Dr. Nicole Speer: Let equity drive Boulder’s decision-making

Photo by Lauren Ellie

Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021

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Before the pandemic, Dr. Nicole Speer wasn’t sure she had what it took to be a leader. She already was one, of course, as the director of Intermountain Neuroimaging Consortium at CU’s Institute of Cognitive Science, overseeing a staff of about 12. 

But it would take a crisis to inspire her confidence.  

Like so much else, COVID-19 shut down Speer’s lab. Through the process of reopening, Speer came to value the qualities in herself that she believes will make her a valuable and effective city council member.

First, she made sure everyone was able to provide input on how the lab should reopen, from the “research participants to the 19-year-old student volunteers.”

Then, she listened. 

“I don’t have all the right ideas,” Speer said. “As a leader, your job is not to have all the answers. It’s to know who the people are who have the knowledge that are going to be important in finding a solution.”

Through gathering “boots-on-the-ground” knowledge of workers, the facility was able to reopen earlier than most; labs from around the country called to ask for advice on how they’d done it. All the employees kept their jobs. Valuable research continued. Most importantly, there were no outbreaks of COVID.

Speer realized the approach she took to reopening fit nicely into what she sees as gaps in local government leadership.

“One of the things that I see lacking sometimes — and this isn’t just in our council; it’s in our culture in general — we don’t always have the ability to admit when we don’t know something, when issues are complicated and there isn’t just one solution, when we need help and need to bring people into the conversation,” Speer said. “It’s not being a voice for people who don’t have a voice; it’s being a person who can listen to different perspectives.  

“For me, where some of the courage and being a leader comes from is not just in the courage to say hard things, but the courage to hear hard things.”

One other management principle Speer would contribute is the ability to simplify and delegate. City council takes on too many tasks, she said, and sometimes gives staff too much to do as well. 

“Anybody who has to do 12 jobs, they’re not going to be able to (perform) to the degree they probably want to be able to,” Speer said, giving the police as an example. “We’re asking them to be social workers, to run into buildings and save us from shooters, to be counselors and psychologists and mental health professionals. Just thinking about all the things we’re asking them to do, that doesn’t feel fair.”

To that end, Speer only has two priorities for her time on council: Housing and equity/inclusion, which she sees as the two biggest crises we are facing. Nor does she see them as unrelated.

“We are basically putting up this financial wall around our city,” Speer said, and it’s keeping out families, workers, retirees. School enrollment is dropping; businesses are struggling to find and keep staff. 

“That’s not, in my mind, a healthy community.”

Within the issues of housing and equity, Speer sees solutions to so many of the other problems plaguing Boulder, from climate change (more compact development equals less driving, fewer emissions) to transportation (reliance on cars is expensive and inherently inequitable) to budget woes (sales tax is regressive; in Boulder, it’s also shrinking as a source of revenue). 

“When we address equity,” she said, “we’re going to touch on a lot of these other problems, too.”

Collaborating on the facility reopening demonstrated this perfectly. Someone noted that, with all the COVID precautions — warning signs, caution tape — the place was starting to look a little scary for children. An undergraduate student suggested kid-friendly art on the doors, and she drew them herself. 

Soon the staff began referring to rooms not by their numbers but by their animals: the Moose room, the Bear room. Something intended to calm children became a “little ray of sunshine for all of us,” Speer said. “There is not a single one of us who did not find joy in passing by these animal drawings.

“When you are designing in a way that the most vulnerable people, that their needs are met, you’re actually making things better for everybody.”

Priorities

  • Housing
  • Equity and inclusion

Endorsements

  • The Coalition (Boulder Progressives, United Campus Workers Colorado, Better Boulder, Open Boulder, South Boulder Creek Action Group, Boulder is For People)
  • Sierra Club
  • Colorado Working Families Party
  • Boulder Weekly

Op-eds/LTEs

Why you might want to vote for Speer

Speer is extraordinarily compassionate and kind. When asked to consider “the other side,” she validates the thoughts, feelings and experiences of those with whom she disagrees, viewing them with empathy rather than derision or dismissal. Through her answers, it is clear she has taken a lot of time to deeply understand a multitude of perspectives on controversial issues — an asset in a divided community.

Speer has proven leadership experience. She has managed people and money in an organization similar to a city: The Neuroimaging Consortium is not technically a nonprofit, though it can’t keep any funds that exceed expenses. It is part of CU but must raise all its own revenues. That kind of experience (though on a vastly different scale) is valuable. 

Speer walks the talk on her ideals. She incorporated Spanish into her campaign by adding it to her logo design and being the only candidate to translate her entire website. (Author’s note: Following publication, Dan Williams’ website also debuted a Spanish-language version.)

She has been volunteering at a weekly homeless outreach event for months and has actively worked on equity and inclusion efforts at CU and with the local NAACP. She doesn’t ask anything of anyone that she’s not willing to do herself. 

Why you might not want to vote for Speer

Speer is endlessly optimistic and, some might say, idealistic. This is not an inherently bad quality in an elected official, but sometimes idealistic council members struggle to compromise and/or to realize their vision when confronted with the realities of governing. 

“I will always listen to good ideas, evidence and people whose opinions are different from mine,” Speer said in response to this criticism. At the same time, she believes we need to be realistic about the crises we are facing.

“When I look out ahead at our future, it’s grim,” she said, referencing climate change specifically. “We need to start putting some lines in the sand as to what we are willing and not willing to compromise on.”

For her, that’s “values like common and shared humanity, inclusion, working toward justice and equity, working for a city that is resilient in the face of all these challenges that are coming.”

As for her idealism, Speer sees it as necessary at this point in time, with so much stacked against us. Again, she calls on her experience reopening the lab during COVID.

“We met as a team, every single day,” she said, “and we started off by saying, ‘What is the one thing that I as an individual am going to do today to move us closer to that goal?’ 

“We cannot solve homelessness, we can’t solve the climate crisis. But that doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to try to do what we can right here and right now to move us forward a little bit.” 

Speer on the issues

Housing

Speer favors an all-of-the-above approach to Boulder’s persistent housing affordability crisis: allowing more ADU’s (basically tiny homes built on someone’s existing property); expanding occupancy limits; and allowing townhomes, condos, duplexes, etc., on the 70% of Boulder’s residential land that currently allows only single-family homes. 

Speer also believes in more government intervention. The city should be acquiring land specifically for housing, she said, comparing it to Boulder’s beloved open space program.

“If people hadn’t decided 50-60 years ago to make that investment, we wouldn’t have this amazing open space,” Speer said. “What do we need to be doing right now to make the community we want to see in 30, 40, 50, 60 years?”

Building new may not be the most affordable now, Speer said, with the cost of land and construction. But part of the reason Boulder and many other U.S. cities are facing such high prices is that they didn’t build enough housing in the past, a mistake she doesn’t want to see repeated.

“We’ve got a huge backlog because we didn’t want to develop, we didn’t want to build more,” she said. “We’ve let the problem get bad enough that we have to have every solution on the table.”

Homelessness

Speer is in favor of changing and/or expanding services to capture those for whom the current system is not working, whether that be safe camping, safe parking or a day shelter/central hub where organizations offering aid could easily find and engage with unhoused residents.

“We need to try and figure out why people are not using the resources that are available and find solutions to decrease the barriers that are there. They can’t go in (to shelter) with their partners, they have PTSD and they can’t handle being in an environment where there’s a lot of other people, they have a pet they don’t want to leave behind? I love my dogs. I don’t think I’d be willing to leave them.”

She’d also like to see transitional housing for those trying to overcome addiction. 

“Knowing what I know about the human brain and how we learn and repeat behaviors, if you put somebody in jail, yay they get sober, then you put them back on the streets in the exact same context — what a way to reinforce that cycle,” Speer said. “If you want people to change course and change behavior, they cannot be around the same stimuli that are associated with their addiction.”

She is against the camping ban and would like to see ticketing and/or arrest of people living outside end. She doesn’t want people to keep living unsheltered; rather, she believes adequate services can reduce the prevalence and occurrence of encampments.

“There are no experts on solutions to homelessness who say that enforcement is a solution that’s going to work,” Speer said. “This is a place where we’re allowing our fears and misunderstandings to invest in the wrong solutions, solutions that won’t actually help.”

Boulder does some things well, Speer admits, like eviction-prevention services and a focus on housing first. She acknowledges that the city is spending a lot already (nearly $4 million in 2021). But the outcry from residents about camps in parks and along paths is proof that it’s either not enough or too much of the wrong things and too few of the right ones. 

“I see a lot of people in our community really frustrated — by the unsanctioned camps, by what the city is doing about it. Our city is demanding solutions. If what we’re doing isn’t getting us to the place we need to be, then we’re not doing enough.”

Budget

Boulder’s 2021 budget is the first thing Speer read when she decided to run for council, she said. She has a basic understanding of where the city’s money comes from and where it goes.

She is cautious about new revenue sources: “There are some real problems with taxing and fee-ing our way out of things, because there are people who are already struggling.”

The better approach is shifting of city spending, primarily, away from the police department. In 2021, BPD was the city’s single biggest expenditure (aside from utilities, which pays for its operations through charges for services) and has more employees than any other department.

She does not see a reduced budget as incompatible with supporting police. Officers would be better off, Speer said, if they could focus on their core mission, rather than all the many roles they’ve been forced to play over the years by disinvestment in society’s problems.

“We’re asking them to do way too many things,” she said. “If I’m asking my staff to do 12 different things, they’re going to get totally overwhelmed and not know what to do and ask for more resources. My job as a supervisor is really to think about, ‘How can I narrow your scope? What is this person’s work? What are they trying to do?’

“Rather than asking the police to be the social workers, why don’t we invest in social workers to be the social workers? Rather than relying on the police to connect unhoused people to services, why don’t we ask people who can actually do that to be those people? 

“Budgets are moral documents,” Speer said. “If you want to understand what an organization values and believes, you look at how they spend their money.” 

To that end, although it’s not an official policy, Speer also would like to continue pushing Boulderites to buy local. 

“One of the things I was kind of surprised by is how much of our budget comes from sales tax,” she said. (It was 50% in 2021, again excluding utilities.) “It made me very committed to buying things in Boulder. 

“This is literally how we invest in our community as residents, by spending our money here so that we have money to spend on things like parks and libraries and public services.”

Transportation

Speer admits this is an area where she needs to do more research, but generally she is supportive of moving toward a world in which fewer people have to drive. She would accomplish this through investment in public transit and through policies meant to encourage walkable neighborhoods.

She sees housing and transportation as inextricably linked — one of the reasons relying on individuals to change is insufficient, she said. Current bus service is not convenient, Speer notes, “unless you are going downtown or anywhere along Broadway.” 

The city needs to get to a point where people can easily choose to walk, bike or take the bus “because people who work here live here, because we have housing within walking distance of people’s workplaces, because we’ve set up a better public transportation system that goes to more places where it becomes easier to hop on a bus than drive.”

To fund these changes, Speer floated possible vehicle registration fees (something the city is already considering) or other fees on cars. However, she would like to learn more before taking a solid position. Equity would need to be considered in any policy that could burden low-income residents, she said.

CU South

Speer supports the annexation for its critical provision of flood protection, but also the housing, open space, transportation improvements, etc. that CU has agreed to.

“We get so much in return,” she said at an Aug. 25 candidate forum.

Library District

Speer supports formation of a library district, which are used in “the majority of other communities in Colorado” — there are 57 districts in the state — “to ensure sustainable, long-term funding for their libraries. 

“Library programs build community and strengthen our social connections to each other, which have myriad benefits including bolstering our city’s climate resilience.”

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

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