Living in Pismo Beach – Heidi Harmon

Living in Pismo Beach, where we connect you with some of our favorite people who live and work on the Central Coast. Those community and business leaders who make living on the Coast such a unique and diverse experience.

Episode #11

Heidi Harmon
Mayor of San Luis Obispo, CA

Heidi Harmon Mayor of San Luis Obispo, CA, joins Ashlea Foster Boyer, Shannon Bowdey & Jordan Hamm on Living In Pismo Beach.

Ashlea Boyer:

Okay. Alright. Hey ladies.

Jordan Hamm:

Hey.

Ashlea Boyer:

It’s been a while it seems like.

Jordan Hamm:

I know, I know.

Ashlea Boyer:

Well it’s going to be a while longer, I guess, after this weeks news so.

Jordan Hamm:

Unfortunately.

Ashlea Boyer:

Unfortunately. I feel bad for all of the businesses that just got their ducks in a row and all their stuff in place to come back.

Jordan Hamm:

Me too. Yeah. Me too.

Ashlea Boyer:

So I guess I’m going to be a mom and say stay home if you can and wear your masks all the time so that we can start dialing this back, get past it.

Jordan Hamm:

I know.

Ashlea Boyer:

Because I didn’t go get a pedicure. I needed one, but I kind of kept to myself and I really want one.

Jordan Hamm:

Right there with you.

Ashlea Boyer:

Well, I’m excited to chat with Heidi Harmon.

Jordan Hamm:

Yeah.

Ashlea Boyer:

She sounds so awesome. And she just posted today on her Facebook that she’s won the Best Elected for the fourth year in a row for the new times Best of poll. So that’s awesome.

Jordan Hamm:

Yeah, super excited for her.

Ashlea Boyer:

She’s currently serving her second term as mayor of San Luis Obispo. And just a little bit of background about Heidi. She’s an active experienced community organizer, climate change activist, public speaker with a track record of success impacting positive change through coalition building, policy advocacy, and public education. She’s a fact oriented supporter and consensus builder with a consistent ability to engage, inform, persuade, and connect with diverse audiences. She is a long time committed volunteer and leader dedicated to public service and focused on the big picture. So let’s welcome in Heidi. Hey.

Heidi Harmon:

Hello.

Shannon Bowdey:

Hey.

Jordan Hamm:

Alright. So we are so excited you’re here. We wanted to have you on as a guest for many reasons, not the least of which is the moment in history we are experiencing. The crossroads of 100 year worldwide pandemic and an uprising like those of the 1960s shining a bright light on race relations in our country. What is it like being a female in leadership in this moment in time when our country and our culture is so divided?

Heidi Harmon:

Well thank you for that beautifully stated question. It’s actually been, I think without question, the hardest few months of my life. And I know that’s not unique to me or people in leadership, everyone is struggling. But to be in a position of leadership, I would say, is particularly challenging especially when so much of what’s going on is really unclear. And so having to try and make decisions based on the best information that you have when you have it is challenging. And I think humans in general, but I would suggest that probably Americans in particular, really have a hard time. We have a hard time with … we want certainty. I mean humans do, especially, but it’s really not a part of our culture to sort of dwell in ambiguities or to have a more nuanced conversation about things.

And especially now, as you sort of noted in your question, the divisiveness. We’ve really lost an ability to have conversations across difference and so people really want something that feels certain even if it … they feel like certainty creates security and I think that’s something that we all would do well to recognize those two things are not the same. A lot of things we’re certain about or we have the perception of certainty about are not things that are going to actually create more security for us at all. And so it’s actually been a time of great challenge and difficulty and as is always the case in those moments in our lives, it’s also been a time of incredible learning for me and also meaning making. And it’s really invited me to recommit in really big and substantial ways.

My commitment to, first of all, my self and my own integrity and authenticity and to this community and to the big issues that I have always been inspired by and that I have always folded into the work I’m doing. So obviously COVID has created an incredibly unique set of circumstances. And then as you noted what I feel like is such a powerful, needed, and beautiful and also challenging uprising. And to balance all of those things is difficult. And so one of the things I am wanting to help the community understand that leadership, in my opinion, is a verb. So not all electeds are leaders.

Sometimes people will say, “Well, let’s look to local leadership.” And I think that’s also something to be discerning about. To me leadership is very active. It’s an action. And I want to just remind people that people can stand up for justice and for jobs. People can march in the streets to accept the invitation that we’re being called to for justice and show up for local small business. It’s not a time … the culture wants it to be about either or, but I think it’s really not that. It’s a yes and. And so not everyone is ready to hear that, but that’s the message that I’m trying to really cultivate in this community.

Jordan Hamm:

I love that.

Shannon Bowdey:

Wonderful. Okay. My question, I have a two part question.

Heidi Harmon:

Okay.

Shannon Bowdey:

One of the reasons why we really like you is you aren’t afraid to take a stand, use your platform and following to be a voice. But what are the consequences? And would you say being a recipient of a fair amount of criticism is worth making your voice being heard?

Heidi Harmon:

Wow. These are the best, most important questions I’ve been asked ever.

Shannon Bowdey:

Yay.

Ashlea Boyer:

And by the way some of the things people feel like they can say from their keyboard these days, I’m just constantly shocked at what people will say so.

Heidi Harmon:

I call it, it’s the keyboard cowards. Right? It’s easy for anyone to do that from the privacy of their own home and especially if they’re anonymous or essentially anonymous. Right? It’s a much different thing, as you’re noting, to not be anonymous at all but instead be incredibly public and still make a stand. Right? That you have to be accountable for and take the consequences of so to speak. It’s funny, it doesn’t feel like a choice to me, honestly, in a lot of ways. I mean it’s very intentional or I try and be intentional in the work that I do. And I’ve definitely had a lot of reflection and struggle through, especially the issues around policing specifically and trying to grapple with what I think we’re all grappling with. But in our case in San Luis Obispo city, our chief does a great job and she’s built a lot of really positive relationships with the community and that’s real. And what’s also real is that policing has a lot of systemic issues that need to be addressed and so how do we address all those things?

And so taking a stance on a lot of that has been incredibly difficult. And to be honest, in terms of the impacts that you’re asking about, it is questionable as to whether it’s worth it some days. I feel like my health, I feel it in my body, like the stress and the emotional and psychological impact of what the repercussions of taking a stand in this moment have been immense. And I have definitely had days where I wasn’t clear at all that it was worth it, where my parents actually have even been concerned about me and encouraging me that maybe it’s time to move on, “To get a real job,” as they would say. I mean they’re proud of me, but on top of everything else this job doesn’t really pay in a significant way. So it adds complexities to my life.

But in the end, I’m 50 this year. And so I think something about getting older too, I feel a stronger sense of trust in the process and knowing that what’s always true in life is that these downtimes don’t last either. And I feel like as long as I truly believe to the best of my ability that I’ve done the right thing, then I can live with that. What I can’t live with is not doing the right thing and then maybe not have any negative repercussions about it. That’s not what I came here to do. So I have sort of a big life in politics, I would say. I take a lot of stances, I’m very public, I’m very actively engaged with the community. And so I get a lot of positive feedback too, but because of that bigness I also receive a lot of the vitriol. And then you asked about the specifics of being female, that just amplifies all of that. I think people, and especially men in general, feel like they can talk to me in ways they would never talk to men.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yes.

Shannon Bowdey:

Yeah.

Jordan Hamm:

So true.

Heidi Harmon:

Yeah.

Ashlea Boyer:

I was watching a video yesterday of a man having a, let’s just call it a major meltdown at Food for Less in Paso. And it was pointed out by one of our public community leaders that he yelled at the female store manager even. I mean just saying reprehensible things to her, but when the male security guard walked up to him he immediately went into apology mode and apologetic and moving towards the door and doing exactly what she had been asking him quite calmly to do. And it was that whole he feels he can do that because she’s a she and as soon as he was confronted by the male it was a different authority figure altogether. It was just incredible, that dichotomy still so.

Heidi Harmon:

Yeah. And I definitely come to my work from the feminine, I would say, and that’s something that’s just integral to who I am. But it’s also something that I feel is essential in this moment to balance out the masculine, and these gender terms are really limited and conversations around gender are really changing. But with these limited terms to have more care, connection, communication, and nurturing and all of those things I think are essential. We need those and so I don’t shy away from that more feminine approach. And so I think I get maybe even more of that. It’s a lot of things are happening here that I have a powerful presence, but it is also coming from the feminine. And so I think for some men that’s hard for them to understand.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah, yeah.

Shannon Bowdey:

Yeah.

Ashlea Boyer:

Well then on another equally or very prevalent topic of late, what does the Black Lives Matter movement mean to you and to our local area? And how do you think it’s affecting or has been affecting our local economy?

Heidi Harmon:

This has just been, this whole country is built on racism. I really try and communicate in a way that people can hear and so I’ve been trying to figure out another way to say that and I just don’t think there is one. And so it’s just been interwoven since the beginning. So for the last 400 years this has been in many ways sort of the, maybe distant at times, but still the heartbeat of this country in many ways and the major unresolved original wound of this country. And people want to keep sort of pushing it down and pushing it down and it’s just sort of like that beach ball idea. You push it down and you can push it down for a while, but inevitably it’s going to pop right up and it’s going to pop right up in your face is what’s going to happen.

And so that’s a little bit of what we’re experiencing now and for reasons that I feel like I understand and reasons that I don’t really. For whatever reason, this time I think really does feel different. I’ve always been concerned about, supportive of, talking about, wanting to around diversity and equity. But actually what have we actually done? And I think part of it is because I always feel like, “Well, what is that thing that we should be doing?” And now I just feel like we just have to take this on head on and it’s the right thing to do. And part of that deepening for me is that I’ve really, over the course of this movement, really been able to build relationships with some of the leadership especially the young people.

And I come to my work from a very maternal orientation in the first place. And so I feel the relationships I’ve built with these young students remind me of the phrase that I think is so important to keep in mind and that is that there is no such thing as other people’s children. And these students, I feel like I would protect them with my life. I feel very emotional talking about it and that’s really deepened it for me. And it’s just way past time for us to engage on this. And as I said it’s the moral and ethical thing to do period, and that should be enough and is enough.

But what’s also true is that the lack of diversity in San Luis Obispo is one of the, if not, the main limiter to our real economic vitality here. We see ourselves and are a burgeoning innovation and technology hub here, but there is no innovation technology hub in the world that doesn’t have a diverse community. Those two things go hand in hand. And so if we want to be an economically vital community, and we do, then we need to embrace diversity for those reasons as well.

Jordan Hamm:

I agree.

Shannon Bowdey:

Yeah. Okay. Alright. Given the week we’ve had with revisions and the stage we are in reopening, what is the city council doing or what is the council doing to assist businesses in their economic recovery?

Heidi Harmon:

So there are a lot of efforts that the council is involved in and then also, I would say, local regional partners, like reach if you’re familiar. So it’s not even countywide it’s multi-county wide efforts to really engage in big picture ways on economic vitality. And luckily, in some regard now, this effort was well on its way before COVID. The closure of Diablo Canyon really created a strong awareness that, “Okay, we’re very reliant on Diablo in terms of our economic prosperity and we need to make sure that we have a transition plan.” And so a lot of these conversations have already been well underway and so we’re really, in many ways, hitting the ground running in those big picture ideas. And the local small business and the SPDC, they’re doing beautiful work really helping facilitate people accessing loans. And also not just loans, but real mentoring in how to traverse this moment for small business.

And then the city of San Luis Obispo itself, our Economic Development Director is working constantly all day answering those one off questions for businesses because this moving back and forth has been very confusing for people. So really helping people understand what is happening, what can happen, and then within those constraints let’s reimagine what can happen. Can we move some of the wellness businesses out to our parks or even parking lots and things like that? What unusual creative things can we come up with?

And I think a good example of that is our Open Slow Program. So we’ve closed off part of the downtown and now have been really very swiftly building parklets all over the place. And that didn’t … we’re constantly learning and changing, closing the streets ended up not being the most ideal so we’re leaving that piece behind and just now focusing on the parklets. In addition to looking at the potential of having funding mechanisms potentially in the future that we might be able to create a loan or grant program for small businesses. And that would mostly be associated with our Slow Forward Ballot Initiative that will be on the ballot this year too. So looking at asking the voters, do they want to create an extra source of funding to support small business and other infrastructure projects in the city? So there’s a lot of conversation going on about our local economy in this moment.

Ashlea Boyer:

Does that kind of look like a micro grant program? Is that sort of what that Flow Forward would look like?

Heidi Harmon:

That’s not developed yet. Slow Forward is a small increase in our sales tax that would create a bigger funding mechanism to pay for some of the actual infrastructure that cities always need and really to retain and maintain what is special about San Luis Obispo. And that includes retaining and maintaining some of our small businesses. So these are some of the ideas, that particular one isn’t solidified yet. But that’s the kind of thing we’re trying to create and figure out how we can fund those types of things. Because the challenge is cities are also being financially really hit hard too. There’s a lot of output and a significant reduced input so we’re all trying to figure out creative ways that we can get through this and with a shared prosperity.

Shannon Bowdey:

Wonderful, thank you.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yes, it’s so important to pivot. And maybe the street closure didn’t work, but I love the parklet idea so we’ll definitely be coming and visiting so.

Heidi Harmon:

Yeah. It’s really, it’s going to evolve. Right now there’s a temporary nature to a lot of it, but we’re committing to the downtown businesses that they can have that up for a year regardless of the ebb and flow of COVID. Although I think we’re all kind of preparing ourselves that the next year is probably going to be very COVID heavy in terms of what’s happening in our lives. So hopefully they will consider investing a little bit and making the aesthetics of all of that really beautiful and inviting for folks.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah. That’s awesome.

Shannon Bowdey:

Thank you.

Ashlea Boyer:

Well, thank you so much for-

Shannon Bowdey:

Yeah.

Jordan Hamm:

Thank you Heidi. This has been so great. We just truly appreciate your time and know that you have to run to an emergency council online meeting, but our audience really appreciates getting to know you and your perspectives a little bit better.

Heidi Harmon:

Thank you so much and thank you for the opportunity.

Jordan Hamm:

Yeah.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah. Awesome. Thanks Heidi. We’ll be tuning in tonight for your meeting with Bettina. I love Bettina.

Heidi Harmon:

Yeah, she’s great.

Ashlea Boyer:

She is awesome.

Heidi Harmon:

She is super super.

Shannon Bowdey:

So you’re a 1970s baby as well?

Heidi Harmon:

Well, 1969.

Shannon Bowdey:

Okay. Okay, yeah.

Heidi Harmon:

Right at the tail end there in September.

Ashlea Boyer:

Ah. Well Shannon just celebrated 50.

Heidi Harmon:

Oh, you did? Oh, Happy birthday.

Shannon Bowdey:

Thank you.

Ashlea Boyer:

And then Michael is turning 50 in about a week so yeah, you’re in good company.

Heidi Harmon:

Michael is my new best friend and confidant.

Shannon Bowdey:

Wonderful.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah, he-

Heidi Harmon:

I appreciate him so much. Yeah.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah. He’s definitely … I’m excited for him because a lot of these topics he just really hasn’t … I think that is the case with most people of color, they just don’t talk a lot about it but now people want to hear it. That’s the most important and impressive thing I think that’s happening that’s changed for the better is that people are asking him to tell his stories so.

Heidi Harmon:

Well I just talked to him today or yesterday. I’m working with some venture capitalist people that have resources and know how and we are working. I mean we have a whole strategic plan in the works of how to invite and support more black owned specifically, but just minority owned businesses here in San Luis Obispo. And they’re committed to it so I just asked Michael if he wanted to participate. So I think-

Ashlea Boyer:

That sounds awesome.

Heidi Harmon:

-there’s something happening that hasn’t happened before, at least that I haven’t experienced.

Ashlea Boyer:

Yeah.

Heidi Harmon:

I think some actual, meaningful, concrete things are going to come from all of this so.

Ashlea Boyer:

I agree. I agree. Awesome. Alright, well thank you Heidi.

Heidi Harmon:

Thank you guys for this opportunity. Okay. Bye.

Ashlea Boyer:

Bye.

Shannon Bowdey:

Bye.

Jordan Hamm:

Bye.

Ashlea Boyer:

This is Ashlea Boyer-

Jordan Hamm:

-Jordan Hamm-

Shannon Bowdey:

-and Shannon Bowdey-

All:

-with the Pismo Beach Homes team.

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