Black History Month Spotlight: Erica Stewart

  • Feb 27, 2019
  • Emerge America - Blogpost
  • Emerge America

“As the newest City Council member for San Luis Obispo, many have asked me what I think about being the first African-American woman female council person in our city.”

Erica Stewart, Emerge California ’18

As the newest City Council member for San Luis Obispo, many have asked me what I think about being the first African-American woman female council person in our city.  I’m honored to be part of the nationwide wave bringing more women and more ethnic diversity to our government. But I have to tell you when I first started the campaign process, I wanted people to look past diversity.

I didn’t run for office to be a role model. I’m not perfect. I’ve made my share of mistakes in life, and I just wanted to do the work, highlight important issues in my community, introduce different ideas, encourage better thinking, shine a light on areas for improvement and have an impact. However, as I started down the campaign trail, I realized I had to embrace the concept of being the first African-American woman council person and what that would mean–whether I wanted to or not. No one person can singlehandedly break down all of the walls and barriers of our community. However, each of us can share our knowledge and hope others take a seat at the table, so they too can be a part of shaping and leading their communities. If being the first African-American woman council person inspires new voices in the community to share their light, if seeing someone similar to oneself in leadership fuels others to share ideas, then let’s keep moving toward a more inclusive society.

My journey to the city council started in January 2017 following the 2016 election. I had been living in my own bubble for several months and felt paralyzed, unsure and hopeless. As I watched President Obama during his final moments in office from my living room, he said something that struck me: “change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.”

I knew then that I couldn’t sit by anymore. I had to use my experiences in the community and as a businesswoman, full-time employee, mom, wife and person of color to make a difference. I turned in my application to Emerge California and was ready to make a change. This was my first step into a whole new world of public service. I took all the necessary steps of going through a program like Emerge: Apply. Interview. Earn a Spot. Learn. Graduate.

In June 2018, I discovered that an incumbent on the city council was not seeking re-election and I was off. Soon after came the whirlwind of running for office. I kept telling myself the same refrains over and over again: Don’t stop. Don’t turn back. Figure out how to keep moving forward with the training of Emerge California.

I announced my campaign, raised the necessary money, met, greeted and listened to constituents. Eventually, I won and was sworn in earlier this year.

Now there’s a new whirlwind.

I read thousands of pages of agendas, meeting minutes, staff reports and community comments. I meet with constituents, and each day, sit at the dais to vote and debate key issues to help preserve, strengthen and improve our community.

One of the issues that I am focused on now that I am in office is our need for more housing. I am learning to help facilitate discussions on housing for every income level while still maintaining our community’s general plan for growth because we need to ensure residents of all different economic backgrounds have a place to live.  We have to collaborate and partner with our residents and our local, state and federal governments to create solutions. Developers need to come to the table and discuss options that can work for all. Our nonprofits and government service providers need to be involved to help us all understand what’s possible in helping house our community.

I also want to take an active role in stopping climate change. I want to see our children, grandchildren and generations to come enjoy our planet. This means taking an active role in combatting climate change. Our city is committed to taking action, and I look forward to weighing in on our steps toward success. There’s no proverbial silver bullet, no single solution to all of these complex issues, but I am looking forward to beingpart of these discussions with all involved.

At the end of my four-year term, I hope to look back and say that I played a part in engaging more individuals in San Luis Obispo in finding solutions to the challenges in our community. Also, I hope I will have helped our staff think of how to solve these issues by considering how to approach them more effectively and unconventionally. If my own diversity can help more of our community to be engaged, and eventually be a part of leadership, then I welcome being that voice at the table.