Residents of Santa Barbara’s Westside proposed solutions to provide a better quality of life for their neighborhood Saturday, and elected leaders and police officials seemed to listen.
About 200 people gathered in the gymnasium of the Westside Boys & Girls Club to hear the results of brainstorming sessions on youth programming, forming a Westside neighborhood association and issues affecting women.
“We wanted to create our own identity rather than having the community create an identity for us,” said Roane Ackhurin, co-chairwoman of the Westside neighborhood committee.
The Westside Action Summit was sponsored by local nonprofits Just Communities and THRIVE Westside to help community members connect with public officials. The hope is that the relationships developed this weekend will translate into the city and Santa Barbara County devoting staff and funds to implement residents’ ideas.
Jarrod Schwartz, executive director of Just Communities, said one breakthrough was Police Chief Cam Sanchez’s pledge to fund a citizen’s academy to help educate the Westside’s large Spanish-speaking population about how the Police Department operates.
The attendance of the city’s top cop and the plan for the academy was reassuring for Manny Casas, a board member of Palabra, a nonprofit organization that helps former Latino gang members live productive lives after incarceration.
But Casas believes police officers need more training on how to create a more friendly relationship with Westside residents — using principles of good customer service.
“The police do not see our community as customers,” he said. “They see us as a population that needs to be controlled.”
By getting out of patrol cars and developing personal relationships, police may find a much warmer atmosphere among those they are sworn to protect, Casas said.
Newly inaugurated City Councilwoman Cathy Murillo, herself a Westside resident, said the most moving moment of Saturday’s event for her was seeing women conversing in Spanish with the bilingual Sanchez and through interpreters with Officer Kasi Beutel.
“These women understand that they have to learn English but they’re also asking the police officers to learn a little Spanish,” Murillo said.
Margherita Martin-Ocampo of the Westside Women’s Group said the cooperation to erase language barriers was a good start.
“We want to feel safe and we want to be safe,” she told the summit’s audience in English during remarks that were mostly in Spanish.
The presentations by Martin-Ocampo and the other committee leaders were inspired by roundtable discussions among 122 community members over the past nine weeks, Schwartz said.
Among the proposals was increasing youth access to after-school programs. Leticia Carrillo, chairwoman of the youth group, said existing programs can partly meet this demand but they need to be better marketed because not all Westside parents have Internet access at home.
She said there is a demand for quality youth programming with staff, coaches and organizations, but some families can’t afford to spend $200 a week on art classes.
“A lot of people are very impressed with what Girls Inc. already has but what’s prohibitive is the cost,” Carrillo said.
There is still an overarching call for a zócalo, or public square, which is an important gathering place in many Latin American cities, said Ackhurin. The lack of a central meeting place on the Westside has fractured the ethnically, linguistically and socially diverse community, she said.
“We’ve kind of been in our own silos,” she said.
Holding summer movie nights on the lawn at La Cumbre Junior High School or painting a mural that embodies the Westside have been pitched to bring the community together.
In addition to Murillo, among the officials who attended Saturday were Mayor Helene Schneider, City Councilman Randy Rowse, Santa Barbara Unified School District Superintendent David Cash, 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal and 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf.
Additional Let’s Talk Westside sponsors included the Academy of Koei-Kan Karate-Do, Business First Bank, El Zarape Mexican Food, Griffith & Thornburgh LLP, Meridian Group, Paper Moon Printing, ParentClick.com, Presidio Sports, Santa Barbara Community Housing Corp., Santa Barbara Home Improvement Center and the South Coast Community Youth Cultural Center.
THRIVE Westside is a partnership of Harding University Partnership School, McKinley School, La Cumbre Junior High School, San Marcos High School, the Santa Barbara Unified School District, the James S. Bower Foundation, Just Communities, One Nation Foundation, the Orfalea Foundations and the Santa Barbara Foundation.