Strong Towns member Lauren Whitehead and her family came to eastern Iowa for graduate school, then decided to stay in the area after they found an affordable home in Solon—a town of about 2,000 people just north of Iowa City. She writes for the SAT but recently decided to run for city council and won! She's now part of a five person council where she's one of the only women and one of the only young people. I had the chance to chat with her about why she ran for office, what issues she’s hoping to address, and how Strong Towns has influenced her leadership.
Rachel: What encouraged you to run for office?
Lauren: I’ve been involved in political activism for a long time. I’ve been really involved in my county Democratic party, so I knew a lot of city council persons and [had] helped people run in other towns. I had it in my head that I wanted to run for office and a couple people brought it up to me, but my kids were really little. So I waited until they were older.
Then a special election came up. It was kind of a rush job but I ended up crushing it.
Rachel: What are the issues you ran on or are particularly interested addressing?
Lauren: I’m interested in so many things. During my campaign I focused on communication and engagement between council and the people. I emphasized that I would always call people back. That was one promise I made that I’ve kept. I use social media [to communicate], too. In my campaign, I also said I would work really hard. I have a history of activism and put a lot of time in during elections, so I said I’d put that time and energy into my work with city council. The last thing I said I would do was donate my income to a community fund, which went over really well. I’ve done that.
We’re a very fast growing small town. We have small city limits but serve a large population. Our main street is being built up really fast. There’s infrastructure and streets [issues] that I’m really interested in. [...] I’ve been thinking about side street traffic. As we’ve gotten busier, we have more people and more cars now. There are neighborhoods where there’s concern about safety.[...] I’ve been thinking about how I can help people do things in their neighborhoods that don’t require our approval or help.
I’m working on getting a fireworks use ordinance passed too. And I’m working to repurpose a middle school building […] as a community center. We have to figure out the money and liability. I’m trying to try the quicker, lighter, cheaper solutions first. Affordable housing is also something I’m long-term interested in, but that seems a lot hairier to get into.
I’ve been thinking about 1,000 different things. I want to know everything and understand everything. I’m trying to pace myself.
Rachel: You were recently elected in a special election so you’ll have to campaign again soon, right? What are your plans for that?
Lauren: My mental launch date is August 28. That’s the first day I can file my candidacy paperwork. At that point, I’ll get my signs back up. I’ve been mapping out in advance when to place ads in the paper, recruiting people to write letters to the editor on my behalf, getting my social media page more active again, and mapping out my canvassing. […]
I was really the first person to run a campaign in this town.
Rachel: Interesting. Is that because everyone else has just been in office forever so they get elected based on their history, or something else?
Lauren: It’s just mostly been word of mouth. [Candidates] will have little meet-and-greets and ads in the paper. But canvassing? It’s never done. A website? A Facebook page? Never been done before. I had signs all over town. [That’s] very rare.
A lot of the people on council were appointed. It’s been the same people over and over again filling in for each other. They had a surprise vacancy so they were going to reappoint this guy that served previously and quit. It would’ve been something like the sixth appointment in three years. There was grumbling that they kept appointing each other. So I had that wind in my sails when I ran. [...]
Rachel: How are you applying Strong Towns principles in your leadership in your town? How did you find Strong Towns in the first place?
Lauren: One of the things that I’ve definitely been experiencing is a total lack of on-boarding for councilpersons. In my town I’ve been offered almost nothing in terms of “here’s how this works, here’s what you do, here’s how you pass an ordinance…” It’s been sink or swim. So I’ve been actively searching for places to get advice about how small towns like mine deal with these things. I found the [Strong Towns] podcast because I listen to a lot of podcasts, then I found the website and obsessed over that.
What I’ve been most interested in [from Strong Towns], in terms of things I haven’t thought about before, is zoning—how towns set up rules thinking they’ll solve a problem that end up back-firing. I [also appreciate] that there’s adaptive, creative things to do that don’t involve waiting so long. Because I’ve [seen how] the gears move slowly in local government.
We’re in a really weird transitional place [in Solon]. So the community at large needs more resources, but the town doesn’t have the money to invest in these things because we have the infrastructure Ponzi scheme. I like that Strong Towns has a different approach to how to solve problems that I think has more potential to get stuff done. Which is really want I want to do—solve problems.
I was […] looking for a mentorship I didn’t have within my council. I’ve been happy to find that there’s a rural town group in the Slack. It’s just really good to see how other communities have dealt with stuff in creative ways.
Thanks to Lauren for taking the time to chat with us! If you have a story about a Strong Towns member in action, please share it with us.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos from Lauren Whitehead's Facebook page.