Jeff McKenzie shares CYPHER work in CleanTech entrepreneur training with Founders Institute Gold Coast chapter

IEEE Entrepreneurs Chapter Mixer – Founder Institute Tech Accelerator Program

Free admission. Register at

September 5, 2017

Pizza and Networking: 6:00 PM
Interactive Session: 6:30 PM - 8:00 PM
Facilitator: Jeff McKenzie

Cal Lutheran Center for Entrepreneurship
31416 Agoura Road
Westlake Village, CA 91361


THE FOUNDER INSTITUTE MISSION: to ‘Globalize Silicon Valley’ and empower entrepreneurs to build companies that will create one million jobs. It is an idea-stage accelerator that helps founders launch enduring tech companies through structure, mentorship, and a global network. The Founder Institute has a success rate of 80% for startups launched. If you are up to the challenge, the founder Institute offers a 14-week comprehensive step-by-step curriculum that will provide you the structure, mentorship, and network needed to launch an enduring company.

Since 2007 aspiring entrepreneurs have used the Founder Institute program to form and improve their business ideas, develop their marketing strategy, create an advisory board, recruit co-founders, improve their pitch, launch a product, prepare to raise capital, bootstrap to profitability, generate revenue, and more. In this session you will lean how the Founder Institute can provide you the structure, mentorship, and network needed to launch an enduring company.


About the Speaker:

Mr. Jeff McKenzie is CEO & President of McKenzie Systems Engineering Associates (MSEA). Jeff has an innovative way of getting things done fast, accurately and on-time to go beyond customer expectation and tasking requirements. He has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Michigan State University.

MSEA was founded and launched as a small business in 2001. Since 2001 MSEA has supported several Prime Contractors, serving multiple weapon systems programs at Naval Based Ventura County. The company provides engineering services for Radar Systems, Integrated Project Management, and Combat Systems Engineering. One of his career highlights was sailing around South America on the USS RONALD REAGAN (CVN 76). For the past five years his company has worked on the newest nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS GERALD R. FORD (CVN 78).

Mr. McKenzie is also the CEO of the Rhodes Fest Concerts Foundation. Rhodes Fest Concerts Foundation produced the documentary called “Down The Rhodes: The Fender Rhodes Story”. It featured prominent keyboard players and artists. He has produced and coproduced musical festivals over the last few years.

Jeff McKenzie serves on the Board of Directors for several different organizations including the GOLD COAST FOUNDER INSTITUTE, the Oxnard College Foundation. Jeff currently serves as the Director of Investor Relations for Conscious Youth Promoting Health & Environmental Resilience (CYPHER). 

Nonprofit On A Mission: Innovating A Sustainable Future

Global issues facing humanity often seem too big to tackle. How do you approach the human impacts of climate change or the reality of shrinking resources? How can everyday citizens like you and I get involved, and make a real difference in challenges that are bigger than all of us?

Stepping back for a moment from the overwhelming magnitude of the problems endangering our future, we realize that it all starts with empowering innovation in the most unexpected corners of our communities. Innovation is like a seed waiting to sprout, but it needs water and sun to grow and to tap into its potential.

Well, Conscious Youth Promoting Health and Environmental Resilience (CYPHER) is an organization that’s like the water and the sun to forgotten seeds of innovation that are hidden in the most unexpected places. We sat down with CYPHER, to talk about their vision and mission in the world, and how they are empowering innovative solutions to tackle the big challenges we all face, even if we don’t realize it.

The first thing that became apparent when talking with R. Bong Vergara, Director of CYPHER, is the great passion behind the mission. Beyond tackling climate change, sustainability, and health equity, CYPHER is about empowering a sense of responsibility for social good in our future leaders of the world — our youth.

We build young people’s sense of self-belief that they can be CleanTech innovators who produce solutions to wicked problems like climate change,” — shared Vergara. “In the era of climate change, human and planetary health go hand-in-hand in promoting wellness. In the Information Age, winning both the making of CleanTech and the shaping of social equity policies go hand-in-hand in empowering our communities.”

CYPHER’s approach is to empower youth in vulnerable communities — which are in many ways the forgotten seeds that need a little sunshine — with STEM resources and tech innovation support. And when exposed to tools, resources, and a little direction can be the change we want to see in the world.

CYPHER’s focus on schools in developing places, rural areas and in low-income inner cities pays off in more ways than one.

Vergara shares an interesting discovery during CYPHER’s annual Sustainable Earth Decathlon (SED), a CleanTech Showcase that highlights high school and college teams of innovators presenting their ideas on sustainable solutions. What he found is that the most successful teams that compete are not the students with computer, science of engineering backgrounds. It’s those students who live in rural towns, who live with water insecurity from drought, food insecurity from heat wave, and energy poverty, the very problems CleanTech is trying to solve.

They are personally immersed in the problems of a heat wave, for example. It’s not abstract to them. And because they’ve lived it, their human reaction to problem solve naturally kicks in. The are primed for very practical and responsive solutions to the problems that their families and neighborhoods are facing. ” — shares Vergara.

What this really means for CYPHER, and for global communities, is an incredible source of grass-root CleanTech solutions that are practical at the core. These solutions stem directly from the very real and raw problems that are the reality for the innovators behind them. Solutions that are born out of a real need for innovation.

“They are not overly engineered tech innovations. They start with the soul of the practical problem at the core, and what results is a practical solution. Everyone will need a practical solution to food, energy, water, and security.” — continues Vergara.

Our current reality is that modern innovation in information and communication technology stems from major cities like LA and Tokyo, from places with matured clean-tech ecosystems, investor networks, and high-level research that support CleanTech innovation.

“Most of the attention when it comes to clean-tech innovation is focused on the very same places that don’t necessarily need the attention. What keeps getting left behind are the vulnerable communities that we need to be paying attention to, working for, and working with.” — passionately shares Vergara.

In contrast, CYPHER is an unconventional incubator that inspires social change from within. They promote CleanTech innovation from a social work perspective.They empower grassroot communities that have direct experience with things like extreme weather and environmental degradation — tapping into insight that could be harnessed for tech-enabled sustainable solutions.

To us, this is the type of a holistic approach that is capable of building a solid basis for social change. Instead of looking at our problems as unrelated occurrences, why not approach social change as all-encompassing and inclusive?

If you wish to get involved, CYPHER welcomes volunteers to help them mentor and coach students in STEM fields, teach them how to code, and even simple things like mentoring students in self-efficacy and positive self-esteem. Learn more about what they do and make your contribution here.

As Bong wisely says, “Social work is about making something good out of nothing.”

SED2017 to align stakeholders and community on reducing barriers to tech adoption

Unexamined access barriers to all forms of 'green tech' in low-income communities threaten the flow of investment, the pipeline of innovation, and the tech sectors' economic and social-ecological impact.

As a global engine in the growth of the CleanTech sector, California is poised to drive a solution-focused dialogue and collaboration on reducing barriers to technology adoption. SB 350 provides a policy framework for evaluating access barriers in a way that connects 'green tech' innovation with social equity.

CYPHER will host SED2017 in coordination with the Governor's Office of Planning and Research (OPR), Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz), the California Energy Commission (CEC), Air Resources Board (ARB), Strategic Growth Council (SGC), and Tecdonor. SED2017 is a participating event in Columbia Memorial Space Center's 2017 City of STEM program. Limited seating. Reserve tickets at

What:    SED2017 CleanTech Forum and Showcase

When:   Apr 26-27, 2017, 9am-5pm

Where: Los Angeles CleanTech Incubator


CleanTech  Forum:

CleanTech  Showcase:

Event Highlights

Apr 26-27: CleanTech Forum to discuss barriers and solutions to “green tech” access in low income communities with tech firms and key local stakeholders. California Energy Commission will have 'green tech' funding and career opportunity booths.

Apr 28: CleanTech Showcase of grass-root CleanTech from California, Kenya, and China. A teaser performance on Climate Music Concert courtesy of Rhodes Fest.

Apr 26-28: VIP reception during lunch; mingle with founders of tech firms in renewable energy, 'green' transportation, and 'smart building' and key 'green tech' and workforce development stakeholders from the local and state levels. Only 15 tickets available per day. Purchase ticket from

USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work shares CYPHER's work

Understanding Climate Change as a Social Issue: How Research Can Help                                 January 31, 2017 / by Eric Lindberg

Earth’s increasingly deadly and destructive climate is prompting social work leaders to focus the profession’s attention on one of humanity’s most pressing issues: environmental change.

Typhoons are hitting the South Pacific with greater severity and regularity. Hurricane Katrina prompted the largest forced migration of Americans since the Civil War. Civil conflicts and instability in the Middle East and Africa are being linked to climate change and its socioecological effects.

“We see it perhaps most importantly as a social justice issue,” said Lawrence Palinkas, the Albert G. and Frances Lomas Feldman Professor of Social Policy and Health at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “Generally the people most affected by climate change tend to be the poor, older adults, children and families, and people with a history of mental health problems — populations that are typically the focus of social work practice.”

This inherent link between social work and the social and economic consequences of environmental change is at the heart of a new initiative Palinkas and other social work scholars are leading as part of the Grand Challenges for Social Work.

Organized by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, the national effort seeks to achieve societal progress by identifying specific challenges that social work can play a central role in overcoming — in this case, creating social responses to the changing environment.

“Where we see social workers playing a role is developing an evidence-based approach to disaster preparedness and response,” Palinkas said. “How do we provide services to communities that are devastated by natural disasters? How do we help populations that are being dislocated by virtue of changes in the environment?”

Inaction could prove deadly

Not addressing this issue is likely to have dire consequences. At a policy meeting in London in December, military experts warned that dramatic shifts in the natural and built environments could trigger a major global disaster in the near future.

“Climate change could lead to a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions,” retired Brig. Gen. Stephen A. Cheney, CEO of the American Security Project and a member of the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board, said in prepared remarks. “We’re already seeing migration of large numbers of people around the world because of food scarcity, water insecurity and extreme weather, and this is set to become the new normal.”

To describe their vision for social work’s role in this grand challenge, Palinkas and his partners outlined three main policy recommendations for the profession.

The first recommendation centers on reducing the impact of disasters such as extreme weather events. Climate-related catastrophes affect more than 375 million people every year—an increase of 50 percent compared to the previous decade.

Palinkas emphasized the need to develop and spread evidence-based interventions to combat that risk and respond in the wake of disasters, in part by ensuring that all clinicians and social work students receive training in disaster preparedness and response as a critical component of the job.

“That includes things like training communities in the use of evidence-based practices to provide treatment for traumatic symptoms in the aftermath of a disaster,” he said. “We also need to promote social cohesion and community resilience to mitigate the possibility of social conflict.”

Leaders from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work are ahead of the curve in tackling that piece of the puzzle, most notably in the Pacific Rim. In recent years, for example, a team of researchers and practitioners from the school has led humanitarian missions to the Philippines following major typhoons.

Building a safety net

Faculty members Marleen Wong and Vivien Villaverde are among those who have traveled to the South Pacific to offer training sessions on delivering psychological first aid, addressing secondary post-traumatic stress and promoting social development.

“In many parts of Asia, the infrastructure for disaster response and recovery is weak,” said Villaverde, a clinical associate professor with expertise in disaster preparedness, crisis interventions and trauma-informed care. “At the same time, that’s where a lot of climate-related natural disasters are occurring.”

Social workers can assist during recovery efforts by offering interventions and training others to use them, she said, but broader efforts to prepare for and respond to crises are needed.

Although the USC team has generally focused on the intervention component, Villaverde noted an increasing emphasis on the multi-tier framework described by Palinkas and other scholars in the Grand Challenge policy brief, which calls on governments and private organizations to begin planning for climate change and related disasters at a national and community level.

Wong echoed the need for countries like the Philippines to move beyond merely reacting to environmental disasters, particularly in terms of developing proactive plans that outline how various government agencies, community groups and individuals can prepare for and respond to catastrophes.

“Social work has a clear role to play in building that safety net,” said Wong, senior associate dean of field education and clinical professor. “We can bring our knowledge and skills and develop additional ways of supporting people, especially children and families, in the wake of these natural disasters.”

Invisible refugees

Another critical issue highlighted by the Grand Challenge team is the emergence of a new class of displaced individuals, known as environmental or ecological refugees.

Environmental factors have caused an estimated 25 million people to relocate, according to the policy brief, and that figure is expected to skyrocket to 250 million by 2050. Examples include rising sea levels that are forcing Pacific Islanders to seek asylum in New Zealand, the devastating flooding of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans that displaced thousands and the recent conclusion of the United Nations Security Council that climate change prompted the war in Sudan.

“Of course people want to leave North Korea due to the harsh political environment, but the reality is most are leaving because the agricultural system was destroyed by devastating floods beginning in the 1990s,” Palinkas said. “Even this year, what little had been rebuilt was again wiped out by a series of historic floods.”

A major problem is these individuals have no legal status under the United Nations mandate to protect and support refugees, he said. Because they are denied protections offered to people fleeing from war or conflict, they may not have access to care or shelter, are unable to plan for the future and are afforded little dignity.

“They might not be leaving because their lives are being threatened, but threats to their livelihood are forcing them to migrate,” Palinkas said. “People who may not have had difficulties in generating income through agricultural activities are suddenly being forced to relocate because they can’t grow crops anymore.”

In addition to raising awareness and advocating for policy changes to ensure these individuals are supported, he said strategies are needed for long-term relocation of these environmental migrants.

An urban future

Finally, the Grand Challenge authors are calling for increased focus on the effects of urbanization and the inclusion of marginalized communities in planning for inevitable environmental changes. Experts expect two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050, which means increasing demands on infrastructure and service systems, new threats to security and increased density.

“How do we accommodate more people in the same amount of space?” Palinkas said. “How can we provide adequate support systems — not just physical but governmental, service-related, health care-related — to people living in these urban areas?”

Policies need to be developed that ensure equitable use of space, provide housing to all, protect the natural environment and create access to services and jobs. A critical component of developing those guidelines is giving a voice to vulnerable communities that have been left out of previous planning efforts.

Doing so will ensure that marginalized groups, particularly low-income individuals and people with racial and ethnic minority backgrounds, will not be disproportionately harmed by changes in urban and regional environments.

One effort to give voice to individuals interested in tackling climate change at the grassroots level is CYPHER, a technology-focused initiative led by R. Bong Vergara, an adjunct assistant professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

In collaboration with Los Angeles CleanTech Incubator and other local partners, the program encourages teens and young adults from the United States, China and Kenya to develop social and technological strategies to address the human impact of climate change — ideas they present at CYPHER’s signature event, the Sustainable Earth Decathlon, each spring.

“Our work creates a pipeline of clean technology and tech-enabled solutions to local manifestations of climate change,” Vergara said. “Although we are interested in solutions, we are profoundly compelled by our target outcome, which is a shift in identity among these youth from non-innovators to tech innovators.”

He described one participant, the son of undocumented farmworkers, who had to ask his parents for permission to go to school and take part in CYPHER, which took him away from assisting with farm labor.

That personal background proved invaluable, Vergara said; the student helped invent an app-enabled irrigation system that shows farmworkers and landowners which parcel of property needs water the most. It earned top honors at the annual competition.

“The insight from his direct, personal experience of the impact of a heat wave on their farm was really instrumental in making the innovation that his team came up with rise to the very top,” Vergara said. “He saw the impact, financially, emotionally and socially, of solving the overlap of food, energy and water systems in the fields of his community.”

Measuring success

Many of the goals of the Grand Challenge team are broad and seemingly nebulous, so developing metrics that highlight progress could prove difficult. However, Palinkas said markers such as reducing the prevalence of environmentally induced diseases by a certain percentage might serve as signals of success.

“We may not reduce the number of natural disasters, but we may reduce the number of displaced families,” he said. “We may reduce the incidence of psychiatric conditions like PTSD or generalized anxiety disorder that are often associated with exposure to these kinds of events.”

In general, many are encouraged the Grand Challenge and the overall concept of responding to environmental change from a social perspective is gaining awareness among social workers and others in the helping professions.

Palinkas, Wong and other leading scholars have been crossing the globe to highlight the Grand Challenge initiative, delivering speeches in places like South Korea, Portugal, China, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Taiwan and Switzerland.

“I think social work is really well positioned to address this challenge,” Wong said. “Social workers never work alone; they always work as a team. In these complex situations, we need to build teams to enhance the national capacity to respond.”

NSWM February newsletter features CYPHER

We were recently featured on the February E-Newsletter of the Network of Social Work Managers (NSWM).


Conscious Youth Promoting Health and Environmental Readiness (CYPHER International), founded by R. Bong Vergara, an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, is on a mission to develop socially-responsible technology entrepreneurs through tech-enabled innovation at the nexus of food, energy and water systems. CYPHER’S vision is to build a technology marketplace for sustainable development inspired by local and indigenous knowledge, STEAM, and youth culture. Though founded by Professor Vergara, CYPHER, comes to fruition by professionals from a myriad of backgrounds who aim to fight the vulnerabilities many low-income communities of color face when it comes to sustainability across food, energy and water.

CYPHER speaks to the social and environmental determinants impacting a person’s trajectory in life, such as geographical location; climate resilience of one’s community; socioeconomic status; education; access to food, energy, and water; access to health care, and social capital. CYPHER’s work is premised on the idea that grass-root communities with direct experience with extreme weather and environmental degradation have insight that could be harnessed for technology for the social good.

CYPHER promotes the development of community-defined,  tech-enabled climate change adaptation tools to make sure local communities are equipped with tools of their own making to promote human and planetary health.  CYPHER works to shift the identity of the youth from a consumer of technology to a producer of it. By conditioning this shift in identity so that the youth can reliably create the technology the world needs, CYPHER (a) addresses the talent pipeline needs of private and public sector firms, (b) adds value to the work of educators and students in achieving career readiness, and (c) fuels youth engagement in health equity and sustainable development.     

A major component of CYPHER is to inspire youth to be the change their community needs by providing them the mentorship and guidance along the way. CYPHER’s programs revolve around these mentorships and opportunities for youth to shift their identities from those as consumers of technology to those of producers. CYPHER believes that such a shift in identity is not only vital to addressing the needs of private and public sector firms, but also adds significant value to the work of students and educators in reaching career readiness and encouraging youth to engage in environmental justice.

One of CYPHER’s annual programs is the Sustainable Earth Decathlon (SED), which provides youth with an exciting opportunity to showcase their innovative ideas in a public forum targeted to technologists, social entrepreneurs and policy makers.  Those who provide the best technological advances to impact climate change are awarded a grand cash prize. A second program by CYPHER in partnership with Rolling Robot is #EcoBot, a robotics competition that teaches youth how to create and recreate robots that are eco-friendly and interact with humans. Programs like #MYKNOWLEDGECOUNTS, Mentorship and Innovation Coaching empower youth to get involved in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Math ( STEAM).

CYPHER’s blend of academics, engineers, social entrepreneurs, social workers among other professionals give a distinctive insight to address  such a multifaceted issue, like global climate change.

In an era where the very notion of global warming and environmental degradation continues to be heavily contested, Jim Gilmer, Director of Government Relations for CYPHER, expresses that the fight for global sustainability is not an easy one. Mr. Gilmer’s advice to those who wish to enter the fight for environmental justice is to understand that this will not be fixed overnight. Mr. Gilmer states, “Look inside yourself and find your purpose, if you feel that this is where you have to be then we are here to help because the kind of change [CYPHER] hopes to make will take time.”

Jeff McKenzie, CEO of McKenzie Systems Engineering and Director of Investors Relations for CYPHER, shares that though the work can be challenging it is very rewarding. Mr. McKenzie states, “As an engineer it’s been inspiring to see so many youth make their ideas materialize and to see their ideas presented both orally and visually with a sense of accomplishment has definitely been one of the most rewarding parts of this whole process.”

Allen Braswell, founder of TecDonor and a RN, has partner with CYPHER to promote volunteer in the nonprofit sector. Mr. Braswell saw a need for nonprofits to maximize volunteers and created a system to address such a need.

Joseph Owuondo, an Innovator in Residence in African International Affairs states that, “through CYPHER’s ongoing mentorship and support, I strive to develop solutions integrating technology and social expertise in addressing the three areas of my interest.”

Though these are just a fraction of the CYPHER team they have all come together to empower communities to be their own advocates and be at the forefront of change and policy. CYPHER will continue to uphold its mission and vision and guide the next generation of engineers, social entrepreneurs, policy makers, lawyers, academics and innovators to be agents of change and fight for sustainability from the ground up.

Redefining Nature

Our work was covered by journalist Nikki Brown in her "Redefining Nature" article published in Lateral Magazine's January issue. The article tackles the new reality of climate action in an environment of climate change denial. Here is the link:

SED2017 will be on April 26-28 at LA CleanTech Incubator

SED2017 (or "Sustainable Earth Decathlon 2017") is CYPHER's signature program; it will be held over three days on April 26-28, 2017 at Los Angeles CleanTech Incubator (LACI), a global hub for CleanTech. 

Day 1-2 will be a sustainability symposium. Day 1 theme is 'enhancing the capacity of the grass-roots to create social solutions to climate change'. Day 2 theme is 'empowering the grass-roots to harness technology for social good'. Day 3 will be the live CleanTech showcase, similar to "Shark Tank', designed to promote the innovations of high school and college students from California and abroad.

Applications are due March 24, 11:59pm. Details, including sponsorship information, can be found at


Cris Liban, DEnv, PE, a member of CYPHER's Advisory Council, was recently named recipient of the Pamana ng Pilipino Award of the 2016 Presidential Awards for Filipino Individuals and Organizations Overseas, the highest civilian award bestowed every two years by the Philippine government to Filipinos who live overseas. Please help us congratulate him!

Jim Gilmer, a well-known statewide health policy leader, is joining us to link us to key industry partners and a national initiative. He will no doubt share more details with you directly as these develop. Please help us welcome him!

Jeff McKenzie is spearheading the Climate Music Project, to be done jointly with RHODES FEST, an organization promoting music and arts education initiative in the spirit of Harold Rhodes who invented the Rhodes electric piano. The Climate Music Project will create original music focused on telling grass-root experiences with a changing environment and how to address it; it is part of our #MyKnowledgeCounts campaign. We will share more details as we move further along.


Professor’s Nonprofit Tackles Grand Challenges with Clean Technology

April 28, 2016 / by Maya Meinert

A mixture of excitement and nervousness fills the air. Young people from all over the world present ideas for everything from mobile phone apps that help farmers wirelessly manage irrigation systems to a concept for a zero-emission freight corridor along a busy highway.

At stake: cash prizes and the opportunity to have their ideas become reality.

The Sustainable Earth Decathlon (SED), a showcase of clean technology innovations from youth ages 13 to 26, is the brainchild of USC School of Social Work Adjunct Assistant Professor R. Bong Vergara, who sees a clear link between human and planetary health.

Along the lines of the American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare’s Grand Challenge of creating social responses to a changing environment, Vergara created SED as a project-based learning opportunity for youth, especially those from climate-vulnerable communities, to engage in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) activities.

“I want to build young people’s sense of self belief so they can become innovators and produce solutions to wicked problems like climate change,” said Vergara, who recently was named one of Social Work Today’s 10 Dedicated and Deserving Social Workers.

This year’s SED was held April 14 and 15 at LA Cleantech Incubator in downtown Los Angeles. The event, which features a live fast pitch, offers cash prizes to young innovators who have novel solutions to local manifestations of climate change and its human impacts. Participants, who compete on either the high school or college-age tracks, are asked to solve one specific problem in their local communities caused or made worse by climate change or other environmental issue. Entries come from many disciplines, including social work, the arts, design, medicine and science, and can take any form, from products and services to start-ups.

The grand prize went to a group from California State University, San Marcos, for Creative-ive, an e-commerce website that sells carbon credits along with lifestyle products. Runner-up prizes went to a mobile app to help people transition to sustainable landscaping using augmented visualization and a project to combat invasive plants spurred by warmer weather through behavior change. All three winners have been invited to attend an investors meeting this fall to help them secure further funding.

An aha moment

SED is an offshoot of Vergara’s nonprofit organization, Conscious Youth Promoting Health & Environmental Readiness (CYPHER), which inspires youth around the world to design innovations at the nexus of food, energy and water systems to create climate resilience in their own communities.

CYPHER was born in 2009 after a series of super typhoons hit the Philippines. Vergara, who was born and raised there and still has family there, reached out to friends on Facebook to gather supplies to send to the Philippines.

“That experience showed me a glimmer of opportunity,” he said. “If one ordinary guy can use a Facebook account to think creatively and get 35 boxes of supplies to impact three provinces, what would happen if I formalized something so it’s not just charity but an enabler to get people to come up with their own solutions?”

Youth empowerment

The first SED event was held in 2014 to build youth’s sense of self belief so they can become innovators and produce solutions to wicked problems like climate change, Vergara said. Since that first event, CYPHER and SED have received interest from universities, including those as far away as the Shanghai Institute of Technology in China, for-profit companies such as Honeywell and Tesla, and governmental agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“Even after just the first event, we saw that resource-poor communities could have the most responsive clean tech ideas. Communities that have direct personal experiences will problem solve,” he said. “For example, we were blown away by the mobile and web-based apps Oxnard College students developed to help farmers conserve water, and that had a lot to do with witnessing produce rotting and farms closing down in their community. We saw that had they only had more resources, it would have resulted in social adoption with immediate impact.”

He even has a group of USC School of Social Work students volunteering their time to assist CYPHER with grant writing, donor relations and marketing to encourage them to think more broadly when it comes to social work.

MSW student Monica Nunez, who manages CYPHER’s social media efforts, has a personal connection to the organization’s mission. She’s a first-generation student whose parents were farm workers. They now have serious medical conditions as a result.

“It was rewarding to see students at the first SED advocate for themselves and try to solve health disparities. They come from disenfranchised communities, and I can relate to them,” she said. “They’re so young, and it’s really beautiful to see that they care.”

Part-time student Eugene Suh helps CYPHER with event promotion. He said doing so has made him bolder and more of a leader, especially when it comes to his social work career.

“Part of the NASW Code of Ethics says to advance awareness of education while helping people at the same time. It’s our duty to be aware and up-to-date with technology and how it can help people,” he said.

An eye toward the future

For next year’s SED, CYPHER plans to incorporate a robotics challenge with Cagebot, a German company that has created a robot made of interchangeable pieces that require little technical expertise to build and operate. The idea is to make this technology more accessible so more people – youth in particular – will have the tools to make their innovations come to life.

“I’d like for the social work profession to be more muscular in its actions,” Vergara said. “I would hate for us to just stop at defining the problems. I would love for us to find the solutions, those that engage this new cognitive information age that makes use of technology.”

NSWM Interview with R. Bong Vergara

What leadership qualities do you find to be the most effective in reaching your organizational or career goals? 

Patience, courage, and humility. With enough patience many disappointing developments can be made to turn out just fine. Patience is definitely a quality that doesn’t come naturally; I developed it out of necessity because in this field the time horizon for results can be long. I’ve been through many projects that preliminary appeared to be failures to those who didn’t give good news enough time to happen. We need courage not only so we intervene, or take action, but also so we can function while we wait. When one is in the business of developing leaders and innovators, it helps to think of the work as farming: seeds need some time to germinate and seedlings need even more time to take root. I add humility because that is something that is in my nature, and I have found ways to make it serve me well. I’m not flashy; I’m bold. I naturally think big, and I rely on the power of my ideas to bring me the resources I need, whether human or material. I prefer not to attract attention; I prefer to channel attention toward the causes I work on and the many talented members of my team. Humility is logical in leadership development: we don’t lead when we are alone at the top. We need others who follow, who create solutions, and who commit to the long and winding road ahead. And often, leading means following, too: listening to and hearing good counsel, course correcting, and admitting error — all good things that humility makes easier to do.

How do you motivate your team members? 

When it comes to motivating a team, there’s a difference between cheerleading and keeping morale up; the former requires charm, while the latter requires trust. That’s probably an oversimplification but it resonates with me, at some fundamental level. While there’s value in both, what comes more naturally to me is keeping my team’s morale up. I naturally lean on big ideas in order to engage my team, in order to ensure we create an environment where we have shared values and paired goals. The road to results is long and only ideas big enough are durable to sustain us.

How has networking impacted your career?

Networking led me to two mentors. The first is Glenn Omatsu, a professor in leadership at UCLA Asian American Studies Center and former editor of Amerasian Journal–he was a guiding force throughout my sociopolitical awakening as an undergraduate at UCLA. He was instrumental in my interest in Asian American Studies, my activism in curricular reform. The second is Dr. Leo Pandac, a long-time community leader in the Asian American community, and current director of Pacific Asian Alcohol & Drug Program forSpecial Service for Groups.His interest in my personal and professional development helped push me forward when sometimes it felt easier to give up. Both remain vital members of my personal network.

How has networking impacted your career?

Networking has had a mixed impact primarily because I don’t do enough of it. My friendships continue to provide new opportunities as members of my network gain more professional influence. I wouldn’t have half the opportunities I enjoy today without these friendships.

Do you have an initiative or project you would like to tell our readers about?

CYPHER’s flagship program is the Sustainable Earth Decathlon (SED). Social work and tech-enabled climate innovation go hand-in-hand, especially as climate change transforms how we conceive of ‘social welfare’ in an era of ambient intelligence technology and climate change. I would like to invite your readers to help spread the word to both potential innovators and sponsors.


WHEN: Fri, Apr 14-15

WHERE: Los Angeles CleanTech Incubator in Downtown LA

SED2016 is a climate innovation showcase for climate-vulnerable communities; it has two parts: a CleanTech Showcase and a Robotic Challenge we affectionately call #cypherBot. For more info, please visit Follow us on Twitter@cypheryouth, Instagram @cypher_youth and Facebook at /cypheryouth.

What advice do you have for those beginning their professional journey or who are already in leadership positions? 

I tell my MSW students this: The true measure of a person is the ability to build a life of value without regard to the forces that challenge or resources that others currently control. I write this in emails I send each cohort at the end of the semester. Social work is about making something good out of nothing. If you think about every level of professional practice–micro, mezzo, macro–this is fundamentally what we do: we build on the flimsiest of assets in order to improve conditions for those in greatest need. In micro, we give hope and inspiration to individuals who have lost the capacity to have hope and be inspired. In mezzo, we build capacity in small groups to be stable, high functioning, or transformative. In macro, we create conditions for the innovation inherent in systems to come to life and bring about system change. At the crux of this miracle-making that we do are resources–their identification, mobilization, and stewardship. Our clients–whether individuals, families, small groups, or communities–rely on us to be competent in securing and managing resources. This is something that we don’t do well enough to instill in younger social workers. What do we do when there is no ready list of resources? My own experience tells me we can’t case manage or fundraise ourselves out of situations like this. Being inventive, resourceful, and entrepreneurial are key in drawing in from the outside the resources we need. CYPHER and its #MyKnowledgeCounts campaign is about cultivating this inventiveness, in many ways.

What do you wish you had known before you started your career?

In my 20s and early 30s, I immersed my self in a world of social causes, where the mission and the community benefit mattered the most. I gave work for free, sometimes, as a result. We don’t have to live in poverty to be legitimate anti-poverty advocates. We can do well–and it is ok to do very well–while we are doing good.

Training tool on environmental justice completed

CYPHER Fellows Roxie Aguilar and Sina McGriff successfully completed their project, a course syllabus on environmental justice in Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities. We submitted it to UCLA Center for the Study of Inequality to be shared to a network of Asian American Studies departments and faculty members. We plan to use the syllabus to design community-oriented training modules for communities targeted by the California Reducing Disparities Project.

10 Dedicated & Deserving Social Workers

As an undergrad in the early '90s, Russell Vergara became active in the Los Angeles riots. Though he was on track for PreMed, Vergara says it was difficult to "close your eyes to the activists." As he got more engaged, he became aware of not only campus activism but community opportunities as well. When a social work professor noticed his involvement and told Vergara that what he was doing was "social work," he says his eyes were opened to new opportunities. He applied to the graduate program at UCLA and never looked back.

"I had a particular interest in antipoverty work since one of the reasons my family decided to come to the U.S. was to escape poverty," Vergara says.

Now working at the University of Southern California, Vergara says he never would have pictured himself teaching this early on in his career. But he says he has "found his place" in helping today's youth to find their own "a-ha moment," just the way he did.

Vergara also found a way to merge his interest and background in the medical field with his passion for social work. Through the "Safety Net of the Future" initiative, Vergara aims to not only widen health care access to the underserved but also raise the capacity of health centers to truly serve the needs of racial ethnic minorities.

Vergara also founded CYPHER (Conscious Youth Promoting Health & Environmental Readiness), which is a youth engagement firm aiming to promote health equity and climate resilience innovation. CYPHER works with youth (ages 13 to 24) who are often the least-consulted community members on world issues—particularly human and planetary health. CYPHER helps not only engage them but also show how they have the ability to be future leaders on these matters.

"The super typhoons that hit the Philippines in 2009 is what lead me here," Vergara says. "As a social worker, I couldn't sit in front of my television, consuming this news but doing nothing. So I used my Facebook account to mobilize donations. That's when something clicked. I was able to take a random request and turn it into something tangible. I figured if I could do that, maybe I could take it to the next level."

Though he strayed from a medical career, Vergara says that as a social worker he feels he has become a "well-rounded playmaker." Not only is he able to take part in climate resilience and sustainability but he can also apply his passion for helping the poor and making a difference in those communities.

"Medicine would not have allowed me to help in the way I wanted to," Vergara says. "It's social work that is the tailor-made profession of solving problems. It's incredibly fulfilling."

Environmental Justice Policy Update

In partnership with Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), we published an issue brief on the impact of climate change on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI). That issue brief was submitted to US EPA to help the agency learn more about the specific impact of climate change on AANHPIs. 

Members of the CYPHER Leadership Team also participated in the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's 44th Annual Legislative Conference (ALS), held Sept. 24–27, 2014, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC. ALC is the premier conference of its kind nationwide, offering more than 70 forums on public policy issues facing African Americans. CYPHER participated on a panel on community engagement in climate resilience innovation.

Seed STEM Education Project at Oxnard College

In partnership with Oxnard College STEM Program created an innovative student-focused, project-based 'hybrid enrichment' program in coordination with STEM and Liberal Studies faculty. The goal was to integrate coursework and experiential learning in developing small-scale learning communities. Our work yielded a model that simultaneously builds: (1) academic success, (2) workforce readiness, and (3) personal self-efficacy among the youth. 

SED2014 Highlights

The 2014 'Sustainable Earth Decathlon' (SED) held in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday, October 25 -- and co-sponsored by LA Metro -- led to several 'community-defined' CleanTech solutions. SED focused on youth innovation that built community capacity to overcome the negative effects of climate change. Student finalists gave a live ‘fast pitch’ to a Blue Ribbon Committee. Each team presentation included a PowerPoint, a short video, and a poster depicting their CleanTech innovation. There were three awards: $3000 (1st Place), $2000 (2nd Place), and $1000 (3rd Place).

SED also included a Global Health Symposium, co-sponsored by UCLA Center for Global & Immigrant Health, that tackled youth engagement in practice, policy, and research. Event sponsors included California Department of Public Health - Office of Health Equity, The California Endowment, LA Metro, US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), SoCal Gas Company, and UCLA Center for Global & Immigrant Health. 

Congratulations once again to The DROUGHTINADORS (1st Place), Communities for a Better Environment/Youth EJ (2nd Place), and H2GROW (3rd Place)! A special recognition goes out to Prof. Lucy HG Solomon for her dedication and hard work.