The world shut down. Almost 120,000 Americans have died from the novel coronavirus. We saw yet another black man die in police custody.
Right now, as all the inadequacies and brokenness of our global power structures are laid bare, it is also possible to see clearly the demonstrable change that can be made in our neighborhoods.
Multiple think pieces spotlighted women’s leadership globally through the crisis as swift, science-based and empathetic. Female national leaders like Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-Wen, Germany’s Angela Merkel, and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern have demonstrated great success flattening the curve.
But leaders at a local level are impacting their communities for the better as well.
“More women in government is better government, and better government is better for everybody,” says Erin Vilardi, executive director of Vote Run Lead, a program that trains women to run for office (and where I myself garnered tips to run for my own nonpartisan city council seat).Once sworn-in, women in public office tend to be more effective than their male counterparts. They bring home more money for their constituents, more closely represent their constituents’ interests, and are better about communicating with them.
If ever there was a time we need eager, compassionate leadership from representatives paying close attention, serving our direct needs, and communicating clearly, it’s now.
Vilardi acknowledges that studies of gender in local office are rare, and normally point to data concerning mayors of major cities — where white men make up 20 percent of the population, but represent 60 percent of mayors. Even as we saw more women seeking higher office in 2018, in Vilardi’s 15 years of traveling the country training women to run for office, she’s seen an old truism still holds: most city councils and county commissions include one woman or no women.
While mayors and city council members usually don’t have the sweeping, national influence of a president or prime minister, their power to impact the lives of their immediate neighbors is powerful.
In the midst of all this chaos, here’s a look four women leading in their communities.
Melissa Robinson, a city council member in Kansas City, Mo., acknowledges her community is in a tight spot. Kansas City spans multiple counties, and while federal relief funding has been released to white majority districts, hers — which is the most diverse, has the most income insecurity, and life expectancy rates that run 15 years less than other parts of the city, pre-pandemic — has been told by its county to spend reserves and bill for expenses.
An awareness of her city’s imbalances led Robinson, last summer, to write and fight for an equity ordinance that acknowledged racism directly impacts public health, and because she’d already laid the groundwork, in late April she was able to push through another ordinance using $800,000 to expand covid-19 testing within the city, targeting vulnerable populations in Zip codes hit hardest by the virus or with highest poverty levels.
At a June 7 Black Lives Matter march, Robinson introduced what she’s calling a righteous policy package that includes restoring funding for public transit and a $7 million investment in redeveloping the epicenter of black entrepreneurship within the city. Kansas City’s police department is governed by the state, with set funding requirements from the city, which Kansas City far exceeds. This grants Robinson and her colleagues some opportunity for reforms “as it relates to the public purse.”
But to Robinson, one of the crucial ways of showing the community “we’re seeing, we hear you, and we’re not going to continue racism through our policies,” is by addressing gaps in the citizen complaint process for police interactions. Robinson says she sees this time of “chaos, mayhem, confusion, fear, hurt,” as a unique opportunity “to be part of the liberation strategy that many people are seeking and have fought for decades and centuries.”
In New York City, an epicenter for covid-19, there has been a drop in the number of domestic violence-related complaints and arrests, but the number of related 911 calls is up. While City Council Member Helen Rosenthal acknowledges there may be more calls from neighbors who are home to hear loud noises, the most chilling and most likely factor is that “the abusive partner is present and intimidating the victim into saying, ‘never mind, nothing is wrong here.’” Knowing other cities that had reached their apex earlier were seeing a stark uptick in domestic violence reports, Rosenthal’s “number one focus was to make sure that survivors and victims knew they could still get help no matter what.” Her office coordinated with a local produce distributor to get donations of food to survivors in domestic violence shelters.
“The pandemic has simply exposed the massive social vulnerabilities and injustices which we have chosen to tolerate for years,” says Rosenthal.
She was an early co-sponsor of a city law to ban chokeholds and another to require the New York City Police Department to make public a disciplinary matrix of potential penalties for police misconduct. Rosenthal has said she wants to defund at least $1 billion from the NYPD budget and reallocate those funds in support of community needs and social services. But in a statement, she made clear that bulk food delivery and signing pledges aren’t enough.
“We have to pursue social change with the same sense of passion and intention that those on the street are demanding.”
Lauren McLean was in her first 100 days in office as Boise’s mayor when she found herself staring down a global pandemic and issuing a shutdown order a week before her state’s governor.
She’d run on issues of affordable housing, and within weeks, “the crisis brought on by the pandemic [had] really pointed to the importance of focusing there so that we can create a city for everyone.” She made an order to stop evictions and offer rent forgiveness on city-owned properties. In her 2021 budget, McLean is proposing a fund to stop evictions throughout the city. In late May, she announced a plan for a new affordable housing development. She’d been busy advocating for relief funding for midsized cities like hers that didn’t qualify for the federal funding and preparing shovel-ready projects to qualify for any federal grants or reimbursements to help her city. Then, a new wave of pain and suffering hit her community with the death of George Floyd.
At the beginning of June, McLean named a new police chief, Ryan Lee, culminating a search to replace a chief who had retired before McLean’s term. McLean points to a week’s worth of peaceful protests as a success by organizers and a police department that remained calm and respectful. “The current events have made clear that we must all renew our commitment to justice and safety,” McLean said. She says this will entail a comprehensive review of policies and initiatives, and figuring out where to find funds to invest in communities of color, refugees and vulnerable populations.
As the first days of the pandemic arrived in the U.S., Mayor Lovely Warren of Rochester rapidly developed a sense that a plan was needed that “takes into account every constituent’s needs, and those needs — depending on who they are — are very different.” In the early days, it meant coordinating with the schools to make sure food insecure children out of schools could eat.
The effort has distributed over 800,000 meals so far. When her city received mask donations from the county, Warren moved to mail over 480,000 masks directly, concerned that in-person distribution wouldn’t get the needed masks safely into the hands of seniors, people who are disabled and immunocompromised people. The city directed $600,000 toward grants to 300 businesses to help cover short-term losses and get the needed PPE in place to open back up. At the same time, Rochester’s recently developed financial empowerment centers pivoted to Zoom and phone calls to give citizens financial counseling sessions.
She’s long wanted to help build pathways out of poverty.
Now she’s grappling with new ways to help her city move forward together. Warren, Rochester’s first female mayor and the city’s second African American mayor, has been taking heat for how police responded with pepper balls during a Black Lives Matter march due to unrest Warren blames on outsiders. The sweep of property damage included the Family Dollar where Warren’s cousin works. The mayor helped organize a cleanup that drew 3,000 volunteers to help the damaged city.
Rochester has already established a body-camera program and police accountability board. Still, Warren acknowledges “there’s always more work to be done to build bridges between our police and our community.”