Jonathan Abboud, 26
When Jonathan Abboud was elected to the Santa Barbara Community College Board at the age of 22, he was the youngest community college board member in the state. This year he's seeking re-election with the hopes of expanding his vision of free tuition for all public colleges.
If you could get a beer with any politician who would it be?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez because she did the biggest thing that any young person can do right now in politics, which is beat an establishment incumbent who didn't reflect the district demographics and who wasn’t as progressive. She ran, was unabashed and won with a huge percentage. She did what’s basically the dream everywhere for young Democrats.
What are your current obsession - podcasts, tv shows, books, etc?
I just finished Scandal. I mainly watch Netflix. I think I'm going to move right after and re-watch Game of Thrones.
Tell me one interesting fact about yourself that has nothing to do with politics.
I’m learned how to cook off of YouTube videos when I was 16 that would replicate items at popular restaurants and chains. I know how to cook for real now, but I originally learned how to cook by replicating a Big Mac, even though I had never even had a Big Mac in my life yet!
What has been the best advice someone gave you before you ran for office?
My campaign manager when running for Associated Students President, Maryana, had me watch the Power of Why video. It's a TED talk that talks about how to communicate your ideas better. It says people don't care about the “what”, they care about the “why” and hearing that was really helpful.
So in your own words, what position are you running for and what exactly do you do?
I'm running for re-election to be a trustee on the Santa Barbara Community College District Board. We are responsible for making sure that the Santa Barbara Community College is providing services to the community, is accountable to the public, and financially sound. We make sure that the budget is being set in a way that would of the best benefit the people who pay into it. We don't do any of the technical work of running the college, that's up to our staff, but we make sure that the college is acting in a way that would serve the people we represent.
What are your potholes in your district? What are the issues you feel aren’t being addressed?
The main thing that is not being handled by the college right now and it's something I've been trying to do some four years and my next term I think I'll have a better shot of making something happen is to build student housing. We all know housing is hard to get in Santa Barbara - it’s expensive and there is a low vacancy rate. Community college students also don't get the same amount of financial aid as university students, so they work two jobs just to afford rent to go to school. Students also have the power to gentrify areas. So I think SBCC needs to be creating student housing on its own land that’s for students and workforce so that they can have affordable housing without being bad neighbors to the families who live nearby. Related to this point, I want to make sure that SBCC is paying its workers fairly and a wage that meets the cost of living of where they work. So I want to get a wage increase in the next budget with our new revenue.
I also want to make that SBCC completely tuition-free locally for in-district residents and keep using my position to advocate for statewide tuition-free college.
I want SBCC to be stronger with community engagement and have a formal process including the community in our decision making.
Finally, I want to get SBCC to be a pioneer and a big provider of civic education in Santa Barbara. We could create and facilitate classes that teach people about how local government works, how the state works, how the power structure or budget process works and give them an insight into government. Maybe even have the mayor teach a class about the city or the state legislator teach a class about the state.
When did you hear the call? When did you realize you should run for office?
I first started four years ago in 2014. It was after the shooting and the riots in Isla Vista. I had already decided to stay in IV to work on creating self-governance for our community. That was an independent idea from running for office, I never planned on it. But towards the end of July, someone emailed me and said, “There's this position open that represents Isla Vista on the community college board, you should consider running.”
To me, it just made sense to run because it would’ve been strategically important for students to have an elected official that can go beyond and support the self-governance efforts. Higher education had always been my favorite topic as a student leader. So it made a lot of sense to run for the board because it was something I was already interested in and it was going to be good for my community.
You're running for reelection. What’s something you learned from your last term? How has your last term informed how you’ll do things in your next term?
I learned that things don't just happen, someone needs to be at the table fighting for them to happen. That's the biggest realization I've had. That’s also why I think it's important for young people to be elected because we can speak and support issues that no one else might have supported.
Last year we were dealing with gender-neutral bathrooms and I put forward the resolution to support undocumented residents. All those things were very beneficial and a lot of people still come talk to me and say thank you for making that resolution. Both those issues might not have moved forward at all if I hadn't been trustee. That’s the empowering part of it, you have a lot of power by being there and being able to things up. That’s why we need a lot more young people who can be there sitting at the table every week bringing up these issues as a member of that body.
Thinking about young elected official. Many young people aspire to go to DC or Sacramento. Why did you decide to run for local office?
I feel really strongly about this. I definitely had the option to go to Sacramento or DC after graduation. But I thought that in a local setting, a young person who is politically driven and motivated and interested can have a bigger impact locally because there's not as many people involved in the local scene. Here you can have a say and you are able to get more done. If you go to DC or Sacramento when you're 21 or 22, it's going to be a good learning experience for sure. But you are limited in what you're able to do, you're going to work for someone else who has their own agenda, and you don't have much agency. But I think we can really make tangible impact locally in your community where you grew up or wherever you live - all communities need investment of time and energy to thrive.
You've been in Santa Barbara now for eight years. People often discount the student voice in communities like IV just because it's a transient population. How do you keep student voices and advocacy consistent when there is high turnover?
The cool thing about IV is that the issues are not that transient, so ideas have persisted in Isla Vista over time. Self-governance has been around since the 1970s, and it just kept going and going and going until we were successful in 2014-2018. I think now having the Community Service District is going to be really helpful in preserving a lot of the activism and ideas that people have for the community. We’re a permanent organizing body that's going to grow and we represent people at the time, from the past, and for the future.
We are a vehicle to help create continuity now and that's a chance for people in Isla Vista to engage in a way never before seen. They might be gone in three years but the issue that trying to address has probably been an issue for people in the past and will probably continue being an issue in the future. So working through us can help solve some of the issues of turnover and we can help created a place that people want to stay longer in. We're able to create some stability.
What is this issue of self-governance in Isla Vista, and what have been some of the greater challenges for you because you’re not working in a city?
Self-governance is the idea that people should have a say over the place where they live. Before, people were making decisions for us who don’t live here or haven’t lived here in a long time. A lot of things were happening to us all the time and that's why people wanted to create some self-governance, to make things happen for ourselves instead.
It was a struggle at first because no one cared about the idea until six people were murdered and then everyone all of a sudden got supportive of something to help IV. We had to work to educate people about something pretty obscure, and engage them and get them interested in knowing more about a complicated topic. But we got it, we did it. Once we formed we didn't have a tax so it was a struggle to run a government without money and get things done without any funding. But we were able to do that. Then we passed the tax which was a big struggle in itself, and now that we have it, things are going pretty nicely because we allocate a budget that reflects what the needs of the community right now. It’s pretty cool to see, considering it was just an idea someone talked to me about in my office to a full-fledged organization that everybody in Santa Barbara knows about.
Campaigns often focus on what's wrong with your community. Who do you love about your community in Isla Vista?
Well there's a lot of reasons to love Isla Vista. One of them being the obvious, it’s that on the beach. I can walk to the beach in two minutes.
It’s also very walkable, people are less focused on cars and more focused on walking and biking. Just being able to just walk down the street to see your friends at any time is something you can't do really anywhere else. I think transiency is a cool part of it because you're always getting new people with new ideas coming in and out.
And the fact that it's mainly young people. The median age is 20. It really keeps the town forward thinking because no one’s ever going to get too attached to anything, because there’s going to be another group of people living there who are going to have new ideas on the world.
What do you how do you respond to the commentary out there that labels millennials and Gen Z as apolitical and not socially aware?
People ask me this all the time. I remember I giving a presentation in my master's program about Isla Vista, and the TA was a graduate student who had never lived in IV, raised his hand and said, “What do you do because the students don’t vote and they don’t care?”
I very quickly corrected that narrative. The students do vote. 7200 students voted in the primary of 2016 and that’s about how many voted in the 2008 general election for Obama. So we vote when there's something to vote for.
Many times people have been offered up to us on the ballot that we don't care about to vote for because they don't care about us and they don't care about our issues. We’re seen as just vote slot machines for some politicians.
But when you have a politician like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, they speak to the issues we care about and so we get really excited about it. Just like anything else.
So how did you do it? What advice would you give to other elected officials about how to get young people engaged politically?
You have to speak their language. You have to invest and engage with them. In Santa Barbara, the Democratic Party spends money on an organizer just for Isla Vista every election cycle. So you have to take an actual tangible step to help them care about things. There’s just so many things to know about and when you're 19 you just started voting, you might not have heard about politics that much yet because it's only been 12 months since you’ve been able to vote and in those 12 months you have college, you also left home, you also maybe have gotten a job. There’s a lot going on in someone's life.
So I think you need to do direct engagement with people and actually try to meet them where they’re at. You can’t just expect the students will turn out because you give out free food, you have to actually engage with them give them something worthwhile to vote for.
What past experience you think most prepared you for public office?
Being the Associated Students President. It was a big experience because I had to deal to administrators, I had to deal with the news, I had to think long term about how the decisions I was making would affect the future. It was a fast paced position. It prepared me by helping me think about policy decisions and helping think about meeting people where they're at.
When you’re AS President, you've got 17,000 students who might not know what's going on but you do. You have to help inform them and get them engaged on the issues.
What do you think the biggest doubts people have about you as a candidate? And what do you say to people who tell you that you’re too young to run?
I think I've proven myself and so I haven't had any of that kind of rhetoric on me this time. I first ran extremely young and I’m still the youngest trustee in California, maybe the country. I owned the position to the fullest and I got things done. There was some doubt about completing my term last time, this time, it's been more encouraging.
People are glad I'm running again. People thought I was only going to do one term and then leave and move on. But they’re happy I’m staying and doing another one.
Last question. What advice would you give to another young person who's considering running for local office?
I'll say is what works for me. I got really involved in my community before I ran for office so when I did run many of the struggles of running for office like building name recognition were not as big for me because I had already been meeting people for four years. So I don't think people should run for office without having built community relationships and ties. I think if you run for office without having community support, it's not going to be successful. Community support can mean many things, but you do need to have a community around you and behind you to run. I don’t recommend spontaneous runs. I recommend doing some other work in the community and then move to run afterwards.
I think this year there's going to be a huge wave of young people getting elected unlike the year I got elected in 2014, which was a low voter turnout year. This year's completely the opposite so it's exciting to be part of this big wave that's happening. It's exciting to be the experienced person who's already done it. I can support my friends, give them advice, fundraise for them and give legitimacy to their candidacy by saying well I'm already an elected official, I endorse you, and support you. That's really fulfilling for me because last time I was the person that needed help and was looking for support and now I get to be that person for a lot of people this year. I get to help build the next generation.
Some of the people running this November I’ve been supporting and advising for a couple years now. So I’m excited to see them get to the ballot and win.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the candidate, and do not reflect the beliefs and views of Ballot Breakers or its staff.