Monica Medina | Uptown News
What fuels the enormous generosity of Omar Passons
“Whatever you’re thinking, think bigger.”
That’s the quote that Omar Passons recently posted on “Understanding San Diego,” one of two blogs he runs. Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos.com said it, and though Passons has never heard of Zappos, you could say the words are his mantra.
Because when it comes to San Diego, Passons has a vision of transforming the city into a hub for the entire world.
A senior counsel at the law offices of Stutz, Artiano, Shinoff & Holtz, Passons likes to describe himself as an “attorney, foodie, craft beer community activist, infrastructure nerd committed to opportunities for all San Diegans.”
The North Park resident began his life in foster care when, at 10 months of age, he was placed with Phyllis and Tom Passons, whose five biological children were older and, save for the youngest, living on their own. Passons, an African American, was raised first in San Diego before moving to rural Arizona, where he remembers experiencing overt racism for the first time.
The couple adopted Passons when he was six, but continued to take in foster children throughout his youth, more than 100 in all.
“I had foster brothers and sisters who were burned, beaten, and in some cases tortured, neglected, left alone, broken bones, disfigured,” remembered Passons. “They were so harmed by the people who were supposed to care for them that they couldn’t just stay in one place and would run away. Yet against that backdrop, I had love at home. That’s super corny but I feel if you know you’re loved, that makes a huge difference.”
Today at 38, Passons, who is married to his childhood sweetheart, Erin, has his eye on making San Diego a more livable city, one that’s internationally recognized for its noteworthy industry and contributions. In other words, he wants San Diego to be a force to be reckoned with.
“San Diego has one of the biggest biofuel research laboratories in the world,” he noted. “And according to a researcher I spoke to, within ten years it will be potentially as easy to get energy from biofuels as it is from fossil fuels, in terms of cost. That could be a game changer, and it’s being invented here.
“We have Qualcomm technology, which is in every smart phone, also invented here,” Passons continued. “We’re leaders in stem cell research and in craft beer. The list goes on. We have the Baja region nearby. You could look at this region as the place where ideas are made and then sent to Baja to be manufactured. It’s the sort of hub that makes the San Diego region so much more than we ourselves can see.”
Of all the industries San Diego boasts, Passons’ heart is most firmly planted with San Diego’s burgeoning craft beer business, and not just because he’s an aficionado of the beverage. For Passons, the industry is very much part of his plan to improve our urban landscape, making our neighborhoods safer and more desirable to live in. As if to make his point, he started the Craft Beer Debates as a way for people to get together to discuss local issues while imbibing beer.
“People don’t seem to realize how robust the craft beer industry is here,” Passons said. “It’s the largest concentration in the country. We have 87 breweries and I believe they can positively shape our neighborhoods. Most of the craft brewers that I’ve come to know are concerned about where they’re operating more than your typical businesses, so I really like that.”
The extent of Passons’ involvement in the community practically boggles the mind. He writes two blogs, “Understanding San Diego” and “eat.drink.give.go,” which focus on his passions — infrastructure, eating, drinking and community service.
“I started UnderstandingSanDiego.com hoping that if I can help arm voters with the information they need to make informed decisions, that’ll provide opportunity for people to engage in a more earnest dialogue,” he said.
But he doesn’t stop there. In addition to the blogs, Passons serves on a slew of boards, beginning in his own backyard, with the North Park Community Association, the North Park Planning Committee, and he even served for two years on the North Park Recreation Center Council.
“The San Diego region is my focus,” he declared, “But when I first moved here, I started in North Park, doing a lot of grassroots volunteering and community level involvement. I would go to the North Park Community Association meetings, and help with the cleanups.”
He also lends his time to the United Way of San Diego County Board of Directors, the Leadership Council of the San Diego Foundation for Civic Engagement, the San Diego Workforce Partnership where he participates on the Workforce Investment Board, and to Voices for Children. Plus, he’s keen on creating a more pedestrian and bike-friendly city, which is why he’s on the board for Bike San Diego.
“There’s a lot of reasons that a more pedestrian and bike-oriented urban core would be better for the community,” Passons explained. “To actually attract the type of young people who want to live and work in an urban environment, we need to make that urban environment more friendly for them, and for us.”
In his capacity as attorney, Passons is president of the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association for African American lawyers, and also on the board of the California Association of Black Lawyers, where he has advocated for legislation from San Diego elected officials.
Passons spent two years on the board of Catholic Charities Homeless Women Services Advisory Committee, something he felt was particularly important for him to do. For, after reconnecting with his birth mother when he was 27, he discovered that she herself was homeless.
“My biological mother had four children, all of whom were removed from her care, and I was the youngest,” he explained. “She has mental health issues, grew up deaf and a victim of abuse in the segregated South. Learning her life story has inspired and affected who I am and what I do, and is part of the reason I got involved in women’s homelessness.”
The key to Passons’ drive to give in so many ways may hark back to his youth, when there were people in his life that gave to him. Thinking about those moments now fills him with gratitude and emotion.
“When I was in my early teens, my parents were at Children’s Hospital a lot, because of the medically fragile foster children they’d taken in,” he recalled. “What ended up happening was an amazing thing. My friends’ parents were really good to me — including my wife’s parents — and gave of themselves. They’d take me along on their family outings. It was the first time I ever saw Christmas lights or Candy Cane lane. It was the first time I went to the beach and on picnics. They didn’t have to do it, but they did.”
Years later he would return to thank these parents for all they did for him.
“We do a lot of stuff to make life better for as many people as we can,” Passons said. “Yet, you don’t really know what works and what doesn’t, or if it makes a difference. And I wanted those parents to know that they made a difference in my life.”
Looking ahead, Passons sees a huge, blow-out New Year’s Eve party in San Diego’s future.
“We need to stretch our imaginations about what our city and region can be,” he contended. “Having a major West Coast event in the San Diego-Baja region is about letting people know what San Diego is really all about and the breadth of what happens here.”
With Passons’ drive and sheer will, it’s practically a given he will succeed. That New Year’s Eve fest will happen, along with anything else he sets his mind to. After all, he doesn’t just think big. He gives big.
“As an adult, I’ve never lived somewhere and not been involved,” he said. “I’m not a very religious person but I feel called to do it. I feel like I have had a lot of good fortune in my life and now I have this opportunity to make a difference.”