Olga Milan-Howells has made changes as the president of the Upper Noe Neighbors Association with more trees, fewer Google Busses, and continued historic preservation.
Olga Milan-Howells looks like an accomplished woman. She’s 55-years-old, though she looks ten years younger, and her general demeanor is that of success, persistence, and motivation. She has done many things in her life from coming to the United States as a non-English speaking immigrant, creating Latino clubs, and serving as president of the Upper Noe Neighbors Association.
“Don’t tell her ‘no’ because she will prove you wrong,” her younger sister by three years, Sandra Milan, said in a phone interview. Whatever she’s working on, “she always gets it done.”
Milan-Howells has been the president of the Upper Noe Neighbors Association for the last several years. During her time there she has accomplished several things such as changing the route for Google busses because they posed a safety hazard to nearby school children. Because of the geography, the busses would be going downhill, and she did not want breaks failing and large busses hurtling towards people crossing the street below.
Milan-Howells joined the Upper Noe Neighbors around the same time her friend and neighbor, Marianne Hampton.
“Usually people join out of a sense of community,” said Hampton during a phone interview. “When we were joining, the neighborhood was changing and we were joining for specific topics.”
Both woman were advocating for community issues. Milan-Howells was concerned about busses and increased commuter travel. Hampton lived on a busy corner on Dolores St. and spoke of many senior citizens who had been injured due to lack of street safety.
“We were both pissed off about something,” Hampton said.
Milan-Howells has been ambitious for her whole life. When she was 17 years old, she came to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico. She couldn’t speak English. She attended Mission High School and began to adapt to a new country and a new language.
“The way I learned English was in a really strange way,” Milan-Howells said. Her school had a language lab within its main library. “I remember they had this little machine, and on one they had all these cards, and on one card it would say “hello, how are you?” and on the back: “¿hola como estas?”. Within six months, she could understand everyone around her. She joked that her accent was still very strong, but her English skills were improving.
During her time at Mission High she formed the Latino Club and was very involved in her community at school and in the Mission. In conjunction with the Latino Club, she also counseled and encouraged her peers to stay in school and graduate. She won several awards for her work in the community, including the San Francisco Teen of the Year award in 1981, and the Young Leaders of Tomorrow.
Milan-Howells won scholarships for her work with Latino students in high school. “Without even knowing English, I could organize, I could get the kids back in school, and I was rewarded with all these scholarships,” she explained.
When it was time to choose where to go to college, she explained that she had been told she should attend Berkeley by her school principal, but started by going to San Francisco State University.
She explained that she hadn’t even heard of Berkeley because she was so involved with her school, community, clubs and learning English. “I knew I wanted to go to college because, where I came from, if you could, it’s something you did,” she said. After two weeks, she got a letter from Berkeley offering her a place there.
“The first year was an incredible difficult time for me,” she said, explaining that it felt as though someone had thrown her straight into a swimming pool. She majored in accounting and finance.
“I was very good with numbers. I’ve always been good with numbers so I decided to go into accounting because it was the easiest thing to do,” said Milan-Howells. They had her in ESL classes at Berkeley, and she took classes that were self-paced when it came to writing, determined to get good grades. She graduated with a 4.0 GPA.
After getting her Bachelors, she got a job at a public accounting firm1 where she was sexually harassed. She decided to stay there for two years in order to get her Certified Public Accountant license (CPA), which is not easy to obtain. After leaving that job, she joined Mobil Oil Corporation and traveled all over Latin America for work. During her time in Peru in 1991, she was almost killed by a car bomb.
After traveling through Latin America for her job, she was sent back to Mexico and was the first female manager for Mobile Oil in Mexico. After two years, and a terrible car accident, her husband invited her to move to his home country of England to recover.
“I had a fantastic time, and then I got board,” she laughed, “that’s when I decided to come back to San Francisco.” She lived in Daly City, but then got a house on Valley Street in Noe Valley so her mother could live with her.
1 Milan-Howells mentions getting a job at Deloitte Haskins & Sells, but didn’t say if it was that company specifically where she was harassed. I don’t want to assume.
Once back in San Francisco, she began to become a part of the community again. She met Emily Pimentel through a network of Latinos in the city. Pimentel invited her to be on the board of the Mexican Museum around 2013. “I think she wanted to do this work because she’s very proud of her heritage,” said Pimentel.
Pimentel mentioned that her and Milan-Howells wanted to work with the Mexican Museum because it was creating a space where Mexican-Americans could gather and experience the art of their culture. Pimentel said that Milan-Howells left the board before her term was up because of differences with the Museum’s director.
After joining Upper Noe Neighbors, Milan-Howells became invested in that community. She recently celebrated the tenth anniversary for the remodeling of the Upper Noe Rec. Center, which she helped plan.
Hampton talked about some of the things that the Upper Noe Neighbors accomplished during her and Milan-Howells’s time on the board.
The Upper Noe Neighbors fought to get lower-income housing built in the form of condos. The neighborhood was against it. The neighborhood association wanted to create a platform where people could discuss issues and help them make decisions.
“The condos did get built, and they’re some really beautiful, well-kept condos so that we can have some more people in the neighborhood that aren’t zillionaires,” said Hampton. One of her friends and neighbors, Becky Mortimer, said that “she’s always rallying to get us there and keeping us informed,” when it comes to neighborhood issues.
However, Milan-Howells’ time as president of Upper Noe Neighbors is coming to a close. She will be retiring next year in order to pursue the creation of the Mexican-American Culture Club.
“I want Mexican-Americans to feel proud of their heritage, because the way we get attacked continuously, you wanna hide the fact that your Mexican, you wanna hide that you’re a minority,” she said.
Her friends and family want to support her efforts, each saying how they know she will accomplish this goal no matter what.
“There was always someone there either extending their hand saying ‘yeah you can do it’, or making me feel part of the community, making me feel relevant,” said Milan-Howells. She expressed that she wants the Mexican-American Culture Club to be her way of giving back to her community.