Eber: Livable-California founder Susan Kirsch recounts how She started Grass Roots organization:

There are many groups in California we should know about.  We see their work, hear their views, yet do not understand who they are and why they are important.  This article by Rich Eber is meant to introduce you to an organization involved with our quality of life.  Thought you should know about it.

  1. “ Increase the number of like-minded people elected to office (which we did in November when challengers defeated pro-growth incumbents),
  2. Increase the knowledge of and use of tools to understand and respond to legislation (which we were steadily improving via meetings, the website, google groups, and writing Opinion Pieces, Letters to the Editor, etc.),
  3. Engage more citizens in direct action (which we did through Lobby Days in Sacramento, supporting Town Hall meetings about SB-50 planned by community groups in Palo Alto, Orinda, Cupertino, and San Carlos), and Press Conferences (one in December re: SB50 and another in January about the CASA Compact). 

​A sign of the success of these strategies was the Liam Dillon article in the LA Times (5/22/19) which included 7 paragraphs that described and/or credited LCA grass roots efforts for promoting the narrative about the importance of local control. LCA, among others, was credited with getting SB50 shelved. 

Thought you needed to know about these newly activated folks. 

Livable-California founder Susan Kirsch recounts how She Started Grass Roots Organization by Richard Eber

Richard Eber, California Political News and Views,  6/24/19  

From the days that a small group of Patriots congregated in 1776 to form what was to be the United States of America, grass roots politics has been a mainstay in our culture.

With great reverence we pay tribute to such notable historical figures as Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Progressive movement  founder Robert La Follette, and farm workers rights activist  Caesar Chavez. Somewhere in the middle of this mix would be found George Wallace, Huey Long and perhaps Bernie Sanders.

All of these individual were or are charismatic leaders who attracted loyal followers.

Being the leader of a grass roots political movement is not easy. Often appreciation for what these people accomplished has not been realized until after they are long gone.

One such individual in California who deserves all the credit we can bestow on her is Susan Kirsch.   With no fanfare she organized a small group of concerned citizens to fight Progressive State Senator Scott Weiner and his cohorts in the Legislature and their plans to have Big Government dictate local planning decisions.

Within a year what became known as Livable California expanded throughout the State and has been credited for help stopping SB 827 and delaying SB 50 from being enacted, In addition, Kirsch’s group has challenged unelected Regional Planning Agencies who are used to having their recommendations given rubber stamped approval at meetings that few attend.

What is remarkable about Kirsch is that she rarely raised her voice yet firmly kept her group focused on topics they were working on. Such charismatic leadership allowed her to be effective even in a room with Progressive San Franciscans sitting next to delegates to the Republican convention.

After little more than a year after starting Livable California, Kirsch had a difference of opinion in what direction the organization should be going.  Rather than stage a power struggle, she decided to step down from her leadership post and devote herself to different aspects of community organizing.

In an exclusive interview with California Political News and Views, Susan Kirsch tells us her story of how a grass roots political movement is started.

Describe how Livable California began? 

Sen. Wiener was holding a Town Hall in San Francisco on 2/3/18 to promote SB827 and SB828.  I had a history of community organizing that included starting Friends of Mill Valley (2007) and a county-wide group called Citizen Marin (2011), which opposed PDAs and TODs that were part of SB375- Plan Bay Area).

After an unsuccessful run for the Marin Board of Supervisors (2016), I took a break. But when I saw Wiener’s Town Hall announcement, I made a few calls to leaders in the 9-county Bay Area. I invited them to join me to see if there was agreement on three points:

  1. Neighborhoods, communities, and counties working in silos were getting clobbered by state legislation reducing local control. 
  • Working collaboratively, we could work smarter not just harder
  • For starters, we could adopt strategies to “kill the bills” referring to SB 827/828.

After the Wiener Town Hall, 18 people from 5 Bay Area Counties gathered at the Tennessee Grill. We agreed on the need for a coalition and agreed to meet a second time. That led to twice-monthly meetings that have gone on ever since, with an average attendance of 15-20 people.  The combination of elected officials and community leaders has grown to include ties to Los Angeles, San Diego and other areas.

2.   Does this fit in your definition of grass roots politics? 

​Yes.  Grassroots politics is the process of educating, engaging, and activating locally elected officials and community leaders of neighborhood and community groups, including umbrella groups like the Coalition of San Francisco Neighbors, Better Cupertino, and Orinda Watch.

3. Why did you not make the group neither Democratic nor Republican?

Legislative attempts to take away local control over land use planning and zoning, currently vested in elected City Councils, is a threat to democracy, whether you’re Democrat or Republican.  To solve any issue, including housing, we need a balanced perspective from both orientations.

Democrats generally seek to serve the broadest good through public education, public parks, public libraries, public health, post offices, etc…Republicans mostly try to serve the broadest good through fiscal responsibility, at the individual, corporate and government levels.  It’s a both/and challenge, not either/or.  LCA sought to create a safe place at the table for everyone who came with respect and an open mind.

 4. Why did you step down from your post of leader of this organization?

The 3-member LCA Board had been in conflict over priorities for six months. My priority was to build LCA’s grassroot strength and reputation to influence state legislation. In my opinion, the soundest strategies were to educate, network, and engage elected officials and community leaders in the current legislative process, leading to long-term impact.

I envisioned the results would include:

  1. Increase the number of like-minded people elected to office (which we did in November when challengers defeated pro-growth incumbents),
  2. Increase the knowledge of and use of tools to understand and respond to legislation (which we were steadily improving via twice monthly meetings, the website, google groups, and writing Opinion Pieces, Letters to the Editor, speaking at Rotary Clubs, and being a guest on KQED’s Forum to talk about the CASA Compact.
  3. Engage more citizens in direct action (which we did through collaboration with the Coalition to Preserve LA, Lobby Days in Sacramento, supporting Town Hall meetings about SB-50 planned by community groups in Palo Alto, Orinda, Cupertino, and San Carlos), and Press Conferences (one in December re: SB50 and another in January about the CASA Compact). 

​A sign of the success of these strategies was the LA Times (5/22/19) by Liam Dillon which included seven column inches that described or credited LCA grass roots efforts promoting the narrative about the importance of local control. LCA, among others, was credited with getting SB50 shelved. 

But my colleagues in the majority prioritized travel, meetings, and work on a statewide ballot initiative. The Initiative idea was first introduced in April 2018.  I traveled to LA in December to listen to plans. Listened to updates, discussed it with others, and concluded LCA did not have the bandwidth, staff, or capital to take the lead on such a massive and expensive project (est. $15M) with such a low probability of success. I agreed that LCA should support an Initiative, but not make it the priority. My point of view did not prevail.   

I leave with confidence Livable CA has a solid foundation from which to grow.  I was pleased to be presented a “Certificate of Recognition” at the last LCA meeting which reads,

“In appreciation for founding Livable California and leading its growth into a successful organization. Livable California is now recognized for its impact on California legislation and as an effective force for local democracy. Thank you for guiding us to work smarter, not just harder.”  Awarded by Livable California.

What are your plans in the future?

Democracy is too valuable to abandon, and my plans are to keep organizing, speaking, and writing about the threats to local control and democracy.  Last week, for example, a colleague and I were in Sacramento for meetings with seven legislators or their staff.

Recently I had a meeting with the first director of the Coastal Commission to understand if that legislation could be a model for an “Affordable Housing and Local Control” bill in 2010.  I’m writing an article about the Financialization of Housing for CALmatters.  My plans for the future? I’m curious and optimistic about the doors of opportunity that will open next.

GROUP FORMED TO SUPPORT LOCAL CONTROL

By Richard Colman

June 13, 2019

Alarmed over the usurpation of local land-use controls in California’s local communities, a group of about 30 concerned individuals met in San Francisco in February 2018.

These individuals gathered to express their concerns over plans by the State of California (and regional governmental agencies) to erect high-rise, high-density housing in local communities all over California.

The individuals formed a nonprofit, statewide organization called Livable California.  The group’s express purpose is to support . . . “local strategies to meet all housing needs,” according to the group’s website (www.livablecaliforia.org).

Livable California, again according to its website, stated, “We oppose state overreach and big money influence” that would rob local communities of their abilities to control building heights, housing density (houses units per acre), and community zoning practices.

Leading Livable California’s effort was Susan Kirsch, a resident of Mill Valley in Marin County, California.  Kirsch headed the group from its 2018 founding until the spring of 2019, when she turned control of the organization over to others.

Kirsch’s efforts turned Livable California into a powerful, statewide organization that has lobbied vigorously against the California State Legislature’s plans to mandate the construction of high-rise, high-density housing.

Livable California has worked especially hard to defeat legislation that would require the construction of housing units in so-called transit-rich areas.

In 2018, State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced (state) Senate Bill 827 to require local communities to construct extra housing in transit-rich areas.  Exerting influential pressure, Livable California was able, in 2018, to help defeat Senate Bill 827.

Senate Bill 827 would have given the State of California the power to construct high-rise, high-density housing within one-quarter mile of a frequently-used bus stop or one-half mile of a train station.

Now, a 2019 version of Senate Bill 827 called Senate Bill 50 is being considered in the legislature.  Livable California is opposed to Senate Bill 50 and may be on the verge of killing the legislation.

About Stephen Frank

Stephen Frank is the publisher and editor of California Political News and Views. He speaks all over California and appears as a guest on several radio shows each week. He has also served as a guest host on radio talk shows. He is a fulltime political consultant.