With an “I Hate Mornings” mug in tow, Erica Stewart talked with Mustang News about her life as the mayor of San Luis Obispo — and how she got here.
Stewart, a Black Cal Poly alumna, described going to her hometown six hours away just to get her hair done when she was a student. When she began working in San Luis Obispo after graduation, Stewart said she found a place that was closer: four hours away.
“That took me out of the community,” Stewart said.
After choosing to attend Cal Poly – because it was just far enough from her parents’ home in the Bay Area – she quickly learned about the lack of diversity in SLO, and how that’s harmed the community.
Since being unanimously appointed as mayor last fall, Stewart has made diversity issues one of the biggest components of her platform. Now, running in the 2022 election to keep her seat, Stewart aims to continue working on that issue, and more.
“Cal Poly shaped me as a young person and gave me so many opportunities that I never ever thought I would have,” Stewart said. “I’m not always Cal Poly proud, but I am really pleased that I went here and went through those.”
Stewart simultaneously works as the assistant marketing director for Campus Health and Wellbeing. At Cal Poly, Stewart said she is pleased to see that some major changes are occurring to increase diversity on the campus.
“I think they are trying to pay attention to the need to change when it comes to diversity,” Stewart said. “It takes some economic pains. There was a point where these pretty big businesses told Dr. Armstrong, ‘We love your students. We’d love that they are ready on day one, except for when they come into our space.’”
Stewart has noticed that, in the past, Cal Poly students have gone into the workforce with an unusual lack of experience with people who do not come from the same background as them.
“They’re like, ‘Whoa, who are all these different types of people?’ We need people who have diverse backgrounds or different exposure to criticism,” Stewart said. “Changing a majority white school for decades is not going to happen overnight.”
For students who may feel lost, Stewart said she suggests looking for people who share a similar background or relate to their experiences.
Diversity is not the only issue that Stewart is passionate about. She sees a massive unhoused population and a growing housing problem across the community. Mental health concerns, climate change and transportation issues are on her mind as well.
“Housing and homelessness, while they’re intertwined, are also completely separate because of the complicated issues that bring someone to become homeless,” Stewart said. “Health care and mental health are two things that the city doesn’t provide effectively.”
Stewart’s previous elected office was as Cal Poly’s student body president. In the years since, she has walked through many stages of life. She has a family, is involved in the PTA and was a soccer mom. She also opened a bakery in the back of a coffee shop.
But she said she hasn’t always wanted to lead the city.
“I love my community,” Stewart said. “It just got to the point where I felt like people were so disrespectful, not caring about each other. I wanted to see a change in that flow. I actually didn’t desire to be elected to office ever again.”
Stewart has experienced a vast range of what it means to be a SLO community member, which is how she realized what being a SLO city council member could be like.
“Really seeing all the different experiences of the community actually is what we needed,” Stewart said. “I have lived the life of a normal person. That’s when I said ‘Let’s do it.’”