It was a remarkable thing to be in the audience at the Oak Meeting Room at the San Mateo Downtown Library on the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 12, to see North Central neighborhood resident Amourence Lee chosen by the City Council to fill its one vacancy in a bold move that should be lauded.
Reading her application and resume alone, one could plainly see she had the “chops” to fill that vacancy. She is someone who actively engaged with her city to improve it for all residents no matter their neighborhood or background, has the experience of running a nonprofit and startup, and is knowledgeable about our residents’ needs through her time as a city commissioner and community organizer. Councilwoman Lee’s measured, thoughtful answers and eager willingness to build bridges with neighborhood representatives with whom she had previously disagreed are true signs that the city of San Mateo will be represented by a passionate and qualified leader.
Perhaps more remarkable, however, was for the first time in the almost 10 years I have resided in San Mateo, I saw someone on my City Council that reflected me: a millennial female leader of color. She is a woman with whom I have shared the experience of representing underserved communities around tables that often have no one who look like us, speak like us or had the experience of living as a minority in a world with systems clearly not anticipating us to have roles in leadership. Her voice is an important one to have at the dais in San Mateo — one lacking since Claire Mack left council so many years ago.
From my perspective, one of the major reasons why we do not have more elected officials that happen to be women of color is lack of access to the people who have, as a former boss termed it, “their hand on the elephant.” Good politics, he surmised, was partially good policy, partially finding the folks who can spread word of your good policies. National political incubators and training programs are all well and good, but what you need at the local level are activated supporters ready to promote you to known and trusted entities in our small corner of the world. For women of color, these are often other women (and, more specifically, women of color) involved in the civic space — many of whom turned out to support Councilwoman Lee when she was appointed. I encourage all women of color with an interest in progressive policy and change in San Mateo County to find others with a similar call to activism, and specifically search out those established women with their hand on the elephant.
Shame on all of the prominent San Mateo residents who are immediately dismissive of Councilwoman Lee, saying that she was chosen to fill the vacancy, not because of the breadth of experience she brings to the table, but, instead, because of her ethnicity, the neighborhood in which she resides, or as the beneficiary of political maneuvering by special interests. This tells me more about the values of the old guard than it does her.
For me, Councilwoman Lee represents something I hope to see more of in the future: engaged, knowledgeable, inspired local female leaders who look more like the communities they serve; leaders whose diversity enhance the ways in which they view the world as they work toward a more fair and equitable San Mateo and greater Peninsula region.
Nicole Fernandez currently serves on San Mateo’s Community Relations Commission and is chair of the San Mateo County Democratic Party.