Despite having never held elected office, Joy Schendledecker says her mutual aid work in the community has provided her with a unique perspective on what the city needs, and that she is well in tune with the area due to her standing as a typical Santa Cruz resident.
Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.
Joy Schendledecker never thought she would run for office.
Though politically active during the seven-plus years she has called Santa Cruz home, that time has been spent in organizing efforts outside the realm of electoral politics. Along with her work as a multimedia artist, she is an active member of Santa Cruz’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and co-founded the collective Santa Cruz Cares and the mutual aid group Sanitation for the People.
Working and organizing with these groups spurred her drive to pursue elected office.
“I’ve seen more directly how policies, laws and the tone of public conversations have real effects on people, and it makes me want to be involved in helping to decide what’s on the books,” Schendledecker told Lookout on Tuesday.
That motivation came to a head Aug. 1, when Schendledecker announced her candidacy for Santa Cruz City mayor via social media. Now, as veteran politico Fred Keeley — the only other candidate for the brand new office — announces his candidacy, she readies for a fall campaign ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
Though unexpected for Schendledecker, given the work she does, this life progression isn’t far-fetched.
Originally from rural Maryland, Schendledecker earned her undergraduate degree in studio art and art history from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. She moved to Santa Cruz with her husband, T.J. Demos, a professor of art history and visual culture at UC Santa Cruz, and her two children in 2015 from London. In her 10 years there, she served on the board of governors at a local primary school for two years — the closest experience she has had to an elected office.
Schendledecker, 47, recognizes Keeley as a formidable opponent. That said, she isn’t convinced that someone with deep political roots is required for the position.
“I don’t think that this job needs a professional politician to do it well,” she said. “In fact, I think it’s preferable to have ‘boots-on-the-ground’ community members living in the same conditions that so many others are, with a real understanding of what the majority of Santa Cruz residents are going through.”
Former city councilmember and Santa Cruz mayor Chris Krohn — who has also volunteered with Sanitation for the People, a mutual aid group working for sanitation and waste management services for all — agrees that Schendledecker’s lack of experience in elected office could work to her benefit.
“She won’t come with the baggage of the relationships, both good and bad, from the past, and I think she would surround herself with good people,” he said. “She’s a fresh face, and I think she has some stamina to bring pressure on really critical issues facing Santa Cruz.”
In his work with Sanitation for the People, Krohn noticed that Schendledecker goes the extra mile to help those in need, and believes she will bring that to the mayoral position as well.
“She works hard with people to clean them up rather than just cleaning them up ourselves,” he said. “I think she’d bring that idea of ‘don’t just get people fish, teach them how to fish’ with her.”
The Westside Santa Cruzan spoke with Lookout about the skills she’s gained through community organizing, the issues city residents face, and how her career as an artist makes her a unique fit for the job of mayor.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Lookout: What got you interested in pursuing elected office?
Joy Schendledecker: I’ve been involved in community organizing for nearly 20 years doing various things like waste reduction, environmental work, maintaining community gardens and more. In the last few years, I’ve gotten more involved in mutual aid and working with people who live outside. That’s been transformative in a number of ways, and that probably tipped me over the edge in wanting to be politically active within the electoral process rather than solely in a community or nonprofit kind of way.
I’ve seen more directly how policies, laws and the tone of public conversations have real effects on people who are either precariously housed or don’t have housing at all. Seeing how important legislation is — whether it’s at the federal, state or local level — makes me want to be involved in helping to decide what’s on the books.
Lookout: Is that something you expected?
Schendledecker: No, this was not in my plan for myself. People feel called to service in a variety of ways, whether it’s through something like a political organization, a church, labor organizing, or just helping neighbors. There are all sorts of ways to be of service to your community.
I’ve always felt like a helper. I like to organize things and put together projects, but I’ve always wanted to do that as a facilitator for other people and I’ve never been interested in having a position of authority or power. I think getting older has something to do with that, in addition to seeing the multiple emergencies of the climate, economic and affordable housing crises. On all fronts, people are really suffering. My kids are getting towards adulthood and I want a livable planet for my kids and everyone else, so it feels like there’s some real increasing urgency.
Lookout: What have you learned through your work with DSA, Sanitation for the People and Santa Cruz Cares that you’ll bring with you to this race?
Schendledecker: I take and learn different things from different organizations. From the local DSA chapter, for example, I’ve learned a lot about the labor movement, and Sanitation for the People grew out of that mutual aid work that happens in DSA. That experience has inspired me to go out to be with people living outside just to see what’s happening to them and what they need.
There’s that phrase “nothing for us without us,” and I think doing this kind of work really brings that home, because you can really hear from and get to know people who are on the front lines of these crises. You don’t get that unless you’re talking to people directly.
Santa Cruz Cares is where I started to get more into legislation. We formed when the city council was working on the temporary outdoor living ordinance (TOLO), which became the camping services and standards ordinance (CSSO). We didn’t really know each other before, but we were all calling in and commenting on these city council meetings, so we found each other through our community networks and through the Zoom meetings.
I think that there’s a very loud minority voice that comes from Santa Cruz Together and Santa Cruz Neighbors, and we wanted to form a community group that was sticking up for vulnerable and left-behind people. More recently, we’ve been following the oversized vehicle ordinance (OVO) and fighting it as best we can. We can really see the impact a group of people can have in protecting our neighbors.
Lookout: How does your career as an artist guide the way you approach organizing, and now campaigning?
Schendledecker: I think artists tend to be keen observers, you know, watching and trying to make sense of the world. I think cultivating that talent and learning how to do it more effectively, along with the resourcefulness to bring materials together to make something new, are great skills for politics.
Making art can be a very solitary practice when you’re a studio artist, but bringing those skills out into the world to work with other community members can be great. Whatever project you’re working on, whether it’s in politics or it’s putting together an exhibition, is greatly impacted by the relationships that you build. If you let yourself do that, you’ll be surprised by the people around you. There’s a lot of neurodiversity in the artistic community, and I think that can be a type of superpower for seeing the world differently and coming up with innovative solutions.
I don’t think that this job needs a professional politician to do it well. In fact, I think it’s preferable to have “boots-on-the-ground” community members living in the same conditions that so many others are, with a real understanding of what the majority of Santa Cruz residents are going through, and the willingness to listen and build those relationships within your community.
Lookout: Housing, labor and the environment are big issues for you. What else are you particularly passionate about?
Schendledecker: Gosh, there are so many things. One thing is, our city schools are great, and the teachers need to be paid more. The lowest-paid workers in the school system, especially those working in the service and assistant positions, are not making a living wage, and that’s truly not OK. This is one of the most valuable public institutions and services in our community.
Another thing is that our local access to reproductive and mental health care, as well as the stigma and shame, need to be further discussed. There’s really almost universal support for reproductive health care in our community, but not everybody has easy and affordable access. There are certainly some holes in our medical system, and because we don’t have universal health care, not everybody is served. That includes many younger folks like high schoolers who do not have access to emergency mental health care that they need.
So while this isn’t something we can necessarily work on our own as a city, it’s something that we can work with our county and service providers on.
Lookout: As you know, Fred Keeley is the only other person likely to announce his candidacy at this time. Given his experience, how do you feel about going up against him?
Schendledecker: I think that, even under the best of circumstances, it’s intimidating to enter electoral politics. It takes time and money, and you can expect for people to bully and troll you online, which is already beginning to orbit. So there are few people confident and capable of entering electoral politics. It’s incredibly daunting even if they’re not working two or three jobs to get by.
Personally, I feel that Fred Keeley spreading the word of considering running on primary election night kind of created a vacuum where no one wanted to go up against him, because they thought that wouldn’t be possible. I think it’s a shame that someone so high profile unofficially entered the race so early, because I think it’s kept things from being open and competitive.
I’m not saying that they should step aside and not be politically involved or not run for office, because I think every generation has valuable things to offer. So I think if elder politicians and leaders want to truly mentor the next generations of leaders, they could more actively mentor younger people and leave the field a bit more open, or be explicit in their support for candidates from diverse backgrounds. We’re moving to district elections, which is supposed to increase diversity for minority communities, and we’re not really seeing that with this race.
Schendledecker will be holding a campaign launch party Friday from 5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. at London Nelson Community Center.