By Alexandra Radovic
As a high schooler in Western Massachusetts, Eric Olson had an early knack for leadership. Enriched by the robust culture of surrounding college towns, he spent time delving into politics in local libraries and bookstores. He even wrote a letter to Bernie Sanders — mayor of Burlington, Vt. at the time and known as a mover and shaker — asking what was successful about his political strategies.
Jump to 1995, and Olson is working for Sanders, who was then a member of the House of Representatives, to help address some of the same inquiries he proposed in his letter to him years before. Olsen had earned his master’s degree in American Studies from the University of Maryland and, in his work for Sanders, was focused on issues involving the environment, transportation, energy, democracy, human rights and agriculture.
“I’ve always been interested in how to make a community better,” Olson recently said.
Olson brought that same dedication from Capitol Hill to College Park. He served on the College Park City Council from 1997 to 2006 and on the Prince George’s County Council, representing District 3, from 2006 to 2014.
“We really focused a lot on walkability, trails … redeveloping some of our older corridors, [and] trying to get more people to live near work,” Olson said, “… paying attention to things like code enforcement and nuisances and making sure our neighborhoods are strong.”
The College Park resident pointed to the expansion of the city’s trails as one of his proudest collaborations with the community.
Olson said he still remembers trudging through swampland with fellow residents to scope out what is now the Woods Trail, where he sees people ride their bikes every day.
He also worked to renovate the Rhode Island Avenue Trolly Trail, which runs from College Park through Riverdale Park to Hyattsville.
“It’s really about working together with people to realize a vision and a dream that people share,” Olson said. “I [feel] like my job is not just to be a representative of a community, but also to be a community organizer … showing neighborhoods that they have the power to create change.”
Olson carries this mission as executive director of the College Park City-University Partnership, where he focuses on creating jobs, addressing transportation issues and enhancing public spaces.
According to the former councilmember, the pandemic has shifted the city’s focus to helping local restaurants survive and pushing attention toward testing sites. Some issues in the city remain the same, such as attracting homeowners.
Olson will continue to navigate improvements to College Park as he prepares to run again for county council in November, 2022.
When he isn’t piloting progress, Olson is writing. He writes lyrics for Paint Branch Creek, a local Americana band, and has the longest running column in the College Park Here & Now.
Olson’s column, “Community on the Move,” focuses on the collaboration between the College Park community and the University of Maryland.
“Eric’s column speaks to the city’s bustle, its friendliness and its heart,” Mark Goodson, managing editor of the College Park Here & Now, said.
Others who have collaborated with Olson shared a similar admiration for his work.
“One of his passions is investing in infrastructure and policies that reduce our overall emissions. … I think he’ll do well in that, in this new role, and I’m really excited to see where it takes him,” U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell said.
Swalwell, who has been representing California’s 15th congressional district since 2013, met Olson in 2001.
“It was a tumultuous time; September 11th had just happened,” Swalwell explained. “There was also, in 2001, a race of College Park City Council where a couple students were challenging councilmembers for city council seats because they felt like the city wasn’t really representing the students.”
Then a junior at the University of Maryland, Swalwell brought this issue to Olson, who was serving on the city council.
Together, they created the first student-liaison position on the council and formed a 20-year friendship in the process.
“Eric is a collaborator. He’ll work with anyone to get something done,” Swalwell said. “He’s really just one of the kindest sweetest people you’ll ever meet, but he has a core set of principles as well, and he’ll fight for those principles.”
Swalwell said if Olson is elected, he could improve housing and infrastructure in College Park, as well as address Metro expansion and environmental issues.
Olson also has experience as deputy director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, where he worked on election reform. He also led smart growth initiatives for the Sierra Club.
“College Park is a much more desirable place to live and work and play because of his work,” Swalwell said.
Olson’s roles may have shifted and may continue to shift, but his vision for making communities better remains steadfast.