UC Santa Barbara Gaucho Underground Scholars held its third annual Formerly Incarcerated Student Day & Resource Fair in partnership with Thrive Santa Barbara County on Nov. 12 at the Student Resources Building. 

Gaucho Underground Scholars, an organization that works to create pathways into higher education for formerly incarcerated and justice system-impacted individuals at UCSB and within Santa Barbara County, co-hosted the event to foster community and promote local, academic and personal resources for formerly incarcerated students. 

The day also marked the official launch of Thrive Santa Barbara County, an app and website that compiles resources and programs within Santa Barbara County for formerly incarcerated individuals and others impacted by the justice system. Emelie Risha / Daily Nexus

The event included a tour of UC Santa Barbara with an emphasis on sites of activism, followed by lunch, a reentry resource fair and a ceremony honoring the ambassadors of the year. The day also marked the official launch of Thrive Santa Barbara County (Thrive SBC), an app and website that compiles resources and programs within Santa Barbara County for formerly incarcerated individuals and others impacted by the justice system. 

Fourth-year sociology major Melissa Ortiz attended the first Formerly Incarcerated Student Day in 2019 and helped lead the activist tour of UCSB. Ortiz said she sought to inspire current and prospective student activism by highlighting locations of past political action. 

“When we discussed the North Hall takeover, it was nice to see [students’] eyes brighten up from learning all of these things that have happened on UCSB’s campus,” Ortiz said. 

The North Hall takeover — when 12 Black students occupied North Hall for 12 hours on Oct. 14, 1968 — opened doors for the creation of UCSB’s Department of Black Studies and subsequently, departments of Chicana and Chicano studies, Asian American studies and Feminist studies.

Following the tour, lunch was served outside of the Student Resources Building (SRB) while Ryan “Flaco” Rising, co-founder of the Gaucho Underground Scholars and fourth-year sociology major, and Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) student Arturo “Cheech” Raygoza shared spoken word poetry. 

Afterwards, the reentry resource fair took place, during which attendees connected with organizations and programs such as Guardian Scholars, United Way, the UCSB Transfer Student Center and the Santa Barbara County Day Reporting Centers, among others.

“[We are] showcasing [the resources] to students as a way to show what their future could look like,” Rising said. 

During the fair, Rising, Ortiz and fourth year Chicana/o studies major and underground scholar Juan Bran-Gudiel, connected with individuals and distributed underground scholars shirts, stickers and buttons. 

“Now that I’m a student I realize that those resources are built and set up so that we can succeed,” Ortiz said. “Now, I’m here and get to share with everybody else.” 

The event culminated with the official launch of Thrive SBC. Software engineer Victor Sauceda, product designer Jeanmarie Levy and software engineer Tim Malstead created the website and app to put local resources “in the palm of [formerly incarcerated individuals’] hands,” Sauceda said. He hopes the website and app lower recidivism and ensure a successful transition for formerly incarcerated individuals in Santa Barbara County. 

“We built it with the people. It’s not just for the people,” Sauceda said. “I know what it’s like to go through the re-entry process and I know what it’s like to be incarcerated.” 

Sauceda served over 10 years in the Washington State prison system and now works as a software engineer for Code for America. 

Following the launch, SBCC students Raygoza and Lisandra Barrera-Rising each received an Ambassador of the Year award from the Gaucho Underground Scholars for their work as underground scholars at Santa Barbara community colleges. 

In her acceptance speech, Barrera-Rising emphasized the importance of moving at one’s own pace and how it’s never too late to pursue education. 

“It’s difficult to get access to the students when it isn’t student-led,” Barrera-Rising said. “That’s why we’re just trying to get out there through word of mouth; that way anyone can come contact us if they want to be involved with underground scholars.”

Raygoza founded the Beyond Incarceration: Greater Education club at Alan Hancock College to break the stigma around being formerly incarcerated through supporting the academic success and personal well-being of formerly incarcerated students.

“We plant seeds in our population, the formerly incarcerated, to open their eyes to a whole new world that they never knew existed,” Raygoza said. 

In his award speech, Raygoza stressed that formerly incarcerated students “don’t have to do it alone.” 

“There’s someone that will be there for you,” he said. “Don’t make major decisions on your own.”

According to Rising, formerly incarcerated people serve “life sentences,” where they continue to face discrimination and are denied housing or career opportunities even after their release from imprisonment. 

“We’re recidivating back into the prison industrial complex, because we can’t sustain ourselves,” Rising said. “We need to get into the business of building each other up, instead of tearing each other down for profit.”