Exploring the Role of Leadership in Sustainability: Two Presidians on the Campaign Trail

We regularly interview Presidio Graduate School alumni to learn how they are applying their degrees to address sustainability and social justice challenges in their lives and work. We recently caught up with Bay Area locals Tessa Rudnick (MPA, 2011) and Chance Cutrano (MPA, 2019) on their respective campaign trails. Tessa was most recently the IT Director for the San Francisco Department of Police Accountability and is running for a seat on the City Council of El Cerrito, CA. Chance is Director of Programs at Resource Renewal Institute in Mill Valley and is running for a seat on the Town Council of Fairfax, CA. Both will be speaking at our upcoming Community Leadership and Civic Engagement Panel Discussion on October 9th. We welcome you to join the conversation!

MR: Tessa and Chance, we were so excited to see that you’re both running for office in your own communities! What has your post-PGS career been, as MPA degree-holders from Presidio Graduate School?

Tessa: I graduated in the first cohort of MPA students in 2011, and afterward I started working for the City of Berkeley’s Department of Information Technology. It was the absolute best thing that could have happened to me as a sustainability-minded public administrator. Being in government technology allows you to be a generalist, and understand the operations of local government. I learned both the front-end and back-end of City operations. I learned how each unique department functions, I learned about their workflows and their IT systems, and most importantly, I met hundreds of City staff and learned the ropes from their expertise. I was able to work on some incredible public safety and sustainability-related projects, and eventually went to the City and County of San Francisco and worked for the Department of Police Accountability.

Chance: I graduated from Presidio Graduate School (PGS) in 2019. Afterward, I took on a larger role as the Director of Programs at my current place of employment, the Resource Renewal Institute (RRI). In this role, I was able to continue to grow my PGS Capstone project, Fish in the Fields, which scaled 44x and was featured in Wired following my tenure at PGS. In the fall of 2019, Dr. Khalid Kadir invited me back to PGS to support him in his political economics class, “Economy & Society: Governance and Business.” This January I was also elected by the membership of the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter to become the Vice-Chair of the Executive Committee. I have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to be “in the field” and “in the classroom” at the same time, sharing lessons learned in real-time with my PGS community and the next generation of changemakers.

MR: You’ve both been on such fascinating journeys. What prompted each of you to seek elected office?

Tessa: I always knew I wanted to work in local government, but I also felt that traditional graduate programs weren’t speaking the same language that I was speaking. I wanted to make deep systemic change, and I saw Presidio as offering that opportunity. While I never had had Donna LaSala as a professor, I was fortunate enough to have had her as my boss at the City of Berkeley. She was the one who encouraged me to step into technology and told me the future of government is in technology. It has been one of my core values ever since.

I’ve also never aspired to be an elected official, but the Pandemic changed my perspective. Public administrators working in local government are trained to be unbiased and to use data and analytical skills to help educate policymakers and community members to influence change. City staff often have an opinion and offer great insight, but there is a metaphorical brick wall between elected officials and city staff. The Pandemic, coupled with El Cerrito’s already dire financial situation, made me realize how critical it is to have Councilmembers who understand how local government is run and what we can do to create efficiencies. Also, I am a young mother, and it’s important that we have more young parents in elected positions. Especially in a community like El Cerrito, where the fastest-growing demographic is young families.

Chance: With my mother being a teacher and my father founding an organization honoring fallen soldiers and their families, civic duty and community service were core to my upbringing. Over the years, I’ve had a tendency to seek out public service opportunities. For the last 3.5 years, I’ve served on two appointed boards and commissions in my Town.

Last year, our residents were left in the dark during PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutdown (PSPS) event. We were caught completely unprepared. After a week in the dark, worrying about my neighbors and fellow residents, I realized that no one was going to step in and solve the problem. It was a valuable lesson. Fast forward to March 14th, three days before the planned Shelter-in-Place. I knew our community couldn’t afford to be caught flat-footed once again. We needed to be proactive. That Friday evening I made my case to one of my town council members. Within days, we organized an emergency COVID taskforce and stood up a 1-to-1 Volunteer Program to match at-risk residents with fellow community members who were able to help them get groceries, pick up medications, conduct wellness checks, etc. Our program was lauded in the press and provided a regional model for mutual aid in the early, uncertain days of the pandemic. As the pandemic progressed, I developed a proposal for a Temporary Residential Rental assistance program to support our extremely low-income residents, which our town Council ultimately approved and funded to the tune of $60,000.

Finally, after the murder of George Floyd, I began to organize anti-racism rallies with some of my fellow community members. Recognizing the need to sustain and support this movement in my own community, I helped design our new Racial Equity and Social Justice Committee with a Council-approved “Policing Practices and Public Safety Alternatives” subcommittee. The majority of this committee is comprised of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) that live and/or work in Fairfax. After pressure to delay our budget approval in July, the town administration agreed to move $100,000 from the police budget to support the efforts of this new committee.

For me, the decisive actions taken this summer demonstrate that when we are working in community and for community, we can expand the realm of possibilities and make real systemic changes. I’m excited to bring that passion, work ethic, and leadership to my Town Council.

MR: What is the role of leadership in sustainability? Why must people in elected roles understand sustainability?

Tessa: At this point, I believe sustainability HAS to be a core value for any elected official. In order for our communities to thrive in the face of so much climate uncertainty, we have to embed sustainability into the local governance framework. We need to reorient our civic lives to be agile in the face of climate change and cut GHG emissions. We also have to thrive economically, while continuing to build responsibly, and protect our natural environments at the same time. For people who say that is an oxymoron, then they’re not thinking with a sustainability lens.

Chance: We are facing a climate crisis, a health crisis, an economic crisis, and a racial justice crisis all at the same time. It is no coincidence that these crises are manifesting and compounding in tandem. As systems-thinkers at PGS, we are well aware that every system is perfectly designed to get the outcomes it gets. The Planet, People, and our drive for Prosperity have been out of alignment for centuries. If we want to realize different outcomes it is up to us to show up, step up, and speak out. Business leaders have a role to play. So do the electeds that set, revise, and oversee the administration of the “rules of the game.” I’d argue it’s no longer enough to have people in elected roles who “understand” sustainability. We need leaders that will champion and take action on these issues. We are on borrowed time.

MR: And how would you define sustainability for your community? How has that influenced each of your platforms?

Tessa: We know there are core factors: economic, social, environmental. In order to be a more sustainable society, we have to acknowledge the importance of policymakers understanding and supporting these three elements for the long-term survival of our communities.

When I first started Presidio 10+ years ago, we spent a lot of time defining sustainability in the context of building a stronger sustainability movement. I’ve done a lot of business analysis since then, so now I think of sustainability more as a workflow, and how we can optimize a workflow. We do the analysis to understand the “as-is” of our communities, and then we can have a better sense and more transparency around how we arrive at the “to-be.” It’s challenging when policymakers make decisions based solely on their passions without using logic. I want El Cerritans to know that I plan to use my public administrator skills to adopt forward-thinking policies for a more sustainable community.

Chance: Sustainability is a word I have had a love-hate relationship with. It can mean different things to different people. There are some things in my community that I’d like to sustain—our volunteerism and community spirit, our arts scene, our scenic and visual resources. And there are other things that need to be revisited—the lack of affordable housing, the lack of diversity and inclusion, etc. On the campaign trail, I couch my visions in terms of adaptation, resilience, equity, and intersectionality.

California is often thought of as a leader on environmental issues, and Fairfax is one of the communities pioneering the path for California. Over the years, Fairfax led the charge on community choice aggregation for renewable energy, bans on polystyrene and other single-use plastics, Safe Routes to School, open space protection, etc. I believe we can continue to harness that spirit as we adapt to climate change and work to mitigate its worst impacts. Furthermore, I feel I have an obligation to expand and strengthen our understanding of the inextricable linkages between climate justice and racial justice. On the campaign trail, I have been organizing webinars with experts in community land trusts and authors of equitable climate action plans to bring new ideas to Fairfax.

MR: We’re in an age of rapid change, widespread disruption, and technological innovation. How are these trends impacting local governance?

Tessa: The development of new technologies has always far outpaced public policy, and will continue to do so. Especially at the local level. The best thing we can do at the local level is to begin to develop data literacy and remove as much ambiguity from policymaking. We owe it to the community to justify our decision-making using facts and data.

Local government doesn’t necessarily have the resources to embrace new technologies, but we can position ourselves to adopt new technologies as they plateau. It’s about having policymakers who understand the bigger picture.

Chance: There is a lot to be said about the widespread adoption of field-tested technology that can bring people together and better inform the electorate. The digitization and cheap storage of files helps the public access and engage with local governments. Precision mapping and visualization tools have informed local government policy development and implementation. Video conferencing has helped governments maintain transparency and public participation in the decision making process during COVID. With all the compounding crises we face, it is certainly a time to get creative and ensure our staff and citizens have the tools necessary to effectively participate in local government.

At the same time, I don’t believe technology is a silver bullet that is going to magically restore a healthy democracy. For one, local governments—especially smaller municipalities like Fairfax—do not always have the luxury of deploying the newest technology. Second, I think we need to center the fact that a digital divide persists. Many communities across the country still struggle to get basic service provisions and technology can create new barriers. According to a 2019 Pew study, more than 40% of households with incomes below $30,000/year do not have home broadband services or a computer; nearly 30% do not own a smartphone. Hardware aside, our aging population in Marin will need digital literacy skills if we expect to rely more and more on technology for communications and service provision. As I mentioned above, the bottom line is that we need to find ways to increase participation and put the demos back in democracy.

MR: Given all of these variables we’ve been discussing, what has been your biggest challenge?

Tessa: There are a lot of equity barriers when running for public office. Most of them are resource-related, and equity and resources go hand-in-hand. Most people do not have the time or ability in their lives to run for office. It’s a huge commitment of your time, in every sense of the word. That part has been a challenge. I keep reminding myself that it’s called a “campaign season” for a reason.

It’s also very much about representation, and simply being a smart person doesn’t guarantee you’ll win an election. Elections are about relationship-building, creating support networks, and being OK with losing a part of your anonymity for the sake of community service.

Chance: When I decided to run for office I had this sense that this is something that everybody should be able to do. In principle, I still believe that. In practice, I have found that there are numerous barriers and obstacles: the financial commitment, the time commitment, and the challenge of “being in community” during a pandemic.

To understand the financial barriers, look no further than the filing fees. To file in my small town required a $25 filing fee and a $190 ballot statement fee. Want to have that ballot statement in English and Spanish? The ballot statement fee balloons to $480. (Some candidates forgo a bilingual ballot statement to save money. The system incentivizes the marginalization of the households of Spanish speakers and English language learners.) Herein lies the privilege in running for public office—even at the local level. With so many of our neighbors and community members in dire financial situations due to the pandemic and rising inequality, few people can afford to “access” the opportunity to run for office or get on the ballot.

While I had the financial means to get in the race, I have been surprised and challenged by the daily time commitments that come with a run for office. Running for office is as stressful as it is thrilling. There is always something to be done, and that is always in the back of my head. Finding a balance between work and life can be extremely challenging in the heat of the campaign, but you need to take care of yourself: eat well, drink water, get good sleep. (Easier said than done!)

Lastly, it has been fairly challenging to find ways to connect with community members and volunteers in the middle of a pandemic. Normally I’d be going door to door trying to meet everyone I can or have gatherings at various homes throughout the community. Now I’m trying to coordinate Zoom House Parties over e-mail and just get my name out there!

MR: What would you say to people who are considering following in your footsteps?

Tessa: There’s a lot of people in this process who will encourage or discourage you to go in different directions for various reasons, which ultimately has very little to do with you and more to do with the status quo. You have to trust your instincts. Also, if you have no campaign or political experience, find a really good campaign team. They’re the ones who will help you understand the in’s and out’s.

Chance: There are a lot of high-highs and a lot of low-lows running for office. Keep a good group of people around you and be sure to find balance in your daily life so you don’t burn out. There are a lot of ways to run a campaign. That doesn’t mean that they are equally effective or fulfilling. Do your best to live your values and speak from your heart. At the end of the day, voters are wondering one thing: “Can I trust this person?” Oh yeah, and have some fun.

MR: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Tessa: An El Cerrito community member sent me an e-mail with the following quote in his signature: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”  —John Adams

Chance: This is a very intense election season with a lot on the line. I’ll leave you with this: Make sure you are registered to vote, vote earlier, and take a deep breath. Tensions are running high as we are less than 50 days away from November 3rd. We have a lot of work to do but don’t forget to take care of yourself.

MR: Thanks again. I look forward to your presentations at our Community Leadership and Civic Engagement Panel Discussion on October 9th.

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