Erica Stewart, previous vice mayor of San Luis Obispo, was recently appointed mayor following former mayor Heidi Harmon’s resignation on Sept. 21. The city council voted unanimously to instate Stewart as mayor.
Stewart is a Cal Poly alumna, who attended the university from 1990-1995. She began as a food science major and eventually switched to home economics with a foods concentration before the program was cut.
“My plan was really not to go to a four-year college,” Stewart said. “I wanted to go to culinary school and be a chef. So, for me, my entire world got rocked by coming to Cal Poly.”
After getting involved in Cal Poly’s Student Affairs and Associated Students, Inc. (ASI), Stewart said she discovered her passion for leadership.
On-campus, she was hired as a store manager for “Juice Club,” known today as Jamba Juice.
“That showed me that I love training and I loved being involved in helping people,” Stewart said. “I [also love] making things smooth and efficient and not costly, or at least, less costly.”
After her time at Cal Poly, she then went on to the University of San Francisco (USF) to begin working on her master’s in public administration in 1998, attending the university on and off and graduating in 2004.
Stewart said it was a project in her master’s program at USF, in which students had to study the budget of a city, that sparked her interest in the management of San Luis Obispo.
“I always knew that [San Luis Obispo manages] our money well, but being able to see how we manage our money conservatively — and that equaled us able to provide more services and products in the long run — was a really cool experience because that financial stability that the city cared about is something that is now still something that the city cares about, you know, fast forward 17 years,” Stewart said.
Stewart has served numerous job titles in the human resources field, such as Chief Operating Officer, Human Resource Manager and Benefits Operator, all while being a dedicated mother in her sons’ lives.
“Then on the volunteer side, you know I’m a mom of two boys, 22 and 17, and so, in their life, I tried to help out as a volunteer and all their different passions,” Stewart said.
She said she would fundraise for the schools her sons attended, helping other students who could not afford field trip costs, new books or travel expenses for soccer tournaments.
“I started really finding that I don’t love sales, but I do like fundraising when it comes to helping something I have a passion for,” she said.
Fueling this passion, Stewart took a position at Cal Poly as the Director of Parent and Student Philanthropy, yet found that position to be too travel intensive.
Stewart then stepped into the role she currently holds at the university as the Assistant Director for Personnel and Marketing at Campus Health and Wellbeing. Now that Stewart is mayor, she has switched from working in this role full-time to only working three quarters of the year.
Stewart’s appointment as mayor comes as a historic moment for San Luis Obispo, as she has become the first black mayor to ever serve the city.
“I think especially as a young person, when you’re looking at ‘What am I going to be when I grow up?’ — and you can see that with Barack Obama with Kamala Harris — you could be in that role. Before then, it wasn’t really a vision that you could see,” Stewart said. “I think, that’s that part, that by just being in the role sometimes helps people to know that this is a space for you too now.”
Stewart said that, at a lunch she had recently attended, a woman approached her saying that her 20-year-old daughter wanted to meet Stewart because she did not see many people like her.
“I shouldn’t be a unicorn,” Stewart said when reflecting on the encounter.
As Michelle Shoresman fills Stewart’s San Luis Obispo City Council seat, the council remains entirely female.
“I’ve had some comments of, ‘Well you know you really need some men, that’s a lot all women,’ and to me, I look back to — wait how many decades have we had all men?” Stewart said. “I think there’s a real ability to make a difference and see a difference, and have young people be able to see that they can be in this space later. I think it’s really important.”
Stewart also shared some of the major city goals that the council and office are working towards, one area being that of diversity, equity and inclusion.
“There’s a big passion and big desire to make change and help people feel more welcome and help people know that they belong here and that being anyone and everyone from every background,” Stewart said.
Stewart was a member of the city’s first DEI Task Force formed last year and is currently working on a search for a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion department head.
The DEI task force aimed to ensure that everyone feels they have a place in San Luis Obispo by addressing barriers to that in the city.
“This is a wonderful, beautiful place, but yet if you don’t feel welcome, you want to get out,” Stewart said.
She discussed the homelessness and housing issues in San Luis Obispo, and said that they are focusing on creating more affordable housing and improving wraparound services, which include mental health needs, healthcare needs, food access and jobs.
Stewart also serves on the board of directors of the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo (CAPSLO) and is hoping to dispel some of the myths surrounding substance abuse resources.
Stewart said she is passionate about educating individuals about resources for homelessness, saying that there is misinformation about the issue in the city.
She said she also prioritizes helping small businesses stay afloat, which make up about 80% of San Luis Obispo Chamber’s business members, according to Stewart
Additionally, Stewart shared that multimodal transportation, sustainability climate action and open space is a major city goal.
“To create more housing, as we have to look at infill, we have to look at density. That’s something that not everyone wants to look at,” Stewart said. “Finding that balance and helping people understand like, we can grow, but we also are not looking at growing by 10% a year or anything wild. We’re looking at growing still within the 1%.”
Along with moving forward on these major city goals, Stewart said that she hopes community members, especially the younger generation, try to get more involved in the city discourse.
“I really want to make sure that the people’s voice of this whole community continues to be heard and acted upon,” Stewart said.