Magazine Feature / People

DU program director moves from the lecture hall to council chambers

Linda Olson

Linda Olson, who directs DU's Pioneer Leadership Program, was elected to the city council of nearby Englewood, Colo.

Not only is Linda Olson talking the talk, she’s walking the walk. 

Olson directs the University of Denver’s Pioneer Leadership Program, which is dedicated to developing leadership in the University’s most talented undergraduate students and encouraging them to work to improve communities around the world.

But Olson recently took on a leadership position of her own. In 2009, Olson decided to run for the District 2 city council seat in Englewood, Colo.— a Denver suburb only blocks away from the DU campus.  

And, she won.

Now, when Olson gets up in front of classes to talk about leadership and making communities better, she’ll do so knowing that her position on the Englewood City Council gives her every opportunity to demonstrate what she talks about in lectures.

“It sure does hold me accountable to what I’m teaching,” Olson says. “I’m calling students to engagement in their communities and their social responsibilities, and on the city council, I hope I’m actually doing this.”

Olson decided to get involved in local politics after serving on the Keep Englewood Beautiful Commission for eight years. As an appointee on the commission, Olson worked on several initiatives to increase recycling, rid homes of household hazardous waste, improve the city’s aesthetics and encourage citizen involvement.

But Olson found herself wanting to have more of a say in the city’s direction forward. Englewood, with easy access to the Rocky Mountains, a thriving retail base and a charming downtown corridor, has in recent years started to attract many new residents and businesses. Without careful planning and policies, she says, the city’s upward tilt could easily be derailed.

“Two or three years ago, I started to get antsy about policy,” Olson says. “Boards and commissions help with valuable input for the council, but they don’t decide policy. I wanted to help make policy because of the structure it can provide in the future. And, I love my district. We have a diverse district, and because of the neighborhood’s strength, I wanted to encourage broader community engagement.”

Englewood Mayor Jim Woodward has had a chance to work with Olson since she took office and says Olson provides a distinct perspective to the body.

“I think Linda brings, No.1, a sense of her district,” Woodward says. “And No. 2, a sense of the people that live there and the issues that go on there. She’s very connected to her constituencies and people in the area.”

After winning the election, it wasn’t long before Olson found herself in the middle of a major local issue. In this case, it was the city’s campaign to prevent closure of a post office. The story appeared on local Denver-area TV stations, but Olson says there was another reason to keep the location open — the post office building has historical significance and houses an important 1946 mural now under consideration for state and national historic designation.

Olson says other top issues facing the city include budgeting, economic development and— unique to Colorado — medical marijuana. Medical marijuana clinics have grown like weeds across the greater Denver metropolitan region and are facing stricter regulation to curb their growth.

It’s not exactly nuclear arms reduction, but for the people of Englewood, issues like the post office and medical marijuana are as important. And there’s no shortage of passions, either.

“The thing that’s surprising is how polarized people can be,” she says. “It is great that people are passionate.  But sometimes the lack of civility is alarming.”

Olson has drawn criticism from local political gadflies, but that comes with any elected office, and it hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm for the job.

“The fun thing is I get to craft more of our future plans,” she says. “And I’m truly impressed with the people at the city. They’re highly educated and they love their jobs. They’re always coming up with plans to improve our community.”


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