As part of the American delegation that visited the dreamy seaport capital city of Dakar, Senegal, in West Africa, I was struck by the dazzling presence of Vanessa R. Williams, who is on a first-name basis with President Obama and other Heads of State like Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade and even held court with the late Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. As Executive Director of the National Conference of Black Mayors, Vanessa R. Williams is the glue that holds 650 African-American Mayors together.
During our participation in the World Summit of Mayors Leadership Conference, this mother of two from Atlanta told me she was inspired to take her organization to a global level when she assumed her position six years ago: “God had a plan… it’s time for the children of African slaves to return to the Motherland to be part of the solution.” With that agenda, she has formed partnerships and alliances with countless African leaders and transformed some of America’s most low-profile mayors into global ambassadors. Her goal: to help local leaders of urban and rural areas think outside the box… and realize politics is both local and global. Whether it’s Dobbins Heights, North Carolina, or Benin City, Nigeria, there are common threads that bind the cities together, and with open and free dialogue, Williams believes there are also common solutions. I was impressed but also somewhat dismayed that, as a longtime journalist, I had never heard or read about her stellar reputation.
Another dynamo that I met on the trip was a woman I first read about in ESSENCE several years ago. Mayor Heather McTeer of Greenville, Mississippi, landed in the history books as the first African-American mayor of the so-called “heart of the Delta.” She has run the township (with a population of 38,000 people) so successfully that’s she’s now running for Congress — with a good chance of unseating a longtime incumbent. As the daughter of a civil rights activist, Mayor McTeer is a beneficiary of a centuries-old struggle for equality, and the law school graduate is pushing the envelope and working tirelessly to leave a lasting legacy.
Bonding with these two women on a continent that our ancestors were stolen from so long ago reminds me that African-Americans are coming full circle — and women are leading the charge to reinvent our collective image and restore peace to a troubled world.
Cheryl Wills is a television news anchor in New York City and the author of “Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale.” During her 20-year career, she has interviewed luminaries like Maya Angelou and Bill Cosby. In 2010, McDonald’s honored her as a broadcasting legend during a regional ad campaign. She is a graduate of Syracuse University. www.diefreethebook.com