by Dorna F. Werdelin
A tale of two cities… two mayors …two magical women. Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta are continuing to shatter ceilings and sprinkle their #blackgirlmagic! Both women served on their respective City Councils prior to running for mayor and both attended an HBCU for their college career, with Lance Bottoms attending Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University or FAMU, and Cantrell attending Xavier University in Louisiana. The similarities do not end there. Both are juggling families and civic duties, all while striving to influence young girls who may want to follow their magical footsteps.
Mayor Cantrell has broken a barrier in a very Confederate state, becoming the first-ever Black woman to be elected mayor in New Orleans, Louisiana. I caught up with then-Mayor-elect Cantrell amid her extremely busy schedule, where she graced me with very insightful responses to my questions.
DW: What does it mean to you to be the first Black female mayor of New Orleans?
Cantrell: I have the tremendous responsibility of leading a city and not dropping the ball because anything can happen, like flooding during hurricane season, which starts in June every year. Being prepared for things like this will be a top priority. If something happens during this time, with me being a female mayor much like what we saw with our governor being female when Katrina hit, there was some skepticism about her ability to lead and manage during disasters. So, again, I know that there is a different type of landscape.
DW: How did your upbringing in California and subsequent schooling at Xavier prepare you for this office?
Cantrell: Not only schooling at Xavier, but also being reared by a family who was very conscious of their responsibility to the community. Community organizing and leadership has been a part of who I am. I was the first African-American and female to lead my middle school as the school president in an environment that was majority Caucasian. The African-American makeup was less than 20% of the student body. That just shows how I was being reared to lead. Being at Xavier, of course, at a historically Black college and university, really cemented the responsibility of community engagement and activism as it relates to human rights. And, of course being in the city of New Orleans, where the disparities are so great, it did not take long for me to link from school to community to real action.
DW: What do you do to combat racial and gender stereotypes, especially in a place like New Orleans, that is so, dare I say, “rich” in Confederate history?
Cantrell: Well, you do what our forefathers taught us to do –the forefathers who led this country through the civil rights movement – and that’s through speaking truth to power, that is calling out injustice wherever it is and it’s being that example of getting things done. It’s not just the ‘talk,’ it’s the action. So, the deep south, which New Orleans is a part of, has been a leader in action and I think it’s even more fitting that there are leaders in these cities who are demonstrating their abilities to advance human rights in this country.
DW: In an interview with The Times-Picayune, you talked about the importance of “making a space” for your daughter, RayAnn. We know that many times, males in the workforce don’t have to address this sort of question. What kind of advice can you give to women who are trying to find harmony between family and being social agents?
Cantrell: Well, I will only share the advice that I received from Leah Chase – that whatever it takes to help me do a great job, do it, don’t make excuses for it, and don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it. If I need to make a space for my daughter in my office so that she can have homework time and tutoring and a snack, then that’s what I’ll do. If I need to get additional help at my house to help me with housekeeping, that’s what I’ll do. If I have to get help with someone preparing meals, that’s what I’ll do. And I will not feel guilty because of it and I will not feel slighted because of it. I will be advancing the work of the people if my life is balanced. It’s doing what it takes to create that balance and there are different things for different women. So, we have to answer what that is for us, so once we know, we should not hesitate moving forward to get us where we need to be and feel supported.
Mayor Lance Bottoms, Atlanta’s second Black woman to be elected mayor, shouted the phrase “Black Girl Magic” at her acceptance speech after emerging victorious over Mary Norwood. In a hotly-contested race, where her opponent demanded a recount after losing, Mayor Lance Bottoms kept her cool and even gave special recognition to her sorority sisters of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
I asked Mayor Lance Bottoms very similar questions to Mayor Cantrell, and here is what she had to say.
DW: What was the turning point for you to decide to transition from serving on the Atlanta City Council to running for Mayor?
Lance Bottoms: The decision to run for Mayor was an evolution, not an event. After years of thoughtful prayer and consideration, I made the decision to run. For me it was about overcoming fears and overcoming the narrative and parameters that people tried to place upon me. This decision is its own chapter in a book. I prayed every single day, and I kept thinking, Lord I need an answer because people were steadily getting in the race; and while sitting in church one Sunday, the sermon gave me the confirmation I was looking for. I was so overwhelmed knowing it was my time to run for Mayor that I could not even leave my seat. Running for Mayor and eventually winning the election is a testament to what is possible when you trust God and you walk in your calling.
DW: As the second woman to serve as Mayor, what do you find is the most challenging hurdle you will have to overcome?
Lance Bottoms: The biggest barrier for women quite often is our ability to get out of our own way. We lead in our communities, families, etc. each day, but do not always recognize it as leadership. Once we are comfortable with recognizing our leadership, we will begin to see the barriers come down. We must break the glass ceiling one day and one candidate at a time – I am proud to be one link in the chain toward advancing women’s empowerment. It is my hope that by the end of my administration, I have made it easier for women in the future to run for public office.
DW: There has been a lot of talk about the homeless community in Atlanta. Does your administration have plans to work on solutions for this epidemic?
Lance Bottoms: I recently joined Mayors and CEOs for the U.S. Housing Investment Advocacy Initiative. This initiative is designed to promote public-private partnerships that address the national housing affordability and homeless crisis. I look forward to partnering with this coalition as we work together to advocate and discover innovative ways to improve the quality of life for the homeless and those struggling with housing affordability.
In January, the City of Atlanta Continuum of Care conducted the 2018 annual Point-In-Time Homeless Count. The Atlanta PIT Homeless Count helps identify vulnerable groups by conducting surveys which collect demographic characteristics, homeless experiences and history, and other vital information. Keeping accurate count of the homeless is critical meeting federal requirements to receive funds for homeless services, attracting philanthropic investors and tracking the success of local efforts to end homelessness in Metro Atlanta.
By establishing coordinated entry and embracing a housing first approach, Atlanta has started down the path toward making homelessness rare and brief.
DW: You have a rich history of activism and involvement in Atlanta and have membership to many prestigious organizations, like Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. (I know, shameless plug for our Sorority). There are many of us that have such full plates and want to do more. How do you prioritize involvement?
Lance Bottoms: As my family settles in to our new normal, I have come as close to achieving balance in my life as I have in quite some time. Even though I am in this new role, my interest and passion for certain things has not disappeared. You must find time to do things that make you happy and help you thrive. Community service and involvement have always been a huge part of my life and being a member of Delta Sigma Theta helps intensify these experiences. I feel happiest when I am a part of a larger purpose; and I encourage others to find the kind of involvement and social issues that speak most powerfully them.
I asked both ladies the same final question: Do you have any advice for young girls who are becoming more aware of societal ills, (we just had the women’s march where we had youth ambassadors and we just had the school walk out for the children last week) and so what kind of advice do you have for who may want to get involved at their local level?
Here is what they had to say.
Cantrell: These moments in time they come in cycles. This is not new where young women across this country have had to push forward. It goes right back to even the civil rights movement. That’s why the bombing at the church happened because youth were leading that effort. So, I dispel that “oh now, young people are involved” notion. Young people have always moved this country forward and it comes in waves and it comes in shifts. Now is that shift, now is that wave that we are experiencing. It’s being demonstrated. You can look to the past, how things have changed because we’re unafraid and young people are unafraid to be that voice. And this is our time, we should not sit back, but should stand up and embrace it, lean in and do it because their future is at stake and they’re worth it. They’re worth the sacrifices that it will take to advance change in this country and in this world.
Lance Bottoms: When you commit your time and effort to an organization or a cause in which you are passionate, the fulfillment can be endless. Volunteering is one of the best ways to engage with your community. You can work at the local, state or national level, and choose topics that are of interest to you from gun reform and health care to crime prevention and affordable housing –the list is endless. Research organizations doing great work in the community and ask for opportunities to serve. My message to young women is to never feel that you as an individual cannot effectively create change. You have the power to change things that seem immovable. Atlanta is the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement, which ignited a shift in how basic human rights are view; and just last month, hundreds of thousands of youth across the country started a movement to address gun violence. It is all about believing in yourself and your abilities.
What I believe and know is that both magical women, Mayors Cantrell and Lance Bottoms, will continue to serve as pillars in the community, leaving behind magical footprints for the rest of us Black girls to follow!