By Miriam Raftery, based on interview by Henri Migala
October 6, 2022 (La Mesa) – In an interview with East County Magazine’s Henri Migala originally aired on KNSJ radio, La Mesa City Council candidate Mejgan Afshan shared her experience as a civil rights leader and her goals to build a more equitable La Mesa if elected. She is one of four candidates running (a fifth, Kathleen Brand, has dropped out); ECM will be publishing interviews with all of the candidates over the next several days.
Background and why she’s running
Afshan is the daughter of Afghan refugees, both union members. Raised in La Mesa, she went to local schools including Helix High and Grossmont College, where she was captain of the speech and debate team before transferring to San Francisco University. An activist in Democratic politics and civil rights, she was among the legal observers during the May 20, 2020 protest and riot in La Mesa, which spurred her to take action.
“I decided it was important for me to get involved in participating and helping all of our community members from different backgrounds to be able to reach and engage with their community representatives,” she says.
Afshan cofounded Borderlands for Equity and currently heads up its public policy and advocacy arm. The pro bono civil rights organization is based in La Mesa to help those discriminated against based on race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
“It’s important to have someone show up and help our most marginalized community members,” says Afshan, who also founded the East County Justice Coalition to address bullying of black, brown and Muslim community members in East County. That group joins with faith leaders to push back against bullying. “We make sure to engage with folks, when something’s happened, to know there is someone they can come to,” Afshan says, “and to make sure we are advocating for them.” That can include dealing with law enforcement, schools, or other entities.
Afshan’s website describes an “equity platform” and lists her priorities if elected, including police reform, equitable housing, homelessness and environmental justice.
Photo, right, by Elijah McKee: Mejgan Afshan announces her candidacy
Police reforms and healing racial tensions
sked her view on cause of the May 30, 2020 unrest, she replies, “What we saw was a lot of people that were disillusioned and disengaged from the community, who lacked the opportunity to engage with their leaders.” She adds, “Another thing we faced was targeting of young black and brown people in our communities.” Lack of opportunities to access leaders can lead to unrest, she points out. “It’s important. Everybody needs to feel safe. All of us deserve to thrive. Everyone deserves to have the opportunity to feel like we’re being protected and not targeted in our own community. That is an integral piece of our campaign. We want to create a more equitable future together.”
Asked if she believes police reforms have gone far enough to address the root causes of the unrest in May 2020, she says, “I think there are changes that have taken place that are positive changes. Chief Sweeney has done a wonderful job hearing our community concerns out and addressing the changes that we’ve been requesting and engaging the the community in meaningful ways…I am now participating on police oversight board because it helps everybody, including the police, do better.” She wants to assure the police oversight board stays alive and engaged with the community, as well as have an independent auditor to hold accountable any officers who don’t uphold policies and procedures.
Afshan is supportive of La Mesa’s first Juneteenth celebration. “We were tabling at the event. It was a wonderful celebration that brought out over 1,500 community members,” she states. She praised the event for remembering the struggles of African-Americans as well as the “diversity that is really a beautiful fabric in our East County communities.”
Homelessness and housing
Homelessness is a huge issue across California and our region, she notes. “One of the ways to address this issue is to make sure we have equitable access to affordable housing,” she says. She also wants to expand the HOME program that began in La Mesa as a pilot program to bring mental health resources to people who are marginalized and suffering. In addition, she says, “Eventually, we need to have some sort of shelter for our homeless community members so that they can get off the streets …Making sure that folks on the street get resources they need is critical to make sure we are improving the quality of life for everyone in La Mesa.”
She supports increasing housing, especially affordable housing. “Regardless of how people view housing, we have an issue across the state…We have way more people than we have spaces for them to live…we’re not going to address that problem by pushing them out to all live in Arizona….We want our community members to stay in La Mesa and that requires building new homes. We already have seven to eight developments underway in La Mesa we know those are going to at least ease a little bit of the pressure happening here,” she says, but adds, “Unfortunately it’s not enough. We have to be able to build more housing.”
Asked what scale, height and density she believes is appropriate, she says it is important to “keep the integrity of La Mesa, but be able to build these developments in areas that can withstand the size…I don’t have an exact rule that everybody only has to have five story buildings,” she notes, adding that size and density would depend on the location, such as whether a proposed project is near transit or major intersections or schools. “I look forward to making those decisions with the Mayor and Council,” she says, adding that she knows people forced to move in with family members during the pandemic. “These are things affecting all members in our community of La Mesa and we cannot turn a blind eye to it,” she resolves. “So making sure we create more housing, more affordable housing, and making sure that housing accessibility is supported by the city of La Mesa is a constant concern for me, and also tenants’ rights.”
Asked specifically about neighborhood character and the historic downtown village, Afshan says, “There’s more of La Mesa than just our downtown beautiful La Mesa village area. I grew up a few blocks away from it,” she recalls, adding that she still lives nearby. She says those who want to protect the integrity of La Mesa are well intentioned, as are those who want more housing. “We want our children, our nieces and nephews to have housing in the city we live in, so absolutely need to have more affordable housing and maintain the character of La Mesa.” She mentions building style, adding, “There is no need to go backwards in time. We can improve what we have and make it accessible to all of our community members’ needs.”
Climate action is an issue she views as “integral to our quality of life” as well as assuring longevity and a healthy environment for current and future generations. “That requires making sure to fulfill our Climate Action Plan goals,” she notes .”Governor Gavin Newsom has really led the country when it comes to making sure we can lessen our carbon footprint and be able to provide for and improve quality of life.” She says climate change is also “integral to civil rights too…the climate crisis affects our black and brown and marginalized community members disproportionately. She wants to provide an environment that is “cleaner, greener, and more sustainable” to “leave this place better than we found it.
Asked her ideas to improve the Climate Action Plan, she cites the problems posed by drought and extreme heat. She hopes to approve use of greywater recycled from homes to irrigate plants and trees, expand solar panel usage, as well as continued electrification of homes and appliances to shift away from gas, a fossil fuel. “We are truly at a turning point in our country and we need to be able as a community in La Mesa to not just fulfill our bare minimum goals, but hopefully be able to go above and beyond…to the meet goals of California and lessen our carbon footprint.”
Library and technology center
A key goal for Afshan is to create a permanent library and arts hub for La Mesa. “We have a library that’s not permanent and there is funding we’ve received from COVID-19, the CARES Act and, other funds,” she says. She recalls going to the old La Mesa library growing up, on the site of the current police station. “That library was actually connected to a theater and a gallery…All the kids in our community should be able to benefit from a permanent library and a technology center to help all of our community members who need help brushing up on skills or learning new technology. That will be such a blessing…The money set aside for businesses and arts programs should be used also to make sure we have a permanent library, and make it central for all to use.” She notes, “There is no technology center anywhere in East County that can be used in this way. It’s outrageous.” While there may be technology centers at community colleges, those are not accessible to regular residents, she points out. “We want to make these things accessible and available to our community members and residents.”
Afshan is endorsed by the San Diego County Democratic Party, the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, and prominent Democrat officials including Congresswoman Sara Jacobs, Supervisor Nathan Fletcher and La Mesa Councilman Jack Shu.
A critical moment
“This is a very critical moment for our community, and for making sure that we create an equitable future together,” Afshan concludes. She says her platform was “created for not just those who are here now, but for those yet to be born…I truly believe that when we increase engagement and civic opportunities, we also are able to create a more equitable life and improve our quality of life across the board. I can’t do that by myself. I need the support of our community members.”
You can learn more about Mejgan Afshan’s candidacy at www.voteMejgan.com