San Luis Obispo mayor seeks growth through discomfort

July 28, 2020

Protest Organizer Tianna Arata, Mayor Heidi Harmon, Cal Poly quarterback Jalen Hamler, and an unidentified man

Opinion by San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon

As I write this, civil rights legend and long-time U.S. Congressman John Lewis is being laid to rest. It seems fitting to honor the man who called us to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble” in a moment when we as a community are grappling with what good trouble looks like and who gets to decide.

There is a lot to love about San Luis Obispo and all of the different people that make this a place to call home. And we are a lot like every other place in America where racism has been built into our systems and ways of thinking for hundreds of years. But unlike many other cities, the relative absence of diversity here has allowed issues concerning race to be largely obscured. It has allowed for some to believe and assert that there is no racism here in San Luis Obispo—an assertion that seems worlds apart from the perspective shared by protesters and others about the experience of people of color in our community.

This juxtaposition has created the conditions for a loud and uncomfortable cry to make the unseen powerfully visible for all to see, whether we want to or not. The cry is calling us to build a common vision for “one people, one family, one house”—the “house of America” that John Lewis envisioned even while at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. It is going to challenge our identity as individuals and as a community. And it is this difficult work that will propel and transform us to be a place that truly welcomes and supports all who visit, work, play, worship, and live in San Luis Obispo.

To the activists:

We hear you. We are listening.

Many have supported and will continue to support your call for racial justice. Even though, as a mother and a mayor, I share the concern for your safety and the safety of other community members, and I echo the sentiments of the SLO Tribune Editorial Board that, “marching on the freeway is inherently dangerous,” my concern and curiosity about the reasons why you are willing to risk to get your message out are far more deeply rooted.

Yes, going on the freeway is dangerous, and it creates danger for others, and this needs to be taken seriously. But it’s important to recognize that it’s also dangerous to be Black in America. You are calling us to justice in ways that are going to be loud and unpredictable. Let your righteous rage be the transformational path for justice, as it has been for so many before you. So many who we now revere were treated as suspect in their time. This has always been an essential aspect of change-making.

Recognize that, despite our best efforts, the dismantling of 400 years of injustice will take time. The City of SLO has committed to concrete policies and programs so as to be part of this change. And there is so much more to do; it will take time.

Let’s have compassion for those who have put their hearts and souls into their small businesses and are struggling to keep them afloat. Let’s recognize the humanity that lies within people of every profession, even for those who work in systems that you may disagree with. Let us not see those with different perspectives as the adversary, but rather invite them to be future allies for a better San Luis Obispo.

To those concerned about the protests:

Let us ask ourselves: why are our neighbors willing to risk their lives to be heard?

I hope we all recognize that we can be uncomfortable, or even can disagree with styles of protest, and still be deeply committed to creating a better world for our children. Keep in mind that the media throughout the United States has portrayed these protestors, these change agents, in negative terms, often drawing upon negative stereotypes. Let us move beyond simplistic generalizations and listen.

Let us remember that across our nation, and right here at home, it is largely young people, our children, who share our desire for a just and equitable America. This is the largest movement in history, and we are a part of it. Let us not see those with different perspectives as the enemy, but rather invite them to be future allies for a better San Luis Obispo.

With so much uncertainty, so many pressures, and such intense feelings coming from so many, listening is more important than ever. Let’s continue to work together as a community to speak the truth, to seek justice, and commit to building connections with one another and strengthening our relationships and understanding through dialogue.

If you find yourself in a situation that feels unfamiliar and unnerving, here’s your first best step: listen.

If we listen, we will find that we gain understanding, insight, and most importantly, true connection to our fellow human beings.

This will be uncomfortable at times because many of us have had vastly different experiences from each other. Yet, it is in this discomfort of sitting with this diversity where our collective growth can and will happen. Many of these conversations will occur between white people, some will happen in public, some will happen at the dinner table. Let’s not turn away from this but instead ask ourselves the tough questions, ones that expand our ability to extend grace to others.

After last Tuesday’s protest, the main call has been not for justice but for punishment: punishment for the protest organizers, for police, for the county sheriff.

Let’s be more interested in transformation than punishment. Transformation for the organizers, the police, the sheriff, for all of us.

What can we become?

What can policing become?

What can the young leaders of this movement become if we offer redemption instead of incarceration?

What can the Sheriff become if we offer true understanding instead of consternation?

What can San Luis Obispo become?

This is the hard part. This is the difficult work of transformational justice. It’s more complicated than protests and takes more strength than arresting people.

What might happen if instead of dehumanizing each other we saw each other as the fully alive, flawed, and beautiful human beings that we all are?

What if we shared each other’s stories?

What if we deeply listened?

What if we created a space for people in positions of traditional power to listen to our different experiences of race and racism in this community to deeply understand that we do have racism here on the Central Coast?

What if building relationships is the best way to eradicate the racial divide?

What if?

Racial injustice and protests have made us all feel vulnerable: whether you were scared on the freeway trying to be heard, stuck on that freeway with your family inside of a car and unsure of what to do, or intending to enjoy a nice meal, while sitting outside on a random evening you were confronted with 400 years of pain and injustice instead. This is the opening, a crack in the shell of the happiest place in North America. This is where the light gets in.

Let’s let the light in San Luis Obispo.

This is the good trouble that John Lewis was talking about. Good trouble is still trouble. It isn’t passive participation, it’s action. Loving action, but action just the same.

San Luis Obispo has long been a policy and implementation leader for small-town America in the areas of public health, transportation, natural resource conservation, and climate action. I believe we can be leaders in social justice too.

If we are to truly honor John Lewis’s legacy, we must reckon with what we are willing to put on the line for that justice. We must meet across differences, have uncomfortable conversations, and build meaningful connections with people who aren’t all the same to move us towards a better world for everyone.

I am willing to do what it takes to create a community and a politics of belonging—and I hope you are too.

Jorge Estrada

Very nice photo and a feel good wordy opinion. I believe that a lack ethnic of diversity is not automatically a crime, what is a crime is to promote anger and discourse. I support the art of listening and peaceful assembly, the anger and violence that certain promoters create should be channeled into promoting a formal education, hard work and recognizing there will always be economical differences. Many will never make the sacrifices it takes to climb that ladder as well as the time it takes to do it soundly. I know this by experience, others do because they are gifted and everyone should know this country affords personal choices.


“Many will never make the sacrifices it takes

to climb that ladder as well as the time it takes

to do it soundly”.

This statement exactly describes the problem with people who want given to them that which other people have earned for themselves.


Let me answer some of Ms. Harmon’s questions for her:

“Let us ask ourselves: why are our neighbors willing to risk their lives to be heard?”

If you really believe the drivel that you’re spewing here then you are truly ignorant. These people are not risking their lives to be heard. They aren’t even really risking their lives. They could be risking their freedom by performing illegal acts such as the ones that Tianna and her cohorts have performed, but that is on them. Free speech does not include the ability to destroy private or public property, regardless of how upset you are. As a service member, watching her flipping off a camera and spewing expletives every other word and burning and stomping on a flag makes my stomach turn, but that is absolutely her right (provided she owned that flag that was burned, otherwise that too is destruction of private/public property) and I fought for that right. No matter how sick that makes me, I support her in that act because that is part of the liberties of this great nation.

“What can we become?”

If you would stop your progressive nonsense and allow actual dialog to happen, we could become an even greater nation than what we were on the path to being before all of this nonsense started. But, here is the thing.. until you stop with supporting these domestic terrorists and start supporting law enforcement (the good ones, not your crooked ass chief or officers that can’t even pass a psych test), this will NEVER get any better. Stop with the race baiting. Stop with the cancel culture and for God’s sake STOP with ignorance that is trying to re-write history. What happened 200 years ago happened. We can do nothing to change what happened, but what we CAN do is to learn from that. By trying to change or erase the past, you doom the present and the future.

“What can policing become?”

I happen to know a few of the law enforcement officers in SLO county. All of them that I know are good men and compassionate for everyone. When I say compassionate for everyone, what am I saying? These officers understand that they have to protect the public at large and if one person is acting wrong, they need to be held accountable to those actions to protect the greater population.By allowing these officers to do their job and getting rid of the officers that are unable to do their job properly or unable to pass a psych evaluation, you lessen the risk of a George Floyd incident happening in our county.

“What can the young leaders of this movement become if we offer redemption instead of incarceration?”

They can become even worse domestic terrorists than they already are. Criminals do not change their actions by being rewarded for bad deeds. People don’t learn by receiving praise for not behaving properly in society. Take a look at the crime wave that has been hitting the central coast over the past few months. Do you seriously think that has anything to do with the fact that people aren’t being put in jail that need to be there? No. It’s getting that way because criminals have been emboldened by the fact that if they get caught stealing, assaulting or anything short of rape or murder, they will likely be cited and released. What possible reason would they have to want to change their behavior? They have none.

“What can the Sheriff become if we offer true understanding instead of consternation?”

I believe that the sheriff has the community and his officers’ best interest at heart. Has he been perfect? No, but I can also say that he has kept himself accountable. Can your police chief say the same? No. She went as far as losing her gun and instead of being honest and admitting to her mistake, she chose to throw the man that found it under a bus. You want to know where there is a problem within the SLO PD? Look no further than the leadership of the department.

“What can San Luis Obispo become?”

If you keep on the path that you’re on with supporting the defunding of the police and the empowering of criminals, San Luis Obispo will become a lawless shell of its former self. The business that have survived the pandemic will leave, leaving an entire downtown devoid of business and commerce. With that goes the tax revenue that keeps public employees, including first responders employed. This is how a good city goes bad and this is the path that you’re putting the city on.

“What might happen if instead of dehumanizing each other we saw each other as the fully alive, flawed, and beautiful human beings that we all are?”

Personally, I agree with seeing people as flawed and I understand that no man or woman is perfect. The problem comes when discussing accountability. When one’s flaws drives that person to destroy, steal or otherwise harm other people, it doesn’t matter how or why they are broken. What matters is that there is a broken person that is trying to break other people. That offender needs to be held accountable to his actions, not cited and released in order to re-offend. When it comes to disagreements, I embrace them. Disagreements are the basis for change and understanding, but only if both parties listen to one another. Rioting (and that’s what has really been happening with the violent protests) does not accomplish that and it never will. It’s the peaceful protests that tell us that, “Hey, those people are hurting and we should perhaps listen to what they have to say.”

“What if we shared each other’s stories?

What if we deeply listened?”

This will never happen while protests include violence. Again, as with the prior question, it’s the peaceful protests that gain attention and respect from others. Rioting, looting and civil unrest only makes those performing the acts look foolish and really pushes everyone else away.

“What if we created a space for people in positions of traditional power to listen to our different experiences of race and racism in this community to deeply understand that we do have racism here on the Central Coast?”

We have that.. It’s called the city counsel meetings. Perhaps you can include some time each meeting to address peaceful protesters that can carry on a civil conversation without swearing every other word.

“What if building relationships is the best way to eradicate the racial divide?”

You build relationships by talking. Not by destroying other peoples’ property. Not by hijacking a freeway. Not by intimidating business into paying extortion.

So what if, Ms. Harmon? Are you truly able to hold the line of law and order for the community? Because without some semblance of law and order, inclusion doesn’t work. It never has and it never will.


Extremely well said!! Ctakier for Mayor!!


I can appreciate Heidi Harmon’s efforts to try to convey a political middle ground between protestors and those who object to the protestors’ recent methods, but her message reads more like a corporate PR statement rather than any decisive leadership stance. Filled with buzzwords and fluff over any hard facts or statistics. Sure, everyone needs to be transformative and address simplistic generalizations… etc. But right now, as we read this, San Luis Obispo is coming apart at the seams, plagued with business closures, ever-increasing homeless numbers, high unemployment rates, excessive cost of living gaps, and now heavy divisiveness on social issues. Where do all of these intermixed priorities stand with her? What does anything in her opinion piece above, or her other public statements, indicate she’s taking any hard actions for the “transformative” improvement of SLO?

Some hard facts: One of SLO’s largest employers, MindBody, laid off 700 of its 2,000 employees in April, with 300 of them in SLO. KSBY reports more than a dozen shops in downtown SLO have closed permanently due to COVID. reported in late 2019 that homelessness in SLO increased by 32% in 2 years. San Luis Obispo’s top employers are facing huge cuts in the horizon. Cal Poly has a hiring freeze and the CSU system expects a serious budget deficit that will require “being as strategic as possible, and thus minimize layoffs,” according to President Jeffrey Armstrong’s email to the campus staff on July 20. The California Men’s Colony is expecting to have officers furloughed, resulting in significant pay cuts over the next two years. Diablo Canyon Power Plant, which employs about 1,400 people, will shut down when its license expires in 2025, leaving a huge void in the economy. And according to a recent CCN article, 43% of renters in SLO are spending more than half their gross income on rent; the average rent in SLO is $1,459 while more than 30 percent of the population falls under the poverty line, with an 11.2% unemployment rate.

The point I’m bringing up is not that these are items she should include to stray from the topic of her opinion piece – it’s that 1) SLO is fraught with problems right now, including both pressing issues and latent issues creeping up on the horizon; and 2) For each issue – protests and racism included – we don’t need more fluff pieces; we need hard facts and a discussion of options and recommended actions. This doesn’t seem to offer any of that. For example: where are the statistics for racist instances in SLO (to help convince naysayers/skeptics and support what the protestors are standing for)? What are the guidelines/requirements/rules for peaceful, city-condoned protests that can also maximize the success of spreading their messages?

Harmon says that SLO is a leader in areas of transportation, public health, climate action… I’m not sure that just “saying” our city is a leader makes us a leader. In the same sense, talking about “loving action” doesn’t make this situation any more impactful – not without better leadership and details to back it up. To quote a noted business leadership book “Getting the Right Things Done”, by Pascal Denis: Action without theory is aimless; theory without action is lifeless.


^^^ this 100%. Her piece just resonates as fluff. Yes, there is a on-going racism issue (everywhere in the world by the way), but there are raging pandemic, job loss, unaffordable housing, homelessness, unfunded pension issues (to name a few) going on in SLO. It’s great to have a social conscience, but you cannot take your eyes off the big picture, and SLO is in serious trouble at the moment.


Agree with this opinion wholeheartedly. What really concerns me with the “tone deafness” of Harmons responses . She is a human who is profoundly narcissistic—> she loves attention and self photos , she perceives herself as some bizarre messianic figure who thinks she speaks “wisdom”, she really thinks she is worth listening to . I would use the word delusional to describe her self-perception . And when she decided to align with the ill folks who dance and stomp and spit on our flag , she has aligned herself with hatred , racism and psychopathic personalities . She has morally forfeited her right to be the “lead “. Be gone Harmon , good riddance !

what the

Mayors cannot be dismissed by the municipal council, but they can be removed from the office by the citizens of their municipality in a referendum. Did you hear that People? The citizens of SLO can stop the madness in a REFERENDUM. Get to work.


The people who voted her into office also voted for Adam Hill. Enough said!

Erik T

Yes, Harmon is Adam Hill’s crew. Not good.


Mayor of San Luis Obispo? Wow! You’re clueless. Whether it’s on purpose or you really are that vacuous, you absolutely don’t represent a coherent thought. Scary that you are in the position you’re in. I’m just stunned at the idiocy.


How can I believe anything she writes when her actions say otherwise? Seems to me she’s only interested in those things that further her agenda. Where’s the discomfort in that?


Great photo-op Heidi (sarcasm). Why are none of you wearing masks?!


After seeing Jalen Hamler in the photo with his fellow anarchist, I will no longer be a Cal Poly Booster supporter, buy any agriculture products produced, or have any further affiliation with this University of hate, destruction and bigotry. I know three other’s who have done this week as well. I encourage other’s who support them to stop. They are no longer worthy of our funds.


“What if we deeply listened?” “What if?” From the woman who walks out of meetings when she hears comments she doesn’t like?? What a fake, a phony. So typical of the left.

What if ????….,, what if Heidi wasn’t mayor any more?

Niles Q

With Cal Poly not in school, is she going to miss a large part of the constituency that put her in office?

I would assume most of the students who voted for her 2 years ago, are not here now, while school is not being held on campus. Poly and Cuesta together have what, 30,000 students?

Will vote by mail ballots be sent to them at the local addresses they had on file for the last election? Will they go undelivered, or will they be delivered and then sent back “Return to Sender?”

Or, will someone take them, fill them out and send them in fraudulently?

Someone should ask the County Clerk how he intends to deal with this.