LENA GONZALEZ, city councilwoman
Written by Lisa Khiev
On a Thursday morning, I sat among chatty morning conversations and coffee at Long Beach’s local Berlin Bistro, awaiting to be accompanied by City Councilwoman, Lena Gonzalez. – fitted comfortably in a business casual blazer over a blouse, casual skinny denims, and cheetah flats. With sleek hair brushed and tucked under her ear on one side, her confident, yet relaxed demeanor immediately carried over a warm presence as she walked over to our table.
For half an hour next, I sat and talked with Lena to learn more about her roles and efforts for the city of Long Beach, and why having the “-woman” behind “Councilwoman” was important to her.
As far back as you can remember, what drove you into the career you have today? Who were your influences?
I have a very strong mother who immigrated here when she was 7 and she came from a very poor family and my dad also came from a very poor family.. so for me, seeing them work hard and wanting to improve their quality of life was transformative. Now for me, it’s like “How can I do a little bit more for my community?” which enticed me to become someone in public office and really serve the community because I see a lot of my residents, like my parents – It’s really important to give back in that sense.
How long have you been a City Council member/woman and over those years what have been your biggest challenges?
I’ve been a City Councilwoman for a little over four years but I’ve worked for the city for almost ten years. The challenges that I’ve faced … It’s like I know my district very well, but there’s always difficulties in a district that’s constantly evolving and changing. We came from little investment and no resources and have put in a lot of work and I think the main issue right now is seeing people being displaced from their homes. For me, that’s a major challenge – ‘what can we do as policy makers to make it stop?’ We want people, we want diversity, it’s hard to watch what is happening.
What are some important projects you are working on now that are dear to your heart?
Wow.. I’m working on quite a bit! (Lena laughs). We’re working on a few things. One is immigration. We have the highest Latino population in the First District with over 60% of our residents. In addition to that, we have a lot of Cambodian families, so for us, immigration is a big deal. In this city, it should be a big deal. It’s always just something we can work extensively on… sanctuary, city policy, and spending money on how we can fight deportation. Number two is digital inclusion. We know that about 30,000 of residents are offline in the city of Long Beach.. which is crazy, how are people not connected? How do we get people connected and how do we also get them jobs in tech? It’s become a passion of mine because I also work in technology. And lastly, park equity. I am making sure we have park programs in places where the city needs it the most – the West side of the city, Downtown, and Central Long Beach. Places need to have park programs so kids stay out of trouble and to support families and seniors. That’s the three major ones we’re working on.
What can you say are your 3 favorite things about the city of Long Beach? How does it tie into your work?
So, I love the people! We have the coolest, most eclectic, fun, and creative people – we have artists, small business owners, young families and seniors.. all of that combined is what makes the city amazing. I love serving the most eclectic district, it’s so cool. Number two is that I feel that I can raise my kids here, and I do. Sometimes, Long Beach gets a bad rep as being crime-ridden, but I think we are just the opposite. You can raise your family, you can get an education and you can work here. Lastly, I just love the variety of local businesses that we have. I love coming to local businesses to dine, shop, and all that fun stuff.
As a leading woman and active member of the City Council, do you feel women need to be more represented in the work you do? Or in other industries? If yes, how so?
Yes, yes, and yes! (Lena laughs) I actually refer to myself as ‘Council – WOMAN’ vs. ‘Councilmember’ because I think there’s power in that. There’s only four of us on the City Council. There’s nine members. We absolutely should have more women in public office and in staff. I have Jennifer (looks over at Jennifer next to her), who is incredible. We need more of her in public offices as well. We need more women at the school board level, we need them not only on City Council, but on commissions and on boards… we need to make sure that we’re always supporting other women as much as possible in any leadership role.
What kind of advice can you give to the Long Beach community – and specifically, young women interested in taking on “difficult” roles and struggling to break through?
I would say, get a mentor. It’s good to have women mentors, but it’s also good to have male mentors. Find people who you aspire to be and stick with them because you can learn a lot from them. I think that’s important. My staff is not only my staff, I learn a lot from them as well –we mentor each other. I would also say keep involved, stay politically involved, especially now. Particularly in your own city; Are you going to meetings? Are you staying in tune with the infrastructure that’s happening, the changes in your community and in your city? Keep up to date because no matter if you go into interior design or political science, it all matters and it all affects you. You shouldn’t be surprised if anything happens because you’re involved.
How can we get involved as community members to learn more about your work and to continue making a difference with you?
Well, first and foremost, social media is so important. You can learn about everything we’re doing on Instagram @lenagonzalezlb. We love putting on events for the community, I would say, ‘come out and enjoy.’ Get to know your neighbors. Give us ideas, because we don’t always have the best ideas. Stay involved in that sense… and if you can, come to the City Council meetings, and if you have an issue that you want to talk about, it’d be great to hear people’s voices there.