For this episode, host Lia Howard is joined by Ellen Kamei, a Penn alumnus and former mayor of the city of Mountain View. Kamei has spent most of her career in public service, especially focusing on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. With a multicultural and community centered background, Kamei shares with her experiences with community, support, and influence as a public service member.
Excerpts from Edited Transcript
Dr. Lia Howard: Welcome to the Park podcast, where dialogue across difference is vital to community wellness. I’m Dr. Lia Howard, your host in the space where open dialogue, the free exchange of ideas, and civil and robust expression of divergent views is valued. Here we will explore the research, practical applications, and benefits of effective, ethical and civil dialogue in a diverse world. We hope to model respectful conversation that accurately and authentically frames contentious issues hoping to reach an ideologically diverse audience.
Gen-Z is remarkable in terms of their social activism. Before they could vote, many had already participated in protest marches, letter and social media campaigns and outspoken advocacy around issues they are passionate about. Direct action can be empowering and marching with others can produce strong feelings of cohesiveness and connection around shared ideals. And at the same time, social and political change can be slow and advocacy without results can be deeply discouraging, especially if the issues at hand are essential. How do we care for ourselves? During the slow, challenging work of social change? This series interviews Penn alumni working to change some of America’s most intractable social problems. To ask them how are they taking care of themselves so they can sustain their fight on behalf of others? It examines the intellectual, social and contemplative practices that leaders in the arena of social change are embracing to inform their work, offering examples and real world experiences.
This series speaks to current Penn undergrads hoping to better understand their own social action with integrative and sustaining practices. We are so delighted to host Ellen Kamei, a former mayor of the city of Mountain View, who has spent most of her career in public service, especially focusing on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.
In 2018, she served her first term on city council, where she worked hard for citizens during COVID 19. This past November, she won reelection to city council. She has roots in her community as a third generation Mountain View resident, and she’s a full time working mom. Ellen, welcome.
Ellen Kamei: Thank you so much for having me.
Dr. Lia Howard: Could you tell us a bit about your career journey since you left Penn? What drew you to a career in public service, working for change at the local level?
Ellen Kamei: Well, when I graduated from the Fels Institute of Government at Penn, I had applied to two fellowship programs that I thought would be a really great way for me to decide what I wanted to do next. And one of them was the Presidential Management Fellowship, known as PMF. And then I also applied for the International City-County Management Program (ICMA) as a local government management fellowship, and it was down to an East Coast city and a West Coast city, my California native. And it brought me back home to California and specifically the Bay Area region. So I felt really fortunate to be able to move back and started with a mid-size city, then worked in county government. I worked for the California State Assembly and then worked as a government affairs professional for a large Fortune 100 company. So it’s been the full evolution. And what’s really spurred my love of public service is Santa Clara County, which consists of 15 cities, and the Bay Area was the former feminist capital of the world. I’m not sure if people know that it’s kind of maybe something that is a sleeper. But we had more female elected officials in our county than anywhere else in the nineties. And so I always saw women getting things, Diane being involved. So it also felt natural for me to think about being on the other side of the discussion and not just on the administration side.
Dr. Lia Howard: Ellen, That’s so wonderful to hear about the feminist roots of your county. That’s really, really great. Can you describe the issue areas where you’re working for change? I see you serve on the following city council committees. Again, this might change with your new appointment, but the council appointment for review committee, the Council of Race, Equity and Inclusion Ad Hoc Subcommittee, which you are the chair, the Council for Transportation Committee, the Council Youth Service Committee, where you’re also the chair.So where are you looking to implement social change within these areas and what other areas are you passionate about?
Ellen Kamei: When I moved back to the Bay Area, I actually ended up living with my grandfather in Mountain View. My grandmother went into a nursing home and my grandfather, who helped raise me, was going to be living all alone in this big house. And as you mentioned, I’m a third generation Mountain View resident. We started out, my grandparents in in Mountain View were incarcerated in Hart Mountain, Wyoming, on my paternal side, and actually came back to Mountain View. And I think that speaks to the diversity and inclusion of the community. So my council committee assignments very much are tied to that. And being from the area, I remember when it was known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight versus Now Silicon Valley. So I really thought about implementing at every phase of my life, being able to bring along the community and the people that I serve.
When I started on Planning Commission, I was single. Now I’m married, became a homeowner and have a child. And many people in the community are in these spaces worrying about their quality of life, the transportation infrastructure, and making sure we are doing things for our youth, particularly for youth wellness. And I really try to take the 30,000 holistic view of how do we make a thriving, equitable community? And that means bringing along those who have been in our city for a very long time, while also welcoming those who are new to the area. Whether you are a small baby, to a senior citizen, and trying to think about that with everything that I’m bringing forward.
Dr. Lia Howard: Wow. Thank you so much for sharing. So can you tell us a little bit more about what motivates you, why you do the work that you do, what drives you and helps you to continue to do the hard work of social and community change?
Ellen Kamei: When people ask me what I enjoy most about being in public service or being an elected official, I always say our youth because they are. I feel my mentors are the ones inspiring me. Because while I did see a lot of women, and particularly women of color like my mother, my mother is an elected official for 30 years. She’s actually just about to become a San Jose City Council member. And I think that I didn’t see younger people. There weren’t programs out there for people to run at a young age. And so what motivates me is trying to create equitable access that elected officials don’t need to be independently wealthy or retired to be able to participate in their local government. And how do I reduce those barriers? So understanding that your experience with government for the first time can leave a lasting impression. And what type of impression do you want to leave? One that is difficult and disenchanted be the other individual or one where they feel heard and listened to. And during the pandemic I thought about that. In particular, we last year as mayor, I brought forward free feminine hygiene products in all of our city facilities at no cost. I brought forward a lactation room policy for employees as well as people who are in the community so that they could come and participate. And also in meeting translation services. We have quite a diverse community where over 30% is Asian American, Pacific Islander and over 20% is Latinx, Hispanic. And we now have translation available in Russian, Mandarin and Spanish. So I think that that also brings some social equity and inspires me that people can feel heard and that it’s a government that actually is working for them.
Dr. Lia Howard: Well, Ellen, how amazing that your mom also is in public service and it’s a family affair. That’s so great to hear. I love that. And I love also what you shared about making things accessible through language and through translation services, how powerful that is. So how do you care for yourself during the slow and challenging work of social change? How do you integrate personal wellness, work, life balance and self-care with your professional work? And so with that, I’d love you to think about a couple other things, too. So what’s discouraging about the work that you do and then what keeps you centered? And then finally, how do you practically manage the psychological and emotional stressors of this work as you govern? And even as you just, just ran for reelection? How do you continue to maintain your own core emotional strength?
Ellen Kamei: Well, these are the questions I ask myself every day. So these are very topical. What I try to say when when ask the question, particularly related to balance, is I think that there is the misnomer that women in particular can do it all. And there is a deep societal pressure and I believe unconscious bias on being able to manage these different roles. So what I encourage people to do is you can’t take care of your community, take care of your family, prioritize change if you are not taking care of yourself. So for example this election cycle, I also am an avid runner. I was a collegiate athlete. I was a rower and now I have been training for a marathon. And people were like, How can you do both? And I thought, Well, this is for my own personal wellness. Having time dedicated just for myself where I don’t have to “be on” and have the ability to create some endorphins has been something that’s really helpful for me. I would also encourage time management, so I try extremely hard to have one day a week that is a family day or a friend day, and that is Sunday. So I try very hard to not schedule anything if it allows and that is a really great way to ground me in terms of priorities. I would also say making sure that you are having a good outlet to talk to someone. I think in life there’s always going to be discouraging things that happen. And I will give an example, which is this reelection cycle. I was in a meeting with an editorial board of a newspaper with maybe six or seven people. And the first question was, well, if you have a baby, why are you running for reelection? And it was a gutting experience because I knew I couldn’t say the answer. I really wanted to say I had to find a way to educate, which is there are many young professionals in my city, over 25%. Many of those do have families. And right now there’s no one on my city council who has children who are not adults, and some do not have children at all. So bringing of a different perspective is something that’s important to the city council. So I, I think privately having an outlet with friends, family or, you know, your wellness and wellness professional is very great to have that kind of outside context because noisy campaigns can get noisy, life gets noisy. And making sure that you have a way to quiet that noise is something that I think is very important to being centered and allowing yourself sometimes to say, I’m going to eat this or I’m going to go to this movie and not letting the guilt overcome you is something that I still struggle with. But I encourage talking openly and honestly. It’s taken me about the four years of my first term to be able to share these. I try very hard to keep my personal life personal because it’s my one joy. And given the political climate, I’m not looking for unsolicited advice, which I get a lot of, but that makes you vulnerable. And it’s been proven that vulnerability, particularly from women, is the superpower of leadership.
Dr. Lia Howard: Ellen, so well said. I love that concept of noisy and I also love this concept of vulnerability and how women have that superpower and not something to run away from or hide. Thank you. So we’ve been thinking a lot in the SNF Paideia program about the concentric circles of care, how our self-care, community care and social activism are connected. We’re trying to better understand how an individual has ability to be an effective change maker. Is connected to a wider circle of community wellness. That we are not as individuals fully in control of social structures. But we can draw strength from others as we fight for social change together. Some people try to change government policy from the outside by putting pressure on it for change. Others, like you, work within government to push for change. As a public servant, you quite literally serve your community. This can be challenging, but perhaps can also be deeply rewarding. So does, or can your community, the people you serve in Mountain View, contribute to your personal well-being, and if so, how?
Ellen Kamei: The people I serve absolutely contribute to my well-being. And I would say that is the reason why I ran for public office. I get the honor and the privilege of serving my hometown, a community that invested in me, gave me so much and I have the opportunity to pay it forward. And while there might be council dynamics, because it’s kind of like a family, you don’t choose which family you get born into. I have seven individuals in the roles on my city council and we’re all very unique. But the residents, the people, the community and I think something that really is important when we are thinking about social activism is sometimes we are working for a really big goal and that takes time. And the length of time that that takes can be disheartening. And I would say try to build in different metrics as you are trying to achieve that goal so that you can give yourself that hope and you can have some benchmarks because it can be arduous work. In 2019, I prioritized a civic language leadership academy for our Mandarin speaking population. We already have a Spanish civic leadership program. It took me four years to work with staff, get that program up and running. And it was only in June of this year, four years later, that we had our first graduating class. Would I have loved for it to happen sooner? Yes. Do I think that it was challenging and I had to have some challenging conversations? Absolutely. But does it make my community better? And are we better able to serve residents now that they understand how their local government works? Yes. So I say all that to hopefully share that, yes, you can have the big goal. You can also have the small goals. And when people thank me, for example, for the feminine hygiene products. I got a text message from a female firefighter who took a picture of the products and said “thank you so much for doing this. I am on a rig with all men. You don’t know how embarrassing it is as self conscious I get when we have to go on our food runs and I need to pick up products now I don’t have to worry about that. Thank you.” That might be really relatively small in in the scheme of things, but that made a difference for one person. And sometimes when we’re doing this work, we need to remember that it’s about having that little hammer and chipping away at the large policy problems or institutional problems to create the greater change.
Dr. Lia Howard: Wow. Thank you for those amazing stories so, so tangible. Thank you. So finally, Ellen, what gives you hope?
Ellen Kamei: The thing that makes me most hopeful is seeing how the work I’ve done has empowered other individuals to find their voice or to find their kind of little niche. Last year we were able to award $1 million to an organization called the Mountain View Solidarity Fund. It’s a group of six Latino women who’ve been in the community for 20 years advocating and helping those who are extremely low income. In the pandemic, we worked together to help them find a fiscal agent, look at becoming a nonprofit and they had so much passion and they said “I finally feel seen and I feel heard.” And those instances and opportunities are what give me hope, because it doesn’t necessarily just need to be me or your local government or your state government or even the federal. All it is, is being able to kind of share your knowledge and empower others to make the change that they really want. And then they’ll go and do that. And they become, I think, ambassadors for your community. They become active participants. And that’s truly what warms my heart, gives me hope every day.
Dr. Lia Howard: Ellen, thank you so much for being with us today. We learned so much from you about the change making power of public service. Thank you.
Ellen Kamei: Thank you.
Dr. Lia Howard: And to our listeners, thank you so much for being with us as well. Join us next time as we continue this series. Unpacking Wellness Practices Utilized by leaders in the social change space.