Champions of Change

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Laguna Beach Magazine shines a light on seven locals whose diverse endeavors are sending positive ripples through the community.

By Bria Balliet, Linda Domingo, Sharon Stello and Adreana Young


Laguna is home to talented and dedicated individuals with a deep-rooted desire to improve their community, whether it’s helping conserve open space, advocating for bike safety or beyond.

These generous residents and business owners take their passions and professions to the next level and, in turn, elevate the city as a center for creativity and innovation—not to mention advance its status as a desirable destination to visit and put down roots. They work hard, but play hard, too: It’s not uncommon for locals to go from a surfboard to a board meeting in the same morning, and volunteer with a charity in their spare time.

While this list is by no means inclusive, here are seven Lagunans—based on your nominations—who have made a big impact on the community in the past year. With causes that range from the arts and nonprofits to public safety and the environment, these individuals protect the area’s heritage and aren’t afraid to stand up for their beliefs.


lbm_chad_nelsen_111214_0172CHAD NELSEN

The Eco-Warrior

How he made a mark this year: When we sat down to chat with Chad, he was having a spectacular week. The longtime environmental director of the Surfrider Foundation—a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the world’s oceans and beaches—had just days before been named the foundation’s new CEO. In addition, the group had just secured two major victories: the banning of single-use plastic bags in California and the reopening of Martin’s Beach in Northern California. Surfrider won its lawsuit against a venture capitalist who was restricting entrance to the beach, forcing him to reopen the public access gate. The organization says the win was a boon for all beachgoers, helping to further enforce the California Coastal Act that gave a statewide Coastal Commission jurisdiction over beachfront land.

Lesser-known fact: “Although I’ve lived in Laguna Beach since 1970, I was born in New York,” he admits.

One thing he’d like to see change in Laguna: “Imagine a street in Laguna Beach, and instead of the water flowing down to the corner and into a storm drain, it goes into a little 6-foot-by-8-foot area that’s full of plants,” Chad says, noting the bioswales that some communities are using to protect water quality and catch contaminants from water runoff.

One thing he’d like to see change in his profession: “I think that we can do a better job of connecting the economics of coastal recreation to coastal protection,” Chad says. “We should think about protecting our beaches and our water in terms of protecting a really important economic asset.”

Plans for the future: “We need to become more proactive, which is about finding a way to stop bad things from happening before they start,” Chad explains, citing the issue of sea level as an example. “If we want healthy coastlines and beaches, we’re going to have to really rethink our approaches. And that’s going to be hard, but we’ve got to do it.”



The Safety Advocate

How she made a mark this year: Joan became a vocal proponent of bike safety after her husband, John Colvin, was struck and killed while cycling on Coast Highway in June. She helped rally the community, which led to two proposals that were approved by the City Council: a strategy for bike and pedestrian safety, and signage for a bike route alternative to Coast Highway. “[It] gives me hope that we may have turned the corner … to get the public behind a more compassionate approach to cycling in the city,” she says.

Lesser-known fact: Joan served on a civil defense force for a small town in Israel while there for a graduate program. “I had never held a gun in my life and thought that, well, I’m here, I’m going to do my part and serve,” she says.

One thing she’d like to see change in Laguna: “It would be my dream that a culture of respect for cyclists could be created here in Laguna Beach,” she says. “… And I would love if the city enforced the speed limit on Coast Highway. I truly believe that if the driver that hit John was going 30 mph that John would still be here today.”

One thing she would like to see change in her profession: As new president of the Building Industry Association of Orange County, she wants to push for Complete Streets, a nationwide cycling and pedestrian safety initiative. “We don’t just build houses, we build neighborhoods and communities,” she explains. “I think it only enhances what we do to take into consideration not just the house, but the environment that families are going to be raising their kids in.”

Plans for the future: In addition to providing support to her two college-age daughters after the family’s loss, she plans a lifetime commitment to bike safety. “I never thought I’d be a bicycle advocate,” she says. “… But things like this happen and you think, ‘How do you not do something to prevent this from happening to other people?’ ”



The Artistic Visionary

How she made a mark this year: Since opening Artists Republic 4 Tomorrow (AR4T) in 2010, Torrey has showcased emerging artists and infused a youthful, experimental energy into a city known for its love of traditional plein-air and still life paintings. With its recent move, the gallery has expanded in more ways than one, partnering with activewear company Vans and continuing to strengthen the creative community through events and an overall approachable spirit. Torrey also publishes, a site that highlights Orange County’s independently owned galleries. “It’s a lot of work,” she admits. “But if I wasn’t having fun, I wouldn’t do it.”

Lesser-known fact: Torrey’s laid-back demeanor masks an intense hobby. “I study muay thai and jiujitsu,” she reveals. Her 8-year-old daughter takes kids’ classes, and she and her husband even do some (light) sparring against each other.

One thing she’d like to see change in Laguna: “There’s some really great public art in Laguna Beach and the city does a great job of bringing in a wide variety of artists,” she says. “I think it would be fun to … maybe have a street artist do something in town. There’s a really great wall on Brooks Street. … It’d be so perfect.”

One thing she’d like to see change in her profession: “A lot of people in Orange County will spend quite a bit of money going to dinner … or buying a new pair of jeans or a handbag,” Torrey explains. “Whether it’s $50 or $500—you could [use it to] buy art, and you’re not just supporting the gallery. You’re supporting the artist [and] the community by keeping the gallery around to keep bringing new ideas in. … Don’t be afraid to go into galleries.”

Plans for the future: “I just want to see what comes across the path and whatever seems fun to just go for it and do it—and bring as many great artists to Laguna as we can,” Torrey says. “… And if you could change the way someone thinks or feels for a day, or touch them in some way, isn’t that super cool?”



The Community Partner

How she made a mark this year: Kavita is the community-minded owner of Buy Hand, a local handmade gift and jewelry shop. Recently, she became head of the Chamber of Commerce retail committee, which will create an association for small businesses in Laguna. This year, she also proposed a small-business outreach for the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach, where she sits on the board of directors—her hope is that participating stores will show kids what it’s like to run an independent shop. Kavita is also co-chair of the Woman’s Club of Laguna Beach. Through Buy Hand and her other positions in town, she’s working to bring the Laguna Beach community closer together. “I guess my theme for the last few years of living here has been community in some way or another,” Kavita says.

Lesser-known fact: “I’ve had the same best friend since I was 12 and I’ve had the same boyfriend [now husband] since I was 18,” Kavita says.

One thing she’d like to see change in Laguna: “I’d love for there to be more appreciation for all the little businesses we have here,” Kavita says. “If you start going elsewhere [you] start seeing the same thing, chains and big-box malls everywhere. I’m not saying never leave Laguna, but where you can, please do support [the small businesses].”

One thing she’d like to see change in her profession: “I’d like to see all the retailers … really band together, and to have a voice,” she explains. “Usually, we’re all little shops trying to stay afloat. … But I think there’s a lot of stuff we can do together.”

Plans for the future: Kavita says she plans to keep developing the partnership between the Boys & Girls Club, the Chamber of Commerce and the retail association.



The Environmentalist

How she made a mark this year: As executive director of the Laguna Canyon Foundation since October 2013, Hallie—who grew up in Laguna and worked with Heal the Bay for almost 15 years prior to this job—has strengthened partnerships with OC Parks and local volunteers since taking the reigns. Her work has helped reopen trails and implement restoration programs to protect Laguna’s open space for both wildlife and recreation—no small task, as usage of Laguna Coast Wilderness Park tripled from 100,000 people five years ago to 300,000 last year, according to Hallie.

Lesser-known fact: An English literature major at UCLA, Hallie still keeps a copy of “The Canterbury Tales” by her bedside. “I can still recite the opening lines … [in original Middle English] and it still gives me goose bumps to this day,” she says. After college, she tried working in advertising, but soon realized she needed a job that matched her passion.

One thing she’d like to see change in Laguna: “I’d really like to see a greater sense of ownership for our ‘bluebelt’—you know, the ocean—and our greenbelt. … I think anybody who enjoys being in our open space or in the ocean should feel a sense of ownership and a sense of responsibility to protect this precious resource.”

One thing she’d like to see change in her profession: “I think it’s really critical that environmental organizations run as efficiently as businesses,” she says. “When an organization has strong leadership from the board of directors, really highly skilled and well-trained staff and the resources that it needs, there’s no reason that an environmental organization can’t be as efficient and effective as a for-profit business.”

Plans for the future: “The future of our open space is going to be impacted by any development on the edge of the open space,” Hallie says. “… There are so many interesting problems to tackle, things to think about, interesting people to work with and interesting ways to grow.”



The Music Man

How he made a mark this year: Now in his 25th year as conductor for Pacific Symphony, Carl is the longest tenured music director in the U.S. Today, he’s working to bring music education to Laguna Beach and introduced Class Act—which pairs a Pacific Symphony musician with an elementary school in Orange County—to St. Catherine of Siena Parish School on South Coast Highway. “I realized the importance of Class Act as one of our community outreach programs and what it can do to enliven the musical spirit of the school,” Carl says.

Lesser-known fact: Growing up on a south Texas farm, Carl’s love for music began as a secret. He started playing piano in grade school and says he would sometimes have to pay his brothers ransom to keep them from telling his friends.

One thing he’d like to see change in Laguna: It’s not so much of a change that Carl seeks, as it is a desire for Laguna’s character to stay the same: “I really like that people are still interested in this town, and investing in the town. … [But] I’d like for cellphone service to get a little better,” he adds jokingly.

One thing he’d like to see change in his profession: Carl would like to see higher prioritization of music in education. “Is it all math and science and reading and sports? Or can, in fact, music play a pivotal role in developing intelligence?” he asks, explaining that although programs like Class Act are helpful and necessary, they are still not enough. “I’m talking about kids picking up an instrument or singing in a choir … actually actively participating in a music-making experience, in an active way.”

Plans for the future: Carl says his plan for the future is simply to continue learning, especially in his profession. In addition to conducting for the Pacific Symphony, Carl is completing a one-year appointment in 2014 as the principal conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra of Costa Rica.


Toni Iseman-111117C-0022TONI ISEMAN

The Leader

How she made a mark this year: Toni is no stranger to Laguna Beach or its issues. She moved to the city in 1970, and has since become an advocate for the town, its natural surroundings and—above all—its people. To date, her achievements include a record-breaking 16 consecutive years on the city council, serving as the California Coastal commissioner, spearheading a successful campaign to convert the Susi Q senior center into a green building, and playing an integral role in the movement to save Laguna Canyon from developers—just to name a few. Now, having just been re-elected to the Laguna Beach City Council in November (not to mention previously serving three terms as mayor), Toni is ready to accomplish even more on behalf of the city and its residents.

Lesser-known fact: “One of my first jobs was at a dime store at the candy counter,” she shares. “[It] was fatal, because … I could stand there all day and eat whatever looked good. … So I found out that sometimes what looks like a fun job, isn’t. But I did find out that I liked working with the public.”

One thing she’d like to see change in Laguna: Among Toni’s priorities for several years, moving utility lines underground—which eliminates the safety hazard of downed lines blocking an exit route—may become a reality during her term. “Bob Whalen and I are the subcommittee for addressing the issues on Laguna Canyon Road, and part of the change requires undergrounding the utilities in the canyon,” she explains. “So I think we can say, one way or another, that’s going to happen.”

One thing she’d like to see change in her profession: “Sometimes people don’t let the council know that they have concerns, and that is so important,” she says. “The best way, I think, to get in touch with a council member is email, because then it’s so easy to forward it to the right department.”

Plans for the future: Toni believes it’s important to be transparent with residents regarding council decisions. “I would like people to understand how we make our decisions,” she says.

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