The Role and Obligations of African-American Mayors in the 21st Century

Mayor Sylvester Turner
Houston, TX

To be an African-American mayor leading a city in the 21st century is not about “power” but about “possibilities.” With more than 470 African-American mayors leading cities across the United States, the lens of our leadership is shaped from our own personal experiences. Together, we collectively bring a perspective that allows for a spectrum of possibilities.

As city leaders, it is our obligation to ensure the fiscal responsibility of taxpayers’ contributions towards city operations, as well as address the pension liabilities of a city’s police, fire and civilian workforce. These very important, and very complicated issues, are just a few of the priorities mayors must tackle.  There is urgency in every moment, and expediency required in every decision.  But, we must be cautious not to become so caught up in the process of managing cities that we lose sight of the importance of being mayors of color, and the significance our governance has on our communities.

Since I became the mayor of the City of Houston in January 2016, one of my spectra of possibilities is building complete communities. To that end, I’ve created a Complete Communities Program, which is designed to proactively support underserved communities, their residents, and the businesses in their areas.  These communities have been plagued by years of generational poverty and the issues that come with this very destructive intergenerational cycle, such as low literacy rates and high percentages of individuals involved in our justice system.  Compounding these issues are the pressures of things such as gentrification and substantial adverse changes due to major public infrastructure improvements.

However, the title of “Mayor” is not who I am.  Who I am is a prime example of a “better tomorrow.”  Growing up in one of the targeted areas in the Complete Communities Program, I faced many challenges, but my mother always told my siblings and I that “tomorrow will be better than today.”  With that instilled in me, I had a drive and determination to not only dream big, but to take advantage of the opportunities presented to me in order to make those dreams come true. Who I am allows me to know that the Complete Communities Program is not just a choice, it’s a matter of conviction, which will ultimately lead to making an impact felt well beyond my tenure. 

As the steward and overseer of the City of Houston, I am leveraging our resources, community partners, business leadership and other public partners to focus on neighborhood-level actions that will collectively foster economic opportunities and neighborhood vitality throughout various communities in Houston. We are investing in communities that have historically not been prioritized for economic development, which consequently resulted in a disparity of resources.

Some of the program’s explicit goals are to organize around the geographic dimensions of problems and create thriving commercial areas, successful neighborhood businesses, and equitable access to quality jobs throughout our city.  Another foundational component that cannot be ignored is the importance of investing in education. My obligation to transform the circumstances in our communities requires that education—at all levels—be a critical component and have a high impact. 

This strategy will build on best practices and community-driven approaches that can successfully position our neighborhoods, local businesses, and residents to connect to and compete in the City’s booming economy. This collaborative approach to neighborhood economic development intends to build partnerships for implementation and ensures that the implementation process reflects community priorities and strengthens communities from within.  Communities are places with vibrant retail, quality affordable housing, neighborhood parks and access to good schools—the end result of our efforts.

For many of our stakeholders, we are viewed as new hope and new opportunities for all, regardless of who they are and where they come from.  Our visions for our cities’ futures have to be seeped into the importance of bridging gaps and creating opportunities for citizens, to not only survive, but to thrive.  We do this, not only out of obligation to our cities, but for the promise of possibilities coming to fruition for a constituency that has long been ignored.

To be an African-American mayor at the helm of a city is indeed a marvelous feat—one that undoubtedly is the result of beating incredible odds, which is all the more reason why we must lead with a conviction and commitment for transformation. Leading in this current time, against the backdrop of strained community-police relations, voting rights challenges, waning interest in social justice and equitable access to resources, requires that we are nimble and strategic in our approach to leading our cities.  Together, with our unique personal experiences and backgrounds, we are best poised to realize the gains that are necessary for successful cities.