Running to the Noise, Episode 7

What It Means To Be a Woman in Power with Stephanie Rawlings-Blake 

Cover art of Running to the Noise featuring Stephanie Rawlings Blake

During her six years as the mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers to do what she thought was right for her city, a lesson she learned from her father, Howard “Pete” Rawlings, a child of Baltimore public housing and one of the most powerful political leaders in Maryland. He taught her that popularity and polls didn’t matter—it was the person in the mirror she had to answer to.

Before stepping into the mayor’s office, Rawlings-Blake was the youngest person ever elected to the Baltimore City Council—just three years after graduating from Oberlin in 1992, a feat that earned her the nickname “Council Girl” from an older colleague looking to put her in her place. She’s also the first and only Black woman to serve as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Now, she's heading up Airbnb's newly formed housing council — a collection of experts convened to advise the company on how it can help solve one of America's most pressing problems: the affordable housing crisis. 

Rawlings-Blake joined Running to the Noise host and Oberlin College and Conservatory President Carmen Twillie Ambar to talk about her eventful tenure as Mayor of Baltimore, how to ignore the polls and survive sexist critiques, and why she’s partnering with Airbnb to tackle the country’s housing shortage.

Please note: President Ambar spoke with Rawlings-Blake three weeks before a massive cargo ship plowed into Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge, killing six. The former mayor appeared on MSNBC to react to the tragedy she called “devastating.”
Listen to her commentary.

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[00:00:00] Carmen: I'm Carmen Twillie Ambar, president of Oberlin College and Conservatory. And welcome to Running to the Noise, where I speak with all sorts of folks who are taking on some of our toughest problems and working to spark positive change around the world and on our campus. Because here at Oberlin, we don't shy away from the challenging situations that threaten to divide us. We run towards them.

[00:00:43] Stephanie: It is an honor and a pleasure to welcome you, delegates, alternates, standing committee members, and all of our honored Democrats and other guests here in Philadelphia. I hereby call the 47th Quadrennial Democratic National Convention to order.

[00:01:14] Carmen: Stephanie Rawlings-Blake never shrinks from the spotlight. She first stepped onto the stage in 1995, when she became the youngest person ever elected to Baltimore City Council, just three years after graduating from Oberlin. Public service was the family business. Her mom was a pediatrician serving the Baltimore community, where Rawlings-Blake and her siblings grew up, while her dad rose to be one of the most powerful political leaders in Maryland.

She took over as mayor of Baltimore in 2010 after her predecessor left office in scandal, drawing praise for hitting Baltimore streets hours into her tenure to help a city buried by the worst blizzard in nearly 20 years.

During her six years at the helm of Charm City, she tackled the city's ballooning structural deficit, making tough decisions to right the financial ship. She handled her critics with characteristic forthrightness, saying, “My commitment is not to my popularity, but to the wellbeing of the city.” And that boldness moved her into the national limelight.

She is the first and only Black woman to serve as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in its 94-year history. As secretary of the Democratic National Committee, she gaveled in the 2016 DNC's convention in Philadelphia, the year of the historic nomination of Hillary Clinton.

Rawlings-Blake also made headlines when she withdrew from Baltimore's 2016 mayoral race, saying she wanted to avoid the distractions of a campaign to focus on governing a city roiled by the death of Freddie Gray, a Black man whose neck was broken while in police custody. She left the city with its highest bond rating in 40 years and spun her experience dealing with tragedy and controversy into her own boutique consulting firm.

Today, she's heading up Airbnb's newly formed Housing Council, a collection of experts convened to advise the company on how it can help solve one of America's most pressing problems, the affordable housing crisis.

Welcome, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, to Running to the Noise.

[00:03:15] Stephanie: It's good to be here. I wish I was on campus. My first year at Oberlin, it snowed Easter weekend.

[00:03:24] Carmen: What I love about when it snows in those odd times at Oberlin is our students from California and the students from the South and the mother in me is like, you know, you need a coat here.

[00:03:36] Stephanie: Exactly. It boggled my mind, like, the people from down South or California, like, didn't have a concept of what a coat was.

[00:03:46] Carmen: That's right.

[00:03:47] Stephanie: Like, you know, their idea of having a winter coat was like. . .

[00:03:50] Carmen: A little jacket.

[00:03:52] Stephanie: Yes. I was like, no, a whole coat. Go around the corner to the thrift store and get yourself a whole coat.

[00:03:59] Carmen: A whole coat and some real boots. So, I have been wanting to talk to you for lots of reasons, but I think part of it has been about the kind of political climate that we're in. And thinking about, you know, what you did shortly after your time at Oberlin, you, kind of, go into politics. When you left Oberlin, were you clear in your mind about that path?

[00:04:22] Stephanie: Absolutely. I was clear from, probably, fourth or fifth grade, that I wanted to pursue a life in public service.

[00:04:31] Carmen: Really?

[00:04:32] Stephanie: Yeah, yeah, pretty early.

[00:04:33] Carmen: Interesting. And was that totally about your family and understanding that life and your dad? I mean, is that why you had that early viewpoint?

[00:04:41] Stephanie: I spent a lot of time with my father. I was the one out of the three of us. I have an older sister and a younger brother. I'm the one that caught the bug. So, it was not a chore for me to go to meetings with my father or political events or volunteer as a campaign worker, even as a little child. Like, I, I enjoyed those things. I loved watching him work. I loved watching him interact with people from the community. People would come to my dad when they had problems and he would work it out. And I think that, as I'm saying it, it probably is occurring to me for the first time, it was about service, but I also… I thrive on solving problems and fixing challenges. And, as I'm saying it to you now, I realized that that is what I saw him doing.

[00:05:31] Carmen: That's what drew you. So, maybe try to, if you can, think about the moment that it crystallized for you the most when you were a young kid. Like, what was the moment where you started to feel like, “Wow, this is just such a cool thing, that I want to do this?”

[00:05:47] Stephanie: It wasn't just one. It was being raised in a house where I saw my parents serve our community on a daily basis. My father, through his work in politics, and my mom, through her work as a community pediatrician. I saw them using their skills and their talents, not just for themselves but in betterment of our community.

So, that's how I was brought up. You know, it was, it was around the dinner table every day. It was when, you know, going to my mom's job and seeing the patients that she served and knowing that she believed that our community deserved quality healthcare, regardless of your zip code. It was ingrained in me every day. So, I can't really say one thing.

[00:06:34] Carmen: It was just, you know, I, I described that feeling because I have it a little bit in my own family, too. My, my mom was, you know, a college administrator. She's theater and dance. My dad was a principal. And I, oftentimes, when I talk to prospective families about what I decided to do. It's like, “I went in the family business. That's what I did.” And so, it sounds like that was for you as well.

[00:06:55] Stephanie: Yeah.

[00:06:55] Carmen: So, let's just talk about Stephanie's dad for a little bit. Howard Pete Rawlings, for those of you who may not know, was a child of the Baltimore public housing, rose to become one of the most powerful political leaders in Maryland, and spent more than a quarter of a century representing the city in the state journal assembly. Many people will describe him as a person who really used his position in the House Appropriations Committee to champion these issues that he cared about—affordable housing, well-funded public schools. So, when Stephanie talks about her background, she's talking about her dad, in particular, and her mom.

Stephanie, anything you can tell us about him that just epitomized his leadership style? Like, what you saw about his leadership style that you wanted to emulate and make a part of, of what you do?

[00:07:41] Stephanie: So, it's interesting, you mentioned being raised in Poe Homes. My parents wanted us to know where we came from. So, my dad would frequently, when he would pick us up from school in his green Volvo station wagon and our little uniforms from our Episcopal school, he would ride us through the project. We grew up in a nice middle class Black community. The mayor down the street, judges, and prominent preachers across the street, all of that. But, you know, we might be going home there, but, “This is where you're from. These are your roots.” Because he never forgot it. That's how he served. Meaning, he went toe to toe with the mayor on funding for the Baltimore City school system. And it was a horrible… I mean, bitter, fight, really, to get more funding for the schools.

[00:08:39] Carmen: Yeah. It was funding that was, kind of, the key issue?

[00:08:41] Stephanie: Yeah. So, the schools had a horrible reputation—a lot of mismanagement, the students' performance was poor, just a lot wrong. And my father knew that, unless we could get sufficient funding for the schools, we couldn't anticipate better outcomes. And he did not accept what was being said by many legislators at the time. These kids, you know, come from broken homes. They have this. They have that. This is why. And he said, “These are excuses. We should not be providing excuses. We should be providing excellence and excellent education.” And he knew that his colleagues in the legislature were not going to put the amount of money into the school unless the state had a larger role in how the schools were being run. So, he created the city-state partnership so that the school system was run in conjunction with the governor.

And the mayor at the time didn't want to give up control, but didn't have a solution for how to get that money. So, you know, it was a knock down drag but schools have been better for it.

[00:09:48] Carmen: Yeah. I'm sure he gave you lots of advice, maybe political advice, personal advice. What's the best piece of advice that he’s given you, as you think about, you know, your time in politics?

[00:10:02] Stephanie: I mean, that's a tough one. The couple of things stick out when I think about the lessons I learned from my father. And one of the things that sticks out is that you have to be comfortable with the person that you see in the mirror when you're making decisions. And what that means is that you can't be swayed by polls. You can't be swayed by if you're going to make people happy or not.

You have to be comfortable with the person that you see in the mirror and know that you're doing the right thing and stand on that. And he did that. And what… you know, when it was good, you know, when people were saying kind things and when people weren't, he was that person to stand on what he believed.

And it was amazing to see his example. I mean, I mentioned the school thing. It was vicious— protests in front of our house. And I mean, it was, it was a mess, but he did the tough things. And that inspired me to want to do the tough things.

And the other thing that I really learned from him, he would always stress the importance of discipline. And that's what I hear when I am feeling like I'm being lazy, when I feel like… you know, when you're faced with all of the things you don't want to do, I hear his voice in my head.

[00:11:27] Carmen: Yes. Well, I really appreciate that perspective. I think, lots of women who have these strong fathers in their corner, oftentimes, talk about some of the things that you're talking about in terms of, you know, do the right thing. We're not trying to do the popular thing. We're trying to do the right thing, because that's the only thing where you can look yourself in the mirror, right? Trying to make people happy, as my dad would say, it's futile. So, you should just do the right thing. And I, like you, have that, that sense of discipline. So, I'm always fascinated by these women who have these strong fathers, because typically, we all speak the same language.

So, I want to talk a little bit about your time as mayor. What, sort of, stands out to you as the one or two biggest challenges that you faced during your time?

[00:12:15] Stephanie: So many.

[00:12:19] Carmen: That’s what I feel sometimes. What's your biggest challenge? Yeah, that's the too many to name.

[00:12:23] Stephanie: Right. So, you know, Baltimore is a city with many challenges, like many cities around the country. I mean, if you talk about community issues, Baltimore suffers with a large population of people living with addiction to drugs, a huge problem that impacts, not just individual, but systems in our city. And when I say systems, we had a systemic problem with our budget. Our budget was unsustainable. And a large part of that is because a lot of the non-taxable property is located in Baltimore. Even though we're not the, the capital of the state, a lot of state buildings are here, colleges and universities, lots of churches and not-for-profits. And all of those are not taxable.

[00:13:09] Carmen: I was going to say, not a tax base that can support what you need to do.

[00:13:14] Stephanie: Absolutely. So, that was a challenge. Violent crime was a problem. And at the same time, we had strong problems, had and have problems with the way that the police and the community interacted. So, we have this violent crime problem. And the people who we would want to go to to help solve those, in large parts, were ill-equipped to do it because of the long-standing relationship. So, I mean, those are just some of the… you know, I could talk about health disparities, you know. It was a lot.

[00:13:45] Carmen: Yeah. You know, there'll be a lot of our students listening to this. So, when you enter a role where there's a sea of challenges, right… and our students will be entering these types of roles. Like, how do you decide what to do first? How did you make choices about, “Okay, here's what I'm going to tackle?”

[00:14:02] Stephanie: So, what I looked for were the challenges that would have the longest lasting, most impactful. Like, “If I were able to fix this, I know that I would change the trajectory of the city.” So, one of the things I started on was focused on growth and saying, you know, I want to grow our city. I wanted to change the mindset that we had where it seemed like we were managing decline. No, I wanted a pro-growth, because I knew that, if we could attract people back in the city with the infrastructure that we have, we had an infrastructure that could support over a million people. We had 620, right? I focused on growth. I focused on the fact that we had an unsustainable budget and no one was willing to tackle it, and created a 10-year financial plan that, that tried to tackle the things that were contributing to a budget that was going upside down, right? I tackled our pension system that was about to collapse. And I was on the city council since 1995.

[00:15:04] Carmen: Right. Because was that your first position you ran for city council?

[00:15:10] Stephanie: Well, first major position. I was a Democratic Party official. I'd run for that while I was still at Oberlin.

[00:15:16] Carmen: And you were young in that city council position, right?

[00:15:18] Stephanie: Yeah, the youngest.

[00:15:19] Carmen: Weren't you, like, 25?

[00:15:21] Stephanie: Mm-hmm, 25.

[00:15:22] Carmen: And it was early, early leadership in an important role.

[00:15:26] Stephanie: Yeah. My brother likes to tease me, because he was at a meeting where I was introduced by an elder stateswoman in our community, who I think was making sure that she was putting me in my place. I was introduced as, as Council Girl. Yeah. I was like, “That's a new one.”

[00:15:48] Carmen: That is a new one. It's just to make sure everybody knows she's young.

[00:15:52] Stephanie: Right, right. And what did I say? Don't get beyond yourself, right?

[00:15:56] Carmen: Yeah, don't get confused. Don't get too big for your britches here. Let's clip those wings a little bit, Council Girl.

[00:16:02] Stephanie: Yes.

[00:16:05] Carmen: I love it. I love it. Before we, sort of, move away from Baltimore, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the Freddie Gray matter, because I know the audience will be interested in your perspective about what happened there. And, you know, most of the audience will probably know that, after his death in police custody, that the city, kind of, erupted in protest. And at the time, you know, you withdrew from your running in the, the mayor's race. And, you know, there were supporters who talked about the move as a selfless move. There were detractors who, who had their own critique. If you could go back to that moment, not that you would want to go back to it, would you make the same choice?

[00:16:48] Stephanie: Yeah. It was one of the toughest decisions that I've had to make, but it was the right decision. And for so many, so many reasons.

[00:16:58] Carmen: So, what was so right about it? It may have been time, but in your calculus, what was so right about that decision?

[00:17:05] Stephanie: So, at the time, it would have meant that I would have been committing to being mayor for five more years.

[00:17:12] Carmen: Yep.

[00:17:13] Stephanie: And I knew that I did not have it in me. It was a very rewarding job, but it was taxing. It was taxing. And let me just say it again. I loved almost every minute of it. I loved what I had a chance to do. But I knew that it was personally taxing. I had a young daughter who I had barely got to spend… you know, our quality time was so limited. We rarely got to have dinner together. You know, our time was breakfast on a good day. And she was finishing middle school, about to enter high school. And I knew, you know, that was in my calculus. So, that was part of it. I knew that, if I couldn't do every day of the five years, that I shouldn't do the first day of it. I knew that I couldn't do that to my city. I'd worked too hard to put things in place, right?

And also, it was a challenging time for the city. And my attention was being diverted to campaigning. And I had to make a decision, regardless. Polls are what they are. You know, people were like, “Oh, she was down in the polls.” Polls are what they are. I didn't make decisions based on polls before. You know what I mean? Like, wasn't going to start. And I had a very strong track record and, you know, stuff to be proud of. But I would definitely make the same decision.

[00:18:36] Carmen: You know, it's one of the, the most difficult decisions, I think, to, kind of, walk away, to decide to pivot, to change to something different. That’s such a tough thing to do.

[00:18:48] Stephanie: It's tough, but it's essential, because when I made the decision, there was such a peace that I felt that's really hard to describe. But when you have to make a tough decision and you know that you're getting it right, like, I have never had a moment’s regret.

[00:19:09] Carmen: Yes.

[00:19:09] Stephanie: You know, like, I will have people come up to me, “Oh, you should have run again. You would have won.” And what? You know what I mean, like…

[00:19:18] Carmen: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

[00:19:18] Stephanie: And that was, you know, it wasn't whether I could win or not. It was, you know, seeing down the road, is that the right decision for me? Is it the right decision for the city? You know, there's a, like I said, a sense of peace that comes with knowing that you did the right thing.

[00:19:34] Carmen: I think you hit the nail on the head. You know, for people out there who are having to make those tough choices, it's when you have peace about it, then you really know that that's the right thing. And I'm not surprised at all that you had peace about it.

It's interesting that you talked a little bit about your family because I wanted to talk to you a little bit about women's leadership specifically and to just ask you whether you think there's anything different about women's leadership as compared to how we think that men typically lead. Would you say that there's anything different, or no?

[00:20:10] Stephanie: I think there are definitely things that women leaders have in common, especially women leaders who are juggling family lives, because I have rarely seen a male leader with a family have similar struggles as a woman leader with family, right?

When I think about leadership style, though, I've seen some extremely thoughtful, compassionate women leaders and, also, men leaders. The thing that I feel in my political world has been the biggest thing to differentiate people is their motivations for leadership.

I can tell that, probably, because I was raised in it and have a lot of experience dealing with it, I can tell when there's someone in a position that wants to get things done because they are concerned about making things better for the community. And I can instantly tell when someone is there for personal ambition. And I feel like that's the biggest…

[00:21:17] Carmen: That's the dividing factor, the motivation. Why are you here? And what are you trying to accomplish while you're here? And this is about you. It's interesting that you say that, because I'm trying to think of the commentator. But I saw him, and he was talking about the different presidents that he had, had been exposed to.

And he said, “You know, the thing about Barack Obama is that he doesn't need this. Like, he doesn't need it in order to feed his ego.” That was his perspective about it. And I think that's, kind of, what you're talking about. Like, what's your motivation for doing this? Is this about you and your own personal ambition? Or, this is about your motivation to do something for the people that you represent? And I think it's interesting, Stephanie, that you feel like you can see it instantly.

[00:21:59] Stephanie: Yeah. I mean, if you're in tune to it, you can, because there are key signs. When you see people who desperately need to be liked, they embrace the, like, the social part of the position in an overwhelming way and want to be identified with the position and not the work, it's very clear to me.

[00:22:23] Carmen: You can just see that all over them. I guess, the other thing I wanted to talk to you about women in politics is just a little bit about how women are treated in the political sphere. And I don't know how much you face this. I'd be interested to hear, but just these gendered critiques. You know, I think Kamala Harris has certainly faced that. Hillary faced that as well, you know, do you smile enough? Did you, you know, wear the right clothes?

[00:22:52] Stephanie: Yeah, it gets exhausting, because it's hard. And it's one of those things. It's like racism. It's frustrating to be the impacted person and yelling about it, right? It's much more, I think, effective for someone who was not impacted by it to notice it and say something about it, right, as opposed to, you know, when you're doing it, especially as a woman, now you're whining, now you're complaining, now you're this. But it was incessant. I mean, what shoes I had on, what, what makeup, incessant. But it was one of those things, like, you know, I'm not going to change it, right? I'm not going… like, there's people aren't going to wake up, to the sexism, to the gender stereotypes, to the way in which they're critiquing leadership decisions and even results-

[00:23:47] Carmen: Yes.

[00:23:47] Stephanie: … with a gender bias, right? So, I can beat myself up and be mad about it, or I can, you know, get up, be the person I want to be every day and, and get things done.

[00:23:59] Carmen: Right. Did you just decide, Stephanie… because I know that, you know, women face this in all sorts of areas, but particularly in the political sphere because of just the scrutiny. Did you just decide, “Hey, I'm not going to worry about that anymore. I'm going to put it in this box?” When you say it was incessant, did it bother you, or did you just figure out some way to put it to the side?

[00:24:19] Stephanie: Both, right? It bothered me because it was annoying. It was annoying. It was annoying. Because you see people and there are characteristics that, if you're a tall man, you're assumed to be smart. It's just frustrating.

[00:24:34] Carmen: Yeah. It's, kind of, like, I've heard people say, you know, if it's a man that makes a decision, if it's strategic; if it's a woman, it's calculating. Because it’s one thing to kind of critique your makeup and your hair and your shoes, okay, that's a certain kind of framework. But the results are this kind of gendered language, if you want to call it that, you know, strategic, thoughtful, careful, calculating, aloof, you know, whatever the phrase is.

[00:24:58] Stephanie: Listen, when I got the crime rate, the homicide rate down to the lowest it's been, I swear to you, people said, “Oh, it was because of the way the moons were aligned.” Like, not, not, like, you know, I was making decisions that were impacting and saving lives. But, you know, like, astrology or something.

It was, like, crazy. It was, like, I could not give… they could attribute the success to anything but my hard work and my… right. Anything but, anything but. And, you know, it's crazy. You mentioned the death of Freddie Gray and the challenges that we had after that. I look at the way other mayors, the lens through which they are perceived, their judgments. And I know, if I were a different gender, the things that I did would be interpreted differently. I know that if I were a different race, they would be interpreted differently because I see in other cities where mayors of other genders and other races make decisions that are harmful to the communities that they're trying to serve, they're not called on it, right?

[00:26:03] Carmen: Yeah.

[00:26:03] Stephanie: So, when I make a decision to save lives, to make sure that we don't escalate, like, I was berated on national television for waiting too long to call in the National Guard.

[00:26:16] Carmen: Yeah.

[00:26:16] Stephanie: At a time when I had already seen what happens when there was a rush to militarize a response to a protest, right? And, you know, the, the former governor, to this day, thinks that he ran in and, and saved our city. He doesn't have any concept of the fact, historically, that was a, you know, a bad decision. When we had riots in ’68, I think the National Guard killed, like, seven people. And imagine what my city would have been if the first call I made was to the governor to bring in a National Guard and seven people were killed.

[00:26:52] Carmen: Yeah.

[00:26:53] Stephanie: Baltimore would not be left, right? The entire city would have burned down.

[00:26:57] Carmen: I want to move on to your new role at Airbnb, but I wanted to ask one last question about this politics, women in the roles, and just wonder what thoughts you may have around moving the needle of, of women in politics and, particularly, women of color in politics.

We don't have very many women of color leading major cities. I don't think a Black woman has ever been a governor. They've never been, kind of, simultaneously serving in the Senate. Like, we can't get anybody together. And I'm wondering any thoughts you have about how we move the needle on women in politics, in general, but particularly Black women.

[00:27:35] Stephanie: I’m encouraged by the number of organizations that are out there and the depth of the organizations that are out there supporting women who want to run for office and women of color who want to run for office. And for me, I think it's a numbers game. We have to get more. We won't have more than one female in the Senate, or two, unless we get more in the city councils, more in the state houses and more in congress.

So, those organizations are out there doing the work. We have to be intentional as a community, and not just as Black women, but as a community that we value the different voices and the different abilities of diverse leadership. And, you know, we have to say that we're going to put our money where our mouth is and support these candidates.

And, you know, I'm hopeful because I meet young people that still want to pursue public service, smart people that want to pursue public service. So, you know, I, I think better days are ahead.

[00:28:33] Carmen: Well, I'm glad to hear you say that, you know, I get a chance to spend time around all of these young people all the time, wonderful Obies, as you know. And, you know, I, I get the feeling sometimes that the polarization, the divisiveness is just so off-putting for the students that I connect with. Like, can you really get anything done that's of substance? Let's just ask the Stephanie Rawlings that was here at Oberlin: Do you think you'd make the same choice to go into politics knowing what you know now?

[00:29:03] Stephanie: Absolutely. Absolutely. And without a doubt, I knew from a very early age what I was put here to do. And when I think about what I was able to do in the time that I was in office, sometimes I'm awestruck because, you know, I was very disciplined, very focused, you know, “This is what I want to do.” And, you know, not too many people get the experience of driving around their city and being able to say, “I was a part of that. Because of me, because of me.” And to have that, it gives me goosebumps, still, to know the impact that I was able to have and to know that that legacy will outlive me.

[00:29:50]Carmen: Yeah. What would you say to that young Obie that's thinking about the pursuit of politics? What advice would you give them about how to pursue this career and to make a difference?

[00:30:04] Stephanie: You know, when I think about the problems that we have, I feel like that the type of person that's drawn to Oberlin is a type of person that can change, that can make the changes that we need to see. I feel like a person that chooses Oberlin doesn't need to be taught to value people that are different than them. And a person that chooses Oberlin, I think, is willing to live life on their own terms and is okay being non-traditional, right? So, I feel like someone smart, courageous, that values people, and that is smart enough to know that there's a better way, you know, those are the type of people that Oberlin produces. That's why I remain optimistic.

[00:30:53] Carmen: I am, too. When I look at the students that I get a chance to interact with every day, you know, I say all the time that I believe their world needs more Oberlin graduates. And it needs more Oberlin graduates because Oberlin graduates want to change the world for good. And that's their desire.

It's the same thing that you said early on about what's, why are you here and what are you trying to accomplish? And this is about you or this is about someone else. I'm not saying that Obies do it perfectly. I don't do it perfectly. No one does. But if that intention is right, and if that goal is right, try to do good in the world, try to make it better than you found it, then I think we can all have hope about it. And so, it makes me feel good, since you've been in the fray of the political world, you know what it is. If you still have hope, then we can all have hope.

Let's talk about Airbnb before I let you go. Why did you agree to head up their new housing council? Like, what drew you to that?

[00:31:45] Stephanie: Okay. So, a couple of things. I think it is universally understood that we have a housing shortage in this country. We need 3 million additional homes to be adequate as far as housing, right?

[00:31:58] Carmen: Right.

[00:31:59] Stephanie: I'm grateful that Airbnb sees itself as part of the solution and not, you know, by everyone being a host, right, or using Airbnb, but using their platform, right, their influence, to try to solution-find. And they're leaning into it. And that's what I want to be a part of. When I talked earlier about, you know, being a solution finder, being with Airbnb helps me lean into that.

[00:32:29] Carmen: So, I know you've heard this. Critics have argued that, you know, the proliferation of Airbnb has contributed to the rising housing costs. First, respond to that critique. I'm sure you've heard it. And then what do you think are the potential solutions?

[00:32:44] Stephanie: I've heard it, and it's unfortunate because it's one of those things where people say it enough times, even if there's no data to support it, that people believe it, right? It's unfortunate, because Airbnb hosts are scapegoated and it's not accurate. Airbnb works really hard and has worked really hard in communities to make sure that they're getting it right. They make sure that they're paying their fair share of taxes. Cities across the country and globally really have economically benefited from hosts and what they give to the community. What hosts bring are more people to the city.

As mayor of Baltimore, I knew that tourism was the second biggest job producer in the city. So, having the ability to diversify and increase the number of tourists we had in the city was all to the good. It's important that we see things clearly, but also that Airbnb knows that, you know, we don't have all the solutions, but we can learn from housing experts. And try to figure out what policies, what initiatives we can support to help increase housing supply across the country.

Airbnb, I think they invested, like, $3 million in this ballot initiative in California to make it easier for communities to support, like, tax incentives and things for projects that include affordable housing.

Airbnb is not running around taking credit for that. They're doing the work. And that's what I like to be a part of, you know. They've got this council of housing experts from across the country, smart people at the table saying, how can we convene to try to move the needle when it comes to housing supply in this country?

So, that's what makes me excited. And this is not a 30-minute sitcom where we're going to, you know, have two meetings and everything will be solved. This is a long-term problem. They're willing to say, “We want to be a part of this long-term solution.”

[00:34:56] Carmen: And when you talk about these experts, is it people like you who've been in politics? People who are in the housing industry? Like, the council itself, you know, who's sitting around the table, helping Airbnb say, “These are the types of initiatives to support. We want to focus on anti-blight programs.” I know you did lots of work in Baltimore on that topic. Is it that at the end of a certain period of time, you will say, “These are the areas or recommendations that we think are important, and here's how we're going to spend our time supporting it financially or elevating it.”

[00:35:25] Stephanie: It's a journey right now, not a destination. So, what I wanted to make sure we did was not presuppose what the outcome would be but to get these smart people in the room. And let's try to figure it out together. So, we have people that specialize in zoning, people that are YIMBYs instead of NIMBYs, people that focus on housing and the way it’s financed. Housing, and not just, like, big projects, but, like, individuals, how individuals getting, you know, access to financing to purchase homes? People who look at housing policy and are focused on fighting policies that are discriminatory or, you know, prevent adequate housing from being produced.

So, it's those types of people that are at the table. There were a few things that we agreed, like, okay, you know, we can identify different initiatives that are happening across the country that need additional support. And we know that, by supporting this, we're moving, you know, incrementally, we're continuing to move the needle.

That's some of the low-hanging fruit. I think the higher win is the work that we're doing trying to be the leader in this space, meaning Airbnb wants to be a part of the solution. And I know that there are other big companies that also want to be a part. And let's figure out how we can use our resources, use our platforms and create solutions.

[00:36:50] Carmen: Yeah. Well, you know, we're going to be following you, because you're an Obie and we love our wonderful, successful, powerful Obies. I guess, my final, sort of, question for you, because I… there's a part of me that, as we were having this conversation, and I know you've been in democratic politics for a while and the DNC and all sorts of things, and I thought to myself, does my friend here have another political run in her?

[00:37:17] Stephanie: I actually thought that I could get through this podcast without that question.

[00:37:26] Carmen: Nope, you cannot. You cannot, because you know what it is. You know, part of it, I think, is that we're all looking for these inspirational folks who care and who are trying to do right. We’re not looking for perfection. We're not looking for that at all. We're looking for people who care and who want to do the right thing and who are going to try to surround themselves with the right people. And everybody knows that that has been your career. That's been your family's career. That's been your career. And so, you know, I would be wrong if I didn't ask you that question. People would go, “You didn't ask her that?”

[00:38:04] Stephanie: You know, it's one of those things you never say never. But for right now, no. I served in office for 21 years. And some of them felt like dog years. And it's one of those things where it doesn't matter how good it is if it's heavy, right? And I am enjoying the non-regimented life, right? I know that the call for public service for me is very strong. And I don't… I know that I won't be able to resist it forever, but for right now, I am enjoying my life.

[00:38:40] Carmen: Well, for all the listeners out there, you heard that little sliver of hope there. And I just really appreciate your work, your early commitment to the political fray, your willingness to do the difficult things, because leadership is about that if you do it right. So, we appreciate your service. Thanks so much for coming on the show. And we will be on the lookout for your announcement, even though it may be years from now.

[00:39:09] Stephanie: Thank you so much. And for the Oberlin students that are listening, know that there is at least one person who will always root for you. Anytime I see an Obie doing something, it gives me goosebumps. And it warms my heart. And know that I am rooting for you.

[00:39:24] Carmen: I appreciate that. That is certainly necessary. And I know they feel it.

Thanks for listening to Running to the Noise, a podcast produced by Oberlin College and Conservatory and University FM, with music composed by Oberlin professor of Jazz Guitar, Bobby Ferrazza, and performed by the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble, a student group created to the support of the legendary jazz musician.

If you enjoyed the show, be sure to hit that Subscribe button, leave us a review, and share this episode online so Obies and other folks around the world can find this. I'm Carmen Twillie Ambar, and I'll be back soon with more innovative thinking for members of the Oberlin community on and off our campus.

Running to the Noise is a production of Oberlin College and Conservatory and is produced by University FM.