We are taking the lead in helping our communities.
As the celebrated Women’s March unfolded in the nation’s capital this past January, Minneapolis mayoral candidate Nekima Levy-Pounds was on the other side of the country at a companion demonstration in Minnesota, firing up the crowd. “If women ran the world,” the civil rights attorney and Black Lives Matter activist said during a speech about racial injustice, “it would be a better place.” Then Levy-Pounds, 40, roused folks with a boisterous call and response. “What time is it?” she shouted. “The time is now!” the audience hollered back.
That sentiment—the time is now—has some political experts dubbing 2017 The Year of the Black Woman Mayor, a nod to a fresh crop of candidates seeking to lead American cities, and the dozens who already hold top spots.
This election cycle, we have declared our candidacies in places like Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis. And there’s buzz about African-American women potentially joining the race for mayor in New Orleans and Cleveland. Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 25 Black women currently head cities with populations over 30,000. Several of these women helm the top 100 cities nationwide.
Subscribe to our daily newsletter for the latest in hair, beauty, style and celebrity news.
“Black women are running and winning,” says Jessica Byrd of Three Point Strategies, a Washington, D.C.–based consulting firm that recruits and trains progressive candidates of color. “[In my experience] Black women run for two reasons. One, they either want to fix something or they’re mad as hell.”
Yvette Simpson grew up in low-income housing in Lincoln Heights, Ohio. She was raised by a grandmother who instilled in her that poverty didn’t rule out a bright future. “I was the first in my family to graduate from college,” Simpson says. “My grandmother lived long enough to see me complete law school, which was a lifelong dream. I’ve always felt an obligation to give back.”
Inspired by Barack Obama‘s historic candidacy for President, Simpson ran for city council in Cincinnati and, to her surprise, won a seat in 2011. Now the public servant hopes to become the first African-American woman mayor in her city’s 228-year history. “We need leaders who understand the struggles of everyday citizens,” says Simpson, 38, the lone Black woman on the nine-member council. “The population of our city is about 50 percent Black and heavily female. Residents have asked, “Why can’t we have a Black woman mayor?””
The first Black woman mayor in America was Ellen Walker Craig-Jones, who was elected to lead Urbancrest, Ohio, in 1971. Fast-forward to present day and we have San Antonio’s Ivy Taylor, who has steered the nation’s seventh-largest city since 2014. Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., took the seat in 2015. Sharon Weston Broome recently won a tight mayoral contest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Paula Hicks-Hudson leads Toledo. And, in January, Catherine Pugh was sworn in as Baltimore’s third African-American woman mayor, setting a record.
Kimberly Peeler-Allen and Glynda Carr are cofounders of Higher Heights, a national organization that works to harness Black women’s political power. Despite the fact that there are some 23 million Black women in the U.S., “in many cities our voices and leadership are absent from the dialogue that helps to shape policy priorities,” says Carr. While the conventional wisdom is that voters should be most concerned about who is in the White House and Congress, Byrd says communities of color must also pay close attention to local races—mayor, city council, state’s attorney—”because those officials are making decisions about the quality of your daily life. They’re making sure the trash gets picked up, [maintaining] the quality of the schools your children attend, [appointing] the police commissioner and [deciding] which criminal cases are prosecuted. We need Black women in these top positions.”
That’s one of the reasons why Tishaura Jones, 45, the treasurer of St. Louis since 2013, decided to throw her hat in the ring for mayor. “I’m a single mother who understands many of the challenges families face,” says the former Missouri state representative. “I see politics as a way to empower people who don’t always have a voice.”
Running for office is not a simple endeavor, however. Studies suggest that Black women are less likely to be encouraged to enter the political arena than Black men and White women. “[Black women] often deal with gender and racial stereotypes,” says Byrd. “And they have to raise money, usually without the benefit of the old boy network.” Still, those obstacles aren’t deal breakers. “I ask potential candidates to look through their phone contacts. They’re often surprised by how many people they know,” she says. “That can be turned into a spreadsheet, which becomes a potential donor list for fund-raising. Raising money is critical in politics—it says you’re serious and competitive.”
Building a pipeline of mayors and other officials can happen organically through civic groups, PTAs and such, but increasingly, national groups are offering programs that recruit and train women to hold office at all levels of government. The day after the Women’s March, several groups—including Emily’s List, the New American Leaders Project, Higher Heights and Emerge America—partnered to host candidate training for approximately 500 women interested in making a bid for office. According to organizers, most participants were in their twenties, thirties and forties and about 14 percent were African-American. The National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women (N.O.B.E.L. Women) has a mission to increase and promote our presence in leadership. “From Alabama to Alaska, we want to equip Black women with the tools to become servant leaders,” says Waikinya Clanton, 31, the organization’s national executive director. Many participants have matriculated at N.O.B.E.L. Institute, Clanton says, and several of them have been appointed to or have won elected office (among them, lawmakers Angela Williams in Colorado and Maria Chappelle-Nadal in Missouri): “Once we have the knowledge, we’re unstoppable.”
This feature originally appeared in the April 2017 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.