(This is the second of a three-part series capturing Flint Mayor Karen Weaver’s experience being Flint’s first woman mayor. Part one was published on Sunday, Nov. 5.)
FLINT, MI — According to Essence Magazine, some political experts have dubbed 2017 the year of the Black Woman Mayor, 25 of which currently lead cities with populations over 30,000. One of these is Flint’s own Mayor Dr. Karen Weaver, who faces the latest mayoral recall election this Tuesday, Nov. 7. She speaks candidly with Flintbeat.com reporter, Sherrema Bower, on having more women at the table, her decision-making as a leader, family, and the women she surrounds herself with.
“[Having] more women at the table – we have things to add and contribute”
Under the leadership of Weaver, there are a number of women holding key positions with the City of Flint – a move that she says happened both organically and from ties that she had with a number of capable women in her professional circles.
“We have some really strong, good women in powerful positions here in the City of Flint,” said Weaver. “When you see that there aren’t very many of you at the table, there’s something wrong with this picture. I know females are just as capable and qualified.” Speaking highly of women in her administration, she named Chief Public Health Advisor Dr. Pamela Pugh, Public Information/Communications Director Kristin Moore, Chief Recovery Officer Jameca Patrick-Singleton, City Attorney Angela Wheeler, and Acting Director of Planning and Development Suzanne Wilcox. Weaver chuckled and said that long-standing City Clerk Inez Brown had been “by herself for a long time.” The women in her administration, she said, “are capable and qualified so that makes it easy to choose them. I think they’ve done a really good job…and I think I did a good job picking them.”
“I make decisions, not in isolation”
She has faced rumors that she is not the decision maker at City Hall, but says she plays an active role and that she has the final say with her administration.
“I am the one that will make the ultimate decision, but you have to have people around you that you trust, [providing] information so you can make the best decision,” she said.
And for unilateral decisions, Weaver said that she takes all of her advisors’ suggestions into account but said, “This is the way I’m going to go. I’ve had a group of people around me…Because when you’re in this kind of work, especially with a water crisis and the microscope that we’ve been under, you have to have people around you that you’re comfortable with, that you trust, that you can relax and laugh with, but still get work done. So if you think my decisions are great, I’m making them with my team.”
“Because sometimes it’s nice to be underestimated”
Weaver said that she often gets asked if she knew of the struggles that came with being Flint’s mayor, would she do it all over again. Despite those struggles, which include an ongoing water crisis, blight, crime, and a fleeting population, she says, “yes.”
“When you look at everything that we’ve accomplished in less than two years for the city of Flint, we’ve surpassed everyone’s expectations,” Weaver said. “No one expected us to accomplish what we have. And as a female…I was underestimated. When you’re underestimated, you can get all kinds of things done to surprise people. Flint is worth it.”
“We’re getting new [water] pipes for the city of Flint. Everybody’s looking at us – we’re getting companies to come in and invest. We’re getting housing…[and] a hotel built downtown. Mott [Community College] is putting their culinary school downtown, [and] we’ve made sure that local contractors get jobs if they’re from Flint and Genesee County. People who benefit from this [water] crisis are the people impacted by this crisis…So we’ve made good things happen, and that makes it worth it.”
“Women understand what you’re going through when you’re in the minority”
A number of people and organizations have been Weaver’s allies. For example, the Concerned Pastors for Social Action, her executive team, volunteers, other women leaders like Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, and the women mayors of Gary, Indiana, Pontiac and Oakland, Michigan. She especially named the Conference of Mayors, and the African American Mayors Association.
“They come here, they call, they’ve made sure I have been in front of certain people. Even when I declared the water crisis [an] emergency, they were right here, and they have been by my side every step of the way,” Weaver said. Weaver said her conversations with mayors in these organizations have helped because they understand “those tug-of-wars that you may have with other elected officials,” and how the “game” of politics sometimes supersedes what a mayor hopes to accomplish.
She surrounds herself with women.
“I have a group of women that I talk with,” she said. One of these is Bessie Straham, the first African American female principal of Flint’s Northwestern High School.
“I’ve known her all of my life…she’s a very strong, knowledgeable woman. She lives in Flint [and] gives me good advice. She’s one of [my] prayer warriors.”
Others include her cousins and family members in Detroit, and especially her aunt, Mrs. Coates of Chicago, who is in her early nineties and whose husband was also in politics. “So she and I talk a lot.”
Weaver said that the people she surrounds herself with “have been allies, friends, [and] supporters.
“You have to have people you can go to, talk with, trust, and [who] have your best interests and your back, and [will] tell you if you were wrong or not. Because I know I’m not always right. And so they have been allies of mine, and I thank them for that.”
“They taught me a lot about being firsts”
Family still remains the foundation of inspiration for Weaver as she points to her mother, Marion Coates Williams, as one of the “greatest” influencers in her life.
“She’s not here, but I still get advice from her,” said Weaver of her mother, who at the age of 22 became Flint’s first African American teacher at Fairview Elementary School. “She was a wonderful role model for me.”
Weaver said that in comparing what she goes through now as being the first woman mayor of Flint, is probably not nearly so hard as it was for her mother.
She also spoke of her father, Pediatrician T. Wendell Williams, the first African American elected to the Flint Board of Education, and for whom Williams Elementary School was named.
“One of the things that he taught me was that you take care of home. He [established] the T. Wendell Williams Medical Clinic on N. Saginaw and Stuart Streets, on the north side [where] we grew up…He knew we needed medical care on the north side of Flint. And all of the physicians, the dentists, the pharmacists, the lab guys, were all African American.”
Weaver’s father passed away while attending a conference in Florida with the Flint Board of Education.
“And when he went to the hospital, they did not treat him because they did not treat blacks there,” Weaver said. “They sent him to an inferior hospital [for] black people. And it didn’t matter that he was their colleague – he was a doctor just like they were. But ‘We’re not going to treat you,’ and the wrong procedure was done. He never came home.” She was just seven years old at the time.
“So they taught me a lot about being firsts and standing up for what you believe, and [sometimes] you take hits for it. So when I think about …what I need to do, I really think, ‘Would my parents be okay with this? Would this make them proud? And if I’m doing those kinds of things, then I’m okay. And what would they say about what’s going on right now? They’d be disappointed…but they’d be happy with the decisions that I’ve made.”
Concerning the home front, Weaver said she tries to maintain balance in career and family. Her husband Wrex Weaver and her three adult children are supportive, and help her balance her career as Flint’s mayor and their life at home.
“Sometimes I think I need a wife at home to take care of things that [I] want to do [myself],” she said, chuckling. “I have a husband [who] does certain things, [but] there’s some things I want to do as the woman.” One way she tries to maintain balance, she said, is when any of her three children call, all of whom are in their twenties. “I’ll say to my kids when they call me, ‘if you need to talk to me, tell me because I’ll step out,’ to let them know that they’re still the most important to me. It’s a difficult balancing act.”
When asked about the impact her mayorship and the recall have had on her family, she said it is hard, but they manage to push through.
“I know they’re proud of me,” she said. “But it’s hard when somebody’s talking about your wife, or your sister, or your mother. I’m glad my kids are older, but then they’re old enough to understand too, and they’re mad.”
Weaver said that when she decided she was going to run for mayor, her family begged her not to.
“‘You’ll get beat up, talked about, people will spread rumors and lies on you,” she said, retelling their words. “‘You’ve lost your private life…’ it took awhile to get my family on board.” She said that she knows some days they still wonder, “Has it been worth it?”
Laughing, Weaver said that one of her daughters once said to her, “Don’t you let these people age you, Mom.” I said, “Okay.” She said, “It’s not worth it.” I said, “Okay…it’s not?” She said, “Nope!”
Although Tuesday, Nov 7, Weaver faces a mayoral recall election, she said that she believes she will be able to finish the work she has set out to do.
“There’s things that they can’t take from me no matter what happens. They can’t steal your joy unless you let them. They can’t take away who I am, or whose I am. I know how I got here: through God and the people. I just stay prayed up and focused, and try to do the right thing.”
“We say that we’re ‘Flintstone Strong’ and we’re going to keep moving forward. I’m excited about the future of Flint. And I think people should be excited [too] because we’re headed in the right direction. We are going to be the great comeback story.”
(Dr. Sherrema Bower is an anthropologist of religion and gender, whose scholarship focuses on the social and gendered experiences of women leaders situated in patriarchal institutions.)