Susan SLATER Ellenberg ’83, Santa Clara County Supervisor
When Susan SLATER Ellenberg ’83 feels that something is unjust, she speaks up. As a current member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, Susan advocates for everything from affordable housing to environmental conservation, and has even spoken publicly—and inspiringly—about her own experience with depression. She not only credits her Ellis education with playing a part in her choice to run for office, but with teaching her to work hard and believe in the power of her own voice.
Tell me about how you got into your line of work. Public service is a relatively new venture for me, though I have long been civically engaged in my community by serving on boards, volunteering in my community, supporting candidates for elected office, and advocating for policies and causes that are important to me. Years after I left the practice of law, I embarked on a new career in education and taught social justice studies to middle school students. Teaching about civic engagement and social responsibility encouraged me to think about how I might further increase my own engagement to affect positive social change in my community. Why did you decide to run for public office? The immediate impetus was a response to a proposed school district policy that I felt was unsound. Following my own example of what I was teaching my students (at a school not in the district), I decided that the best way to influence policy that impacted students was to run for a seat on the school board, which I did in 2014.
As I approached the end of my school board term, I decided to run for an open seat on the County Board of Supervisors, a five-member board that oversees the safety and welfare of nearly two million residents across fifteen cities and a large unincorporated area with a budget of more than seven billion dollars. I’m delighted to share that I defeated a field of seven competitors, winning handily this past November. I was sworn into office on January 7, 2019. Do you think your Ellis education played a part in your decision to run? Did your time at an all-girls school give you the confidence to put yourself out there? Without a doubt, my Ellis education played a part in my decision to run. Women are dramatically underrepresented in elected office, and it takes a significant amount of fortitude to dive into this aggressive and competitive work. Ellis taught me that very hard work yields rewards, and I knew how to work hard. Ellis also imbued within me the confidence to run and honed my belief that I was every bit as capable—if not more so!—than any man who would seek this office. Because of my time at Ellis, I knew that my voice mattered and that I could have an impact. For Ellis students reading this, is there any wisdom you’d want to pass on to them? Work hard, know what you’re talking about, ask questions, and USE YOUR VOICE.
Seek out other women with whom to work collaboratively—support one another and build networks of strong women who are not intimidated by their peers’ success but celebrate and nourish it.
Never qualify a question with, “I was just wondering...“ or “This might be wrong, but...” Speak up and ask. If you’re wrong, someone will tell you and then you will be wiser. Don’t begin by discounting the value of your question. If you don’t know the answer, likely others don’t, either. Asking questions doesn’t show weakness or lack of intellect—it demonstrates precisely the opposite: You have the desire to learn more and that you are confident enough to acknowledge where you need to learn.
Do your part in making our world a better place by figuring out what is important to you. What do you think are the advantages to Ellis’ all-girls environment? That there are no boys. Seriously, I think that boys in the classroom are at best a distraction and, at worst, a force that leads girls to still their own voices, take up less space, and question themselves. All-girls environments do precisely the opposite: They celebrate girls’ voices, give them ALL of the space, and encourage them to question not themselves but the world around them. We often talk about girls developing their voice at Ellis. What does that mean to you? It means literally speaking up, particularly in the face of injustice and on behalf of those who may not be in a position to speak up for themselves. I use my voice every day on behalf of the residents of my County, advocating for the programs and services that will help them live stable, self-sufficient lives. Tell me about a time when you have been brave and bold. One of my bravest moments in recent history was when I stood in front of my Rotary Club of more than 200 members and shared my experience with depression. I was terribly nervous to do so but also felt it was important to do my part in reducing the stigma of mental illness. Afterward, I was fairly mobbed by people who suddenly wanted to share their own stories and those of their siblings/parents/children/friends—it was truly as if a dam broke and everyone had been waiting for permission to speak. Over the next week, I received dozens of emails thanking me for my courage and sharing their stories or even asking for advice or resources. It reinforced my conviction that nearly everyone struggles with something, no matter how successful, shiny, or “perfect” the external appearance may be, and it reminded me that we could all be just a bit kinder toward one another; we don’t know the loads others are carrying, but they may be tremendous. How did Ellis stimulate your intellectual curiosity and creativity? Ellis made it super cool to be smart and curious and ask questions. My teachers encouraged questions and spoke respectfully to us students, clearly valuing our perspectives and emboldening us to take intellectual risks without worrying about how we would “look” if we were wrong. When do you feel empowered, and how do you empower other women in your life? I feel empowered by knowledge—learning new information and figuring out how to use it to do good work is incredibly satisfying and invigorating. I feel empowered when I am collaborating with others who are committed to doing good work with transparency and integrity. I empower other women by shining lights on their talents and by providing opportunities for them to develop their skills and advance their own agendas. What lessons has your work life taught you? That I continue to learn and grow all the time. There is no moment of “growing up” and defining yourself in any static manner. As Michelle Obama expresses so eloquently, we are all “becoming”—and I intend to continue doing so.
How do you spend your free time? Reading, reading, and reading. Also doing crossword puzzles, playing Words with Friends, hiking with friends, chatting with my young-adult children, and playing with my dogs. I try to exercise several times a week...“try” being the operative word there. If you could interview anyone living or dead, who would it be and why? Eleanor Roosevelt. She accomplished so much without ever holding a formal title or job position. She influenced her husband’s administration, advocated successfully for the country’s most vulnerable residents, and was relentless in her pursuit of justice, particularly in the areas of race and women’s rights. Though her husband was President, she did not live in his shadow—she held her own press conferences, wrote columns, and spoke publicly, and she was not afraid to express ideas that may have been unpopular if she believed they were just. What is the last book you read? Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi How would you describe yourself in three words? Serious. Hardworking. Genuine.