“It Is Your Space and You Have a Right to Be Here.” Service is for Everyone, Says Boards and Commissions Fellowship Alumna Shari Baber

November 1, 2023

Shanthi Gonzales

Shari Baber was part of the first graduating class of the Conservation Voters Movement’s Boards and Commissions Fellowship in 2021, a project of Conservation Voters for Idaho Education Fund that helps develop and prepare people to serve on boards and commissions in their community. Shari is a longtime Boise resident and business owner, and the organizer of the city’s annual Soul Food Festival.

After Shari completed her fellowship, she joined the Boise Parks and Recreation Commission because, as the organizer of the Soul Food Festival, she uses Boise’s parks frequently. However, the city’s parks have not always been welcoming and inclusive spaces for Boise’s people of color. Through serving on the commission, Shari’s goal is to change that.

Growing up, Shari’s family was focused on day-to-day survival, and the environment was not a topic of conversation. Through participating in the fellowship, Shari learned about the impact of environmental racism on communities of color in the United States. Some communities, she learned, are systematically denied green space and clean air, turning them into heat islands. On her commission, she is working to ensure that every resident of Boise has green space available to them within walking distance.

She is also proud to be working to make board and commission service more accessible to people with disabilities. As a hearing impaired person, she is speaking up for what she needs to be able to participate fully in meetings.  This has created space for others to also ask for what they need to participate in public meetings.

The most transformative part of her experience as a commissioner has been coming to feel that she belongs at City Hall, after believing her whole life that city buildings were not for her. She is the first Black woman to ever sit on the commission, and a goal of hers is to build a commission that reflects the full diversity of the city.

“We need to help people understand that they belong in these spaces. It is your space and you have a right to be there. They are making decisions that affect your community,” said Shari.

In preparing to join the commission through the CVIEF fellowship, two learnings really stuck with Shari. The first was her newfound understanding of the connection between government policy and social justice. Now she feels more urgency about helping the Black youth in Boise she works with through her Brown Like Me project to make this connection themselves. This year, she took ten of the students with her to DC to meet with their representatives. She wants them to understand that their elected officials work for them and that their voices matter.

The other most significant part of the program for her was the focus on self-care and unpacking trauma in order to be a better leader. Because one of the fellowship’s goals is to recruit diverse leaders, each training session features some time devoted to helping the fellows to prepare for being in new and unfamiliar situations where they may be the only person of color, or the only woman or LGBTQ+ person, and how to care for themselves in those situations. Until the fellowship, Shari said she had no idea how much racial trauma she had experienced in her time in Idaho, in particular while trying to start her business.

“I had prepared a business plan for Boise’s Small Business Development Center, and the guy working there refused to even look at it. He said there was no demand for a textured hair care salon in Boise. So I had to do it on my own, and now I have a waiting list two months long,” said Shari.

That and many other experiences led Shari to believe that she would not be welcome or accepted in government spaces. The fellowship helped her to change her mind about whether she belongs. Now she knows “I’m good enough, and all I have to do is show up. I don’t have to be better than anyone else. I show up as my authentic self everywhere I go.”

Shari wants everyone to know that their experience is enough, and that there are service opportunities for everyone, whatever their background.

Learn more about LCVEF’s Boards and Commissions Fellowship program with our state leagues, and read the first in our blog series on the program.