Community Time: The Chronicles of Jeff Noven
Unlike most, my freshman year experience at Cal was shaped entirely by the sheer influence of my RA. I know of no other dormitories that can claim that their RA sprinted through the hallways every Sunday for Community Time, banging on closed doors, howling “free foooooooood in the main lounge” as a trail of excited residents chased after him, howling and chirping in tandem. From the time he blasted eerie children’s choir music at 7AM to wake us for a community-bonding hike (during RRR week’s 24/7 quiet hour policy), to the magic of the multiple campfire song jam sessions he fostered, freshman year was a year of laughter and love. Jeff created a community on our floor of growth, strength, creativity, inclusivity, music, and joy—values that he carries onward at all times and splashes onto those in his presence.
Theme Program Assistant of the Global Environment Theme House (where we lived), Board Member of the Berkeley Student Food Collective, and Education Associate of the Student Environmental Resource Center, Jeff Noven thrives as an influential leader in the environmental community at Cal as well as an artist, listener, activist, musician, mentor, and friend. He is also the only student that was arrested during the tuition hike protests in November 2014, and probably one of the few that could have had such a powerful impact on the student community. And although a large number of Cal students find their life impacted in some way by this man, the origin of his compelling character remains a mystery to most.
“I was always singing as a child…loudly, boisterously, and in inconvenient places,” Jeff tells me, perched jauntily on a bench at FSM Café, clad in a mint-green button-down under a sleeveless cream sweater dress (that he may or may not have been wearing at a co-op party the night before). “I still like to think I’m someone who can sing loudly, and if your parents are telling me to shut up, then that’s just another reason to turn up the volume,” he jokes. Aside from cementing his closest lifelong friendships through singing, music sprouted into a side-career as Jeff produced his first album in high school. He tells me we can expect another album soon, full of songs which express his travel experiences before beginning college.
“Have I ever told you about my Witch-Mother?” He asks me, completely serious. I burst out laughing, and he proceeds to tell his post-high school adventures, when he attended farming school and biked from Petaluma to the Oregon border. He then worked on an organic farm for an elder lady who practiced Tibetan Buddhism, Pagan ritualism, and Witchcraft. Eventually, she grew “enamored” as he proved himself to be a dedicated worker, and adopted him as her true son (pagan ritual and all). Every once in a while, she will still send care packages to his home labeled “From your Real Mother” which Jeff’s baffled biological mother receives questioningly.
This solitary adventure, aside from being his first exposure to the realm of food justice, marked Noven’s sudden submersion into an unguided exploration of identity. Coming from what he calls a background of incredible privilege—private school in Pebble Beach, CA—Noven struggled to reconcile all the newness emerging from this developmental time. In a quest to answer the rising questions of this turning point, and also motivated by an intent to “humble” his own privilege, Jeff dove into new experiences open-armed. He returned home with perhaps as many questions as he had left with, but this time with new identities to shape his personal mosaic. “That’s how growth happens,” he remarks to me. “It seemed almost impossible to juggle what was happening [at the farm] and whatever had happened before that. Coming back home, trying to find out what your place is in a community after you’ve left—everybody has that, and it can be very shaping.”
During this formative stage in Jeff’s life, he could only attest to the eastern philosophy of impermanence rules, a theme that seemed to unite his experiences and which later emerged as the title of his second self-produced album. Unsure of a definite path to lay out for himself, he chose food as a field of interest—something that had always made sense to him and seemed most broadly applicable. “Knowing how to farm seemed like a good foundational skill off of which I could build this very theoretical academic career for myself.” Now a leader in the food justice movement, Jeff has worked closely with the Berkeley Student Food Collective to make sustainable and healthy food choices accessible to students.
Throughout the ebb and flow of Jeff’s many interests, I wonder how his character may have changed colors—did it oscillate with his interests or stay true to the ways he’d always been? One thing that has remained consistent throughout his development, I learn, is his passion for summer camp.
“Summer camp has always been the foundation of my whole identity.” What I initially perceived to be an overstatement revealed itself as truth while he elaborated on his camp experiences and philosophy. “[Summer camp] is basically everything that so many of us are trying to create right now… An ostensibly self-reliant society where the labor is fulfilling and activities are constructed around growing as a person.” Suddenly, I was astonished that I hadn’t made this connection before to Jeff’s vibrant personality—incredibly charismatic eloquence, fueled with an almost obnoxious energy of hilarity, balanced by a deep care for systematic issues. How else could this mosaic of a human have blossomed if not for outstanding exposure to an environment of intentional growth and creativity, passionate commitment to service, and the constant presence of fun? How else could he have successfully fostered such a close-knit community of leaders with ridiculous icebreaker games and campfire songs if he hadn’t been a camp counselor since the age of 15? Jeff’s history of summer camp and passion for community power is not only central to his character, but to his philosophy on global and systemic change.
“While camp is very much about challenging the people around you to grow, activism is a challenge to yourself and others, to the status quo and a realist dream of what can be,” he tells me fervidly. Although he does not believe that activism is the single solution to anything, he does believe it to be “an integral part of trying to effect change in society.”
Jeff’s record of environmental activism borders on that of a typical Berkeley student, except for the fact that he was singled out in the November tuition hike protests. Along with two hundred or so UC students, Jeff traveled to San Francisco one November morning to protest a tuition increase of 25% over 5 years. He did not intend to be arrested, but rather found himself in the frontlines and most easily reachable by police. By the end of the day, he was the only Cal student in jail while hundreds of students gathered in Wheeler Hall to inhabit the space for weeks. While arrested, students rushed to Jeff’s support, securing lawyers to successfully pull him through the legal battle, creating an online crowdfunding account which raised enough money to bail him out within days. When released, he was greeted by a roar of cheers from the occupants of Wheeler and a mob of warm hugs, a visible testimony to the lives he has touched and the love he has inspired within his networks.
“Ultimately, it was a tangible realization of how just impossibly stacked the forces [are] against which activism is aimed,” he stated after a long pause. “Being thrown in jail and feeling that powerlessness is such a valuable thing to have in my life… To not have that choice—when I wasn’t going in there to get arrested, and to go through all the grief and strife, and then they dropped the charges– it’s a testament to how tough these battles can be.”
Reflecting upon the remarkable turnout of support he experienced immediately after his arrest, Jeff decides that this is a perfect example of what is possible with a group of people that are supportive. “You realize how high stakes having a personal life really is—not something just for fun. We’re building the network of people that will hold us up if we find ourselves in tough situations. It was the most beautiful affirmation to see the absolute outpouring of love and generosity from the people I have come to love in my life. I hate to think if I had not come to be invested in the communities I’m a part of, what my fate might have looked like otherwise.”
And a large portion of Jeff’s communities stem from his involvement in environmental and social justice causes today. As Theme Program Assistant for the Global Environment Theme House, Jeff fostered a community of new Cal students to grow into a thriving, supporting network of environmental leaders. He has facilitated numerous DeCals, including Intro to Sustainability at Cal, Berkeley and the Global Food System, and Cooperative Enterprise for a Resilient Future. With the Student Environmental Resource Center, he works to build sustainability education at Cal and continues to empower more students to grow into leaders in the environmental movement. His passion for community power and talent for personal connection prompt the new experiences and accomplishments that define his endeavors to effect greater change in the world.
As he progresses along this journey of self-exploration and growth, we can be sure that Jeff will continue to grow resilient communities and spread the profound seeds of passion manifested from his heart. We can be sure that wherever he goes, Jeff will always make time for Community Time.