Away to Home

Originally published in Mainline magazine May 3, 2017

Opening Doors Helps Refugees Land on Their Feet in a New Land

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Russul Roumani (in orange) takes a newly arrived family from Afganistan to retrieve their luggage at Sacramento International Airport. Photo by Vanessa S. Nelson | Photo Editor | vanessaneslonexpress@gmail.com

As the clock ticked forward, moving from one day to the next, Sacramento International Airport began to slowly shut down. Starbucks had just closed for the night, and the help desk was left unattended. A maintenance person was replacing the sign on the single-use restroom to indicate that it was now available to all gender. Lights had dimmed, and security gates had been rolled down, leaving just a few employees and agents.

I was sitting right below the escalator that passengers would descend to get to the arrivals platform to be picked up. To my left was a woman with a homemade sign that read “SON” while to the right was a young man who alternated his attention between the top of the escalator and his phone screen, eyes nervously darting up and down.

Russul Roumani’s attention was also split between her phone and the escalator, watching for a newly arrived Afghan family. She had been waiting for more than an hour and a half after the family’s flight from LAX was delayed. The plane was supposed to come in at midnight, and it was now 1:30 a.m.

For just about anyone else, it was a typical late night at Sacramento International. But for Roumani and the family coming to the United States, it was a new beginning for eight people.


Earlier that day, March 6, the White House issued an executive order that limited the year’s number of incoming refugees to 50,000 at most. According to the State Department, in the 2014-15 fiscal year that number was 70,000.

There are 21.3 million refugees worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees website. Under the new order, only about .2 percent of them will be allowed into the U.S. this year. The family from Afghanistan – whose names are being withheld for their privacy and protection – makes up eight of those 50,000 refugees.

They will be integrated into their new community by a Sacramento nonprofit agency called Opening Doors, which assists refugees with housing and other support services. As a caseworker for the agency, Roumani coordinates with local volunteers the family’s transportation from the airport to a hotel where they stay until more permanent housing is arranged.

Opening Doors CEO Deborah Ortiz, currently serves on the Los Rios Community Colleges District Board of Trustees after eight years as a state senator, two years as an assembly member and four years as a member of the Sacramento City Council.

Last year the Department of Social Services reported that the state had taken in 7,908 refugees. Of those, 1,299 settled in Sacramento, which has resulted in the city having the third largest refugee community in the state behind Los Angeles and San Diego.

According to Ortiz, Sacramento is also the No. 1 destination in the U.S. for special immigrant visa holders from Afghanistan – like the family Roumani was picking up.

“Once there’s a network and welcoming community here,” said Ortiz, “that really enhances the willingness for a person to identify Sacramento as a place they’d like to go to.”


At the airport, passengers and crew of the late flight from Los Angeles finally came down the escalator. Most of them went directly to baggage claim, while others went to the seating area to mingle with awaiting family. The nervous young man who had been studying his phone nearly stumbled over a duffle bag trying to reach and embrace a young woman. The woman holding the “SON” sign continued to wait.

Roumani was joined by Helen Killeen, a UC Davis graduate assistant who had volunteered to help pick up this Afghan family from the airport. Soon after Killeen’s arrival, Roumani smiled as the family of two parents and six children, including two sets of twins wearing badges marked IOM – International Organization of Migration – descended the escalator into their new city.

The family had arrived, and their two-day journey from Afghanistan to Dubai to Los Angeles to Sacramento had finally come to an end.

After greeting the family in their native language – Dari – with welcome and good faith, Roumani and Killeen went to baggage claim to pick up the family’s luggage. The father and his three sons soon followed. As they waited for the conveyor belt to move, one of the young daughters walked over to stand with her father and brothers. She looked up at the sculptures of unclaimed luggage piled high to the ceiling in Seussical fashion and smiled with sparkling eyes and open mouth.

When luggage began to flow down the conveyor belt, the father and sons quickly looked for their bags and began to stack them onto the carts with vigorous efficiency.

Roumani and Killeen strategized how they would transport the family to the hotel. But this was no challenge for Roumani. She once retrieved four families – 32 people – who arrived at the same time. The family Roumani was transporting that day consisted of 10 people.

“I started asking, ‘Who is your wife? OK, come with me,’ just so we could get all of the kids, laughed while leaving the airport.

Once sufficient housing is found for this group of new arrivals, they would likely settle in the Arden-Arcade neighborhood where a significant Middle Eastern community has planted roots.

“The markets are there, the restaurants are there,” said Ortiz. “That’s where the community resides.”


On a Saturday morning later in March, most of the faculty, staff and student body at Greer Elementary were taking advantage of the weekend. But on that day a few volunteers watched as a class of young refugee children played basketball.

The Saturday School Program of the San Juan Unified School District, run by counselor Heather Berkness, offers children of refugees a chance to improve their language and social skills.

“A lot of our kids speak Arabic, Farsi and Dari, and they are just starting at the foundational basis of language,” said Berkness.

In the 2016-17 academic year, San Juan Unified School District reported that of the district’s 5,233 ESL students, 1,311 – roughly 4 percent – spoke either Arabic, Pashto, Farsi or Dari.

“This is so exciting for them to be in a place where they’re surrounded by others doing just the same thing,” said Berkness.

Since most of the refugee community resides in Arden-Arcade, San Juan reported last year that the district had 832 students who were refugees, the largest number in all districts in the region.

The staff meets every challenge, large and small, at Saturday School. On this day a volunteer approached Berkness with a young girl wearing a hijab who was crying. She had fallen on her hand. While Berkness comforted her, the volunteer went to find someone who could speak Farsi.

Since the program takes place on weekends, Berkness said that it is difficult to find faculty and staff to teach classes for the children. As a result, volunteers – including Berkness’ mother – fill the gap.

To best serve the diverse age range of children, Saturday School emphasizes different skills for different age groups. Berkness said they ask the oldest students what they want to learn and what they think is important. The group of older students that week wanted to focus on applying for jobs and properly preparing resumès.

The adult refugees have their own version of Saturday School – though it takes place on Friday. Opening Doors offers refugees the chance to attend cultural classes to learn about American society and the Sacramento region.

It’s not all fun and games, Ortiz pointed out. The students require more resources due to their experiences in their home countries.

“Because these children are coming from trauma and violence, there are emotional issues that [school districts] are seeking more guidance and support for,” Ortiz said.

In a Saturday School classroom for a younger age group, the children made collages to help identify what is important in their lives.

“We’re doing some really positive character building,” said Berkness. “We want to continue to have those positive affirmations so kids know that we want them here.”

Berkness, who had to leave to attend to the girl who had fallen on her hand, walked down the hallway as children inside the multi-purpose room sang, “This Land is Your Land,” which they would perform at an open house the following week.

“They’re an asset to our system,” said Berkness of the refugee children. “We’re glad that they’re here.”


After meeting the new arrivals at the airport, on the drive to the family’s hotel, Roumani described her own experience with Opening Doors.

It wasn’t long ago that she had someone waiting for her at the bottom of the escalator. In 2008, after a co-worker in Baghdad was killed by unknown assailants, Roumani and her children fled Iraq and were resettled by Opening Doors. In 2011, the agency hired her.

“[Opening Doors] was small when I first started, but now we’re getting bigger and bigger,” said Roumani, one of five employees – including the department head – in the agency’s Refugee Resettlement Department who were also once refugees.

Ten days before picking up the new arrivals, Roumani had returned from a visit with her parents in Baghdad. The house she lived in, she said, was gone.

“The situation hasn’t changed,” said Roumani.

She became a citizen in 2013 but chose not to vote in last year’s presidential election, believing that both candidates would continue conflict in the Middle East.

“I know what war is like,” she said, “I don’t like war.”

Though the Trump administration twice tried to impose a travel ban to the U.S. by nationals from six Muslim-majority countries, SIV holders are exempt regardless of country of origin, according to Ortiz.

Ortiz said that SIV holders differ from other refugees in that they have worked for the U.S. government or military in a capacity, such as translators, that would put them and their families in danger.

“They are at greater risk because they helped our government,” said Ortiz.

Ortiz also said that SIVs are typically skilled as engineers or medical professionals in their home countries. In the case of the arrivals Roumani was picking up, the father of the family was a cook for the U.S. government in Kabul.

Opening Doors was founded in 1993 by the Interfaith Service Bureau as the Sacramento Refugee Ministry to resettle refugees from the former Soviet Union, which dissolved in 1991. It wasn’t until a decade later that it changed its name to Opening Doors.

Ortiz came into her role as Opening Door’s CEO when her predecessor, Debra DeBondt, stepped down to volunteer in Africa for the Peace Corp.

“Refugees especially during this time in history are a really vulnerable population,” said Ortiz. “It’s a passion to serve, and this is the organization that fuels this passion.”

The staff at Opening Doors are not the only people in the region concerned about refugees. In late March a group of former and current state workers and lobbyists hosted a picnic for about 200 recently arrived families that was catered by local businesses. It was originally supposed to be held at Land Park, but due to rain, B’nai Israel, a nearby Jewish synagogue, volunteered its recreation area so the event could take place.

“I still feel people across the country are compassionate and feel the need to do something and be welcoming,” Ortiz added. “Real people have a sense of goodness and compassion, and we’ve seen it every day here in Sacramento.”


At the hotel, Roumani headed for the front desk to get the family checked in. While the new arrivals waited in the lobby, the father went across the room to get coffee for himself and his wife. As Roumani finished at the front desk, a man pushing a cart full of boxes of baked goods came into the lobby. After asking Roumani if the family spoke Arabic, the man welcomed the family in Dari before pushing the cart into the back.

After checking in, Roumani and I assisted the father and his sons in bringing their luggage up to the room. Roumani gave them a cell phone as well as a few take-out boxes that contained hot food from a local Afghan restaurant before saying goodbye.

I asked Roumani how to say goodbye in Dari.

“Kuda Hafez,” she said.

I repeated the phrase as best I could to the father of the family, and immediately the hotel room filled with laughter. The father patted me on the shoulder and said, “That was good.”

Then Roumani and I left the hotel and went out into the night, which was actually a new day for us all.


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A refugee mother holds her child as she leaves the airport in her new country. Photo by Vanessa S. Nelson | Photo Editor | vanessaneslonexpress@gmail.com

Two weeks after picking up the family – by this time sleeping in their new home – Roumani was back at the airport waiting for more new arrivals. This time she was not alone.

“A lot of families are coming tonight,” she noted, observing the large number of Afghans and caseworkers below the escalator.

This time the flight was not late, and the escalator soon filled with people wearing IOM badges. Roumani smiled and walked up to greet the new Afghan family of six she was picking up. After getting their bags, the group of seven headed out the doors to Roumani’s van. Gripping their parents’ hands, the young children occasionally fell behind, lost in wonder of the new world that the wings of a dream had taken them to.

Roumani and the newcomers walked out the airport doors and headed for a friend’s house to begin their lives in what Walt Whitman called the “center of equal daughters, equal sons.”

Volunteers make a big difference to Opening Doors. For more information, click here.

From The Trail: Photos of the 2016 Campaign in California

It’s finally here! After two years of brutal campaigning, today the world looks to the United States as we hold our elections.

I don’t know how much I’ve spent on Uber and Lyft this cycle, but it was probably a lot. This year I was able to cover different aspects of the 2016 campaign. Sometimes with other people, other times alone. But the experiences of rallies, press conferences and a debate have all been the same: sending out emails trying to justify that my blog was a legitimate media outlet, waiting to receive confirmation, recognizing the same reporters at each event, wading through the crowd to get the best shot, trying to get the best quote, running into fellow student journalists.

The following are photos that I’ve taken during this incredible cycle. Since June I’ve reported on three rallies, a congressional debate and a group of Clinton campaign volunteers in Reno.

I did not photograph the Reno trip, though there are photos from when the bus got stuck in Donner Pass on the way back.

Some were taken with my phone when I was with other people.

Regardless of the quality or event, this election isn’t about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Ami Bera, Scott Jones, Loretta Sanchez or Kamala Harris. It was always about what we as Americans — more specifically as Californians — are.

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Sacramento mayoral candidate Darrell Steinberg greets supporters outside the Hillary Clinton Rally at Sacramento City College. June 5, 2016
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A protestor outside the Clinton Rally. Signs read “Billary is a Fraud,” “Neocon – Neolib Two Sides of the Same Coin.” June 5, 2016
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Fellow Sac City Express reporters Maxfield Morris and Tyler Heberle at the Clinton rally. June 5, 2016
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Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, State Senator Richard Pan and Congressman John Garamendi stand backstage. June 5, 2016
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Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes the stage. June 5, 2016
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Frequent collaborator Vanessa Nelson stands with other photographers during the rally. June 5, 2016
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Supporters cheer as Congresswoman Doris Matsui passes the mic to Clinton. June 5, 2016
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Sacramento County sheriff and Republican candidate for the California 7th Congressional district Scott Jones poses for photos outside KVIE before the debate with incumbent Ami Bera. Oct. 18, 2016
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Republican strategist Wayne Johnson (left) and former Sacramento County sheriff John McGinness (right) before the California 7th debate. Oct. 18, 2016
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Traffic behind our bus in Donner Pass. I was following a group of volunteers campaigning for Clinton in Reno. Oct. 30, 2016
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California Attorney General and Democratic candidate for US Senate Kamala Harris at a “Get Out the Vote” rally with Congressman Ami Bera. Nov. 3, 2016
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Kamala Harris speaking to reporters. Nov. 3, 2016
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Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a Yes on Prop. 61 rally at the California State Capitol. Nov. 7, 2016
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The crowd outside the California State Capitol listening to Sanders speak in support of Prop. 61. Nov. 7, 2016
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Prop. 61 supporters listening to Bernie Sanders outside the California State Capitol. Nov. 7, 2016

Kamala Harris Makes Campaign Stop in Elk Grove

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California Attorney General and Democratic candidate for the United States Senate Kamala Harris stopped the campaign headquarters of Congressman Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove) for the Sacramento leg of her 10-day bus tour of the state.

Due to California’s top-two primary, two Democrats will be going head-to-head in the general election Nov. 8. Harris’ challenger is Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez of Anaheim. However, Harris is still the national and state party’s choice to fill the seat of retiring Senator Barbara Boxer who has occupied that seat since being elected in 1992.

According to a poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, Harris leads Sanchez by 22 points as of Oct. 23. More recent polls put her at 20.

Recently Harris has gained national attention after spearheading the crackdown on backpage.com. Site executives Carl Ferrer, Michael Lacey and James Larkin were charged with pimping and pimping minors in Sacramento County Superior Court back in September. Prosecutors allege that all three men knowingly received millions in bonuses from the illegal prostitution ads on the site.

Harris said that it is important that her successor continue to pursue prosecution of backpage.com if she is elected.

Candidates duel over contested 7th Congressional District in California

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Democratic congressman Ami Bera and Republican challenger Scott Jones debated in Natomas yesterday for California’s 7th Congressional District.

The two candidates have dueled over this hotly contested seat with both accumulating their share of skeletons in their closets.

The debate began with questions regarding a lawsuit filed against the Sheriff’s department. The lawsuit covers allegations by a former female deputy that Jones sexually harassed her. However, Jones insisted that the allegations were false.

“I went under oath and I deny these allegations in the strongest terms possible,” said Jones.

Bera continued to push the allegations issue, saying that they were “pretty shocking what was going on.” This attack mirrors pro-Bera mailers and television ads that paint Jones in a similar light.

But Bera’s character was also called into question. Earlier this year, Bera’s 83-year-old father pleaded guilty to two felony counts of election fraud. Bera’s father, Babulal Bera, used family and friends to illegally contribute above the legal limit to his son’s 2010 and 2012 congressional campaigns.

“My father made a mistake and he shouldn’t have done this,” said Bera during the debate. “He’s not a criminal but he broke the law.”

A federal prosecutor found no evidence that would indicate Bera or anyone in his staff knew of Babulal Bera’s illegal activity.

Jones however believes otherwise. “Either the 90 friends and family of Congressman Bera who all knew what engaged in a conspiracy for four years to keep that information from Congressman Bera,” said Jones, “or alternatively that Congressman Bera didn’t have any substantive conversations with any of those 90 family and friends.”

Since redistricting in 2013, the California 7th has been one of the most hotly contested districts in the country. According to Cook Partisan Voting Index, the district is considered “even.” Bera narrowly won re-election against Doug Ose in 2014. This year should be no different.

Sponsors of the event included the Los Rios Community College District, Sacramento Bee and Folsom lake College which is located within the 7th District.

The election will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 8. The deadline for voter registration California is Oct. 24.

Hillary Clinton makes stop at City College before June 7 primary

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on June 6, 2016

Additional reporting by Maxfield Morris.

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Former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes the stage in the North Gym. Photo by Zachary FR Anderson | Managing Editor | zachanderson.express@gmail.com

Outside the North Gym, hundreds of people waited to hear Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speak at Sacramento City College Sunday, June 5 — two days before California’s June 7 presidential primary.

Clinton took the stage between 6 and 7 p.m. as Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” (Clinton’s official song) played. She was introduced by Congresswoman Doris Matsui, who also worked in the White House during Clinton’s tenure as First Lady to former President Bill Clinton. Matsui reminisced about when her husband, Congressman Bob Matsui, died, saying that Hillary Clinton was the first to call and offer her condolences.

The former Secretary of State’s speech focused on domestic policy. She shared emotional moments with the crowd regarding her time as a senator from New York during the Sept. 11 attacks as well as her experiences running the State Department during the 2011 siege on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan that resulted in the death of the infamous terrorist.

Focusing on connecting with the state’s voters, Clinton applauded California’s diversity calling it, “…as big as a country and as diverse as one, too.”

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Supporters listen to Congresswoman Doris Matsui (D-Sacramento) introduce Hillary Clinton in the North Gym. Photo by Zachary FR Anderson | Managing Editor | zachanderson.express@gmail.com

During her speech, Clinton applauded President Barack Obama for “digging us out of the ditch,” referring to the president’s efforts to strengthen the economy during the Great Recession.

“It is a fact that the economy does better when we have a Democrat in the White House,” said Clinton, who also indicated that the recession began during the presidency of Republican President George W. Bush.

Clinton also criticized Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, on key issues, such as his ability to be a responsible and reliable as commander in chief.

“Here’s somebody who in the last few weeks has insulted our closest allies,” said Clinton, “has praised dictators like [Kim Jong Un] in North Korea. Has advocated pulling out of NATO, which is our strongest military alliance. Has said in very cavalier [fashion] that he doesn’t really mind if other countries get nuclear weapons, including Saudi Arabia.”

Other politicians at the event also voiced their concerns regarding the business mogul’s ability.

“…All you have to look at is what’s happening in this country in the past week with this guy Trump,” said Sacramento mayoral candidate Darrell Steinberg, “calling out a judge because of his Mexican heritage and saying he can’t be impartial, applying the same logic to any Muslim judge. This is dangerous.”

Steinberg was referring to Trump’s recent comments regarding the federal judge overlooking the California lawsuit against Trump University, Gonzalo P. Curiel.

Steinberg endorsed Clinton as the next president.

“She’s eminently qualified,” said Steinberg. “She’s going to be respected around the country and around the world.”

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Sacramento mayoral candidate Darrell Steinberg greets Clinton supporters outside the North Gym. Photo by Zachary FR Anderson | Managing Editor | zachanderson.express@gmail.com

Nancy McFadden, Gov. Jerry Brown’s chief of staff, took a lighter approach. She compared Trump to the “Harry Potter” villain Voldemort by referring to him as “He who must not be named.” She justified this by saying that Trump likes hearing his own name.

“Who puts their names on steaks?” McFadden joked to the crowd that roared with laughter.

Before Clinton addressed the standing-room-only crowd, the first to speak was former United States Ambassador to Hungary Eleni Tsakopoulos Kounalakis, a Sacramento native. Other speakers included Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, Congressman John Garamendi and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

Though knowledge of Clinton’s campaign making a stop in Sacramento had been released over a week earlier, the location remained undisclosed. It wasn’t until Thursday, according to Public Information Officer Rick Brewer, that the Clinton campaign contacted City College officials about holding the event on campus.

California residents registered as either Democrats or with no party preference may vote in the Democratic primary Tuesday, June 7.

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‘Pride and Prejudice’ and manners

Originally published in the Express on March 2, 2016

City Theatre production takes modern direction into ‘Austenland’

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Photo by Vanessa Nelson | Print Photo Editor | vanessanelsonexpress@gmail.com

Though “Pride and Prejudice” is set in a time and place long ago and far away, LoriAnne DeLappe-Grondin’s production of the 2009 dramatic adaptation of the 1813 novel is handled with Northern California sensibility.

The patriarch, Mr. Bennett, played by Dennis Redpath, is not the withered old gentleman of the novel. Instead, he is a hippie who has long since passed his prime. He has grown tired of the antics of Mrs. Bennett, portrayed by the wonderfully outrageous Cheantell Munn.

This Mrs. Bennett is still graceless and unlikable, but with the slightest powdering of a rococo personality that brings refreshing modernity to the story. Munn’s Mrs. Bennett is a pageant mom who has dedicated her middle age to presenting her daughters to anyone who could potentially propose.

The eldest daughter, Jane (Shelby Saumeir), has caught the eye of Charles Bingley (Alexander Quinonez), a nouveau-riche gentleman who recently took ownership of the neighboring Netherfield Park.

In my reading of the novel and viewing of its various film adaptations, it never seemed that Bingley was a braggadocio. Quinonez’ portrayal of him as such is cartoonish, yet natural for the character. Bingley’s demeanor is comparable to a Silicon Valley millionaire with the same sense — or rather, lack — of class and original wit.

Yet Elizabeth Bennett (Denise Ivy) is aware of both the former and the latter, which is interesting considering that her beau is Mr. Darcy, who is played to near-refinement by Andrew Fridae.

Like the novel’s Darcy, Fridae is broodily handsome and delightfully anti-social. His demeanor throughout the performance was consistent, and it seemed that he portrayed Darcy’s awkward doting as the best show of emotion he has. Perhaps that is why Lizzie is struck by him. Opposites attract.

This isn’t to say that the play is a modern adaptation; the locations and pageantry are still true to the Regency period in England or “Austenland.” But there is a distinctly 21st century flavor to the play compared to other adaptations.

There are certain nuances that have to be present for the feeling of Austenland to come off as authentic.

Costume designer Nicole Sivell meets this requirement while also enhancing the chosen personalities of the characters.

Mrs. Bennett is wrapped in outlandish paisley patterns that only somebody who’s trying too hard would wear. Then there’s Mr. Bennett, whose clothes are a little too big for him compared to the perfectly tailored outfits of Bingley and Darcy. In both Bennetts’ costumes, an artificial glare radiates from the fabric, indicating low quality.

There is also a bit of comedy in the costuming of Colonel Fitzwilliam (Matthew Matson), who embodies the stereotype of British pompousness.

He’s wearing civilian clothing, yet he still wears his awards on his breast. My guess is that these details are intentional character identifications.

Austen’s prestigious body of work — which includes “Pride and Prejudice” — is based on her experience with the landed gentry. There is nothing unique about this point of view, as is evidenced by contemporary authors such as the Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, and by Sir Walter Scott, who also hobnobbed with the same social circles.

What set Austen apart from the rest of these authors was her personal feeling about how “silly” young people could be regarding marriage. She was not being literal when she penned the first sentence of “Pride and Prejudice’’: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

It was meant as a burn, a maledicta incognita buried deep within her flowery prose.

City Theatre’s “Pride and Prejudice” is a treat for the senses. DeLappe-Grondin and the rest of the production truly embody Austen’s material while also staying true to their own Northern California selves. Imagine what would result if they got together and adapted the characters to the modern world. Wouldn’t that be cool?

“Pride and Prejudice” runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays March 4–20 with an ASL-interpreted performance March 6. Ticket prices range between $10 and $18, depending on time of performance. Tickets can be purchased at http://www.citytheatre.net

Thrust into leadership

Originally published in the Express on Feb. 9, 2016

Student Senate president Marianna Sousa reflects on challenges old and new

Editor’s note: As I waited in South Gym 226, the student government office, for Marianna Sousa to arrive, I made note of my surroundings: white boards covering every inch of wall, all scarred with old dry-erase markers, aged love seats surrounding a large wooden table, and the smell of Cup O’ Noodles, as one student retrieved it from the microwave.

Then Marianna Sousa entered, with a smile that radiated confidence and poise. We shook hands, and she asked me how long I had attended City College. She stopped herself before she finished and said that I was the one interviewing her.

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Photo by Julie Jorgensen | Online Photo Editor | juliejorgensenexpress@gmail.com

You were pretty busy last semester with everything going on.

How did you know? You’ve been doing your research.

(laughter)

What was the biggest challenge you faced as a result of the shooting?

When I first came into this position, I was so focused on just learning the basics: learning how to run a meeting, learning how to create relationships with the board, learning how to execute. And then boom! [The shooting] happened out of the blue. Ironically, I was literally leaving campus when all the police were [coming] to the campus.

I remember saying to myself, “Wow! What’s going on?” And after I found everything out, I was able to hit certain people up to find out that everybody on the board was safe.

It just pumped a lot of fear into people. I didn’t realize until that happened how many people suffer from PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], how many people have been in random acts of violence. It really surfaced uncertainty for students, because it gave us the opportunity to see that there are some things we need to tighten up on. There are some policies to put in place, some procedures and orders of operation that need to exist not just for the faculty and staff, but also specifically for the students. What do I do if I’m in the middle of the Quad standing next to my friend in a wheelchair with special needs and someone comes shooting? What’s the best place to go?

So we stewed in that and allowed the family to mourn, we tried to reach out, and we did the vigil and love-in day — some positive things to just allow that healing for the family. But for me, as a president, I had to really sit back and say, “I can’t just let this die down. I can’t let this simmer in fear and just evaporate into the universe and turn into whatever else fear-based actions may happen.” So I came up with the idea to create Safety Awareness & Crisis Prevention Day.

When did you find out about President Kathryn Jeffery leaving to take a new position in Santa Monica?

She told me a couple of weeks ago because it’s all about process and procedure. We found out within the last month, and it’s just been a process watching her.

It’s been a really great honor and privilege to watch how she conducts herself in every way from the very personable connecting energy that she has with people in a one-on-one sense, but also how she works with groups. She’s just a really well-balanced leader overall; she just exemplifies positive leaderships.

It’s just been great seeing her, working with her, getting the across-the-board advice and some of that good pull-you-to-the-side advice. It’s just been a real honor.

[Vice President of Student Services Michael] Poindexter has been appointed as our interim, and he’s definitely equipped for the job. He has the energy, the outreach, so I know wherever [President Jeffery is] headed to she’s going to do great things, but I also know that we have a great wealth of positive people to step into that leadership here.

Can you describe working with President Jeffery?

When I first met her, I thought, “That sister’s got her stuff together.” She’s very sharp, very well coordinated, hair’s always whipped, and that was very impressive. Her demeanor is very graceful.

A lot of the time when you’re dealing with women in leadership, there are various types of leadership. Even with me, when I came into this position, my advisers said that I had to really define what kind of leader I want to be. One thing I noticed about Dr. Jeffery is that she has a unique balance of grace, but she’s assertive in the way that she knows how to take charge and lead. That’s a very interesting way to temper leadership because sometimes when you’re too graceful, people think they can run over you. And when you’re too abrasive or too assertive, people can be put off.  She has a very unique and special balance between the two.

Working with her is easy and a learning experience. She takes away any of the jitters because she really focuses on being here to serve the students, the constituents and campus life. The way she keeps the focus there and quality in serving all the students, she’s very good at making sure we represent not just the students who look like me, not just the students who look like a certain group or certain age, but every single student on the campus. That was one of her first statements to me in our first meeting, and it was one of the strongest pieces of advice she gave me because now when I step in my role, it’s to make sure to look out for everyone, even the voiceless students.

What do you expect for this upcoming semester?

So the game plan for me after speaking to my adviser Kim Beyrer — who’s great — and some of my mentors, my game plan on coming in was to just learn the job first. I think leaders and activists, we get really excited, and sometimes we jump in and spread ourselves really thin.

So the goal for the first semester for me was to learn the role, learn my part, work with my [vice-president], Ansel Chan, who’s excellent at just being thorough and calm and consistent even when you have nerves, and you’re trying to figure out what to do. Learning to work with the different people on the board who have the wisdom and have the experience, but also trust my brand of leadership — that to me was the priority.

Now round two, spring semester, it’s about executing now that I know the job. It’s about creating the events, and it’s about actually getting in and making the connections to start to provide more for the students.

How do you expect the rest of your term to go?

I’m pretty confident. I think at this point the nervousness and some of the jitters were definitely early on in the game when you’re walking into something new, and you’ve got to navigate and establish your way, but I’m comfortable now.

At this point I can run a meeting without feeling like I’m going to miss something or skip over someone. I have a strong enough team that even when we do make mistakes, we stand corrected in grace, and we work together to work through the kinks.

I feel 100 percent more confident — I already was confident; I’m a confident young lady as it is — but there’s one thing to be confident and know that you can always stand in the space of learning, growing. I know I have a great team. I’d also like to put it out there that we need some new board members with the new semester. Some students have moved on to new positive adventures and aspirations. We’re seeking people to get heavily involved in student government and take up some senator positions. Get active in helping with the decision-making process here on campus.

Do you have any advice for incoming students and aspiring student leaders?

Join Student Senate. If you are a student, faculty member or admin that either gets into leadership, supports leadership or advocates for leadership, there is no reason why you should not be taking a trip up to SOG 226 on campus because we have roles and opportunities here.