Mary Fenelon is one of Walnut Creek’s most fearless and outspoken affordable housing advocates.
For years, she has rallied her community to ensure that everyone in Walnut Creek, and the Bay Area, can live in a thriving neighborhood they’re proud to call home. Through her efforts with the Coalition for a Vibrant and Inclusive Walnut Creek (which Greenbelt Alliance helped form), the East Bay Housing Organizations, and the Mount Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church, Mary has been essential to providing people in the community with a platform to openly discuss housing policies and fight for their housing rights.
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However, Mary hasn’t always been so in tune with the complexities housing policy. Just like the rest of us, she didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“I’m a South Dakota farm girl,” Mary said. “Little did I ever know I would end up in this wonderful place called California.”
Mary was raised on her parents’ farm in a small rural town among kind-hearted, genuine people. While many of her friends settled down in the close-knit community they grew up in, Mary set out on a path that would take her to places like Washington, D.C. and New York City while working in a variety of fields including labor unions, politics, and publishing. Living in east coast cities exposed Mary to social issues that she was previously unaware of and she became passionate about helping people from diverse cultural, economic, and faith backgrounds, especially those living in poverty.
This passion eventually led Mary to the Unitarian Universalist Church and its mission of social good. After retiring and moving to the Bay Area to be closer to her daughter, Mary quickly got involved with her local church and hit the ground running to make her new community, Walnut Creek, a better place to live for everyone.
“When I got here, [Mount Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church] did a lot of social justice work, but they didn’t have a group working on affordable housing at that time. ” Mary said. “So, I got five people interested, we formed a committee, and it‘s grown from there.“
Though she works a lot with her Unitarian congregation, Mary is dedicated to fostering an interfaith community—she believes that problem solving is most effective when everyone brings ideas and concerns to the table. She currently serves on the boards of the Trinity Center and Contra Costa Interfaith Housing.
“We all get stuck in our own thinking,” Mary said. “There’s a real danger when we all get stuck in our own thinking. We need to listen to each other. We need to figure out how to be inclusive.”
Those sound like the words of a community champion that we can all get behind.
Photos: Taylor Hanigosky ©