Chris Heister: “Everyone who has made this journey feels as though they’re fighting the system a bit.”

Even if Chris Heister shifts down a gear when she leaves her role as council leader in Stockholm, she is unlikely be drawing on her pension any time soon. The class journey she has made from growing up in a countryside idyll, north of Stockholm, has given her a momentum that continually drives her forward.

Chris left her position as council leader on Stockholm County Council on August 31.

“People who think that a council leader just cuts ribbons should step into my shoes for a month to grasp what varied and important work it is – and what fantastic fun it is. I’ve never worked as much my entire as I have as a council leader,” she says.

Something that should be put into context of some of her previous roles that have demanded more than a full-time commitment, for example as advisor to former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, or chair of the financial committee in Stockholm Council. In parliament, she served as a Moderate Party MP for 11 years.

“Today, I’m not even a member [of the party] because I don’t think it’s appropriate for an agency director. Then I have my basic values, but those have nothing to do with party loyalty. And I’m not going back into politics either,” she says, emphatically.

She became interested in politics relatively late in life. It wasn’t until she became a mother before she joined the education committee of Danderyd council in Stockholm, keen to make changes. That the council became majority Moderate she says was thanks to Gösta Bohman, former Moderate Party leader.

“I felt a kinship with him as a person and we both had a connection to the Stockholm archipelago. He represented the liberal perspective, centred on the individual, the independent person. This influenced me a great deal and resonated with the freedom that I carried within me from childhood,” she says.

She compares growing up in the hamlet of Sandika in the parish of Harg, northern Roslagen, north of Stockholm, to the books about the Bullerbyn children by Astrid Lindgren. Her parents ran a small subsistence holding in a village of some 20 farms.

“We had 17-18 cows, hens, pigs, horses – the lot! And I was a wild child who scampered about everywhere while mum and dad looked after the animals.”

“Dad always used to let me be with him as long as I wasn’t a nuisance. I was allowed to run errands, cycle out to the fields with my packed lunch, and as soon as I was big enough to reach the clutch pedal, I drove the tractor between the drying racks while dad loaded hay.”

Because they were no older family members to look after the children, she was sent on “village rounds” during the days. The circuit began and ended at aunt Hanna’s, the neighbouring farm, where three other children lived. But in the middle of the day, she always made sure that she turned up at uncle Helmer and aunt Agnes’ place.

“At 12:30, Helmer took a break from chopping wood to listen to the news of the radio and have a coffee. And because aunt Agnes baked the village’s tastiest biscuits, I made sure that I got there at this time.

“Days would finish by spending nightfall at aunt Hanna’s, who told stories for the children about her life as a party cook in the village.

“I have always felt needed and appreciated. And have had opportunities to feel good about myself. This builds self-confidence. Feeling at ease in your surroundings is something that I think many people miss out on nowadays.”

Going to school came as a shock. Chris turned out to be dyslexic, but received scant support at school.

“I had a really nasty teacher for my first three years of school. She had attended a small teaching school after the first world war where she didn’t get a particularly pedagogical training.

“It was hell: I cried every evening after school in the first term. The school was three kilometres from home and my mother used to ran behind me and push my bike half the way just to get me there.”

She still always has the Swedish Academy’s dictionary within reach – nowadays the online version.

“There’s always been a block when I start to write something, and I have struggled with foreign languages. But at the same time, I need to realise that you can’t be good at everything.”

Despite a tough start, she knew that education was what would give her opportunities in life. But her household hardly had the resources to send her to university in Uppsala.

“I was really worried that they [her parents] wouldn’t think it worthwhile to send me to university in Uppsala. If I had to stay here, I felt that my soul would die.”

“But my mother took a job as at Östhammar hospital so that we could afford it. And it became clear that they’d always expected me to go to university – I’d just never believed it.”

You’ve come a long way, what do you think when you look back?

“Sure, I’ve made a class journey, even if I don’t think about it much. My parents had six-years of schooling each and I was the first person on my father’s side of the family to graduate from college, and the second on my mother’s side.

“Everyone who has made this journey feels as though they’re fighting the system a bit. But I’m comfortable in my role now. In some way, the journey has given me the energy to go forward.”

This energy will keep her off the sofa even after she leaves the county council. In May, Chris was appointed to the board of Umeå University, which she knows well because prior to becoming council leader in Stockholm, she held the same position in Västerbotten.

“I was delighted when I was asked. To some extent, this feels as though it’s testament to the good job that we’ve done together, and they like that I’m coming back. And I think it’s going to be fantastic fun to come back.”

This is important because she has always demanded and expected a lot of others, she says.

“I’ve taken it down a notch now, but I still know what I want. And it’s no bad thing, I think, that you really want to make an effort.”

“But at the same time, I’ve always found it difficult to be content with myself, often thinking that I could probably always do a little better, make little more of an effort. It’s how I was brought up, a product of society at the time where you had to do the right thing.

As council leader, she has worked continuously to improve visibility, facilitate meetings, and build networks. The most recent example of this was related to Sweden’s application to be the new home of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) following the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

“I was on the government like a leech to ensure that we made a competitive bid. We collected all actors, in co-ordination with Uppsala, to show that we have a strong case. EMA is important for us, but it’s also important for Europe because we can contribute to strengthening the EU internationally in this area.

As chair of Flemingsberg Science, Chris has also been a driving force in growing its profile. It has created close co-operation between colleges in Flemingsberg, she says. Something that, among other things, contributed to the move of police training to Södertörn University.

“The strength of Flemingsberg Science was clear during this project. The institutions fully backed the move and showed how the could contribute, not least Karolinska Institutet that conducts the bulk of its teaching in Flemingsberg.

“At Flemingsberg, you have medicine, technology, social research, culture and humanities – it’s an exciting starting point. The growth of Campus Flemingsberg is highly significant for the development of the entire Södertörn area and the county as a whole.

She has concluded her time as county leader by publishing a series of podcasts in which she interviews a raft of selected people.

“I can’t write memoirs because I’m not someone who looks back. Rather, I want to talk about the challenges that the county faces with the people who have been critical for its development.”

Chris has an infectious happiness, according to many who have met her. Together with a constant curiosity.

“Going round the village every day as a child probably created some form of social skills that I’ve benefited from later in life. But I have my days too. It’s probably the case that I have an essentially positive outlook on life, and that drives you to stay positive.

“Now I’m dreaming of doing an upholstery course and I’ve already started fiddling about. I’m really quite handy, if not especially domesticated,” she says and laughs.

Back in the countryside, four Carl Malmsten chairs are awaiting some tender loving care.

“This has been a fantastically enjoyable time, but I have missed time with my family, my children and grandchildren, and close friends. As well as time for reading things other than meeting protocols.”

Published On: 12 September 2022
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