“I’m still an engineer, but an engineer of communities,” Sharon Byrne tells me when I ask about her degree in industrial engineering from Georgia Tech. “Engineers solve problems,” explains this executive director of the Milpas Community Association, reflecting on the evolution of the organization, which started to address safety concerns and clean up the streets but is now a conduit for the collective prosperity of the area.
She speaks ebulliently about all of the programs happening in the Milpas area, including a trash can art initiative in collaboration with Girls Inc., a produce exchange program, financial seminars for young students on savings and investing, and efforts to connect service providers with the elderly Latino community. She loves working with the whole MCA team.
There are a few undeniable facts about a first meeting with Sharon: she’s passionate about the neighborhood, she has a lot to say, and she’s extremely charming, which comes from having been born in the South to British parents. But she is quick to admit, “I knew I belonged in California. I never felt I belonged in the South.”
After one month of living on the corner of De La Vina and Gutierrez, where she was woken up by a shooting outside her residence, Sharon started to dive into community leadership. “I never thought of my life going this way,” says Sharon, who also works as a marketing consultant.
When I ask her if she regrets not pursuing a career in engineering she responds, “Engineers are quiet and geeky. I was always too loud.”
Here, Sharon answers the Proust Questionnaire.
Who do you most admire?
In this moment: Hillary Clinton.
It truly can take a lifetime to achieve your dream. In her case, immense public suffering was required to pave that road, to finally break through. But no matter how much the pundits and haters pile on her, she’s Just. Not. Going. Down. I admire the hell out of that.
Think about her fortitude, conviction, and stamina. How many of us can stand in the fire for more than 20 years like she has? The new prime minister of England, Theresa May, said sometimes politics needs “a bloody difficult woman.”
I agree, and admire her too, for stepping up to a job nobody else wanted, probably because everyone knows it’s a truly strong leader that is most needed right now.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I navigated past a Pacific rattlesnake on a very narrow, steep trail in Topanga Canyon. I’d stumbled upon her on a hike, putting her into high-alert mode. It was an incredibly dangerous situation.
I controlled my breathing and stood completely still until she stopped rattling. I felt if I moved slowly enough, and intended her no harm, she’d let me pass. It took me an hour to move 15 feet, and for 30 minutes of it, I was in her immediate strike zone.
That night, emboldened, I camped alone up in the canyon, also risky, though the danger is from two-leggeds, rather than wildlife. Facing your fear, and moving through it is an incredibly liberating experience.
Proudly telling my mother about it all afterwards was unwise, in hindsight.
What is your current state of mind?
Meditative. I feel a big shift coming in my life, though I don’t quite know what it is just yet.
What do you like most about your job?
I get really turned on by working with others to pioneer new ways to solve serious social problems and shift the collective consciousness on how we think about these problems, even if the shifts are very small. I do my best work in groups, and I’ve been lucky to work with incredible teams that have made me better than I probably really am.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I sometimes wish I had an amazing super power like being able to fly, become instantly invisible, or sprout eight arms like a Hindu god. Those would have really come in handy in certain situations.
What is your most treasured possession?
My peace of mind. Suffering is my big clue I’ve lost it.
What is your motto?
Why let a little thing like needing sleep or other basic bodily functions get in the way of accomplishing your next goal? There’ll be time enough for sleeping in the grave.
What do you most value in friends?
I used to think it was being able to call at 3 a.m. and say, “I’m in jail. I need you to bail me out.”
But I never ended up in jail, so now I think it’s that person that stands quietly beside you, knows your warts and the mistakes you’ve made, and still extends their friendship freely to you.
What is the quality you most like in people?
I appreciate people who are grounded and patient, because I need to acquire these qualities. I also admire people whose head and heart are completely aligned. Mine go to war at the most inconvenient moments, and I find it very vexing.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Everyone I love is alive, healthy, and happy. I also really enjoy get-togethers with friends where we share wine, great food, and then steer the conversation to “safe” topics, you know, like politics and religion.
What is your greatest fear?
Losing my child. Imprisonment. In a psych ward. Losing my freedom through oppression. Nightmare fodder: Spiders the size of MAC trucks, that are ravenously hungry, and very fast-moving. Those would be really scary!
What is your greatest extravagance?
Apparently, it’s rent. My non-Santa Barbara friends and family think what we pay to live here is just insane, and therefore, I am insane. Some of them pay one-third or even less than what I pay. So there’s this question of is it worth it? When I see breaking news on their hurricanes/tornados/floods/polar vortex snowstorms, and I am about to take my beach walk or hike, I’m good with my choice.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Duplicity. Fakeness. I respect people who can speak their truth, even if I don’t like what they’re saying, or them, particularly. If you can’t be who you really are, then what’s the point of life?
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Expletives muttered after a violent sneeze, according to my daughter. Note to self: expand my library of interesting phrases. Perhaps I could trot out some banal British phrases that no one understands, not even Brits, to ratchet up my eccentricity factor.
Which talent would you most like to have?
Flying would be really cool. Flying a spaceship, even better. I’ve also thought I would like to acquire skill in fencing.
Where would you most like to live?
Here, but parts of Italy are also quite tempting. The men are romantic, the food is divine, and the architecture has the history of the world written in it. You could spend forever studying it. What’s not to love?
I also wouldn’t mind a temp living arrangement in Ireland so I could poke around castles and look for fairies. Or the Serengeti, so I could witness the awesome power of nature up close.
The thing is I’ve gotten really, really comfy in Santa Barbara’s amazing climate, o the prospect of having to re-acquire the wardrobe and fortitude needed for harsher weather conditions…ugh.
Who makes you laugh the most?
My daughter. Especially when she pokes fun at me, which is often. I’ve laughed so hard with her that I’ve…well… er…wheezed.
She’s sent me into laughing fits in public places like movie theaters and restaurants. Where we get angry stares. Ahem.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
When I was young, it was Malcolm X, Joan of Arc, William Wallace, the Founding Fathers, the Irish rebellion leaders – those who challenged a big, bad socio-political status quo, and sent up the establishment with a bang. For many, the price was death. Now that everyone seems bent on upending the establishment, and the price is again so much death, I wonder how they would see this world that lately seems scarcely still on its axis, and what their advice would be.
On what occasion do you lie?
When I’m doing things I know I shouldn’t, like hanging out past the sell-by date in a bad relationship, or avoiding making some needed change in my life. I’ll tell myself and others, “Oh it isn’t so bad,” when I know better.