October 2020 - Sustainability Champion of the Month: Justin Cummings

October 08, 2020

By Aleisha LaCruise and Alessandra Álvares 

Mayor Justin Cummings at Black Lives Matter Mural Painting Event

Justin Cummings has held office as Mayor of Santa Cruz for over a year now, and is a UCSC Alumni with a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. In this interview, we get to know a little more about Mayor Cummings, and the difficulties and triumphs faced during the turbulent year of 2020.

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background growing up, and your decision and choice of College to attend.
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the Beverly neighborhood.  My father was an attorney who worked on Mayor Harold Washington’s administration and later was an independent criminal defense attorney.  My mother worked as a nutritionist first for the department of human services and later with the University of Illinois Extension program.  As a child I was very much into the outdoors, sports and music.  I attended camp Minikani in Wisconsin each summer from the time I was 9 yrs old until I was 14, and later was a part of their leadership training program/counselor training program until I was 18.  Summer camp was my escape every year from life in the City and was where I fell in love with being outdoors.  In addition to camp, I used to skateboard, played soccer, and wrestled in high school. 

My parents never had a very stable relationship and when I was 13 my parents got divorced.  Shortly after my parents divorced, my father became absent in my life and my mother was left to provide for my brother and I.  When I was in 6th grade I applied and was accepted to attend Morgan Park Junior High School and later stayed to attend high school at Morgan Park.  Attending Morgan Park Junior High provided me with the opportunity to earn high school credits that transferred when I decided to stay for high school.  As a Junior, I had intended to graduate early from high school.  At the time, my grades weren’t the greatest and I had only gotten into one state school, Eastern Illinois University, so I decided to stay an additional year to try and get my grades up so I could apply for scholarships and try to go out of state.  During my senior year it became apparent that I was not going to be able to afford to go out of state and given that I had been accepted to EIU, received financial support and it was the cheapest school in the state, I decided to go to Eastern Illinois University.  

How was your journey in higher education, and what determined your choices and work opportunities?
One of the biggest factors that influenced my decision was the interactions I had with professors, professionals in my field and students who shared a similar passion for biology, sustainability and environmental protection.  When I was a freshman taking intro biology a professor had asked me to come to his office.  When I went by his office he asked if I had ever considered biology as a profession.  I hadn’t given it much thought, but I decided that I would give it a shot.  I met with my professors regularly to discuss ways that I could improve in their classes and would ask them about their research and different careers in the field.  This type of engagement opened the doors to many opportunities including undergraduate research, summer research programs, scholarships, conferences, and other professional development opportunities.  In addition to these opportunities, I was nominated to be the biology representative for the College of Sciences Student Advisory Board and later was voted to be the Student Dean for the College of Sciences Student Advisory Board.  

After undergrad, I spent the summer backpacking Europe with a friend and upon returning to the US that September, I briefly worked as an after school instructor teaching horticulture before moving to Alaska to work on commercial fishing boats as a fisheries observer.  Prior to leaving for Alaska I had applied for a number of graduate programs and was put in contact with Dr. Ingrid Parker and Greg Gilbert at UC Santa Cruz.  While visiting their labs and UCSC, I was able to meet many students and faculty, and felt like UC Santa Cruz was a good fit for me and decided to attend UCSC for graduate school.  As an undergrad, I also majored in Spanish, which informed my decision to study tropical ecology and work in Panama where my thesis work focused on understanding how trees used for forest restoration inhibited the growth and regeneration of invasive grasses.  After receiving my Ph.D. from UCSC I moved to Miami, FL to pursue a post-doc working on understanding how climate change influences the uptake and release of carbon dioxide in the everglades.  After finishing my post-doc, I was hired as the director of the UCSC Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program.

Could you tell us a little about the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program? How did you come up with the idea?
Prof. Erika Zavaleta was the PI and recipient of the initial grant that funded the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program (DDCSP). I was hired as the first director and worked with Erika to develop and implement the program at UCSC.  Our successful development and implementation, led to us receiving a second round of funding to extend it. The Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program is now funded to continue through 2024.

How was your overall UCSC experience?
Overall, my experience at UCSC has been one of collaboration and support.  Overall the staff, faculty, and student body are very socially conscious and always find ways to continue making improvements.  These experiences have made me want to commit to working at UCSC to continue supporting a healthy, diverse, and inclusive educational environment.

What was your path that led to where you are today?
When I returned from Miami, I saw many friends in the community being pushed out due to increasing rents.  In an effort to help address these issues, I began working on a rent control campaign, gathering signatures to help get rent control on the ballot in 2018.  As one of the highest signature gatherers, I was asked by some members of the community to run for office.  Given that at the time I was single, with no kids, and often had heard about how we need more young people, people of color, and scientists in office, I decided that I would attempt a City Council run.  I ended up being the highest vote recipient, was immediately voted in to serve as Vice Mayor during 2019, and am currently serving as Mayor for the City of Santa Cruz. 

What type of work do you do in your role as Mayor?
2020 has been an anomaly of a year, so I don’t know whether my role would be different had it not been such a crazy year.  That being said, most of what I do is try to identify problems in the community and work with City staff and community organizations to find solutions.  In addition to this, I also meet with State and Federal elected officials and agency leaders to let them know how our community is impacted by the various disasters that we have experienced and advocate for resources for our community.

How would you describe your experience as mayor in such difficult and unprecedented times?
It has been difficult, but I feel that our community is doing well to come together to provide support to one another.  Our staff really tries to work together in a positive way to get the best outcomes for our community.  In addition to that, our current council has been working very hard to treat each other with respect so that we can build consensus and move things forward in a positive way.  

What is the most rewarding part of your position?
The most rewarding part of my position is being able to help meet the needs of people in our community who are struggling. It’s not always easy and it doesn’t always happen, but when we’re able to stand up services or provide our community with resources during difficult times, it feels very rewarding to be able to make a difference in someone’s life.

How have you been able to incorporate Sustainability into your work?
I have been working with our climate and sustainability manager on the City’s 2030 climate adaptation plan, which hopes to continue to implement programs that will further reduce our carbon footprint.  Last year we also launched the “Go Santa Cruz” program, which provides transportation alternative options for downtown workers to discourage them from driving to work.  

Justin stands in front of Black Lives Matter muralDo you think Santa Cruz's current transportation system is effective in keeping carbon emissions low?
I think that it is a step in the right direction, but we need to continue to expand our bus system and look for other transportation alternatives.  The JUMP bikes were wildly popular and were a great way to get people out of cars and onto bikes.  Unfortunately, due to COVID and the sale of JUMP to Lime, we are experiencing difficulties with generating a new contract to get bikes back.  While the City needs to continue exploring more environmentally sustainable alternatives to transportation, we’ll now need to look for options that are also COVID friendly.  

What could be done to improve upon the current infrastructure/transportation system to make it even more efficient and eco-friendly?
Subsidies and the creation of infrastructure for electric vehicles such as cars and bikes could provide COVID friendly modes of transportation.  Safe bike lanes would help make people more comfortable biking on the street.  When the rail/trail is finished it will provide a safe biking route that will cross the County along with a train option that will allow people to travel across the County without needing a car.  Finally, we can also make bus lanes on the highway to improve bus commuter traffic and encourage the use of buses. 

I read that you’re involved in the Climate Action Task Force, could you speak a little about what that is and the part you play in it?
As a City Council member, I am a member of the Task Force.  The group is currently focusing on the City’s 2030 Climate Action Plan and is working through providing input on that process.  Given the COVID pandemic and the various other crises we have been facing, I haven’t been able to provide as much attention to this as I was hoping to this year. However, the group is on a good path towards bringing forward recommendations for the City’s 2030 Climate Action plan that will continue to focus on reducing CO2 emissions, and making our community more sustainable and resilient to climate change.

Tell us about the process of bringing to fruition the Black Lives Matter mural painted in Santa Cruz this September 12, 2020.
This item was brought to my attention by a woman in our community, Abi Mustapha.  I connected Abi with Sean McGowen, vice chair for the Arts Commission, and they were able to bring this item to the Arts Commission for approval, which later went to the City Council for approval.  The Arts Commissioners worked with Abi and our Public Works Department to determine all the various permits and factors that would need to be taken into consideration in order to make the mural happen.  The group was able to meet all the permitting and insurance requirements, and the mural was unanimously approved by the City. 

What effect do you think that the new Black Lives Matter mural will have on the community, being Santa Cruz the first city in the US to have a City Council vote to approve a BLM mural?
I think that this will be a piece that will start conversations in our community and will serve as a reminder for our community that we are committed to anti-racism and we need to consider how marginalized communities are impacted by the policies we create.  

What does sustainability mean for you?
Sustainability means living life in such a way that leaves the least negative impact possible on our planet.  

Do you have any plans or dreams for the city that you would like to share with us?
One thing I hope for is to have Santa Cruz create programs that create upward socioeconomic mobility for people who have been marginalized in our community.  If we want Santa Cruz to be a place where everyone can live, then we need to ensure that there are programs in place that provide a pathway towards financial stability.  

What do you do for fun?
Back when I used to have free time, and pre-COVID, I would train Brazilian Jiu Jitsu/Kickboxing, hang out with friends, play music (I play bass and guitar), go to concerts, hike, and travel.  

Anything you would like to add?
I very much appreciate being nominated Sustainability Champion of the Month, and look forward to finding ways to continue to make our community a more sustainable and environmentally friendly place.