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Meet Danica Selvaggio of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ventura County in Greater LA

Today we’d like to introduce you to Danica Selvaggio.

Danica, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I started out as a bad student. Instead of letting me just skip school, my dad would occasionally take me with him to the animation studios where I worked as his “assistant for the day.” The message (as I realize it now) was basically, “If you’re not going to school, then you’re going to work.” Growing up in the entertainment industry was great and to be 12-year old making copies for animators who would spend 10-minute breaks by crafting cigarette-launching trebuchets over their cubicle walls was… well, actually, probably really terrible in terms of childhood psychological impact. But memories of growing up and running feral in L.A. Animation studios is what essentially led to me believe that the entertainment industry is where I wanted to end up in the long term.

As a young adult, I somehow managed to attend and graduate from UC Berkeley, which gave me my first real-world view into what it takes to enrich communities outside of my own life experience: I led a student organization that provided art programs to low-income schools in the Bay Area whose own programs had been cut. I also got the opportunity to travel for environmental volunteer work in Australia, in cities outside of the typical tourist circuit, and see what challenges those areas faced in regards to sustainability and economy.

Despite enjoying that creative community-building immensely, I returned to the entertainment industry when Warner Bros. invited me to join their International Theatrical team in Los Angeles. My time spent back at the studio was incredible, and I was fortunate to work with an amazing group of supportive individuals who really helped build each other up, both in understanding and experience. The opportunity taught me so much about using the analytical side of my brain and shaped the way I saw how businesses grew and profited… AND how they built a capacity and drive to give back.

My heart was always looking for how to tie my passion for community-building back into everything I did. I got the chance to travel through South America and Europe, jumping on opportunities to study global issues like ecotourism, and how social empowerment and cultural sustainability builds stronger communities. I ran my own nonprofit organization for six years and still spent my spare time volunteering with other groups. Despite all of this, I always identified as “my job = myself,” which tied back to “the industry” that was such a core part of Los Angeles and also a core part of my own history.

An opportunity fell in my lap when I discovered that Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ventura County (BBSVC) was hiring for a role that fulfilled everything I was doing professionally, but for a cause that I felt so strongly about. It was actually this very emotional revelation: that I COULD change this career path I felt predetermined to run – granted because I was in a position to do so. I didn’t want to waste the chance because I feared change; so I applied with what I had to offer, and the team at BBSVC welcomed me.

Working in nonprofit full-time has been eye-opening and challenging. All of my experiences have come together to combine my profession with my greatest personal passion for equitable community development. And I always have to reflect on the fact that it’s an opportunity that brought me to this point and personal privilege that allowed me to jump in and make this change – for that, I have to remember to give back every day that I can.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
When you have the support of a family who has the capacity to carry you, a good length of the road is smooth. I didn’t “break into” the entertainment industry in the beginning, I was introduced to it. I didn’t struggle in school, many of my academic difficulties were self-imposed. A lot of my metaphorical potholes were filled before I even got in the car. And I know that the road of people right there with me hasn’t necessarily been as easy: some friends alongside me at the same point in their life’s journey put in ten times as much energy to get there.

The biggest struggle that I’ve realized in transitioning from the entertainment industry to nonprofit service is that the world is bigger than what we see through the lens of media, with our own neighborhoods being a microcosm of that global perspective. It was a rude awakening to see what poverty and inequity mean when it’s NOT the biggest news story or latest hot topic.

To say that I didn’t personally face ANY individual challenges would not be true. I’ve hit personal obstacles that I am still overcoming – some small, some huge. All human beings encounter things that they have to internalize in order to push ahead, and I’m not an exception to that rule. I have the good fortune of not needing those challenges to define my path to this point. I’ve tried to label my struggles instead as moments where I have to learn to solve a problem or to understand someone else’s situation and perspective.

Professionally, it’s a challenge every day, which I could never have anticipated coming from a corporate industry. Nonprofits face countless financial difficulties to not only keep their doors open but keep their services thriving. We have the responsibility to bring a lot of equitable progress to the community table, and a lot of responsibility to keep conversations going in a respectful, all-encompassing way. There are days when lives literally rely on our services and support. Regardless, I refer to all of these things as “challenges” more than struggles, because BBSVC and so many of the nonprofits in our Ventura County network are made up of amazing teams and individuals that are incredibly dedicated to their causes – they’re all in it because they love it, and that makes it easier to work together to achieve real success.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
Today, I am the Vice President of Marketing & Recruitment at BBSVC. The art of active listening, and taking time to meet everyone where they are, are approaches that are at the core of what sets us apart as an organization.

Our organization is known for our one-to-one youth mentoring program, where we specialize in introducing mentors (“Bigs”) to mentees (“Littles”) who are facing adversity here in Ventura County and the Greater Los Angeles Area. The beauty of our program is that we address each participant as a unique individual, and really identify what it’s going to take to steer them, as an individual, back on a path towards personal success. There’s no one-size-fits-all, and taking the time to work with someone in a way that recognizes them really has a lifelong impact.

We believe that all children should have the opportunity to succeed in life and live up to their full potential, and in Ventura County and the Greater Los Angeles Area, that means equipping those youth with resources that will help them stay in school, avoid drugs and alcohol, avoid gang violence, and break out of cycles of abuse or neglect, among many other factors. Introducing them to a Big who understands these dangers and who can be that positive role model is invaluable: compared to their non-mentored peers, we see youth engaged in our mentoring programs become more likely to graduate from school, pursue college or other post-secondary ambitions, have improved social interactions with friends and family, and have improved self-esteem. The fact that all of these benefits to our community youth (and, by extension, our community as a whole!) come from volunteers giving of their own time really reflects on the power of what we can achieve when we lift each other up.

What were you like growing up?
Honestly, I could probably have used a Big/mentor in my life when I was growing up! I am so fortunate to be a part of a warm, tight, and loving family – but there were definitely those moments growing up where I could have used the support of an extra role model to redirect my energy. I always had someone in my corner, but I also never felt like I was on the right page at the right time.

My interests rarely lined up with what other kids were talking about: while friends were talking about boy bands, I was making my friends sign petitions I wrote. On the flipside of that, while classmates were working together on mock elections, I was very busy (VERY busy) starting a business at school selling handmade scrunchies.

I was someone who was always emotionally invested in the minutiae of things, which my mother always very kindly told me was because I was an “old soul” and an “artist.” She really fostered a love of creative expression in me, which was the outlet I needed. I thrived being the artistic goofball who hated math, but who loved being the center of attention. But, there were also times, even as a kid, when I put a lot of value into a personal quiet time where I could just write, craft, and think about life.

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