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Monday, March 25 , 2019, 6:19 am | Fair 46º


Santa Barbara Mourns Passing of Youth Advocate Babatunde Folayemi

Candlelight vigil planned for Sunday at West Beach for the former councilman, who suffered an apparent heart attack at age 71

Santa Barbara and the South Coast lost a highly regarded civic leader and youth advocate this week with the unexpected death of former City Councilman Babatunde Folayemi.

Folayemi, 71, who dedicated his life to helping at-risk youth, died peacefully at home Wednesday, presumably from a heart attack, according to family and friends. His wife, Akivah Northern, told friends that Folayemi fell asleep in his armchair and never woke up.

A candlelight vigil will be held at 7 p.m. Sunday at West Beach, by the Chumash mosaic west of the Dolphin Foundation.

Folayemi had been involved in youth advocacy locally since at least the early 1990s and served as a member of the Santa Barbara City Council. He headed numerous nonprofit boards, and was a fervent voice for the region’s young people.

In his work with at-risk youth, he was known as a powerful speaker. He fought for the downtown Twelve35 Teen Center, brokered temporary truces with rival gangs, and became a regular presence in front of local judges, arguing for reduced sentences or getting troubled youths into alternative programs, according to friend Martha Sadler.

Folayemi headed Zona Seca’s Pro-Youth Coalition, which worked to reduce gang violence on the South Coast, in the 1990s, and was a regular face at rallies and community meetings. He often had the most eloquent, memorable comments.

As part of a panel discussion last year, he criticized the city of Santa Barbara’s proposed gang injunction, calling it “modern-day apartheid” that spreads the problem but doesn’t solve it. Many young people who are arrested don’t even know their Miranda rights, which is why he spends so much time in court advocating for them, he said.

For more than a decade, Folayemi was president of the Primo Boxing Club’s advisory board.

Primo co-founders Jean and Joe Pommier noted that Folayemi was the first person they approached about being involved with their nonprofit when it began in 1997.

“I remember asking him, and he laughed and said he felt it was a privilege to be involved with a program like ours,” Jean Pommier said.

Folayemi was beloved by the club’s kids, and often brought his signature meatballs to Primo’s events, which were promptly devoured.

“He was so warm with all the kids,” she said. “He had such a big heart.”

Folayemi’s dedication to ending gang violence will be one of his most lasting legacies, and the kids at Primo saw that side of him first-hand.

“Babatunde was an exceptional community leader,” Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, said. “He was especially dedicated to working with young people and addressing gang issues. He was able to bring diverse folks together, bridge divides, heal rifts, and represent those who felt marginalized and voiceless. He had a great heart and a beautiful healing quality. We will miss him dearly.”

When 19-year-old Primo boxer Henry Sanchez was stabbed to death by an Eastside gang member in 1999, Folayemi was there, speaking to the club.

“It was a rough time for all of us,” Pommier recalled. “He was a real core of strength for that.”

In 2002, he became the first black man to be elected to City Council and served a two-year term.

“It’s important to the youth looking up and seeing a place for them in this society; diversity on the council means a lot,” said family friend Cathy Murillo, who knew him from her work as a local journalist. She was elected to the City Council as its first Latina last November. 

“He called to congratulate me on the phone on election night, and a half-hour later, he drove to the restaurant because he said he just had to be there,” she said. “I wish he had a few more years with us; we had a lot to learn from him.”

City Hall’s flags have been lowered to half staff, and the next council meeting will be adjourned in his memory, Mayor Helene Schneider said.

“Babatunde was someone I admired as a community leader who spoke eloquently and forcefully on many community issues, particularly ones that related to the well-being and safety of Santa Barbara’s youth,” she said.

He is survived by his wife, a son, nieces, nephews, and grand-nieces and grand-nephews. He is also survived by Northern’s Aunt Bea, Vivian Scarbrough, who is 105.

“We are all grieving together,” his wife said.

His family will celebrate his life with a public memorial. Details are pending. Email messages may be sent to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

He was a spiritual man and did a lot of painting near the end of his life, some of which may be displayed at his memorial, Murillo said.

“We’re making sure young people will be there,” she said. “That’s what he was about — a bright future for the children.”

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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