaning up the levee).
Just as people don’t hesitate to turn to Cube, she doesn’t hesitate to lead them. “We have two choices: we can either hold our heads up and stand up to be part of the solution, or we’re going to just [cower]—and that’s not gonna work for us.”
What’s her most important tool in cleaning up Santa Cruz and keeping it safe? “Social networking … seeing other people connect with each other is so powerful.” Spoken like a true community organizer.
The Food, What?! founder helps harvest confident teens
“In my twenties, I didn’t know how to grow a tomato.” That’s a surprising admission coming from Doron Comerchero, someone who now spends most of his time on a half-acre farm teaching local teens how to harvest organic fare.
What Comerchero did have in those years after graduating from the University of Michigan was community organizing skills. Having collaborated with urban community gardens in the Bronx at a time when “Mayor Giuliani was trying to bulldoze them,” the 33-year-old founder of Food, What?! knew early on that he wanted to use gardens to plant seeds of teen leadership.
“Food is universal; everybody eats,” he says. “There’s something so old school and so basic about breaking bread together. It has proved to be the perfect tool to be the backbone of a youth empowerment program. And I love to eat, so why not?”
First things first: in order to start his own program, he had to conquer that whole farming thing. And that’s how he ended up schlepping across the country to Santa Cruz.
Moving from his “teeny apartment in the East Village to a small tent on the farm in UCSC,” Comerchero joined UC Santa Cruz’s Farm and Garden Apprenticeship program to gain the necessary “farming chops” over a span of two years.
Then, in 2006, ready to put his comprehensive skills into action, he called Santa Cruz’s garden-based nonprofit, Life Lab, about his idea to start a new youth food justice project. He would choose the name Food, What?! after a friend suggested it at a dinner party and he saw how it instantly created dialogue.
Now operating under the Life Lab umbrella, with a farm located on UCSC land, Food, What?! trains teen crews how to plant, harvest, cook, eat and distribute produce in a sustainable manner—all as a means of nurturing their “skill and leadership development.”
Like Nature, the program undergoes four cycles each year. Working mostly with at-risk teens enrolled in the alternative education school system, Comerchero leads selected participants through seasonal internships, jobs, workshops and community service. Kids explore the topics of nutrition, justice, finance, professionalism and self-pride. Comerchero can be found giving these lessons both out in the soil and inside local classrooms.
During the first six months when he was piloting the program with very little funding and a small number of students, he held on to six different jobs around town. It’s four years later and things have changed. He’s still busy, but his focus is all in one place. “Now I’ve got like 16 jobs but they’re all within Food, What?!”
In its first year, Food, What?! had five youth on its crew. Last year, Comerchero worked with 50 kids as on-site crew, 30 kids in schools, and another 1,000 kids through varied programming. Nearly 200 teen applicants vied for the 50 crew spots.
“Youth programming is not only needed in Santa Cruz County, “ Comerchero says, “but kids are chomping at the bit for these types of opportunities.”
People from around the country and Canada have looked to Comerchero for inspiration and information on how to do the same kind of work in their regions. To fill the need, he hopes to create and disseminate a Food, What?! manual that can be used by anyone to implement his curriculum anywhere. This, all in addition to his efforts to expand the Food, What?! farm acreage so that the program can better accommodate the demand, take on more teens, and supply more fresh produce to low-income families benefiting from the Food, What?! Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) that operates through the Beach Flats Community Center.
Comerchero says that regardless of what a student’s background or struggles may be when they enter Food, What?! “when they leave—whatever their story of personal growth, they feel they can do something important in the world.”
It’s easy to see why the program has been so successful. Comerchero is the kind of personable, street-wise teacher that high-fives his students and takes interest in their lives. More importantly, he’s the kind of teacher that students high-five back.
A respected mentor, he maintains a ‘one of us’ vibe, wearing cotton T-shirts with the Food, What?! logo splattered across in an urban style font, and he talks with teens in a caring, vibrant tone to match. He doesn’t take his mission lightly.
“It’s not about spreading the good ‘organic gospel,’” he emphasizes. “The heart of the program is that we’re using food as a vehicle to grow strong young people.”
Still, how are his tomato-growing skills these days? Comerchero laughs, “Oh, I could wow you!”
With his NEXTie award serving as proof, there’s no doubt—we are wowed.
Learn more about Food, What?! at foodwhat.org or 459-3833. Photo credit: Food, What?!
The advocate for foster youth and fathers is making family ties stronger
“You can either take the dark side of a situation, or you can go find the optimistic part of it.” Deutron Kebebew’s advice comes from a place deep inside—a hard lesson learned at a young age. Even today, it’s obvious that his painful experience upon first moving to America is difficult to talk about.
Leaving Ethiopia and his mother at the age of 14, Kebebew came to San Jose nearly two decades ago to live with his estranged father, whom he’d last seen when he was 2. He simply says that because his dad “wasn’t prepared to raise a teenager,” he was put in the foster system after only six months. He lived in Gilroy with the same foster family until he emancipated from the system at 18.
“I was new to a country, something bad happened and I was trying to figure it out,” the 33-year-old begins. “So what I did was find things that helped me focus, which was my education and my personal development.”
Little could he have known then that his private struggles were leading him on a path to helping so many others in profound ways. Now, it’s his advocacy work as a project director at the Santa Cruz Community Counseling Center leading the Papás: Supporting Father Involvement program, and as a volunteer that tirelessly works on behalf of foster youth and fathers during his free time, that’s garnering him a NEXTie.
Having seen more than 200 foster kids pass through his house when he was a teen in Gilroy, where he lived at a “satellite” home that was a temporary stop for kids on their way to a permanent foster family, Kebebew witnessed the challenges met by other at-risk children. It made a mark.
“I said, ‘This is it: I have to make sure every kid has an opportunity to have an advocate because the system doesn’t advocate.’”
When he went on to study electrical engineering at UC Santa Cruz, he never lost sight of the needs of foster youth. While at college he served as the president of the California Youth Connection, a statewide organization that supports foster youth. He also took a position as a Residential Assistant (RA) in a transitional home for teen foster girls, rather than in a standard campus dorm, because, he says, “I could relate to them.”
Upon graduating from UCSC, he started applying for engineering jobs over the hill. But something about it didn’t sit right with him.
“Engineering is something that I still want to do,” he says, “but there was a calling for me.” He remembers, “I didn’t know what [that calling] was, but I knew that I had to advocate because of what I saw in the foster system.”
So, when the opportunity came his way, he opted to work outside of his field of study and join SCCCC in 2006. It mystified his engineering peers.
“I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to put one year of my life on hold and I’m going to go work with the Santa Cruz Community Counseling Center.’ People said I was crazy,“ he adds with a laugh, “I took that job, and that job turned from one year into three years.”
Kebebew bubbles with excitement when he talks about Papás, a state research study that actively involves families in what he describes as “psycho-education—it’s not just counseling and it’s not just education, it’s in-between.” The program focuses on evaluating and strengthening the father relationship, to engage underserved families early on so that kids won’t have to enter into the foster system.
It costs the United States $100 billion for absent-father programs, he says, and by working with fathers “I’m trying to go back in time to intervene, because when we help dads, we help moms, and when both are helped we help our kids. We want to see men not just as a provider, but as a teacher, a nurturer, a storyteller, to have a different role with their children from the beginning.”
There’s more. Outside of his already full schedule working at SCCCC, Kebebew is a board member for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) stressing the importance of education in foster kids’ lives.
He’s also at the helm of what he calls his “passion projects.” Five years ago he started the Annual College Camp for foster youth. Volunteering his own time and money (“The first week of November I use my vacation hours to take time off work”), and in collaboration with UCSC, Kebebew has given 50 high school foster teens a free three-day, two-night trip to stay on the university campus in order to show them firsthand an option some were never previously introduced to. “I foresee doing this camp for another hundred years,” he smiles.
Weekends aren’t free, either. Every Sunday Kebebew now volunteers his day to direct a new men’s support group he started at SCCCC’s office in Watsonville, as a way to serve more fathers. There, dads and their kids enjoy a pancake breakfast and do parent-child activities, and the men get a chance to participate in peer-to-peer counseling. Again, it’s without cost to the participants.
Kebebew says that the issue of foster care is what opened up his eyes about the issue of fatherhood, and he imagines that sense of discovery isn’t over. “It’s almost like an onion,” he starts. “Every time I peel there’s something new that I’m learning and something that I’m advocating. So, we’ll see where it goes.”
He may not know what’s next, but he knows he’s right where he wants to be.
“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘What would be your ideal work that wakes you up at 3 a.m. and you can’t wait to go to work?’ I told them, ‘I’m doing it.’”
To learn more about Santa Cruz Community Counseling Center, go to scccc.org. Learn about Papás at papasSFI.org.
The founder of Adventure Out puts nature in your hands
There is no average day in the life of Cliff Hodges. A Renaissance man in a modern California way, the 31-year-old has taken his devout passion for everything outdoors and translated it into a thriving business that advocates for the environment.
Having founded Adventure Out (AO) instructional outdoor guide services in 2005, the Santa Cruz native and MIT graduate is no ordinary entrepreneur. At times he’ll sport a suit to meet with the head of a high-end hotel chain in the city to promote a business partnership, other times he’ll don mud camouflage as he explains wilderness survival skills to clients he’s teaching in the woods (which he recently did on a December episode of MTV’s Made).
Surfer, climber, snowboarder, backpacker, mountain biker, fly fisherman, primitive-style hunter and more, Hodges is all about taking big leaps—both physically and professionally.
A need to smell the fresh air was what got him writing his earliest business plan for AO back while he was briefly working in a cubicle at a Silicon Valley tech company in 2004. Plotting his break from corporate America after only two months, he was smuggling office supplies—paper, pens and hole punchers—from his massive employer at the time to build his own start-up. “It literally got me through the first six months of business at Adventure Out when I didn’t have anything,” he laughs.
He quit his job, took out a bank loan, and operated out of his bedroom while posting up at his parents’ house and living off Ramen. He went “all-in,” he says, because he believes starting a business “requires that kind of investment, and from a more spiritual level I don’t think the universe rewards you if you play it safe.”
Nearly six years since AO opened its doors, on any given day its owner could now be leading a backpacking trip in the Sierras, overseeing surf lessons in Pacifica, teaching wilderness survival classes in Boulder Creek, or constructing his latest bow and arrow out of all-natural materials like stone, wood and pine sap in his home. And that’s all work-related. There are also innumerable international travels for fun and leisure. Simply put, these days there’s no cubicle or 9-5 routine in sight.
I meet Hodges at his Santa Cruz office in CrossFit West gym, another business he co-owns. Items splayed around include: a mounted deer head (“I ate all the meat off that deer and would never hunt for sport”) bookended by two framed MIT certificates for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering, countless wetsuits and climbing gear, and boxes of Clif Bars given as a sponsorship but that Hodges can’t eat because he adheres to a strict paleo diet that allows vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruit and meat—no processed grains.
In a gray Billabong hoodie and faded black jeans, and looking more surf bum than CEO, Hodges—who grew up working locally at the Beach Boardwalk and O’Neill Surf Shop—talks about his mammoth business mission to reconnect people with nature.
“At the core it really is about getting people outside,” he explains Adventure Out, which instructs about 4,000 people annually. “It’s hard to hurt someone you know, and I feel that way about the planet. People have such an easy time not caring for the environment because a lot of people don’t see it in their day-to-day life.” He adds, “Maybe the hardcore environmentalists would look at me and say, ‘Well, you’re not teaching environmental ethics, you’re just taking people surfing or rock climbing.’ But if you teach someone to fall in love with the ocean or to fall in love with the wilderness, they’ll do all that other stuff on their own. They’ll realize that thing that they love is dying.”
Adventure Out has been committed to environmental activism since the start, when it became one of the earliest businesses to join the now prominent 1% For The Planet. Devised by the founder of Patagonia, it’s an alliance of businesses that pledge to give 1 percent of gross revenues to environmental charities.
Last year, Hodges also implemented an Environmental Scholarship program that gives those who can’t afford a class or trip with Adventure Out the chance to do a trade: the more volunteer hours a participant puts toward an environmental nonprofit or cause, the more AO services they can experience. Scholarships have been given to YMCA groups in low-income areas and individuals of varying ages, from adults working with the Surfrider Foundation in order to take AO’s Wilderness Survival class, to a 14-year-old in Oakland who started a recycling program in his neighborhood in exchange for surfing lessons.
Hodges emphasizes, “There’s no war, there’s no poverty problem, there’s no drug problem, there’s no nothing else if we don’t have a planet to live on.”
The young innovator, who says that returning to Santa Cruz to start his business was a “no-brainer” and who speaks at local high schools about how to create a successful green company, attended last year’s invitation-only Summit Series conference in Washington, D.C., where he mingled with Bill Clinton, Ted Turner, Russell Simmons, and sat next to Elizabeth Dole at dinner. Merging his entrepreneurial and environmental efforts, he’s garnered notice for abiding by his belief that “business is the most powerful vehicle for change” because it has the capital to back the cause.
Hodges travels the globe and has been encouraged to move his company elsewhere, but he says he’ll never leave Santa Cruz. Still, he wants change to start, and spread, here at home.
“Santa Cruz is one of the best places in the world with the best people in the world, but we can always be better,” he begins. “I try to wake up every day and ask myself how I can be better, and I’d love to see our community thinking how we can all be better.”
Learn more at adventureout.com.
written by Robert Norse, January 21, 2011
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