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June 28, 2022

The next generation of leaders

Jessica French has two perspectives. One, from her family’s deep
roots as cattle ranchers. And two, as president of the San Benito
Chamber of Commerce, a job she took last May at age 25.
Jessica French has two perspectives. One, from her family’s deep roots as cattle ranchers. And two, as president of the San Benito Chamber of Commerce, a job she took last May at age 25.

She knew much of the area’s history. But being young, she said, “I know the direction we should be going in also.”

French plays a crucial leadership role. She’s wants to give back to the community. She might even run for office some day after what she hopes is a long stint as the chamber’s president and CEO.

She may be an anomaly being so young and openly enthusiastic about her community. But she’s undoubtedly among a group of up-and-coming professionals and potential leaders in Hollister who are faced with carrying on a long, rich tradition while the community grows and, ideally, prospers.

“I think there’s a great group of young people in this area that are very concerned about the direction our county’s going in and really want to help,” French said.

There are challenges, though, she acknowledged.

“I think if we had more jobs available to the younger generation here we might have a larger base,” said French, who also noted still relatively high housing costs as another deterrent to keeping people in her age group here.

So what sets apart people like French here in San Benito County as they set out to craft the county’s future? What’s unique about her generation and perhaps the ones before and after?

“These kids are eager to learn,” said Mickie Luna, who founded the local chapter of League of United Latin American Citizens and who spends much of her time mentoring Latino youths.

Luna said they’re independent minded, but that they also are enthusiastic about getting support from older generations.

Skeptical about future

Robert Rivas, 28, always has been eager to learn about his community and how he can help it. But Rivas says he’s not a typical young person in Hollister, because he’s involved.

Whether it’s founding the Young Democrats of San Benito County Club, serving as an aide to former Assemblymen Simon Salinas, D-Salinas, or recently landing a job as a senior clerk for the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, Rivas has made involvement in his community a top priority.

Rivas, however, said the top priority for most of San Benito County’s young people has nothing to do with improving their community and more to do with maintaining their circle of friends and taking care of their families.

“I don’t see a next generation in Hollister,” Rivas said. “I see plenty of young people. I just don’t see many active young people. The problem is, young people are the ones we need to motivate. They think outside the box. They are the future. They are the ones with the potential to get things done.”

Getting things done means varying things to different people, and while not as many people flocked to Rivas’ political calling as he may have liked, the youth of Hollister are poised to take the city’s reigns – even if they’re not from here.

An outsider’s perspective

Jen Luecke, 22, who teaches math at San Benito High School, represents a different side of Hollister’s younger professionals. She’s not from Hollister, or even California.

She was recruited from the University of Wisconsin last year and brought her endless motivation into the classroom where she says that, at the very least, she is teaching her students to not dread math class.

Luecke said while not as many students are applying to college as she might like, nearly all are motivated to be successful. And she believes they will.

“I think not all of them (students) are ready for college, but I know they are ready to be done with high school and to go out and make it in the real world,” Luecke said. “They may not be involved in city politics but they are very involved in school politics, sports and other activities.”

In towns and cities across America young people often wear the signs of the surroundings in which they were raised. And in Hollister, this outfit has a collar that’s bluer than the average California town. So success is not necessarily measured by grade-point averages or voter turnouts – but sometimes by crop yields and overtime hours.

“These kids have very strong ties to the community and very strong ties to their families” Luecke said. “This is a small, close-knit community and the kids reflect that small-town atmosphere.”

According to the latest United States Census Bureau, 17.1 percent of San Benito residents 25 years and older have a Bachelor’s level education or higher, a figure significantly lower than the state average of 26.6 percent. But with no local four-year college and more jobs in the fields than in the boardrooms, the figure makes sense. Still, in Hollister, like every community, educated professionals are always needed to keep the gears of the workforce running smoothly.

‘A vested interest’

Abraham Prado, 26, came on as an intern for the Hollister Planning Department in the summer of 2006 and got promoted about a year ago to a full-time job as assistant planner. He’s from here, went to Gavilan College for three years and UCLA after that – before finding his way back home and landing the job with the city while seeking a master’s degree in urban development.

Prado appreciates the role he gets to play in Hollister, and he’s even more prideful because he’s a native.

“I feel like I have a vested interest in this community being that I’m from here,” he said.

Andrew Shelton, 27, also found his niche, right in downtown Hollister. He grew up here then headed off to Chico State before graduating and getting a job as an insurance agent with New York Life downtown.

He shares Rivas’ concerns about younger generations being apathetic to Hollister’s “big picture.”

“What we need is more entry-level jobs for educated people,” Shelton said. “It’s tough to justify moving here or staying here when the cost of living is high and opportunities are few. When it comes to community planning or voting, the young people I’ve seen just are not involved.”

If young people are not enthusiastic about local politics, experts would argue they are becoming increasingly involved in the national variety. Presidential candidate Barack Obama has touted what he calls a “youth movement” who have become involved, many for the first time, in the political process. During California’s democratic primaries this year, young voters ages 18 to 30 nearly doubled from 2004.

Regardless of who voted and who didn’t, who went to college and who went to trade school, who can name the city manager and who can name the best time of the year to plant spinach, the fact that the youth of Hollister are a valuable asset remains undeniable.

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