As he was leaving office, former President Barack Obama addressed the nation in his farewell speech: “If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.” In 2017, Suisun City Mayor, Lori Wilson, was actually already a couple of steps ahead. About a decade ago, inspired by a different Obama speech, Lori had already looked up who her council members were in order to start getting more involved locally.
“My life has always been about service. My family was always out in the community. We grew up with that. But when I became an adult, I became involved with my church but in another city so I started looking into getting more involved in my own city.”
Lori’s first local activity was to organize a group for women to “come and just talk about the things of life and just grow as human beings.” She started noticing that every year, women left the group as they moved, with their young families, out of Suisun City. Lori had heard Barack Obama talk about the importance of advocating to elected officials and decided, for the first time in her life, to turn to City Council. The council members she spoke with about prioritizing additional services for young families certainly listened, but they just weren’t that interested. For Lori the next step was obvious:
“I started trying to encourage my friends to run for office – especially when I realized everyone on my council was older and retired. I was trying to get younger people to run. Eventually my friends hosted an intervention and told me – you’re the person who needs to run. It took me two years, but then I decided to do it.”
In eight years, Lori went from not being sure who her council members were, to joining Council herself, which led to her running for and becoming Suisun City Mayor.
“I joined City Council to bring the younger voice to the City and make sure our policy discussions centered around families and how people can raise children and stay in Suisun City. While serving, I began to realize that there were a lot of things that the Mayor gets to control, so I said – okay it’s time to be the Mayor. I ran for Council on the platform of Fresh Voice. When I ran for Mayor, I said it’s not just about having a fresh voice it’s also about having a Fresh Vision.”
Lori became Mayor of Suisun City just about two years ago, and since then, she has tried to demystify what it means to be an elected official. Her constituents have her cell phone number, her email, and her social media accounts. Lori says that being the Mayor has been both the hardest thing she’s ever done, but also the most rewarding. Why has it been so rewarding? Because Lori has genuinely seen the quality of life for her residents change for the better, even in the face of the pandemic. One of her favorite examples of how the City of Suisun has improved quality of life while she’s been Mayor is in the way that the City has helped to facilitate informal community relationships and neighborliness, especially because Suisun City is what Lori calls a “commuter-ville.” The community relationships the City helped to forge have proven to be invaluable during the pandemic.
“A big factor for quality of life is whether your community rises up to greet you when you come home at the end of the day. Is the atmosphere great? Is it safe? Is it clean? That’s why we established the Suisun City Clean Team where we, as a community, came together and cleaned up. And the cool thing about that, aside from making our community look better, it built these key relationships. I can’t tell you how many times people have sent me notes related to families that met while they were on the Clean Team that then supported each other during the pandemic. That they knew their neighbors.”
Lori shares that during the pandemic, when there was a need – when someone had COVID, for example – there were always other community members ready to jump in and help because the City had already built an informal network around the community of people who serve together, who were then able to support one another.
That might be the silver lining of the pandemic but Lori knows many of the ramifications of COVID are yet to come. That’s why the biggest challenge she’s working on now is getting ahead of a potential homelessness crisis – something many cities in California and across the US are seeing. Suisun City is already experiencing a homeless migration to its community that it doesn’t have the resources to handle. Additionally, the longer the pandemic goes on, the higher the number of community members losing their homes. Mayor Wilson, who began her run in local government with the purpose of helping increase services that would encourage people to stay in the City and not move out, strongly states that she never wants people leaving the community for distress reasons. Following the lessons of the recession a number of years ago, Lori also knows that when the economy begins to bounce back, the recovery process may leave out many of her residents.
“What can we do for people who have run out of savings and benevolent family members? There are pockets of our community that are low income and service-industry people – and I’m worried about where they’re going to be. So making sure we have services in place for existing homeless is one thing we’re doing, but I’m also thinking about how we are setting up for the next generation of homeless that are impacted by the economy. I’m thinking of how we as a City are preparing for what’s next after the pandemic. Not just the ‘oh we might have a boom’ but for the people who might have been left behind, where’s their safety net as they regroup from the devastating impacts of the pandemic?”
One project she’s very proud of that recently broke ground and should make a difference is the creation of affordable housing on a long-standing vacant lot.
Mayor Wilson, who truly takes things into her own hands to effect change, has strong advice for those looking to make an impact in their community by getting involved in local government.
“If you’re going to engage, engage on the things you’re passionate about, and don’t apologize. Focus on the things that you care about. Your passion will be infectious. Show up like you’re meant to be there, and say what you need to. You bring a perspective and your perspective is valid. I want to hear it all, and I want to hear it even if you’re angry at me.”