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Gary, Gardens and the women in charge

caines | 3/22/2012, 5 a.m.

Mayors Freeman-Wilson and Gibson discuss challenge of being first Black female mayors

Gary, Indiana may be thousands of miles away from Miami Gardens, Florida, but the two cities do have some things in common. Not only are they both predominantly-Black, but they have a Black woman sitting at the helm as mayor. And according to the two city chiefs, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, 51 [Gary] and Mayor Shirley Gibson, 68 [Miami Gardens], they havent felt any undue pressure because of their gender. Its always an honor to make history but I think it may have more significance to my mothers generation theirs was the one that opened the doors, Freeman-Wilson said. My daughter, now 17, looks at my accomplishments and knows that for her life, the sky is the limit. She can be mayor or even president of the U.S. Freeman-Wilson has been in office less than three months in a city that in 1968 elected the first Black mayor in our nations history, Richard Gordon Hatcher. She won 77 percent of the vote in the general election and has had her hands full ever since. I like to refer to myself as Dorothy from Oz because I was born and raised here and theres no place like home, she said. We have reduced crime, are renovating our downtown that had become a real eyesore and are adding more runways to the Gary Chicago Airport. But the priority is to make it easier for businesses to locate here. Developing job skills for our citizens is key because it doesnt help if you bring in new companies but your people lack the training for the positions. Freeman-Wilson says she believes she is in a unique position to turn things around in Gary. And its not her gender but her ability to successfully build teams that will make the difference. When you are working in city government, you look at the potential of the folks around you and then you surround yourself with those who are talented, she said. Members of my staff completed their education at Harvard, Howard and Stanford. Many were born here and like me and have chosen to return in a concerted effort to improve the quality of life for everyone. Gibson will vacate her office in August 2012 due to term limits. In her nine years as the citys only mayor, she says she has found that women are getting more respect when they take over positions of leadership. I think things are improving for women both in the public and private sector, she said. Thats because its becoming the norm. But as long as we still have first women in certain positions, we still havent gotten where we need to be. Sure, you have the typical male-female dynamics and men sometimes want to exclude women from the decision-making process so theres still work that must be done. Miami Gardens is unique in that we have a very short history. We started from unincorporated Dade and there were those who didnt believe a majority-Black city could survive or manage itself. We have done both. I learned early on that people looked to me to lead the way and that I was charged with making positive things happen. But unlike the president who is somewhat shielded from voters, I must face my constituents every day. You have to be the stabilizing force and voice that is not easily distracted by other things or people. Gibsons advice to Freeman-Wilson? Be honest, principled and fair, keep the focus on who you have been elected to serve and understand the unique needs of your community. By D. Kevin McNeirkmcneir@miamitimesonline.com