Joanne Maureen Miller: 1928 – 2014

Joanne Maureen Miller
Courtesy Photo

Santa Barbara lost one of its most tireless and visionary citizens when Joanne Miller passed away peacefully at age 85 on September 14. Many Santa Barbarans will never forget “Jo.” For almost all, the experience was an immensely positive one. But she wasn’t afraid to confront her adversaries. She pursued many causes with passion, driven by the basic Christian mandate to serve those less fortunate.

Jo and family moved to Santa Barbara from their hometown, Flint, Michigan, in 1961. One of Jo’s first acts in her new community was to help found and lead the Catholic Human Relations Council (CHRC), which made the fight against racial discrimination its first priority. She helped found Residential Opportunities Made Equal (ROME), a real estate investment trust devoted to helping minority families break the barriers of area housing segregation.

The CHRC brought luminaries such as Dorothy Day, Louis Lomax, and César Chávez to town and raised money for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, NAACP, and United Farm Workers. Jo organized caravans to Delano, delivering food and clothing, to the grape strikers. In 1967, she added to her causes opposition to the Vietnam War. She was a devoted follower of Martin Luther King Jr. and his strategy of nonviolent activism and of Pope John XXIII and his efforts to modernize the Catholic Church. An environmentalist, Jo rallied with Get Oil Out in the wake of the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, and she fought to ban the use of DDT to save her beloved pelicans. Through all this, she hit home run after home run as a devoted wife and mother of six rambunctious children.

The 1970s were busy for Jo. She earned an MA in environmental biology from UCSB in 1972. She recounted being rejected as an advisee by several professors, who told her that female students “just get married and have babies.” She was finally taken on by human ecologist Garrett Hardin and helped produce his book Stalking the Wild Taboo. She also studied with iconoclastic professor Adrian Wenner and became friends with the noted biochemist Oscar Arias.

In 1973, Jo founded and led the Foothill Preservation League, a successful movement by hundreds of area residents to prevent the construction of a massive resort complex in the San Roque foothills. She founded PLAN, an unlikely coalition of conservationists and developers devoted to preserving the scenic beauty of the South Coast. She was appointed to the Santa Barbara City Planning Commission in 1974. She first ran for Santa Barbara City Council in 1975. After chairing the Planning Commission for several terms, she spearheaded Measure A, intended to limit Santa Barbara’s population to 85,000. She ran for city council a second time in 1977 but was again defeated after having been outspent two to one.

Jo was an active member of the PTA, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, the National Women’s Political Caucus, and the Citizens Coalition. She was an ardent supporter of Gary Hart through all of his public life. She supported many other Santa Barbara candidates, as well. She taught at area schools, including St. Raphael School and Saint Anthony’s Seminary. She continued to support her family as a generous and compassionate mother and wife.

In 1980, Jo founded Homes for People (HFP), a nonprofit dedicated to helping people achieve home ownership through “sweat equity” and low-interest, government-sponsored loans. Over the next 16 years, HFP sponsored over a hundred construction and rehabilitation projects around Santa Barbara. In 1989, she led the successful campaign for Measure E to limit commercial growth in Santa Barbara.

The Santa Barbara Independent honored Jo as a Local Hero in November 1999.

When she wasn’t promoting rational planning and slow growth for Santa Barbara, raising children, teaching, or traveling — her itinerary included Russia, China, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, Kenya, the Galapagos, Australia, the South Pacific, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and many trips to Europe — Jo could be found puttering in her backyard garden, walking with friends at Shoreline Park, or scouring the tide pools along Santa Barbara’s beaches. The picture accompanying this article was taken on one of these outings by her husband, Burt.

More than almost anyone else, we can thank Jo for leading the successful fight to keep Santa Barbara the incredibly beautiful (and open-to-everyone) city that it still is. Her twinkling Irish eyes, her multilayered and sardonic wit, her piercing intellect, and her courage will be fondly remembered, and sorely missed, by many and for a long time.

A public memorial for Jo will be held at Shoreline Park at 4 p.m. on Saturday, October 25. Details may be found, and memories left, at


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