East Berlin Prepared Eric Friedman for His Career in Public Service

by | Dec 25, 2023 | Featured Nonprofits

Holding back tears, he tried to blend in with the other kids and act like he belonged. But he was the only American and didn’t know the language. Surrounded by kids from countries he was taught to hate and fear, he wondered if he would survive his first day of Junior High.

At ten years old, he was the youngest student. And the smallest.

Eric Friedman had just moved from Santa Barbara to East Berlin with his parents. His father, the late UCSB English Professor, Frank McConnell, had received a Fulbright grant to teach English Literature in East Berlin.

“The first day of Junior High was the most traumatic day of my childhood,” said Friedman. “It was 1988, the height of the Cold War. I was surrounded by kids from Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Cuba, no one spoke English and they all looked at me with suspicion.”

During the six months he lived there he developed many close friends, learned to speak German and gained a new understanding of other cultures and ways of life.

“Berlin changed the trajectory of my life and continues to influence me to this very day,” said Friedman. “I gained a global experience at a time when my world view was that of my neighborhood.”

The fall of the Berlin Wall one year after he and his family left East Berlin impacted him so much as a 10-year-old that he eventually co-authored a book with his mom called Ghosts of East Berlin.

Friedman has been serving as City Councilmember representing the fifth district since 2018. He was sworn in on the day of the Thomas Fire.

He says his six months of living in East Berlin as a ten-year-old shaped his philosophy on the importance of accessible transparent government and guided him into public service.

Friedman began his public service by taking an unpaid internship with superintendent of schools, Jack O’Connell. Next, he served as staff for Supervisor Naomi Schwartz and then Supervisor Salud Carbajal.

“I’m an introvert so I enjoyed being staff for Naomi and Salud because I could work on issues I cared about without being out front,” said Friedman. “When Salud decided to run for Congress, I decided to take the next step and run for city council office.”

Friedman spent multiple years preparing himself by building his network and learning what it takes to make good public policy. He participated on city boards and commissions including the library board and the harbor commission to help him understand how city government works. He received warm welcomes as he went door to door meeting people in his district and talking with them.

The fifth district encompasses from the beach to the mountains on the Goleta side of Las Positas plus Samarkand and the Airport. The families and retirees who live there are concerned about traffic congestion, park maintenance and water issues. There are many renters, so affordability is an issue, especially for families.

“One big issue is redevelopment of La Cumbre Plaza and its impact on this area with hundreds of units of housing on the Macy’s property,” said Friedman. “There is an application into the city to build mixed-use housing. We need to figure out how to incorporate that project into the greater city area. It will impact the school district, roads, parks and everything.

“This is a once in 50-year opportunity with downtown and La Cumbre Plaza to make thoughtful decisions about how the community will look and who will be able to live here in terms of affordability.”

Many issues that affect the city as a whole are also concerns of the fifth district. For example, Friedman worked on getting the people who live in their vehicles the services they need by proposing the Rose Garden Inn project. There had been 20 fires in the city related to the homeless including a fire going up TV Hill. It was time for action.

“We needed to clean out the encampments so city staff made a plan to lease the Rose Garden Inn for homeless housing for six months,” said Friedman. “This would impact businesses in the fifth district, but the city as a whole needed a place to address the serious fire issues. The number of fires were dramatically reduced and we were able to get homeless individuals into the services they needed.”

However, when the proposal to extend the program beyond six months was considered, he voted against the extension due to the unsustainable costs and impacts in the neighborhood.

Friedman is proud of his investment in our library system. He served on the Santa Barbara Public Library Foundation for four years, including two years as president, and the city library advisory board for ten years, with seven years as chair.

He said the new Central Library Plaza public space will complement the Children’s Library and help make downtown a vibrant community space and enhance our vision for downtown.

His number one issue is constituent responsiveness. “I always respond and will meet with anyone about any issue,” said Friedman. “I want to understand. The personal touch is so important. People need to know you hear them and you care about their issues.”

One way Friedman connects with his constituents is by working at Trader Joe’s. He began working there six years ago, just before his first election. Customers love to see their councilmember working there and they eagerly share their ideas with him.

“I am humbled to hear things that I wouldn’t hear in the community,” Friedman said. “I love to hear about people’s lives and working at Trader Joe’s makes me a better councilmember by being more attuned to the community 

“When people ask me what I do, I tell them I work at Trader Joe’s and then I tell them I’m also a councilmember.”

Friedman will be terming out in three years and is committed to serving to the end of his term. He says that afterward he may consider running for first district supervisor where he started his career with Naomi Schwartz.

“As long as I continue to learn and grow everyday by focusing on the needs of the city, I will be positioned for the next step,” said Friedman. “This a biggest small town you could ever live in. It has lots of big town amenities but a small town feel.”

Over the years Friedman has served on several nonprofit boards including CALM and the Fighting Back Youth Mentor Task Force, West Side Boys & Girls Club advisory board, and the Casa Esperanza board.

“I served on Santa Barbara Surf Rider’s executive committee which taught me a lot about government and how to protect the environment,” said Friedman. “I remember speaking up at a planning commission meeting about the importance of preventing a golf course from being built on the coast.”

He said that being part of the Emerging Leaders Program has been an important part of his journey. In 2014 he went through the second cohort of this incredible program. That program really helped him gain the confidence and determination to know that he wanted to serve on the city council.

Friedman said that the two greatest challenges facing the city in the coming years are affordable housing and homelessness.

He said we need to find a way to create truly affordable housing for our workers here and to address the root causes of homelessness, addiction issues and challenges to metal health. If our critical workforce can’t live here everyone suffers because we lose a lot of talented people.

“One piece of legislation I’m proud to have brought forward is a framework to build an affordable housing trust fund to maximize the ability of housing partners to leverage those dollars to create affordable housing for middle income people,” said Friedman.

“We need to figure out how to create housing in a strategic manner that ensures that Santa Barbara will continue to be esthetically pleasing and not lose our unique character.”

Friedman moved to the South Coast when he was three years old with is mom, Celeste, and attended Isla Vista Elementary then Monte Vista Elementary. When he was in seventh grade, they moved to Lompoc so they could buy a house instead of renting 

Ten years later, he attended the University of Notre Dame where he earned a degree in history, which he later followed up with a Master’s in public administration from Cal State Northridge that continues to help him understand how city administration works. 

Ten years later, he attended the University of Notre Dame where he earned a degree in history, which he later followed up with a Master’s in public administration from Cal State Northridge that continues to help him understand how city administration works. 

He met his wife, Julie, racing outrigger canoes with the Santa Barbara Outrigger Canoe Club in the summer of 2001. They have two sons, Henry 16 and Charles 14 and a dog named Morgan Friedman.

“There are no easy answers,” said Friedman. “So we need to be thoughtful and strategic and we need input from the community.”