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Sarah Smolen: 2021 City Election Interview Series

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

We had an AWESOME chat with Sarah Smolen (@smolen4omaha) who is running to represent DISTRICT 4 on the Omaha City Council.


Sarah has a background in education, which led us to a very interesting conversation on topics like access to local government, housing justice, and more!


You can find a transcript of this interview below! Huge shout out to one of our volunteers, Apollo Bythrow, for putting in the work to provide this transcript and make our platform more accessible!


Gab: So just to get started, go ahead and introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background and why you decided to run for office.


Sarah: My name is Sarah Smolen, my pronouns are she/her/hers. I’ve lived in Omaha for about 18 years now. My dad was in the Air Force for like 20 years and so we kind of moved all around the country and then they settled here when my dad retired so I’ve been here ever since.


I’ve been married for 8 years, we have a 6 year old son. Um, before he was born I taught middle school and high school English. I just recently have come back into the classroom just this school year and I teach seventh grade English. That’s really fun. It’s fun to teach in a pandemic because every day is even more different than it usually is and also there’s always kids on Zoom so you have to check in on them as well.


I decided to run because over the summer I was watching Omaha sort of confront the systemic racism that exists here. I started to become really frustrated with just how little I knew about local government and like how it worked and what the responsibilities were and who you’re supposed to get in touch with.


I started doing research into city council, like what their responsibilities are and what their influence is, and specifically my city council member. I didn’t find a lot of information. There just wasn’t a whole lot available. I found [Vinny Palermo] on Facebook and Twitter but there wasn’t a ton of information there about what he was doing. There was just some stuff about the P.A.C.E. program, a little bit about some random business. And that was pretty much it.


There wasn’t anything about, like, COVID-19 precautions or testing. There wasn’t any of that information. Nothing about the protests that were going on downtown or anywhere else. It was just frustrating to just find very, very little information available. Um, and I emailed him a few times and didn’t get much back from him. Then um, I couldn’t find any information, not even on our city council website. There’s not a lot out there about what they’re doing, about what any of them are doing.


I started trying to like to reach out and just try to figure out what was going on, and then I was hearing from other people in my district that they were doing the same and getting a lot of silence in return. It just became, I just became really frustrated with the lack of accessibility to our local government and the fact that [Vinny Palermo] didn’t seem bothered by that. It became very clear that he just wasn't interested in doing his job, which is listening to his constituents and putting information out there, responding when [his constituents] communicate with him.


So I decided that if he wasn’t going to do the job, then I would. District 4 needs a council member who is available to the people, who listens to their concerns, who gets back to them. On everything - even on things like street and alley repair, to affordable housing, to just general government accessibility for everyone.


Gab: Something that I love that you mention on your website, um, when you list your previous work experience, uh, you include that past work in retail and food service. Which I love because I feel like people tend to try and sweep those jobs under the rug when they apply for “better” positions.


As a fellow barista and retail worker, it’s powerful to see someone who understands everyday working-class struggles running for office.


How will your experiences as a working-class Omaha resident kind of shape the decisions you make when you're elected?


Sarah: So I think one of the things this pandemic has definitely revealed is how extremely important the retail and food industries are. Just like the day-to-day functionality of our communities and our society. And they’re like extremely undervalued. Because you hear all the time, you hear the rhetoric, like, “anyone can do this job”, “it’s not that hard”, you know, “that’s why minimum wage exists, it’s the minimum job”. And like for anyone who’s worked in those jobs, you know that

that’s absolutely not true. Like, when you're working as a barista, or a server, or you’re working in retail, you see, like, the full spectrum of human existence. From the very worst to also the very best, you see some great things too. But you also understand what it takes to come back to that job everyday because you have bills to pay, you have mouths to feed. And that job, for whatever reason, is the best thing for your family at the time. Um, or it’s the thing you’re doing to get to the next thing. It’s just what puts food on the table. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to, like, decide, “Well, I’m done with this job, and I can go a few weeks without income until

I find something else.” You know that’s a luxury very few of us have.


So as someone who’s living that experience even now, I know it’s important when we’re making decisions that we need to make ones that are good in the long haul, but we also need to be making choices, decisions and policies that help people today. One of the most frustrating things about the aid we’ve received from local and federal government is that there’s a lot of long term solutions

when people need help today.


Over the summer it was awesome that you could go to [Metro Community College] and get a scholarship to improve your job skills but that wasn’t gonna pay the bills at the end of the month. In fact, that wouldn't pay bills until many more months down the road. We have to always be thinking of solutions for the people who are facing evictions at the end of the month, or having their utilities shut off or need to put food on the table.


There have to be those solutions built into everything that we do, otherwise we’re not actually helping those [people]. And as somebody who understands that, someone who’s living that right now, I know that that's the mindset I’m keeping when I’m making those choices.


Gab: That’s obviously great to hear. You know, we want representatives who understand what it’s like to be an everyday person. I feel like often times our officials are a little out of touch with what it feels like to be the average resident.


Another part of your background I want to touch on is your background as an educator. It’s such an important role in our community.


How will your experiences in education kind of impact you as an official if you’re elected?


Sarah: I love talking about education. Obviously, it’s something I could go over everyday. I got into it because I really believe that education is the most empowering thing a person can have. It really is the great equalizer, when everyone has that access and education, that’s when we start to see equality really take root. So at the heart of my campaign is the principle of ‘information empowers people to action.’


That’s something that I see everyday in the classroom, is when I'm teaching students and when I’m making that information accessible to them, they have these moments when there’s like a lightbulb that comes on, something connects - and suddenly they’ve acquired and mastered this new level of knowledge. And then suddenly they can take that, and they can go even further with it or they can apply it to something else they’ve learned.


Even today, there was a girl in my class who - I have her for an elective and for English - and she made a connection between something we had talked about earlier in the day. It was just so fun to see her eyes light up, and be like “oh, that’s this!”, this literary term that we learned.


That’s something I want to bring to city government. For people, for everyone to know that this is the information we have and when you know it, understand it and grasp it, you know how it works for you. And you feel empowered to take that and do something with it, or to get involved yourself, or to create change in your neighborhood. I think also an aspect of teaching that a lot of people don't know about or maybe they’re not aware of is that we spend much time as educators going over massive amounts of data, all the time. We’re looking at test scores, math

scores, reading level. We’re looking at the observations we made in classrooms or had in conversations we had with teachers, counselors or administrators. We’re gathering all this information so that we can refine our instruction on a whole group level and on an individual level.


Even on Monday I’m going to sit down with the other English teachers in the building and the other math teachers and we’re gonna look over all this data. We’re gonna figure out who needs interventions, who’s ready to go on their own, who needs follow-up, who needs more accountability. So that we can create an environment that is for their learning.


From this experience, I know you can’t make good decisions and good policies without first going over the data. Doing the research, analyzing the info, thinking through every step of the process and making sure you reached the objective that you set out at the beginning. Then, once you’ve set that into motion, continuing to gather that information, conduct studies, and go over the data to ensure that solution has remained effective.


Gab: Touching a little bit on government accessibility - we’ve noticed that, you know, it is hard to find information about local government. So we’re trying to make that process easier for people.


Can you tell us a little about the steps you’ll take to make local government more accessible?


Sarah: When I found you on Instagram, I was super excited because I read your mission and I was like, “this is exactly what my campaign is about, what an amazing thing that already exists.” I was so excited for it.


And so when you reached out to me I was like, “wow this is so awesome, I’m so pumped!” So there are actually a lot of ways we can increase civic engagement in Omaha.


One of the things that I’m trying to do, and that I’ve heard from a lot of other candidates and just people, is that we want to move the time of the city council meetings to a time that’s more accessible for people. So right now it’s at 2pm on Tuesdays, that’s when most people are at work or they've gotta pick up kids from school or they just have, you know, the rest of their day to go on with.


I’ve learned that, from a conversation I had with a former long-time council

member, that during his time on council they tried to change that meeting four different times. I think, for a lot different reasons, I think right now, with the right council, with enough of us wanting to make that change, I think we can make that change and kind of get over whatever the hurdles are that are in the way. Maybe there are just people who don’t want to change the schedule, but you know, you’ve gotta make change happen for the people.


Also, people can participate in meetings through Zoom right now, which is great and I think that’s something we should keep doing. I think even today Pete Festersen said that he wanted to continue doing that. I think we should continue to do that, even after that pandemic is over. So that people who maybe don’t have transportation or maybe they have kids to watch or things to do - they can still

watch and participate, even from a distance.


Also, our city website is very sad, to put it lightly. It looks like it hasn’t been updated since the 90s. It’s very difficult to navigate - not intuitive, it's not user friendly. There’s a lot of terminology and stuff on there that you would have to have experience in city government to understand. We need to overhaul the whole system, make it

really, um, intuitive and user friendly. Invest the time and funding into making that the first stop for anybody who wants to get involved, whether they just want to get engaged in local government or if they just need to find some information.


Another thing we can do - we need to make it standard practice that all the information coming out from city hall is also available in Spanish.


Especially here in District 4, we have a large Spanish speaking population and even if they do speak English, like, it’s just so much more comforting and easier to understand when

you’re reading something in your first language.


A citizen in District 4 recently mentioned to me that when they got the flyer for the new trash and recycle program, that it was only in English, it wasn’t in Spanish. It was like, “how are people supposed to understand what they’re supposed to do, if it’s not available?” Everything that gets sent home from my son’s school, on the other

side, there’s Spanish. So if schools can do that, with all the information they’re sending out all the time, we can do it in city government. We can make that a reality. Then eventually expand that to all the other languages that are represented here. I think that says a lot to our citizens from different countries, that we care about you and we want you to be involved as well.


Gab: Yeah, I love all of those ideas. I was actually just talking to another candidate about the lack of accessibility in the city website. So that’s definitely a recurring problem people are noticing.


Sarah: Yes, it’s very frustrating.


Gab: So what do you see as being the top issues that affect District 4 and what are some of the ideas you have to address those?


Sarah: I think that South Omaha gets forgotten a lot. We’re not really like the squeakiest wheel, so things just get put on the back burner. I’d like to see that change; I’d like South Omaha to become sort of an area that is one of the places to be.


When it comes to roads, Q and L Streets get a lot of attention because they’re like the main traffic ways, but our residential roads and our alleyways get overlooked a lot. Those are the roads that our friends and our family are driving on every day. I don’t drive on L Street every day, but I do drive in and out of my alleyway every

day.


If you’re hitting the same pothole every day or you’re navigating around a bumpy road, it’s just a reminder that no one’s gonna fix that for you - that needs to change. So, we have to create a system where it’s easy for people to request repairs and follow-up to make sure that gets fixed quickly. I know that this is something that [Vinny Palermo] talks about a lot, in city council meetings. About opening up and getting more jobs in public works so they can fix those things, they can tend to our alleys and our roads and our sidewalks and that’s something I would like to do as well.


Another thing that I would love for South Omaha is for us to, um, give

some love to our local small businesses. I don’t want to bring in businesses that are gonna edge out the ones that are already here. We just need to invest in, you know, revitalizing those -giving them incentives to update, to bring in or expand and bring in more of the city.


You know, we talk about [Jacobo’s Grocery], everyone knows Jacobo’s because their chips and salsa are world famous practically and people come from all over. I would love for other businesses in South Omaha, who have products and things that are just as good and just as world famous, have a bigger reach and bring more people into South Omaha. I think we can do this just by creating tax incentives and just investing the time and love into what’s already here and really bringing out the best in it.


Gab: I mean South Omaha is a beautiful part of the city so I would definitely love to see it get a little more attention.


Housing is an issue that I think we are both passionate about as well.


What are some of the major policy changes or ideas you hope to enact to create

more access to affordable housing in Omaha?


Sarah: We’re definitely, um...we’re on the edge or even kind of in the beginning of a housing crisis, which is alarming. We’re getting more and more information everyday about the details of that situation.


Some of the things I think we can do right off the bat is focus on keeping people in the homes that they already have. So, like giving people a tenant right to counsel at eviction hearings. Just having counsel available to them, to let them know what their rights really are, what the rules are. Because it can be intimidating when you’re in a situation like that. You don’t know what you’re doing, you’ve never been there before or maybe it’s just like- it’s scary. So just having like a calm, level head that knows exactly what the rules are and exactly what your rights are and is gonna help you advocate for yourself would be, I think, huge.


I think it’s about 80% of eviction hearings that have counsel actually maintain their home here in Nebraska. Which is amazing and I think we need to be making that standard practice.


Also eliminating source of income discrimination. People tend to discriminate against, maybe like Section 8 housing, for one reason or another. I think if we just eliminate that...That money is there, that’s basically like guaranteed money for landlords. Um, and so I think if we eliminated them being able to discriminate for that, we could increase more people getting into homes.


Here in South Omaha, we have Canopy South, which is a non-profit that is building mixed-income housing. They use the purpose driven communities model that I think Atlanta is using a lot. And so, I’ve been speaking with them and learning about their vision.


They’ve been kind of - they started up at the beginning of last year so the pandemic kind of set them back - but they are working on revitalizing micro neighborhoods and building mixed-income housing that has, like, some at low-

income housing and some at market rate. Just creating lots of amenities and really beautifying that area so it brings everybody in...and then even focusing, they've got, um, “From the Cradle to College Readiness”, I think is how they say it...so they’re investing in people’s lives all the way up until adulthood.


Gosh, there’s so many other things...um, we can increase landlord accountability. I know we have a landlord registry, that’s great. But we can always refine that

process and again, go over the data, look at the research to find the cracks and things that we’re missing to kind of increase that, so that people do have safe homes.


Yeah, I speak to people who work in housing and they are just absolutely heartbroken over the conditions of some of these homes. To think that children are living in and it’s part of their life and it really shouldn’t be that way. I think we have to advocate for people just having safe housing, housing that isn’t hazardous to their health, that is secure and they can feel safe in, and I think that will help the overall wellbeing of our citizens.


Gab: I love those ideas; those are so smart. I love the idea of, like, a tenant’s rights counsel. Because I know that Omaha Tenants United tries to go to eviction court and, you know, last minute tell people their rights, but it’s hard to do that as, like, a small outside force. It would be great if that was, like, built into the system.


As you talked about a little bit in your introduction, the subject of policing has very much been at the forefront of political action and discussion for the last several months. Both across the country and especially here in Omaha.


Can you share some of your thoughts about policing in Omaha and the policies you support related to that?


Sarah: So, this summer was really revealing for Omaha about how the police interact with our communities and how that’s perceived from different pockets of our city. I think it’s really clear that we need a major increase in transparency and accountability, from our - just throughout all law enforcement.


I really think that the police should be a neutral peacekeeping body and we have been given countless examples in our city and in the country of how that’s not the case, and that’s gotta change. The first place that I think we can start with is the flow of funds.


There was a great big debate this summer over the police budget and a lot of protests and a lot of conversations about that and I think, um, that we don’t need to be spending that funding on, like, high-tech equipment that we don’t really need, like night vision goggles. We don’t need to be, like, buying expensive training subscriptions that just reinforce biases that already exist within the community.


I think we need to be siphoning those funds into things that really do prevent

crime and prevent the situations that lead people to situations they get into where a crime is committed. We have mental health responders, I think we have three for the city, and that’s just...not enough. So I think we need, you know, mental health responders, social workers...people who can just really intervene in those crisis moments of someone’s life without being harmed I think would deescalate those situations a lot and actually get to the root of the problem to help people get the resources and help that they need.


We can also create more transparency by demanding that OPD make their bias curriculum available for public review. We got on the website and tried to see, like, what the policies and practices are. And it just said, “we have it, trust us.” Not, I mean, I’m paraphrasing, but that was the basic gist of it and that’s not good enough. Especially for a body of people that are interacting directly with our citizens who

are armed while they’re doing that, it’s just not good enough to be like, “okay, sure, you can do what you want.”


And also, it’s my understanding that there’s only one person who facilitates that training and that’s not okay either. It puts a lot of pressure on that one individual person and also that just leads to gaps and it leads to deficiencies in the training itself. So I think we need to increase the facilitators who are doing the training, we also need to increase just like the documentation that goes into that.


You know, how many people are being trained, how often are they being trained, are they completing these things or are they not. Um, and just sort of - just

so that the community has sort of a peace of mind or so that they can also just identify “that’s not sufficient” or “that’s not effective, we need to change that.” Just having one person in charge of that right now is totally unacceptable.


There’s a few things we can do there, there’s obviously gonna be a lot more but, um, I think the first thing we need to do is work on establishing trust between the police and the community. Because if we don’t establish that, we’re not going to

get anywhere. So that would be number one.


Gab: So, a little bit related to that, a lot of the issues we talk about on our platform pertain to anti-oppression work - like, racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, you know, anything else kind of in that realm.


Can you tell us a little bit about, if you have any ideas related to any form of anti-oppression work and how you plan to reach out and learn from these

communities and help make Omaha a more equitable city?


Sarah: So as a white heterosexual cis woman, I think that it’s very easy for me to take for granted that a lot of policies are written with me in mind. When you don’t have to like find a place where you fit into that policy or discover that you in fact don’t fit into that policy, it’s really easy to assume that everything is fair.


For policymakers who are not a part of the groups that are traditionally

discriminated against, even with good intentions in mind they still may write policy that’s discriminating in some way. I don’t think that’s an excuse for doing that, I think we absolutely have to hold each other accountable, especially for those of us who are the majority.


We have to hold ourselves accountable and we can’t just plead ignorance or act like, “oh, I didn’t know” and therefore you can continue on. We have to be correcting that and be actively correcting those things. That’s why I think it’s important to have a diverse group of individuals on your team and in your networks, who are bringing their perspectives and their experiences in and showing the flaws in those policies that are discriminatory. Or just calling them out, if they’re blatantly discriminatory they just need to be called out and done away with.


We need to be actively listening to those different communities. When opportunities arise to appoint councils and advisory boards, we need to seek representatives from all perspectives and all experiences of life. Instead of just stacking it with people who look and think like us, we need to gather sources from various different experiences and lifestyles.


When we are working on issues that impact maybe one community more than another, that community should have the biggest voice in the conversation. Moving forward we also need to be actively identifying and rooting out discriminatory practices and policies and even changing the language of our existing policies to be more inclusive.


Gab: We asked our followers to let us know what questions they had for our city council candidates, one of the questions that we got asked about climate change.


So, how will you help make Omaha a more environmentally friendly and sustainable city?


Sarah: Something that I think would help District 4 lead the way in making Omaha more environmentally sustainable is focusing on the low-income weatherization of homes. So like when we talk weatherization - I had to look up exactly what this means - we’re talking about air leakage control, insulation, tuning and repairing heating and cooling units.


All of those things that use energy in your home that can be a big drain. There are programs that exist to help those homes in low-income areas or those who are low-income to update their homes in that way. Um, and that ultimately cuts down on utility cost and it makes your home more energy efficient. I think we need to expand it a little bit. There’s a certain income threshold, so if you make under this you’re good, if not you’re over that and you know, you don’t get to. Then also

making it available to homes that were built before 1970, which we have a lot of in District 4.


For the income, we could probably use a tiered method. So if you make over a certain amount you pay a certain percentage of the cost and that would scale up as you make more. That’s gonna reduce our energy consumption and it’s also going to be more economically functional for people, especially those in low-income areas.


Another thing we could do is we need to start making Omaha more bike-friendly. So that’s gonna be like, we need to start preparing for bikes and making the infrastructure that we need to make those successful. Even just enforcing the current biking plans that we have.


I know people that ride their bikes regularly often complain that somebody’s parked in the bike lane or you know, the garbage and debris from the street has gotten pushed into those bike lanes and then you know, it’s dangerous for the rider, it’s dangerous for the bike and that’s just not acceptable.


Also as we start plotting out bike lanes we need to look at whichever ones are part of main veins here in Omaha and then working with our city planners and the local biking groups and stuff to find out which areas they’re frequenting and what the best routes are around the city to make those the best bike paths to use.


I think if we make biking easier and more accessible for people, then they’re gonna be more inclined to try that out and ultimately reduce their car usage. And cars, like, you know, are such a resource drain for everybody so I think kind of just pushing everyone to not be so reliant on their cars is gonna be better for everyone in the long run.


Gab: Yeah, absolutely. Obviously, transportation is another kind of big issue in Omaha, I would really love to hear more ideas for helping out that problem as well.


Something I want to touch on a little bit that I didn’t mention in our original questions, so you can skip it if you want to, but right now our city council only has one woman on it and we have a lot of fantastic women running for city council this year.


Do you want to talk a little bit about, like, what you know, like, being a woman in government would mean to you?


Sarah: That was one of the things when I started researching council, that I did discover at the time there was only one woman on council and I was like, “that’s...not okay” and then even doing digging, I believe that there have never been more than two women serving on council at the same time.


Which, there’s seven positions, why not fill it with seven women? There’s been seven men, I mean that’s basically the basis of “When there are nine” from Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I’ve met through this process I’ve met a lot of the women who are running, and they are incredible people, um, some of the best people I think I’ve met in my life.


They have such great ideas and such great perspectives, that I think if some of them don’t win I think I’m going to be more upset. Like, if Cammy Watkins doesn’t win District 3 I’m gonna be devastated. If Naomi Hattaway doesn’t win District 6, I will be livid.


Um, these are great, excellent women that I’m so excited for, but I think being a woman in government, um, we’ve seen a huge increase, you know, in like the last four years. Of just, more women, more women of color, more Black women or indigenous women. They have gone on to do amazing and great things and I think it

just goes to show that, when everyone, when there’s more representation, when those door open for everyone, really amazing things happen.


So, I’m excited to be a part of that process and that wave as it makes it way into Omaha. Hopefully we will see some unprecedented kind of council with a variety of representation for the first time and I think that will be really indicative of where we’re moving as a city. Um, and ultimately, it’s going to benefit everyone.


Gab: What is your number one goal in running for council?


Sarah: My number one goal is going to be increasing civic engagement by making government more accessible for everyone. Again, I’m going back to the heart of my campaign which is “Information Empowers People to Action.” So, I think that will be the thing that guides me throughout my time on council.


Gab: Yeah, for sure, I love that. Is there anything else that you would like to share about yourself or your campaign?


Sarah: No movement. Or, nobody achieves anything alone, I believe is what Leslie Knope said. So, um, I definitely need volunteers. You can head to my website or my social media to find out how you can get involved. Or just, like, contact me directly and we can talk about what you want to do and how you can help out on the campaign.


Gab: Awesome. Before we wrap this up, because I don’t want this to be, like, a one-way street. Do you have any questions for me?


Sarah: Yes! So I absolutely love your mission as I talked before, that it’s the basis of my campaign. So I want to know, what can I do right now to help your mission?


Gab: Our mission is kind of, like, civic education into civic engagement. So I want people to learn about local offices and I want them to get involved in any way they can.


Something right now is the state legislature is in session right now. So just encouraging people to follow that and to take notes of the bills being introduced. And if you like something, you know, give your senator a shout and say, “I like that, you should support that" and if you don’t like something, do the same thing, and say “hey, I don’t want that.”


You know, new bills are being introduced everyday right now, kind of the part of session we’re in, so people introduce their legislation and it’s a really important time before these votes start to happen.


Read up on what’s going on, maybe pick, like, two to three things that you really care about. Make a call or send a letter.


Well, thank you so much for sitting down and talking with me.


Sarah: Yeah, thank you for interviewing me. It was fun.

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