If you drive up the 101 from Los Angeles, radio tuned to 105.9, there’s a place where the music begins to crackle back and forth between hip-hop from LA and country from the Central Coast. It’s a little known stretch of coastline between Malibu and Santa Barbara mostly untouched by tourist development, that holds what might be the last blue-collar beach towns in Southern California. When you see the Boot Barn, you’ve reached the Ventura city limits. Some call it Bakersfield-by-the-Sea, I prefer Ventucky.
Ventura sits along the Santa Clara River, the largest river in Southern California that flows freely rather than encased in concrete. The Santa Clara seeps down from its valley and into the broad Oxnard plain, which boasts some of the most fertile soil on Earth and some of California’s last remaining coastal wetlands. In the late 20th century, as sprawl swept outward from Los Angeles, the wave of parking lots, strip malls and cookie-cutter housing tracts fell just short of paving over the farmland and open space of Western Ventura County. Perhaps it was the enduring political coalition of environmentalists who didn’t want to see their community turn into Orange County and rural folks who didn’t want to see their community turn into LA. But as other coastal Southern California cities embraced tourism and booming real estate, the Ventura County coast built its economy instead on oil, farming, and the military.
When I first moved to Ventura as a teenager, it felt like a foreign place, having spent most of my childhood in Oakland, a diverse port city the New York Times once dubbed the last refuge of the radical left in America. At first it felt strange to live under a giant cross at the top of the hillside (a popular makeout spot for teens), hear racial slurs dropped casually in conversation, or realize the ancient Spanish mission was not just an artifact of colonial mistreatment of Native Americans but a bustling church where immigrant families gathered to worship. But as I came of age in my adopted community, it began to feel like home.
Eastern Ventura County is made up of the farthest reaches of suburban white flight from the urban core of LA, and is one of the wealthiest places in the country. But Western Ventura County is working-class, rural (a relative term in densely populated California), and majority Latino. The city of Ventura itself, at the western edge of the county, is mostly blue-collar white families, in part due to a history of displacing other ethnic neighborhoods, with only murals to commemorate long forgotten communities with names like China Alley and Tortilla Flats.
Ventura is an odd cultural mix of hippies, rednecks and Mexicans, united by mutual interests like Sublime and backyard chicken raising. People are drawn to its historic downtown on the weekends from a 25 mile radius to drink, and a 100 mile radius to go thrift store shopping. You can ride a trolley bought secondhand from Santa Barbara. The county fair is kind of a big deal. It’s a place that produces great fish tacos, potent marijuana, and lots of bros who wear flannel shirts, tattoos, trucker hats, and long black Dickie’s shorts with high socks. Lifted trucks with “SoCal” written in Old English lettering across the back window are the preferred method of transportation.
When I left to go back to the Bay Area for college, like most other university-bound young people, I assumed I would never return to Ventura. Working towards a career in politics and public policy, at the time I saw my hometown as part of California’s conservative backwater, a place with few opportunities for someone like me. If I wanted to do cutting edge work surrounded by inspiring people and innovative projects, my future would lie in New York, the Bay Area, or Washington DC. But a brief stint in DC left me feeling empty– disconnected from the real people affected by the policies I researched and wrote about all day, surrounded by ambitious talented young people in suits searching for the next happy hour to network with other ambitious talented young people in suits.
As I finished my education, I started to see places like Ventura County as the frontier: a onetime conservative stronghold with rapidly shifting demographics that promised immense political transformation. Over the last few years, Ventura County had become both majority people of color and majority Democratic voter registration, with old political leadership that failed to reflect the new reality of the diverse younger generation. The very community I had left was the one where I had the most power to create change. It was here where I understood the day to day issues affecting people I knew and cared deeply about. It was here where I knew the dynamics of power and what needed to be done to alter them. It was here that I was not just another political hack interloping in a community that was not my own with big ideas about how to solve someone else’s problems. I decided to move back home and started doing policy research, communications, and community organizing for a local social justice organization. I produced analysis on voting rights and economic inequality, recruited and trained youth activists to work on campaigns to improve schools and protect the environment, and developed messaging to persuade the public on affordable housing and immigrants’ rights.
When I talked to many of my peers, mentors, and loved ones, they expressed concern about me living in Ventura. Sometimes people talked about it as if I had agreed to a death sentence. Settling for obscurity and isolation, the ultimate punishment for the capital crimes of insufficient ambition and wasted talent. “So how long do you think you’re going to stay there?” was the inevitable question.
The fact that so few people made that choice was the very reason I felt I needed to do it. People come from all over the country to the Bay Area to do social justice work– in places like Ventura County it’s just the opposite– a steady, relentless brain-drain of locally-grown activists who leave to go someplace else. After a couple years, I couldn’t have asked for a better job– meaningful, intellectually engaging, creative, a critical role in a growing organization. But it was lonely work. I met few other young people who shared a similar place in their lives and careers. I felt isolated and restless. At the beginning of 2014, I told myself that if I still felt this way at the end of the year, I would start looking into possibilities elsewhere.
But over the course of the year, I realized that Ventucky wasn’t the only place I felt disoriented and out of place. I began to feel a growing distance between myself and my peers from college, who now lived lives so dramatically different from mine. They spent their days surrounded by well-educated young professionals who Uber-ed through America’s great metropolises, toasting every night to the thrill of ultimate geographic and economic mobility. Their social circles were people whose relationships to the communities around them were relationships of consumption. Places like my childhood home of Oakland and my birthplace of Brooklyn were being packaged, marketed and consumed by the millenial bourgeoisie, with the insatiable hunger of hipsterdom that feeds off authenticity even as it devours it beyond recognition.
And at the same time, I was coming to a deeper understanding of my own choices. It wasn’t about settling, it was about learning to love something not for what you want it to be, but for what it is. It was about finding value in things that others didn’t. I appreciated Ventura’s unpretentious natural beauty and laid back pace of life, an utterly sincere lack of trendiness that sort of smiled and shrugged at the outside world, drank another beer, ate another taco, and curled its toes deeper into the warm timeless sand.
I realized that if I didn’t quite fit in here, it was not because there was something wrong with this place. I had never fit in anywhere in my entire life. I was a new guy in school, a mixed-race kid, a boy raised by women. That experience had made me stronger, confident in my identity, able to fluidly navigate through different worlds and speak in different dialects. I don’t know what it feels like to be in a place where most people are like me, but it’s not something I need to be happy. I can still love this community in all its differences from me.
When I first moved to Ventura as an angsty teenager, I hated the smell of manure that would blow over the city from the fields on late windy nights. Maybe they changed the fertilizer, but now I don’t notice it anymore. I love driving through the strawberry fields, lemon groves and avocado orchards, bordered by breathtaking mountains on one side and sweeping coastline on the other. I love living in a hundred-year-old apartment in a walkable downtown that always seems to have streets closed down for some sort of festival involving Johnny Cash, motorcycles, surfing, beer or classic cars. I love walking down to the empty beach at night, surrounded by total silence except the slow rhythm of the waves, with the dark ocean melting into the horizon marked only by the lights of oil rigs glowing dimly between the islands like invading warships.
It’s only now that I’ve come to appreciate how Ventura has shaped me and my work. I learned here not just to drop the obnoxious front of cosmopolitan smugness I walked in with as a teenager, but to try to bury the underlying impulse of always trying to find ways to superficially set myself apart from other people, a vanity that made me ineffective. It was living in Ventura that taught me that the true challenge is not the ability to speak the exclusive vocabulary of left-wing academic one-upmanship, but rather being able to sincerely convey my values to others in everyday language. It was here I stopped being in such a hurry to get where I wanted to be and do what I wanted to do, and came to understand that deep change is often the art of quietly playing the long game. Here I learned the critical distinction between the appearance of importance, in titles and awards and institutions and halls of power, and actual meaningful impact, which often lives in obscure corners of the world.
The poet Khalil Gibran wrote “Work is love made visible”. If that’s true, then I want the nature of my work to reflect the nature of my love for the people around me. I want my work to be rooted and grounded, tangible and accountable to the people in my community. Here issues like fracking, drought, and pesticides are not abstract ideas on an environmental organization’s online petition, but daily realities that are both inextricably linked to people’s livelihoods and slowly poisoning our communities at the same time. When I speak or write about the rights of low-wage migrant workers and opportunities for their children, I’m not talking about census data, but about families I know. Political divisions are wide here, and the stakes are high, and at the end of the day when we win or lose, the consequences are felt by people I call friends in the place I call home.
A year ago, I was filled with discontent about the choice I had made. I gave myself a year to think and came to the conclusion that contentment is not what I’m looking for at this moment in my life. That I’m at my best in a place that challenges me. And perhaps what is most challenging to me is not what’s unknown and unexplored, but rather what’s deeply familiar, something that I’m part of and that’s part of me whether I like it or not, forcing me to reconcile its contradictions and embrace its imperfections. It’s easy to chase someone else’s life, what’s hard is learning to love yours.