Only a few months into her term, San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon is making changes from City Hall. For the first time, the mayor is backed by a team of interns from Cal Poly, working on everything from housing reform to immigration policies.
Harmon said the need for interns began when she realized she had more ideas for the community than hours to accomplish them. While hundreds of people work for the city, Harmon doesn’t have any staff that report directly to her.
“I run the council meetings and I am supposed to be at ribbon cuttings,” Harmon said. “That’s basically all that is delineated in the city charter for my job.”
With flexibility in her duties as mayor, Harmon saw student interns as a way to bring young people into the political process and give them the opportunity to help create tangible change.
“It’s one thing to have a lot of ideas, but obviously I can’t implement to [the] highest level on my own,” Harmon said. “My interns are really great for that.”
The mayor’s nine interns work on projects ranging from implementing a program in which Harmon walks with residents from every neighborhood as a form of community outreach, to researching ways to handle housing shortages. Cal Poly interns also review the backgrounds of people Harmon meets with, manage Harmon’s outreach efforts and keep up with policies being implemented in surrounding cities.
“You have a lot of agency in what you do,” philosophy sophomore Jacob Watson said. “You are actually affecting real issues.”
The student interns primarily work virtually, but meet with Harmon and city staff periodically to discuss the projects they are assigned.
Political science sophomore Lindsey Wallace applied for the internship after a professor sparked her interest in local government.
“When I interviewed with Mayor Harmon, I saw that she actually cares and wants to make positive change in the city,” Wallace said. “That gave me a lot of hope and inspired me to apply.”
Liberal arts and engineering studies junior Bryce Fauble became friends with Harmon while campaigning for Bernie Sanders in the primary elections. After she was elected mayor, he reached out and has been working with Harmon ever since.
At the forefront of all the interns’ minds is improving the relationship between Cal Poly students and the city — one they say is rapidly improving.
“Sometimes it feels like the city wants to push us out,” Watson said. “Mayor Harmon wanted to combat that viewpoint. It is starting to feel more like we are all SLO residents now.”
While Harmon says she’s ecstatic to be mayor, she admits the job is more of a paid volunteer position.
“We are all engaged because we care,” Harmon said. “I feel like an intern myself, really!”