Jyoti Gondek didn’t always aspire to be a Calgary city councillor representing Ward 3. But, after trying to influence change through community volunteering and her work in city planning positions, she decided to take her knowledge and education to city hall.
Gondek was born in London, England and moved around often until her family settled in Brandon, MB.
She began her undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia in a sociology program “just to move somewhere different.”
“I thought I was going to be a lawyer,” she said. “But, the two years at UBC did not set me up for a good GPA [but] my LSAT marks were good — solid.”
That resulted in Gondek moved back to Manitoba and finished her undergraduate degree in sociology and criminology at the University of Manitoba before doing her master’s thesis on corporate responsibility at the University of Calgary.
Having volunteered often as a child, Gondek thought she would continue to be involved in the community after she and her husband, Todd, were settled in Calgary. She attended an annual general meeting for the Northern Hills Community Association and became a board member in 2000.
“That’s when it really hit me that there’s so much that goes on in a community,” she said. “It’s run by volunteers and it’s defended by volunteers…It became an important concept to me to be a community-based volunteer.”
Later, in 2015, Gondek joined the board of directors for Vivo for Healthier Generations — a non-profit, recreational centre in northeast Calgary.
“She was as spicy and fiery [on the board] as she is that I see her on council,” said Cynthia Watson, chief evolution officer at Vivo. “Personally, what she really helped me get a grasp on is how we can create complete communities” ”
Recently, Vivo received $15 million from the provincial government for their expansion, something that was a main talking point during Gondek’s campaign.
“What’s great is that we know that where Gondek lives and has raised her family in the community, that she understands the needs of the community,” said Watson. “So, to be able to advocate for that as an everyday Calgarian voice has been really powerful for us.”
These, and other, volunteer positions shaped the way Gondek viewed the city and its communities.
In 2009, with the encouragement of an old friend — who happened to be the chief administrator of the sociology department — she went back to U of C to complete her Ph.D. in urban sociology.
At first, she didn’t want to go through the stress of a Ph.D., especially since “swearing off ever going back to school” after completing her MA.
“It kind of struck me,” she said. “Maybe if I did some good research into something that was of interest, it would take me in another direction into consulting. So, I got into the program and really found where my heart lies — and that’s studying people in cities.”
About a year after completing her Ph.D., the Westman Centre for Real Estate Studies, in U of C’s Haskayne School of Business, sought out Gondek to be the centre’s director.
“What she really brought to the t-ball was she’s very knowledgeable [and] she has a Ph.D.,” said Jim Dewald, dean of U of C’s Haskayne School of Business. “She had been doing some work for industry representatives and had a good understanding of the real estate development industry.”
“That’s when it really hit me that there’s so much that goes on in a community” – Jyoti Gondek
The Westman Centre’s goal was to create not only degree program focused on educating students about commercial and residential real estate, but also about the financial modelling and development strategies behind them.
“She pulled together all the right people to develop a program,” said Dewald. “The right people and the right information.”
Dewald said that this experience gave her an “even deeper understanding of real estate development” and the issues that surround it, adding “it can only be helpful in a city council position.”
During her time at U of C, Gondek was volunteering with the Calgary Planning Commission. It was while sitting on the commission that she thought of running for city council.
“Things kept coming forward to us and I couldn’t understand why everything was so complicated and riled up in policy and processes that seemed to me were not really serving the end user,” she said.
In her third year on the city planning commission, she realized that she was trying to “influence the decision makers to think about things differently.”
“It just struck me,” said Gondek. “If I really want to make change happen, why don’t I do it from the inside?”
The Campaign Trail
At first, her family was overwhelmed, as they were concerned about being in the public eye, how to handle public criticism and if this was really a good way to affect change.
“I knew what the commitment was,” said Todd, adding Gondek was campaign manager for Jim Stevenson, a former councillor for Ward 3.
“My concern was just around the time commitment that’s required to really support that role and make sure that you’re doing everything you need to do for the residents of your ward.
“We came to the conclusion that she could handle that and still be a mom and be there to support her mom who lives with us — and she’s done exactly that, he added.
Ultimately, she knew there was no guarantee that she would win but, “if I don’t try it, I’m never gonna know.”
So, at the end of 2016, Gondek declared her interest in running for Calgary city council and soon began her campaign.
“It is all-consuming and life changing — if you do it right,” she said.
While on the campaign trail, Gondek remembers knocking on a door that would have a lasting impact.
She spoke with a woman who said it was lucky they had caught her at home — she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and was at home processing the bad news.
“I immediately said, ‘Oh my goodness,’” recalled Gondek. “’It’s not lucky for us that you’re home. Are you okay?’”
After the woman explained she was okay and was hoping to be better later that year, Gondek promised to come back. In September, she returned to the woman’s house and heard some good news — her cancer had gone into complete remission.
“That was someone that honestly made me realize that when you’re campaigning and you’re going about living your life and doing what you think is important, other people have very real lives at home in this city that impact them and change their lives,” said Gondek.
“…she looks like she belongs there and she’s been there for years. She always impressed me that way” – Todd Gondek
She said that interaction led her to start thinking about the logistics behind the circumstance and ask different questions: Where will this woman go for treatment? How will she get there? How does the city create the easiest possible route?
“It sounds like an apple pie kind of example, but it was stories like that and incidents like that that shaped me to be a better councillor than I could’ve been if I hadn’t talked to anybody,” she said.
After knocking on 15,000 doors and months of campaigning, Gondek won her ward and is currently sitting on Calgary’s city council. She said election night was a little hectic as television stations didn’t have live updates and the city website got backed up — they were relying on polling stations for updates.
Two texts and a phone call later, Gondek found out she had been declared the winner on Global News.
“I was so very proud of the team, I was proud of the family, I was proud of anybody that had anything to do with it,” she said. “I was proud of the fact that we ran a clean campaign and we took the high road.”
City Councillor Duties
Just over five months into her new position, Gondek has settled in, but it didn’t happen overnight. After winning the election, all councillors are sworn-in about a week later and then it’s straight into meetings.
It’s a fast turnaround, forcing new councillors to learn on the fly.
“She’s a pretty quick study,” said Todd, adding he had watched her first council meeting and compared it to one he saw at the beginning of April.
“I’m glad that she’s come a long way from that first meeting where she’s kind of feeling things out...to now, where she looks like she belongs there and she’s been there for years. She always impressed me that way.”
Throughout the campaign and into her position as city councillor, Gondek pushed for major infrastructure projects to “make sure that north-central Calgary actually has an identity.”
According to Gondek, the city’s north end has traditionally been separated into northeast and northwest. The confusion causes gaps in spending and funding for Calgary north-central.
“Everybody just thinks that north-central Calgary will fall into one of those two buckets,” she said. “As a result, we don’t have a public high school, we did not get an expansion to Vivo in a timely manner and the Green Line did not come north. We don’t have a health centre.”
She added that the different levels of government and the council need to work well together to make improvement towards the Green Line, healthcare facilities, schools and other timely expansion projects.
“Last week Vivo got $15 million for their expansion from the province,” said Gondek. “Now it’s my job to work hard with the city and work with the feds to ensure we can keep that going.”
But it’s not just the major projects getting councillors’ full attention. Everyday concerns such as safety, city bylaws and making sure citizen’s lives continue to improve are examples of what Gondek and her colleagues look at daily.
“I’m not gonna say it’s harder than any other job, but it is as difficult a job as any that I’ve ever had and it is hands down the most rewarding,” said Gondek. “But it’s a lot of work.”
- By Stephanie Hagenaars