Episode 14 of Healing America with Dr. Jim White aired on December 1, 2020. On Tuesday, Dr. White welcomed guest Susie Brusa to the program. Brusa is CEO of Rancho Cielo, a 100-acre campus in Salinas, California that provides educational and vocational training for underserved and at-risk youth in Monterey County. She has a BA from Pomona College and attended Harvard Business School for Educational Programs and Nonprofit Management. She is the former president of the Junior League in Monterey County. Highlights of White and Brusa’s conversation below:
December 1, 2020
JW: Let’s start off with Rancho Cielo, how did it get started?
SB: So, Judge Tom Phillips, who is now retired, but when he was sitting on the bench he was putting these young men behind bars for longer and longer, mandatory sentencing, and feeling like – first of all, like he was locking up our future workforce, but he came to understand that these young kids didn’t have the same advantages that his own kids had had, and that there was somehow an uneven playing field. He knew of this property that used to be a boy’s ranch detention facility, and he could envision repurposing it into a center where young people could get a diploma and real job skills so that they could break that gang membership cycle they’re in. So in the year 2000 he founded the non-profit and he engaged the business community to be on his board of directors, he feels strongly that government can’t solve every problem, and to a certain degree, the community needs to step in and help fix the problems they’re responsible for.
JW: What are the qualifications to be considered as a student at Rancho Cielo?
SB: It used to be that you had to be on probation. But that is no longer true. We do have one program that is specifically for juveniles on probation, but the rest of the programs – being on probation or being involved in the justice system is no longer a requirement. So we recruit, we advertise – in English and Spanish. In print media and on the radio, and we’ve now been around long enough that we get a lot of word of mouth.
“When we talk about these issues, we have to talk about both the economic benefit to the community of appropriately funding education and workforce development programs and we have to talk about the social benefits to historically excluded communities.”
— Susie Brusa
JW: What programs that you’re running now are focused on preparing youth to work in agriculture?
SB: Not too long ago we finished a ten million dollar capital campaign to build this new building that’s now complete and has one year of service under our belts. The ag academy is called the Ted Taylor Ag Vocational Center. Taylor was a visionary and an icon in agriculture in the Valley and his widow, Joanne Taylor and her family, his children Bruce Taylor, of Taylor Farms being one of them, gave the foundational gift for this center.
JW: What led you to transition to the nonprofit sector?
SB: Well, I love running organizations. I mean, I had some big sales jobs, statewide sales jobs, I love that stuff. I love making morale an operational measurement and proving to people who think that morale is flurry that it is in fact tied to productivity – I love that. And do you remember when Elizabeth Dole was the head of the Red Cross? I looked at her and I thought how do I get that job? Because, you know, running a big organization, my husband always used to say look, you are making an impact on the community because your employees aren’t going home at night and complaining around the dinner table about their work environment. But I wanted to make a community-wide impact, so at some point, I looked around and said what’s available in my own community? And working with youth, especially gang-affiliated youth, we had such a terrible juvenile violence problem in Salinas. I love this community and most of these agricultural firms in Monterey County are still family owned, locally owned and run. These people are so generous because they’re been here for three or four generations and they intend to stay here for three or four generations and they give.
JW: If you had five minutes with president elect Joe Biden, what would you say?
SB: You know he says he wants to unify, and I think messaging is critical. When we talk about these issues, we have to talk about both the economic benefit to the community of appropriately funding education and workforce development programs and we have to talk about the social benefits to historically excluded communities. If we message that properly, it’s something that appeals to the law and order folks, it’s been proven at Rancho Cielo. 80% recidivism reduction and more taxes paid because people are employed. Breaking the cycle of violence, keeping families together – if we invest in young people, recidivism declines and the economy gets better.
JW: What are some initiatives you’re looking forward to for Rancho Cielo in 2021?
SB: We have a new program to open, that will bring new staff to the team, and an additional group of students to campus. So that will be exciting. Each one of our programs has this advisory council that advises us on curriculum to be sure we’re training to the right thing, to what the industry really needs. Every year we get those councils together to improve our programs, make them stronger, and sometimes we make big changes to the programs, and sometimes we just make little tweaks.