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Benefield: Class of ‘90 Santa Rosa grad makes history in San Luis Obispo

Erica Stewart recalls heading off to college at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo in the early 1990s as a shy, self-described nerd whose only time in the spotlight was singing in Santa Rosa High’s vaunted choral program.

But when Stewart, then Erica Brown, moved south to San Luis Obispo, something changed. A new friend introduced her around her dorm. Stewart ended up running, and winning, the race to be president of her residence hall.

She was soon elevated to a leadership position among all residence hall presidents and then ran for student body president of the entire 16,000-student campus.

Campaigning on a platform touting plans of, “Helping the students help themselves,” Stewart won. She became only the second Black person in the school’s history to win the presidential race. (Stewart is quick to note that there hasn’t been another in the 25-plus years that have passed since her election).

Her gifts were no longer hidden.

“My persona of this dorky person who looked weird in junior high and high school didn’t follow me here,” she said, laughing. “People just assumed I was a normal person. I didn’t get looked at like a dorky weirdo, and I just rose to the occasion.”

Her rise has seemingly continued ever since.

She was elected president of the Cal Poly Alumni Association, then elected to the San Luis Obispo City Council on her first try in 2018.

This month, she was named mayor of the city of 47,000 people after the former mayor stepped down.

Stewart, who is assistant director for personnel and marketing for Cal Poly’s health and well-being program, is the first Black to serve as mayor in the city’s history.

“There are moments when it’s, ‘Oh wow, I’m the mayor,’” she said. “And then there are moments when I’m like, ‘What?’ It doesn’t sink in...It kind of comes and goes. Really processing that has been a little overwhelming.”

Having first explored running for citywide office after the election of former President Donald Trump, Stewart signed up for a leadership-training program with Emerge California, a group that helps train Democratic women to run for office.

She was eyeing a bid in 2020, but an unexpected opening on the council in 2018 made her jump.

“It was, ‘OK, I’m going to get involved,’” she said.

Like her hometown, San Luis Obispo struggles with lack of affordable housing, transportation issues and diversity and representation.

The city is nearly 84% white. Just 2% of residents are Black and about 4% say they, like Stewart, are two or more races.

“We’ve definitely got some massive diversity challenges,” she said.

And living in San Luis Obispo, like Santa Rosa, is expensive.

The median value of an owner occupied house is $643,000, according to U.S. Census date. By comparison, that number is $540,600 in Santa Rosa.

Stewart said the city’s push to go climate neutral by 2030 is front and center for the council, as are affordable housing pushes, campaigns to get residents out of their cars and increased water conservation.

And like Santa Rosa, dealing with those experiencing homelessness is a huge issue in San Luis Obispo, Stewart said.

“We had a 27% increase at the last point in time count,” she said.

As mayor, Stewart said she has the ability to “set the tone.” The city is not structured in a strong mayor format, but Stewart said her leadership lies in making people feel heard and bringing people together.

“’Powerful’ comes in all of us coming together,” she said.

And that truly means all, she said.

Holding various posts in town and with different organizations, Stewart said she’s tried to raise the bar and elevate the conversation to include everyone.

“We are such a small community,” she said. “I have to raise my hand and say, ‘But, hey, have we talked about diversity?’ Now it’s being done without me having to raise my hand because I’m in the room.”

Stewart, who is married and a mother of two kids, recalls what it felt like growing up Rincon Valley, being one of the few Black girls in her neighborhood, in her classes and in her social circles.

“Living in Santa Rosa, the majority of my life was in Rincon Valley, being one of the few African Americans,” she said. “I wasn’t athletic, I wasn’t outgoing, I was smart but not in all the (advanced placement) classes.”

“I wasn’t from a rich family,” she said. “I felt out of place in every way, shape and form.”

That has shaped the way she leads today.

“More people feel comfortable telling me their opinion and thoughts, like ‘You might have experienced this,too,’” she said. “It helps us keep asking questions that need to be asked.”

Appointed earlier this month, Stewart said she is pretty sure she’ll run for mayor in 2022.

Three decades ago, Stewart arrived in San Luis Obispo still trying to figure things, and herself, out. Those days are gone. She knows her purpose.

“I feel like giving back is what I’m supposed to do with my life,” she said. “I feel it’s what I’m supposed to do.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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