In Spotlights

Kanishka Karunaratne Cheng, Director of Commission Affairs

Kanishka currently serves as the Director of Commission Affairs for San Francisco Mayor London Breed. In this role she advances the mayor’s policy priorities through city commissions and manages the relationship between commissioners and the mayor’s office.

Kanishka has worked to advance progressive values through urban planning and public policy for over a decade. She previously served as the Mayor’s Liaison to the Board of Supervisors, guiding the mayor’s legislative priorities through the board. Prior to joining the mayor’s office she served as a legislative aide for Supervisors Mark Farrell and Julie Christensen, as well as a planner at the San Francisco Planning Department and an analyst at the Oakland Housing Authority.

She immigrated to the United States at age six, fleeing with her family from Sri Lanka’s civil war. Kanishka was the first in her family to attend college, graduating from the University of California, San Diego and earning a Master’s in Urban Planning from the University of California, Los Angeles.

What is the educational and career path that led to your current career?

I started college with the goal of going to medical school and becoming a pediatrician. I took an elective course in urban studies that really resonated with me, where I learned about the various ways urban life and cities create communities and can help people thrive. It was the first time I heard my immigrant experience echoed in an academic setting, and it opened my eyes to a career in public service through public policy.

I pursued urban planning as a career with the goal of creating policy that allowed for upward mobility. My first job was an internship with a non-profit housing developer. I then worked in housing and community development consulting, followed by a job at the Oakland Housing Authority. Most recently I’ve held various roles with the City and County of San Francisco.

How did you become interested in environmental work?

I first learned about environmental work in school, as the California Environmental Quality Act is something all California planners study. I also learned about environmental justice issues and saw these impacts first-hand when I worked in farm worker housing in the Central Valley and as a consultant to lower-income cities in Southern California.

Once I was in position to make policy in San Francisco I became aware of the high rate of cancer in firefighters due to flame retardant chemicals found in furniture and children’s products. As I did more research—and thanks to my colleagues in San Francisco’s fantastic Department of the Environment—I learned about how these chemicals were also harming the health and development of children and affecting female fertility. We worked together to craft legislation that banned the sale of furniture and certain other products that were manufactured with these chemicals—which we hope will inspire the state of California to do the same.

What environmental issues are of most concern to you?

Climate change is the most concerning environmental issue of our time. Urban sprawl plays a huge role in creating greenhouse gasses and is extremely concerning to me. I regularly advocate for policies to allow densification of our cities to avoid continued sprawl, mega-commutes, and the development of huge homes that create greater consumption of energy and resources. These adjustments would require all of us to make lifestyle changes, but will have the greatest impact on climate change.

Want to connect with Kanishka? You can connect with her on LinkedIn, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.