Community Voices is here: Dive into Santa Cruz’s new opinion forum

Pelicans fly over a breaking wave
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz lives the challenges facing the nation. Our issues of affordability, water use, homelessness, climate change, racial inequality, generational equity, impartial justice and friction over growth mirror those faced across the country. We’re also a community that cares about beauty, art, books, poetry and living a rich, meaningful life. We have much to say, and much to say to each other. This is a space to say it.

Welcome to Community Voices, Lookout’s new opinion page.

I’m Jody K. Biehl, the curator of these pages, and I can’t wait to meet you and hear your stories.

I’m a veteran journalist, a UC Santa Cruz professor, a mom, a swimmer, a dog lover and an exceptionally bad surfer.

You can read my bio here, but the most important piece is how deeply I care about excellent, local journalism and how much I believe in journalism’s power to unite communities.

My goal — and the goal of the Lookout team as a whole — is to make Community Voices a gathering place for ideas, a space where we can share expertise, but also hopes, fears, dreams and lived experience.

Our community — fiery, individualistic, intelligent, weird, caring – is suited to this. After two and a half pandemic years, we need a new place to talk, think, grow and heal together.

Santa Cruz lives the challenges facing the nation. Our issues of affordability, water use, homelessness, climate change, racial inequality, generational equity, impartial justice and friction over growth mirror those faced in cities across the country.

What happens here matters elsewhere. And what happens elsewhere matters here as well.

We’re also a community that cares about beauty, art, books, poetry and living a rich, meaningful life. We have much to say, and much to say to each other.

This is a space to say it.

What is Community Voices?

Think of Community Voices as the best of what many newspaper opinion sections used to offer, but with a much-updated use of the tools of our digital day. In our pages, you’ll find traditional, 700-word op-eds alongside video opinions, photo essays and letters to the editor. And over time, lots of surprises.

I will curate the pieces to offer fair, data-driven information and personal stories. We won’t censor you, but we also won’t publish misleading or inaccurate information. We value our smart audience — you — and know that you want inspiration and knowledge, not pugnaciousness and factless assertions.

You will also find “Fix It” — a chance for you to identify a problem and suggest a “fix” — and “Why I Live Here” — a chance to discuss why we call Santa Cruz County home. I’ll also be hosting “Conversations with Jody,” interviews with people doing notable work in the community. Look for my first one with Israel Serrato, a former gang member who spent eight years in 11 California prisons. He “got out” by reconnecting with Native American traditions, and he’s currently teaching those lessons to at-risk middle school kids at Barrios Unidos in Santa Cruz.

I’ll also — at times — be writing columns to explain Lookout’s editorial choices to you. Or I might tell you something we couldn’t find a way to publish otherwise. We’re still figuring out the formula. But the goal is transparency, honesty and communication.

That’s some of what we have planned.

We have more.

Over time, you’ll hear Lookout’s own voice on issues of community importance.

Our format is flexible and will evolve through your response to our content. That’s what makes the project fun. It’s interactive. A conversation.

Let me show you around. You’ll find the Community Voices page easy to find and navigate. Lookout will often feature one of our pieces among our top six stories, and then you can move to the page from there. You’ll also find a link to Community Voices just below those six stories on your phone, or on the website. On our page itself, just use the top section navigation to find Community Voices’ sections, our op-eds, election opinion coverage, letters to the editor, guidelines for submission and more.

How we pick pieces

I’ve talked to 80 people locally to help me think about the kinds of stories to feature here. It’s not enough. Every day, I meet more, often over coffee. Hopefully, I’ll meet you.

Some I’ve met are politicians, business leaders, academics. The usual players. But I’ve put a focus on finding and highlighting voices we don’t often hear. I’ve been talking to case workers, probation officers, people who use wheelchairs, doctors, high school students and people living on boats and in vans. North County and South County and beyond. You’ll see their stories in Lookout soon.

You also will start seeing people you know telling an unfamiliar story or revealing something new. Today, we launch with a video opinion piece by longtime accessibility activist Ernestina Saldana, who takes us around her Live Oak neighborhood as she navigates traffic and railroad tracks in her power wheelchair. Ernestina has a clear message: Santa Cruz needs to do more for people who use wheelchairs.

On Sunday, looking to the start of election season (ballots go out May 9 for the June 7 election), we feature former Santa Cruz Mayor Donna Meyers opening up about the gap between public and private life and the toll public life had on her family.

Today, we’re also featuring pieces by Ami Chen Mills, Justin Cummings and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, the three candidates running to replace Ryan Coonerty as 3rd District County Supervisor. That district covers Davenport, Bonny Doon, the North Coast, much of the city of Santa Cruz and UCSC. Each candidate makes a plea for your vote. We’re giving each the same amount of space and prominence to ensure fairness, as we will do throughout the election.

In coming days, you will see pieces from candidates running for positions across the county and state and – of course – arguments for and against the contested Measure D.

On May 12, please come meet me at Hotel Paradox from 6-8 p.m. as I moderate a debate among the three candidates for 3rd District Supervisor and four candidates for state Assembly District 28. You can come in person or register to watch online.

This is the fun part of my job – the real reason for journalism. To bring you information you can use to make choices.

Lookout Community Voices editor Jody Biehl in Abbott Square

More about me

I am new to Santa Cruz, which is a liability and an asset. I don’t have insider knowledge, but I’m also not skewed by history. A blank slate, to the degree that’s possible.

I’ve covered issues from around the globe as a journalist, working for The New York Daily News, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the San Francisco Chronicle and Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading investigative news magazine, where I was an editor based in Berlin. I’m a native Californian, so I’m thrilled to be back home with the sun, the waves and my big extended family who live both north and south of here.

I’ve also spent more than a decade as an academic, thinking and teaching about journalism practice and ethics. That gives me expertise. I’ve edited thousands of student papers and won mentoring awards. I know how to help people shape ideas.

Santa Cruz County has plenty of those.

My first month here (September 2021), people asked me to sign a dozen petitions.

Where do I think the library should go? How much should UCSC grow? How can we create more affordable housing? Should we tax vacation homes?

And Measure D.

I’ve been asked at the Watsonville farmers market, Rio del Mar beach, on the Pogonip trail, even outside restaurants and Bookshop Santa Cruz if I want a rail and a trail or just a trail from Davenport to Watsonville. The fervency and nastiness of this debate astonishes me. I’ve met people who have lost friends over Measure D or who refuse to talk about it with family or colleagues.

I cannot yet understand why.

Why is this the issue that has so divided our community?

Why not homelessness or health care or affordable housing? Does it seem more immediate and manageable? Or does it tap into something deeper? The decades-long debate of what Santa Cruz is and should become?

Both sides insist they offer the most climate-friendly, practical, community-based solution. We are all striving for similar goals; we just disagree on how to get there.

I’m also worried about what happens on June 8, after voters have decided. How will our community heal? Will those friendships return?

Send me your thoughts. I’m eager to discuss and debate.

For instance, I mentioned the “Why I Live Here” feature to a longtime businessman and he challenged me.

“Why not call it, ‘Prove to Me Santa Cruz Is Still Special’?”’

“Yes,” I told him. “Let’s get at that, too.”

And we will.

You won’t agree with all the opinions we publish here.

If you did, I wouldn’t be doing my job.

If we are lucky, Community Voices will serve a purpose bolder than any single disagreement. It will prove that local journalism matters, that news organizations can provide a forum for community and that good information and democracy are linked.

A small group of local journalists — in addition to those at Lookout — already does excellent work here. I’m proud to join them and, I hope, to initiate collaborations. Like all exchanges, they will make us better.

I’m excited to show you what we have planned for Community Voices.

I’m also ready to meet you and hear your story.

Coffee?