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Westside Story

Jackie Pearce’s lifetime devotion to community building in and around the Avenue.

By Karen Lindell

Photo by T Christian Gapen

KEEP ON TREKKIN’: Jackie Pearce with her ever-present bike at Kellogg Park, a project which she originally proposed in 2010 and which she helped bring to fruition. The park on the corner of Ventura Avenue and Kellogg Street opened on April 14.

 

s a self-described “somewhat biracial” kid, Jackie Pearce developed a simple coping skill: Be friends with everyone.

Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s on Ventura’s Westside with a Latina mom and a white dad, she also spent a lot of time in East Ventura playing soccer and other sports with a less diverse crowd, and didn’t feel like she fit in either place.

In East Ventura, Pearce said, friends with negative stereotypes of the Avenue were surprised she lived there and feared unnecessarily for her safety. At home, Latina girls who didn’t believe she was part Mexican harassed her.

“I had to learn to bridge those two worlds, and as a result I became friends with a lot of different people,” Pearce said.

She’s carried that spirit of camaraderie, peacemaking and open-mindedness into her chosen profession as a community advocate and social activist, in the same neighborhood where she grew up and continues to live with her own family.

A longtime community volunteer, since 2015 Pearce has served as the executive director of the Westside Community Development Corporation, which works to revitalize the neighborhood, connect community members and develop economic opportunities on Ventura’s Westside.

Before joining the WCDC, she was a key figure in advocating for Kellogg Park, the Westside’s newest community outdoor space. The $4.5 million park, at Kellogg Street and Ventura Avenue, opened in April after eight years of planning, fundraising, designing, cajoling, waiting and lots of community building and bonding. The outdoor oasis features walking paths, an amphitheater, picnic tables and a community garden.

Ventura City Councilwoman Cheryl Heitmann said she met Pearce during the early days of seeking support for Kellogg Park.

“She was unrelenting in her passion and advocacy,” Heitmann said. “Kellogg Park is largely a result of her advocacy and leadership. Jackie is what grassroots advocacy and leadership is all about and I have so much respect for her.”

Pearce has been a longtime resident of the Avenue. Her parents moved to Ventura when she was 2, eventually choosing the Avenue “for its humble environment and diversity.” She’s also one of the Westside’s most recognizable residents, both for her civic engagement and her bicycle — the avid biker goes just about everywhere on two wheels, and is often seen pedaling around town.

Pearce recalled that her parents were “very generous people” who did what they could to help others, but weren’t particularly active as volunteers.

“That was my own initiative; serving the community was just something I wanted to do,” Pearce said. She starting volunteering her senior year in high school as a tutor for Project Understanding, and also worked for Catholic Charities and Friends of Grant Park.

A 1990 Ventura High School graduate, she earned a degree in Spanish literature from UCLA, always planning to return to Ventura to teach.

“I wasn’t raised speaking Spanish, and wanted to know the language of students I would be working with,” Pearce said.

She taught Spanish for three years, and loved interacting with her students — but not so much teaching them. “I attended their sports games, plays and concerts, and liked supporting individual students who were having a hard time, but just didn’t like instructing,” she said.

She then got involved in social service through her church, The Bridge, working as a community liaison and with other organizations that served the poor. In 2003, with Pastor Greg Russinger and others from The Bridge, she co-created Laundry Love, a nonprofit that works with laundromats and volunteers to provide laundry services for homeless and low-income people.

Pearce is practical about her social-service endeavors, including Laundry Love.

“I wanted to create something useful,” she said. “I did a lot of research, and talked to homeless people about what they really needed.”

She said one homeless man told her, “If I had clean clothes, people would treat me like a human being.”

Pearce branched beyond volunteering when she took a paid job teaching early childhood education classes for parents in First 5 Ventura County’s Neighborhood for Learning program. Her vision for Kellogg Park was born during those First 5 classes.

“Listening to the needs of the parents, it was clear to me that a lot of non-driving mothers had nowhere to take their children for outdoor recreation, exposure and recovery,” Pearce said. “I raised my kids knowing the importance of outdoor play with natural elements, not just plastic and concrete. These families were green-space deprived.”

Pearce said she saw the empty space on Kellogg Street and told her husband, Brandon, “We need a park there.” He suggested she share the idea at a Westside Community Council meeting. She did, and the council asked her to come back. She educated herself about how parks are created and rallied other supporters.

“It was a snowball effect,” she said of the support that poured in from all sides — volunteers, government officials, donors, local businesses and agencies like the Trust for Public Land, which provided key funding.

Pearce started to cry when asked about the park’s recent grand opening on April 14, eight years after the project was first conceived. “It was like a birth — something beautiful that came out of a love and commitment from the community and all our supporters,” she said.

Those supporters included Pearce’s two children, Joaquín, 17, and Marin, 15, who are frequently by her side, helping with whatever project she’s working on.

“I always hoped they would view my passion to serve the community and the marginalized, as well as be good stewards of the environment, as a noble mission they would choose for their own lives,” she said. “Both are invested in their wellness, the wellness of others, and the preservation of our outdoor wilderness.”

Community is the force that drives Pearce, even in projects that aren’t strictly philanthropic. As her children grew older, Pearce quit working for First 5 and thought about starting a totally new endeavor: a salad delivery business.

“It wasn’t just about salad, though,” she said. “It was about connecting with the community, and maybe empowering other women to share their entrepreneurship and creativity.” The idea fizzled out when she encountered all the rules required for food vendors. She then received a call about leading the WCDC, whose director had stepped down.

“Community development” is a government-ese term that sounds a little dry, but Pearce lights up talking about it.

“We’re dedicated to improving the quality of life for Ventura’s Westside,” she said. “We say we like to connect people, organizations and businesses, and build partnerships with them. How do we get people feeling like they’re a part of something?”

The WCDC is funded mainly by a community development block grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Pearce said one goal of the grant program is for people to become homeowners — not an easy task in Ventura’s high-priced real estate market.

“One way we address that is to look at income,” Pearce said. “We look for ways to encourage employment, or save money through sustainability. Some people are still watering their yards, but water is so expensive. Little things add up.”

She said the organization is “really into motivating our property owners to address blight, to increase patronage so businesses will thrive and maybe add more employees.”

Among the organization’s most successful — and visible — initiatives, she said, is the One Block at a Time beautification project that so far has led to the creation of three community murals, with approval for a fourth granted in October.

Pearce views the murals — like Kellogg Park — as more than pretty things. They are also practical, she said, for safety reasons. “If you put up a mural and lighting in an alley, that makes the area more walkable, and people will be less likely to use it as a toilet.”

The organization also hosts neighborhood clean-ups, and serves as a resource hub. Pearce is proud of the WCDC’s Idea Hub program, where community members are invited to share ideas to improve the neighborhood, with the WCDC providing tools to execute those ideas. For example, she said, a resident who learned that Goo Gone was an effective graffiti removal tool asked for rags, volunteers and a supply of the liquid cleaner.

Shayna Metzner, a WCDC board member, said Pearce has “revitalized the organization” and described her approach to community-building as “tender pollinating work involving so many souls.”

Pearce’s future goals include expanding an existing Westside skate bowl into a full community park. She’d also like to make mental health services more accessible, work with Habitat for Humanity to create affordable housing and build a trade school for youth and young adults who are not college-bound.

“If you don’t go to college, it’s totally OK; that doesn’t mean you aren’t a member of the community,” she said.

Everything the organization does must be done within the community, Pearce said, not from the top down. “My philosophy is, if you do it for me, you do it to me. So let’s do it together.”

The Westside Community Development Corporation
110 North Olive Street, Ventura
805.628.3869 or www.westsideventura.org

WCDC volunteers gather for a group shot before heading out to perform
some neighborhood improvement projects.
Photo by Brandon Pearce.

Jackie discusses future plans for Westside projects with locals Citlali Carranza, Atziri and Araish Torres and their mother, Alheri.

FIELDS OF GOLD: Kellogg Park boasts brand-new play and exercise equipment, a turf slide, public art and an amphitheater. One of Pearce’s favorite features, however, is the native grass that lines the walking path.

11-01-2018

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