WALLACE BAINE: A year later, our ’21 for ’21' crew looks back at 2021
After yet another long year, Wallace Baine looks back on Lookout’s “21 for 21" series, produced in the waning months of 2020. These were people and groups we thought would have a significant and critical impact in 2021. Wallace checks in with some of these folks to see how they handled the year that (almost) was.
A year ago, we here at Lookout Santa Cruz attempted to make sense of the traumatic year just past and the uncertain one to come. We did that by putting together a roster of local people whose collective experience of 2020 defined that traumatic year for many in Santa Cruz County, and whose positions in the community made them critical figures in what was to come in 2021.
We called our series “21 for ’21,” a collection of profiles of people in government, agriculture, education, the arts, housing, business, faith, health care, technology, and activism. It was, of course, a volatile moment in the history of the local community and the nation.
The very first COVID-19 vaccines were just being rolled out, and the vast majority of people were still months away from their first jab. Much of the economy was essentially frozen. Political legitimacy was also an open question in those agonizing days between Election Day and Inauguration Day. And, in many parts of Santa Cruz County, the ground was still smoldering from the most ruinous wildfire in the area’s history.
It was from that standpoint that our subjects had to both look back at what they’d been through and ahead at what might lie ahead. A year later, we thought we’d check in with just a few of them to look back on 2021, the year of the vaccine, of the Delta — and now Omicron — variant, and the long shadow of the pandemic.
Among those we profiled were housing activists Sibley Simon and Phil Kramer, educators Jennifer Buesig and Jason Borgen, scientist Marm Kilpatrick, artists Kathleen Crocetti and Cat Willis, activists Bella Bonner, Ruby Vasquez and Rabbi Paula Marcus, public officials Ryan Coonerty and Bonnie Lipscomb, businesspeople Ann Morhauser and Toby Corey and community problem solvers MariaElena de la Garza, Juan Morales-Rocha, Creedence Shaw, Jacob Martinez, Hallie Greene, Leslie Conner, and the staff at the Community Foundation.
A year after the fact, the traumas of 2020 still loom large and doggedly refuse to fade into the past. The most vivid example is, of course, the pandemic. But the CZU fires of August 2020 have proven to be just as tough to shake.
The Community Foundation established a relief fund for fire victims shortly after the fires began. The foundation’s CEO Susan True said the fund is more critical now than it was in the fire’s earliest days.
“In the earliest days of evacuation,” said True, “we helping people with emergency rent, with helping care for animals, with getting gas cards so they could get out of town. It was very crisis-driven.”
But it was in 2021 that homeowners and those displaced by the fire learned what insurance did and did not cover, and whether they could depend on FEMA or Small Business Administration loans to get back on their feet. It was this year that they really began to put their lives back together in earnest.
“Now, we’re working with a group of people in long-term recovery,” said True. “Oh, you need water-tank storage, we’ll get that for you. You need a massage table, so you can get back to work as a massage therapist? We can help you with that.”
Similarly, the needs arising from the persistent COVID-19 pandemic have not significantly abated. Until schools finally opened, parents were often unable to work because of a lack of childcare. Businesses have continued to struggle to find employees, and inflationary pressures and continued high cost of living have squeezed many still grappling with debt incurred in 2020.
Even though ’21 was not as melodramatic as the year before, True said that there was no fall-off in donors giving to help neighbors recover from 2020. On the contrary, “we are on pace for another record year for investing in this community.”
True said that donations to the Community Foundation went from about $12 million in 2019 to about $20 million in 2020. “And we’re very much on a pace to exceed that this year,” she said.
Rabbi Paula Marcus of Temple Beth El in Aptos told us a year ago that 2020 was so painful for her congregants because of the isolation of not being able to be together, which led to postponed bar/bat mitzvahs and funerals conducted on Zoom. For Marcus, 2021 was a year of catch-up.
“The summer was wild,” she said on her efforts to catch up on all those postponed bar and bat mitzvahs. “Oh my gosh, every week was crazy. Sometimes on Saturdays, there were two. It was crazy.”
Before the pandemic and throughout 2020, Marcus balanced her duties as a rabbi with her commitment to activism in the county in general. The turbulence of 2020, she said, has given way to a solid ground from which to move forward. “Looking at the whole issues that have come up around racism and injustice,” she said, “we’re not asleep anymore. There’s definitely division in the country. But I think many of us are just more aware of our history of whether that’s the Jewish community or of people of color, we’re paying attention in a different way. And maybe the pandemic helped with that, because we were all trapped in our homes, watching and reading.”
In the Pajaro Valley in 2020, a group of volunteers established the “Campesino Caravan” to reach out to the area’s farmworkers, show them appreciation for the work they do in that time of the “essential worker,” and raise money to give the workers needed supplies in an uncertain time. PVUSD educator Ruby Vasquez led the effort to go out into the fields, up to three times a week at the height of the pandemic, to provide workers with gifts, supplies, encouragement, hot meals, and crucial health information.
A year later, the caravan is still active, though not as regular as it was in 2020. Earlier this month, the caravan volunteers met and decided to continue the service into 2022. The focus this year has been to help farmworkers navigate the details of available vaccinations and to provide news and information about the variants of COVID-19. Private donations have fallen off since the group got national media attention in the spring of 2020, said Vasquez, but the group received a $10,000 grant from the California State Association of Counties to continue its efforts. The caravan is still raising money from private individuals to assist the county’s farmworkers.
The caravan will continue to go out into the fields and provide workers with gift cards for food and essentials, but also to let them know they are appreciated.
“We felt like it was a service that doesn’t seem to be happening through any other source,” said Vasquez. “And we decided that even if we go out once or twice a month, it would at least continue some kind of consistent outreach to campesinos. We started our messaging with a simple ‘Thank you for your work,’ And these workers, that’s what they really appreciate, that someone has taken the time to go out and thank them.”
Third District Supervisor Ryan Coonerty experienced a year like no other in his long career in public service in 2020. He not only presided over the county’s response to both the pandemic shutdown and the CZU fires—much of the most devastated burn area was in his district—he also lost a close friend when his aide Allison Endert was killed in an accident.
A year ago, Coonerty was holding his breath that this first quarter of 2021 might see an improvement in people’s lives in relation to the pandemic. “We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said. “But I feel like the last half (of 2021), things have gotten a little more clear and easier. Omicron is scary but I feel like our vaccination numbers are among the best in the country. The kids are back in school, and things are getting closer to normalcy. I feel like we still have a couple more ups and downs to go. But the car didn’t come off the tracks, which felt like a very real possibility at this time last year.”
A year ago, Coonerty was also planning for a run as another term as Supervisor. But in the spring of 2021, after “a couple of long walks with family and friends,” he decided not to run again when his current term expires at the end of 2022.
“Being a lame duck is actually really quite an enjoyable experience,” he said, “because you can vote how you want to vote and work on the things you want to work on.”
After 2022, Coonerty said he will “very much be enjoying private life. I’ll keep teaching. I have a book I want to write, do some consulting, and hopefully coach a kid or two’s sports teams. But I’m very much not going to be in public life. I’ll find ways to always be there for my community and try to help in any way I can. But I think it’s time for others to step up and move the community in the direction they choose.”
In the meantime, though, is one more year on the Board of Supervisors. He said he’s aware of the limited number of meetings and votes he has in front of him to get things done and “there’s going to be some pressure to deliver.” But, as he prepares for 2022, he still sees evidence that the community still has the moxie to survive whatever might be in store.
“People opened their homes to fire victims,” said Coonerty reflecting on the lessons of 2020. “People supported nonprofits and small businesses. People rallied around the community to support one another. It’s all in this context of (political) division that we’re seeing. I think it’s going to take more collaboration to maintain these new relationships. But with the evidence of how people came together (in 2020), I think that’ll continue.”