Deb has been interested in the environment since she was a child. Having lived in California her whole life, with fires, floods, and droughts, the environment was “always on her mind.” She says she “always felt a connection to the water and the hills and everything in between.” So, when the floods hit the South Bay this past February, Deb was ready to do something. Right away, she called the San Jose Mayor’s office and offered to lead her volunteers and others to help clean up. On Thursday Deb talked with the mayor’s office about creating cleanup events. By Friday she had 150 people helping, and by Saturday 1,000 people had turned out.
This wasn’t the first time Deb had rallied people to come out. She has worked in many environmental fields, including recycling, energy, and at the water district. She ended up focusing on the Coyote Creek watershed and working with the Santa Clara County Creeks Coalition. Deb knew how to engage local community groups, work with the media to publicize events, coordinate volunteers, and communicate effectively. She understood what motivated people. “When the Kelley Park manager came to me for assistance to cleanup the park after the flood, I could relate even though I wasn’t directly affected,” she said. This kind of work taught Deb the power of organizing and how, “these things happen because the community comes together during an emergency.”
When Deb started Keep Coyote Creek Beautiful, she also joined the Community Advocates Leadership Academy (CALA). Deb joined CALA to improve her understanding of the political process and how city staff and agencies interact with nonprofits. She already had experience but as she put it, “I didn’t know how things worked behind the scenes on a political level, or how to marry it with community organizing towards the change I wanted to see.” She says that in CALA, the mock city council meeting gave her that ability. For her, the most powerful part of the program was, “creating my own mission and vision statement to keep me focused on why I do what I do and how I go about doing it.” Along with this clarity of purpose, the diversity of the class greatly influenced Deb. “Where we’re from, our ethnic backgrounds, and how we grew up, all influences how we approach our work,” she said, “The diversity of the program has made my life more rich. My classmates have helped me think about how I can approach my work with a different perspective.”
Deb feels CALA is influencing her daily work to create an urban open space park in Coyote Meadows between I-280 and Story Road. It’s one of the last open areas in proximity to downtown. She is specifically focused on Coyote Creek, which is 54 miles long, with 26 of those below Anderson Dam mainly in an urban area. Deb wants to protect this open space and keep the creek clean and beautiful because multiple trails connect there and it provides valuable habitat. But the challenge is navigating the political process and engaging community members as stewards. To accomplish this mutual goal, she is part of a coalition comprised of community groups, environmental groups, homeless advocates, city council members, the Ridge Trail, and the Santa Clara Valley Water District. This coalition recently received an Open Space Authority grant to conduct a community planning process. And, they want to take that further, and plan to engage the three schools in the neighborhood. Deb knows it’s about awareness, education, and the emotional connection. She tells me how they foster this when, “We get people out on the water to see where the creek ends and why the Bay is so valuable as a resource. We show people that we can have a positive impact on nature.”
Thank you Deb!
This post was written by Morgan Aitken-Young, Community Advocates Leadership Academy Class of 2016. Morgan recently sat down with graduates of the program to capture how it has impacted their advocacy.