Bennett Peji served as Vice President at the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation from 2014-2020. He directed the local economic development program as well as the place-making, branding, marketing, community partnerships and external affairs work. He is also an international brand consultant, designer and frequent speaker on inclusive, community-centered design. He is an IBM Enterprise Design Thinking Practitioner. Most recently, Peji led the winning proposal for $2.5 million to create the first city-funded, diversity-focused business entrepreneurship center and accelerator in San Diego. He mentions it in his 2017 TED talk, which can be seen at TEDxBP.com. His first TED talk in 2014 discussed branding at CivicBranding.com. Peji serves as Chairman of the board of California Humanities (statewide commission) and Tijuana Innovadora. Appointed by the Mayor, he served as a Commissioner of Arts & Culture for the City of San Diego from 2003-2012. He also served as President of the Filipino-American Chamber of Commerce, Chairman of the Asian Business Association and board member of the La Jolla Playhouse. He has received industry lifetime achievement awards from AIGA San Diego and SDX and is the only San Diegan elected to the national board of AIGA, based in New York, with 70 chapters in the USA.
Cynthia “CK” Suero-Gabler
Cynthia “CK” Suero-Gabler has professional background in non-profit, for-profit and government sectors, and serves as a community activist and organizer in Southeast San Diego. She led a grassroots movement to advocate for a group of Filipino seniors to receive funding for a senior center to be built at Bay Terrace Park, of which they were promised since 1990. Cynthia led a coalition of diverse community members, senior citizens from the Bay Terrace Fil-Am Senior Association, and their families and friends to City Hall where their efforts were blessed with $500K in the 2017 City budget, and $500K in 2018 and $2.6M in 2019 of CDBG monies, for a total of $3.6M for the completion of the project. In April of 2018, the funding increased to $5M and was unanimously approved by the San Diego City Council. Groundbreaking for this long-awaited project took place on March 18, 2019 and construction was completed in October of 2020.
As a champion for diversity, inclusion, and equity, she serves as the Senior Diversity and Economic Opportunity Representative for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the second largest transportation agency in the United States. She is proud lifetime member of BAPAC (Black American Political Association of California, San Diego Chapter) and serves as a devoted Board Member of Maraya Arts. She is a graduate of LEAD San Diego and the RISE San Diego Urban Leadership Fellows Program. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies from National University and is finishing her Master of Science in Organizational Leadership from National University.
Dea Hurston is a longtime arts advocate, patron, and philanthropist. She is highly regarded in the community as a staunch supporter of inclusion and diversity with a strong focus on supporting women leaders, access in the arts for children. She has mentored countless women in and out of the arts. Dea is actively sought out for her advice, mentorship, and financial support because she has successfully proven to be a mover and shaker who gets things done. She is a former commissioner of arts for the City of San Diego, board member at multiple organizations, retired schoolteacher, sponsor of countless diverse productions, and has chaired many fundraising events within the community resulting in raising millions of dollars for non profit organizations. She believes all service is philanthropy, not just writing a check. She also believes it is never too late to start something new and recently found a passion as a playwright and writes captivating stories inspired by the diverse experiences and people she has met along her journey. She continues to inspire and empower women to find their voice at every stage of life.
Theses are some of the honors and awards she has received acknowledging her ongoing dedication to giving back to the community: Standing Ovation 2019 (Performing Arts League), Girl Scouts Cool Woman 2018, A MOXIE 2017(Moxie Theatre), Serving Seniors 2015, Women of Dedication (Salvation Army), Mo‘olelo Founders Award 2014, Patte Theatre Angels, La Jolla Playhouse Star Award, MiLady (Delta Sigma Theta), This is Gaffney Honors (Common Ground Theatre), Kuumba Fest NIA Award (Purpose), Woman of Distinction (Women Inc.), Women Who Make Theatre Happen (Sledgehammer).
Outside of her work in the local arts community, she has also been an active member of the following service boards: San Diego Commission of Arts and Culture, Balboa Park Task Force, San Diego State University Professional Studies and Fine Arts Advisory Board, NPD Honorary Committee (Chair) and Vista Hill Foundation.
Ms. Tessitore has almost 20 years of experience in community planning, public administration and economic development. In addition to years of experience in administration and community services, her professional background includes arts administration, real estate finance, land use development, municipal program development, and cultural resource management.
Ms. Tessitore currently holds the position of Senior Planner at the City of Chula Vista. She has worked at the local, regional, and international level, with a variety of community stakeholders, the business community, and for profit and non-profit organizations, to ensure diversity and inclusion in programming and decision making, to transcend social and economic barriers to equity, and to support grass-roots community building within the region. She has developed and managed award winning programs which include the development of the City of Chula Vista’s first Cultural Arts Master Plan and the City’s first plan to address social justice issues.
In addition to her professional work, Ms. Tessitore volunteers her time in the community, and serves on various cultural and philanthropic boards and commissions. Most recently, Ms. Tessitore was recognized as a Community Crusader by San Diego Magazine. She holds a Bachelor’s of Arts from the University of California San Diego in Political Science with a minor in both Economics and Urban Studies. Ms. Tessitore also holds a Master’s of Arts City Planning with an emphasis in Public Administration.
Natasha Ridley is a native of San Diego and attended the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. She is a registered assistant with Commonwealth Financial Network® and has worked in the financial services industry for 14 years servicing a client base with roughly $250 million in assets under management. She currently holds her FINRA Series 7 and 63 securities registrations. In addition to working in the financial service industry, Natasha is also a professional Contemporary Ballet Dancer and Choreographer with 19 years of experience, and a co-founder of the Artists Building Community Project which produces an annual visual and performing arts community engagement event entitled MOSAICS. The event has drawn roughly 100 attendees annually for the last 4 years. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from San Diego State University and a Master's degree in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego.
Udoka Nwanna is currently a professor of law at Abraham Lincoln University Law School. Before joining faculty at Abraham Lincoln, she held faculty teaching positions at Southwestern Law School, Western State College of Law, as well as taught at San Diego Law School at Alliant International University, California Western School of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, and University of San Diego School of Law. Her teaching has specialized in a range of courses including criminal law, business associations, legal writing, bar exam preparation, civil ligation skills and academic success support. Prior to embarking upon on her academia path, Ms. Nwanna practiced employment law and professional liability defense after working as a Deputy District Attorney in San Diego. Before her work as a prosecutor, she was an associate at national law firm focusing her practice on federal class action securities fraud litigation. Prior to becoming an associate, she served as a law clerk to the Honorable John H. Houston, United States District Court, Southern District of California. Ms. Nwanna received her B.A.degree from Emory University and her Juris Doctor degree from California Western, with a concentration in Criminal Prosecution and Defense Practice. After her first year of law school, she served as a summer law clerk to the late Honorable Napoleon A. Jones, Jr., United States District Court, Southern District of California. After her second year, she served as a summer law clerk for the Department of the Navy, Office of General Counsel at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. She is admitted to the California Bar, the United States Supreme Court, as well as all United States District Courts in California. She is an active member of her local community, having served on the boards of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties and Pro Kids First Tee of San Diego, as well as California Ballet and Culture Shock San Diego. In her free time, Ms. Nwanna enjoys traveling, golfing, teaching art to elementary school children and volunteering at Rady Children’s hospital.