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I Walked in a Fashion Show Instead of Going to City Council and I Regret Nothing

Balancing Advocacy and Personal Life

At a Brand New Affordable Housing Development in Morro Bay, CA

I didn’t tell anyone I wouldn’t make it to city council that night. Folks simply spoke with the assumption that I would be there, and I didn’t correct them. Is that a lie by omission? Probably. 

I promise I had planned to go. It was a major study session on homelessness and how providing a range of housing types could help reduce prices. It was one of those rare positive meetings that helps outweigh all the negative ones. Plus, all my co-conspirators were going too, like a very boring party for housing nerds to send snarky and/or encouraging texts to each other, except the things we said out loud were going on public record. And someone (probably me) might be caught eye-rolling in the background.

Those are the meetings I look forward to, part of one long inside joke that grows with age. Yet, as soon as my friend invited me to strut down a local catwalk that conflicted with this meeting, I dropped that joke like a hot potato. 

I have been showing up to public meetings for over five years now. Long ones. Boring ones. I’ve told my stories and those of others so many times I can write them in my sleep, pleading with appointed bureaucrats to see our situation for what it is. I’ve left my three young children and my husband at many a weeknight dinner table to traipse across seven cities, hoping that by being one of the few positive voices in the room, I could encourage others to speak up too, and together, we could leave this place better than we found it.

I did it all for free, and I am tired.

You see, unlike many of my colleagues in this space, I didn’t get a degree in city planning, or find myself fascinated with trains at a young age. I just saw a problem that no one in my community seemed to be fixing. In-between feeding my picky kids and trying to “get my steps in” each day, I started finding pieces of the puzzle  - a book, a webinar, a few articles here and there. The more I looked around at the landscape, the clearer it became that there was no single entity dedicated to a more affordable Central Coast. I had never even so much as walked a precinct for a candidate, but here I was, finding like-minded people on Nextdoor, hosting meetings in my living room, and punching my public comment card on a weekly basis. 

Archived footage of me missing dinner

My introverted, creative side has been more or less neglected these last five years, but I don’t regret any of it. I have learned so much about what it means to be a good neighbor and an engaged citizen through this “learn by doing” advocacy. I have seen neighbors move into developments that I spoke in favor of. I’ve watched people give their very first public comments to help make our town more welcoming and safe. Cities have passed meaningful laws because of testimony my new friends and I have given. The world looks fundamentally different from how I saw it five years ago. I even got a pretty sweet job out of it, for a bit. All the while, my kids have grown taller and my paints gathered dust. 

I stepped into this void not only because it was the right thing to do, but because I had the privilege of showing up; being a stay-at-home parent enabled me to do the work that people with day jobs couldn’t. As I said “Yes” to more calls and opportunities, I got a front-row seat to learn just how much better things could be, but also the pitfalls of the systems we’re wading through - namely, that lasting change requires more than just energetic hands for the harvest. It needs short-term goals, long-term vision, and a pipeline of people that stretches beyond our lifetimes. 

To be sure, 90% of the game really is just showing up and giving your two cents. But when the same department sends me the same email asking me the same questions they did last year, I start to wonder if they’re listening or just checking boxes for grant applications. No, I don’t need to join your Zoom call to discuss “innovative solutions” to the housing shortage; per my last e-mail, the answers to that problem already exist, and now those in power need to make choices. An elected official once insisted that “they need my expertise” to solve the housing problems. You mean, the expertise I got from a curated Twitter feed and reading a few library books? Isn’t that what they hire planners for?

Like any white-collar employee will tell you, most meetings should be e-mails. Moreover, most of them don’t need half as many CC’s as they're currently getting, true for any corporation as it is for the government. If I show up to a stakeholder meeting on homelessness, but some of the attendees have gone on record opposing anything over three stories tall, I’d like to know what we think we’re accomplishing here. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course, but we don’t need to take up taxpayer dollars and hours of staff time pretending those opinions are relevant. At least, not if we actually want to solve problems. We can make space for public comment without letting every Negative Nancy and Reactionary Richard hijack the town hall. Those charged with testing the waters of community sentiments should ask residents for descriptive, rather than prescriptive, input. If we get bogged down in asking ordinary people to be experts in anything other than their own experience, our short-term victories will get lost in a kabuki theater version of government, where the ultimate goal is to merely “host a dialogue,” instead of materially improving society.

I didn’t step up just to hear my own voice and get caught in the revolving doors of government and nonprofits. I wanted to be part of a solution, then go back to my life.

So yeah, when I got the chance to wear cute dresses and sip cocktails with my husband - instead of experiencing another city council de ja vu - I jumped at it. I’m not the only person in this community with a working mouth and reasonable intellect. Even if I were, an essential part of advocacy is creating the apparatus that I’d leave behind if I suddenly couldn’t do it anymore. In any small town, human talent isn’t always in abundance, but what makes it worse is people who once had enough energy to use that talent refusing to step aside, preventing the next generation from stepping up. That’s part of why Americans find ourselves looking at the oldest Congress and the oldest Presidents we’ve ever had. When established leaders eventually age, or get preoccupied, there should be at least three other people waiting to take up their work, but most importantly, they need to actually hand it off. No one wants to be the guy with the hook, pulling someone off stage who clearly wants to be there. If I didn't leave a void, how else would someone be compelled to fill it? 

I don’t know if Hollywood or social media has done this to us, or it’s just another silly human trick, but I think we’ve become too enamored with the idea of “The Political Hero,” a lone voice crying in the wilderness, swooping in with their hot takes or a single vote that sways an outcome forever. For good and for evil, change most often comes from the quiet cascade of dominoes set in motion years ago, by a team of ordinary people, in lots of boring meetings. Just like most inventions aren’t the result of a single genius, who takes an idea from zero to sixty all on their own, our political reality is the result of a non-linear group project known as American Democracy. There are few if any heroes, and if there were, I doubt it would still be democracy.

I’ve no need for heroism. That’s why I look at the trajectory of my core issues, at all levels of government, and start to breathe a little easier. Cities are at least pretending to care about housing and homelessness. Some are having actual success at putting roofs over heads. State governments across the country are considering zoning and parking reforms. This presidential election may actually be decided by how the average voter feels about housing costs. The world is waking up to how important the built environment actually is, for multiple reasons, and it feels like the winds are tentatively blowing in our favor.

I didn’t do that on my own; I found an open seat on the boat and started rowing in the same direction as thousands of other people. The fate of the housing crisis doesn’t rest solely on my shoulders, and it never has. I was lucky enough to be in the right place, at the right time, and to have enough stability in my life that I could step into roles that needed filling. Ultimately, though, those roles should become products of a bygone era, replaced with effective government that doesn’t require a handful of principled and privileged people to be everywhere, at all times. The pinnacle of success for anyone organizing for change shouldn’t be louder microphones, but obsolescence.

With housing costs at record highs, we’re obviously not there yet. Until we are, I will find a rhythm of engagement that is sustainable for my heart and family. I’ll keep sharing the load with a good team, even if it means tasks are set aside longer than we’d like. The work is good and I’m glad we’re doing it, but at the end of the day, the best thing that could happen to us?

Going out of business.

Krista Jeffries is a Partner Writer for Resident Urbanist. Originally from Virginia Beach she is a married mother of three currently living on California’s Central Coast. Her many adventures have taken her to healthcare, public art, housing advocacy, and four countries on three continents. She currently serves on the board of the local Housing Authority and is one of the founding members of SLO County YIMBY. She has previously written for the San Luis Obispo Tribune and New Times San Luis Obispo. You can follow her on the website formerly known as Twitter.

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