Urban Initiative hosts mayor, activists on campus for homelessness and human trafficking lectures

Jenae McInnes, News Editor

Last week Urban Initiative hosted a panel series called “There’s More to Know” focusing on two issues that often seem far removed from Westmont’s secluded campus: homelessness and human trafficking in Santa Barbara. The panels featured prominent community leaders, notably Santa Barbara Mayor Randy Rowse, and activists from organizations such as Noah’s Anchorage and the Santa Barbara Alliance for Community Transformation (SBACT). 

The event on homelessness featured the documentary “Sonder” — which originally premiered at last spring’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival — about the pervasive issue in Santa Barbara, and also hosted the film’s producer Dag Forsberg. The film’s name is a relatively new term for the feeling of “realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own,” a feeling which the film hopes to impress upon its audience in regards to the homeless population of Santa Barbara. Fourth-year Sydney Azzarello, UI’s local teams and education coordinator, said, “the movie really beautifully showed the humanity of people experiencing homelessness and the need for true perspective and learning from people, not just relying on preconceived notions.”

Mayor Rowse was a featured panelist alongside Brandon Miller and Jen Shappee. Azzarello referenced Miller and Shappee as “two people featured in the ‘Sonder’ documentary who have since gained housing and employment; they have incredible stories!” Leaders of local non-profits such as Citynet also served as panelists at the event. Azzarello remarked that “hearing all the incredible work and collaboration which is going on was incredibly inspiring.” 

The human trafficking panel on Oct. 26 focused on education and awareness of what trafficking looks like in Santa Barbara, as well as dispelling common misconceptions about its survivors. The panelists emphasized that most survivors are not foreign and come from all socio-economic backgrounds. Azzarello said that the event was a “sobering reminder that this is happening,” but for her, “encouraging to see so many go-getters who are committing their life and career to combatting this.”

The panel also featured Rita McGaw of Victim Witness with the District Attorney’s office as well as founder of Hope Refuge, a residential therapeutic facility for survivors, Sally Cook. Activists from Noah’s Anchorage and the Good Samaritan Shelter also spoke. Fourth-year Payton Lindman Marshall, previous leader of Westmont’s Trafficking Action Group (TAG), was the only college student on the panel. 

TAG announced at the event that the group will be meeting once a month to provide more education about human trafficking and provide support for activists who are working on the front lines of the issue. Azzarello explained, “Human trafficking is a really sensitive situation, and especially for people who have been trafficked, consistency is key … it’s a heavy and complicated topic.” She continued, “Human trafficking will be abolished through prevention and education. TAG’s role on campus is to educate students for both their safety and their community’s safety.” Thus, TAG serves as a “way to be involved responsibly.”

According to Azzarello, UI plans on hosting similar educational events in the spring, but they have not announced what issues these events will feature. Azarello said that in regards to these two key issues in Santa Barbara, there will be continuous opportunities at TAG meetings and weekly Bread of Life meetings UI’s meal-sharing program for people experiencing homelessness  in addition to the UI spring break service opportunities. 

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