Story by D.J. Palladino
Photos by Chuck Place
JP Herrada remembers some initial skepticism. “It was about two years ago, and I got this call with an accent on the other end,” laughs the director of the at-risk kids after-school program Palabra, which helps defuse gang disputes while channeling kids from not-so-quiet lives of despair to goals like first-ever family enrollments in college. “And I thought, okay, well here’s another person I’ll have to meet.” A man used to solving problems the self-reliant way, JP, as he is known around town, was already growing impatient with other well-intentioned organizers giving “advice” about the mighty neighborhood labors he and brother JC initiated three years ago.
Turns out, the accent belonged to a French-born English-raised hybrid dynamo with cultivated hippie values and progressive economic and media intelligence named Nathalie Gensac, who was then in the initial phases of researching the needs and opportunities available to make a difference in the poor parts of this affluent town, something she had achieved in considerably poorer parts of the developing world.
During this two-year run up to opening what would become the Youth Interactive center in the funk zone, Gensac would also woo, with her seemingly irresistible energies, a number of converts drawn from our town’s considerable nonprofit armies: The Arts Fund, Easy Lift, UCSB and Antioch University, to name a few.
For Herrada, it was revelation. “I loved her ideas. What she was proposing was not only intriguing to me, but also something I found I desperately wanted to do already. A place for the community itself evolved, and it’s been handed to the community.”
For Gensac, the road from hosting a European television travel show to refurbishing a former gym just above the train tracks seems a natural part of a nicely diverse upbringing. Growing up in Brittany with parents who preferred commune living, but grandparents of a more proper moneyed class, Gensac was sent first to England’s renowned Summerhill Academy, where she learned about freedom, responsibility and transparency, she says, but her college days were slightly more traditional in London and Paris, where she studied theater, eventually working at the BBC.
Although her parents were free spirits, her father was also an import-export businessman, and she inherited fiscal skills—along with her artsy side—and became a successful business consultant. The revelation that turned her into an activist happened while she was a television travel show host. “I toured the world of five-star hotels, but at the same time, when I was traveling in places like Brazil, I also saw the favelas. I saw the disparities; I saw the very rich and the very poor, and having been both rich and poor, it got to me.” She began researching and developing contacts; soon, she found herself active. “In 2005, I decided to stop what I was doing and create a nonprofit that could help on a grassroots level, giving a hand up and not a handout.”
She helped create empowering centers for women in such places as India and Africa, promoting education and creating markets that could help sustain her center’s works, but soon realized the good work needed to be aimed lower. “When I asked women everywhere what would change your world, they all said, ‘The children. They are the next generation.’”
During a chance conversation with Santa Barbarans Linda and Doug Woods, Gensac outlined the conditions she thought could foster a very successful program: big disparity between rich and poor, an environment near a large media center, a community with lots of nonprofits to help and tourists to buy whatever boutique goods the kids decided to produce. “They just looked at me and said, ‘Wow, you should go to Santa Barbara.’”
A few months later, she was calling Herrada.
If the need seems small compared to poorer places, remember that we rank number 50 in state money spent on the arts.
“Everybody is welcome,” says Gensac. “And we don’t want this to be a stand-alone project.” Gensac promises complete transparency. Information about the kids who participate will be available to schools.
Kids began to show up even before it was officially opened. Herrada wrangled a group of six high school artists to help build and decorate the space, which is located in a zone neutral to gang affiliations. Youth Interactive is still seeking donors for its educational plans, including computers, but the students there are optimistic about the future. One San Marcos student, standing in front of shelves to be painted, joked that he was sure this would be a great place for them. For what? “Just someplace to chill,” said another of the young artists. “And maybe learn.”
For more information, contact Youth Interactive at 209 Anacapa St., 805/453-4123, www.youthinteractive.us.