Taking responsibility for preparing the next generation of Santa Barbara County residents to have productive lives “from cradle to career” is no small task, but if anyone is up to leading the effort, it’s Anita Perez Ferguson, executive director of THRIVE. The undertaking is an innovative public-private education collaborative inspired in part by the cradle-to-career approach pioneered by Geoffrey Canada, creator of the well-regarded Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City.
A nationally recognized leader in Latin American affairs and U.S. Latina achievement, Perez Ferguson was appointed White House liaison to the Transportation Department by President Bill Clinton. She is a former president of the National Women’s Political Caucus and the former advisory board chairwoman of the Inter-American Foundation in Washington, D.C., where she remains actively involved.
With THRIVE, Perez Ferguson has turned her considerable energy and skills to work locally, starting with the communities of Carpinteria, Santa Barbara’s Westside, Isla Vista, Guadalupe and Santa Maria. For this first stage of the initiative, the emphasis is on providing high-quality early childhood development services with a focus on kindergarten readiness.
“With each case it is this combination effect,” she told Noozhawk. “It’s not so much like writing a check to a school, but of putting together a community team that has school representatives, parent representatives, business representatives, social service providers of all sorts, and working as a team and taking responsibility for our local community.
“It is really an effort to make sure that all the kids in (Santa Barbara County) are going to be able to achieve academically and compete economically. So THRIVE, in that desire, has identified some of the most difficult neighborhood areas and the schools that serve them to help give more resources to those neighborhoods and those children ...
“My opportunity is to link the foundations and funding partners to those individual community groups and help them get the funding to do what they need to do,” she said. “It’s a very privileged position.”
Perez Ferguson grew up in Montebello in East Los Angeles in what she describes as “a very blue-collar Mexican-American family.” Her grandparents were from Mexico and her parents were first-generation Americans, all of which make her a “natural-born translator.”
She sees this skill as a valuable asset in her work with THRIVE.
“I’m used to thinking things through on different levels,” said Perez Ferguson, who came to Santa Barbara in 1969 to attend Westmont College.
She and her husband, Bill, who works with PLP Lighting, 22 N. Milpas St., bought a house in Santa Barbara in 1977 and have lived there — off and on — ever since.
“We still have the same little house ... it’s been a long time,” said Perez Ferguson. “I’ve seen many changes, and have taken many trips out of the city and worked out of the city, and even lived out of the city and overseas.”
One overseas stint included living in Africa for two years in the early 1980s while the couple helped to develop Daystar University in Nairobi, now the largest private university in East Africa.
“We had students from five different nations, four in Africa and then in the old Ceylon which is now Sri Lanka,” said Perez Ferguson.
“It was quite an adventure; we really enjoyed it,” she smiled. “It changes your life forever, it changes your perspective. Now I can see life in a different way.”
Education has always been a focus for Perez Ferguson, who recently completed her Ph.D. in organizational systems at Fielding Graduate University and once served as Westmont’s admissions director.
She sees working with THRIVE as an opportunity to connect the dots between decisions being made in Washington and Sacramento and the lives of people in our community.
“I’m using so much of what I’ve learned,” she said. “Everybody comes from their own orientation, their cultural background, their own professional credentials, so every time we build a table with a diverse group it becomes complicated really fast.
“It was very helpful to have had a lot of experiences and a good strong solid education foundation on how to manage all of these parts.”
An important aspect of THRIVE is that it’s a data-driven endeavor, she said.
“We always want to be able to answer the questions ‘Does it make a difference?’ ‘Does it work?’” explained Perez Ferguson. “It’s kind of like tweaking a recipe. It was kind of salty that time. Let’s put in a little more of this and a little less of that. Each time you bake it you really analyze it and see if it’s working.”
Admittedly, there are some challenges.
“But you feel so much more resourceful when a community comes together, especially one like ours,” she said. “There are some communities where it might not work right; they don’t have the deep pockets. But we have got plenty of wherewithal here and, happily, very generous people. Make the case and they’re there. And it’s going to be wonderful ...
“I call it a transfer of responsibility for Santa Barbara,” she continued. “Some people focus in this day and age on the transfer of wealth from one generation to another. I focus on the transfer of responsibility from the leading citizens of the last 50 years to our new emerging citizens for the next 50 years. We transfer that responsibility for maintaining and improving a beautiful town by investing right now in kids who are going through school.”