Final Five

with Sharon Byrne, executive director of Milpas Community Association, Santa Barbara, California

Sharon Byrne (far left) 

Sharon Byrne leads a neighborhood organization strategy to pull businesses, residents, nonprofits and schools together to advance community needs. She earned a B.S. in industrial engineering from Georgia Tech and currently consults on neighborhood revitalization issues. She also is trying to coordinate an International Day of Peace in Santa Barbara through the United Nations.  

What pushed you to be active in your community?

A young man was killed in front of my home in 2009. I had just moved there, and the rent was affordable for Santa Barbara. The reason it was affordable was that the neighborhood was pretty bad. There was a lot of gang activity, homeless in the area and a late-night bar district nearby. While I liked the vibrancy of living downtown, I was unprepared for the violence. After that horrible murder, I sort of really woke up to how cities are run, neighborhoods are served, or not, and I felt we should not have to move in order to live in a decent neighborhood. We could work with this one to make it better for all of us.Sharon Byrne 

You call yourself an "engineer of communities." What does that mean?

Engineers solve problems. They look for unused capacity and figure out how to make it productive. A weed-choked lot can be made into a community garden (unused capacity). A graffiti-covered wall or banged-up public trashcan can be turned into a public art piece (fix a problem). Bringing all these pieces together under the umbrella of social revitalization of a community and getting them to work together in new ways to create new possibilities – it's an engineer's dream, really.

What are the goals of the Milpas Community Association?

Initially, our focus was public safety, as we were dealing with a 500 percent increase in crime in the area. After two years of intense work, the area was much safer, and now we could turn our attention to what would make this a more fun and welcoming community. We began putting on large-scale public events, like a huge Halloween trick or treat and a big holiday parade. We decided to put up the city's first solar-powered Christmas tree in our roundabout. We also produced a healthy community initiative to connect our area with the healthy eating, fitness and medical resources on offer here.

How has your corporate IE experience helped you in giving back to the community?

Navigating large corporate bureaucracy gives you skills for navigating government and the public process, in which progress is glacial. You have to be patient and stay the course, especially when you're seeking something like a streetlight, which can take two-plus years to be permitted, approved and installed. Marketing experience was really helpful in teaching me messaging skills, salesmanship and enlisting people to join the cause. Project management is also an incredibly useful skill in community organizing.

What advice would you give industrial engineers about giving back?

I have gotten several chronically homeless individuals off the street, and I have to tell you, it was really hard. Because I understand systems, I was able to push through, but I fractured, broke and stressed many policies and procedures on the way. The current system of services feels as though it's designed to keep chronically homeless individuals ... homeless. Who better than an engineer to fix a problem like that? You never know where your skills will be needed in the community, and you might find that you have something unique to contribute that is exactly what's needed.

– Interview by David Brandt 

David Brandt is the web managing editor for IISE. 

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