Prior to joining the City of San Luis Obispo’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force, Amman Asfaw had limited his involvement in politics and government to voting, maintaining an apolitical public stance during a sharply divided time.
“After all, why would someone initially want to be involved in actions that are bound to be misconstrued and bashed by at least one ‘side’ of America?” said the electrical engineering graduate student. “However, as of late, I’ve been asking myself, ‘If not you, then who?’”
Now, as one of 13 members on the newly created task force, Asfaw, who is president of the National Society of Black Engineers on campus, will have a direct impact on the city’s goal to “make the city an inclusive and safe community for everyone” – and he already has one big idea.
“The biggest recommendation I will advocate for is diverting millions from the city’s $36.3 million police department budget to the city’s $8.7 million Parks & Recreation Department budget, which this year allocates only $624,362 toward community services,” he said.
The origins of the city’s task force stem from both global and local calls for racial justice in the aftermath of several highly publicized police shootings. On June 17, the city council declared racism a public health issue and set aside $140,000 for diversity and inclusion at its budget cycle for this fiscal year that was added to $20,000 that had been previously dedicated to the effort. And last week the city announced that it had selected 13 task force members from a field of 95 applicants.
Meanwhile, the debates and protests have raged on. After protesters in San Luis Obispo were teargassed by police June 1, 20-year-old Black activist Tianna Arata was arrested in the city July 21 and eventually charged with 13 misdemeanors, amid calls for Arata to be cleared of all counts.
Once the city announced it would form a task force, Asfaw said a friend recommended he apply. While Asfaw admits the task force was out of his comfort zone, he believed it was within his capabilities – and the once apolitical Asfaw was ready to get involved.
“Since late May, there has been a shift of the world’s mass conscience and moral compass, initiated by America: more civic duty and less idle stagnation; more mutual aid and less selfish greed; more justice and less corruption,” he said. “And I acknowledge I am a part of that mass conscience shift, which encouraged me to embrace applying to SLO’s DE&I Task Force.”
While Asfaw was born in the United States, he partially learned two Ethiopian languages growing up. His father, a former amateur boxer sponsored by the Ethiopian Navy, emigrated to the U.S. in 1991. His mother followed in 1996.
In Thousand Oaks, where Asfaw attended high school, he was a volunteer at the Thousand Oaks Teen Center. He continued to be involved at Cal Poly, where he also studied electrical engineering as an undergraduate student, becoming the first diversity chair for any IFC Greek fraternity on campus and eventually president of NSBE.
At 22, he is the youngest person on the task force – and the only student.
“But, more importantly, I’ll be able to speak from the perspective of Generation Z, aka, ‘the youth,’ aka ‘the good troublemakers,’ aka ‘the future redeemers of America,” he said.
While $160,000 is a very small portion of the city’s budget, Asfaw would rather see more of it spent on a single effort, rather than spreading small amounts over several initiatives.
“I would love to see the task force allocate all $160,000 toward any of the following: forms of reparations for descendants of slaves residing in the City of SLO; a SLO Multicultural Center building for Black, Indigenous and people of color operated by the city and supported by Cal Poly; incentivizing Black business owners to get their business started in SLO.”