This column is part of a new series from The Land’s editor. Send feedback to Lee Chilcote at [email protected].
If Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb is successful in modernizing city hall, the women on his leadership team will deserve much of the credit.
That was evident this past Tuesday, March 8 on International Women’s Day when the mayor held a panel discussion at 601 Lakeside celebrating women leaders in his administration.
Standing in the lofty rotunda with the American flag hanging behind him, Bibb introduced the four speakers: Alyssa Hernandez, director of community development; Sally Martin, director of building and housing; Joyce Huang, director of planning; and Sonya Pryor-Jones, chief of youth and family success.
“When I took office, I made sure strong, visionary, capable women were in my cabinet, because a city that works for women is a city that works for everyone,” Bibb said, his voice echoing throughout the marble and stone rotunda.
Listening to him, I couldn’t help but feel inspired. What a contrast to the Jackson administration, I thought. It’s as if the city has gone from its previous de facto motto of “It is what it is” to Bibb’s new mantra of “This is what it can be.”
Yet as if on cue, the sound at city hall alternately cut out or surged with feedback, as if symbolizing the nuts-and-bolts challenges faced by the Bibb administration. The problem was quickly fixed, but it still seemed like an ominous beginning.
Mayor Bibb pressed on, calling Huang “what the future of planning should look like not just in the city but across the country” and adding that he thought Martin was “not just one of the most important voices in the city on housing policy, but also in America.” She can help Cleveland realize “an opportunity to be a city that truly builds inclusive housing for all residents,” Bibb added.
That’s especially important given that nearly half of Cleveland households are headed by women, many of them low-income women and women of color, and Cleveland was recently ranked as the worst place in the country for Black women, according to a Bloomberg CityLab study published in 2020.
Cleveland’s millennial mayor is inspiring, no doubt about it. And the appearance on Good Morning America and Twitter shoutout from Magic Johnson after the All-Star Weekend are nothing but good for our city. But can he fix city hall?
Because let’s face it, all that rhetoric about “bold, visionary, new leadership” ain’t worth much if you still have to call your council person to get a new garbage can. As Ward 16 councilmember Brian Kazy said in budget hearings this past week, “sometimes residents don’t want to be inspired — they just want things to work.”
Yet everyone knows that a leader can be judged by his lieutenants. And if these women have anything to do with it, they will leave city hall a changed place by the time they’re through with it.
Alyssa Hernandez, a Chicago native who most recently worked for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, moderated the one-hour noontime panel discussion. She touted “promises made, promises kept” at city hall in terms of Bibb appointing diverse women leaders.
“He said he’d build a diverse staff, and this shows he put his values out front,” she said.
The women are all fairly young. Listening, I got a sense of their priorities. Joyce Huang is a second generation Taiwanese American and the first female planning director in the city’s history. She previously worked as vice president for community development at Midtown Cleveland. She’s also the mother of a three-year-old. Huang, who lived in the city’s Asiatown neighborhood for a few years, said she views city planning through the lens of being a young mother.
“When you’re young, cities are fun, but they’re not just fun anymore,” said Huang, who advocated for women to bring their lived experiences into their leadership roles. “When I think about crossing the street, I’m not just thinking about myself, but the other person I’m responsible for.”
Planners were traditionally men, Huang said. Part of the work we now have to do is redesign these systems so they work better for modern families, and for women and men who are involved in “chain-of-event” transportation, such as going to work, picking up kids from daycare, and then stopping at the store on the way home.
The planning director expressed her support for making the city’s streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists; improving public transportation so that it goes to more places and allows more multi-destination trips; and investing in great parks, play spaces and green spaces in every neighborhood. Mayor Bibb has expressed support for new legislation that would shore up loopholes in the city’s current complete and green streets laws, and Huang seems poised to take leadership on that.
Martin, the mother of two adult children and caregiver to her disabled sister, said she wants to improve the city’s housing stock to create more stable families. This is especially important given the longstanding lead poisoning crisis. She wants the city to take stronger action on code enforcement and pass renters rights protections.
“It’s not often that code enforcement is seen as a tool for wealth creation, but it is,” she said. “The adverse outcomes we’re seeing in Cleveland because of our housing stock, such as lead poisoning and eviction, are disproportionately borne by women.”
Cleveland lost six percent of its population in the past decade alone, and Sonya Pryor-Jones said she’d tackle this problem by doing more to support families, convincing them to stay here. “We need to think about how we can design cities for the entire family,” she said, citing the fact that 78% of women in the workforce are also caregivers.
At the same time, more men are becoming caregivers and more women are serving as breadwinners. “Traditional roles are beginning to shift and change … how do we elevate that?” she said.
Huang agreed, saying, “If we’re not healthy, it impacts others’ ability to be healthy too because of our interconnectedness.”
Pryor-Jones said that women in city hall and across the city needed to stick together to get the job done: “Representation is everything, but we’re also sometimes the only people in those rooms, so allyship is essential.”
Huang ended the discussion by calling on the city to build more diverse housing types for families and change zoning practices to allow for more home-based businesses, especially in the Covid era when so many people are working from home with small children.
Long after Bibb had left for his next press conference that day, at Lincoln Electric to celebrate a new workforce development initiative, these four women stuck around to answer questions and talk with residents.
They see themselves as change agents — and let’s hope they’re right, because the city needs more than rhetoric, we need action. As Huang told the crowd, “When we design cities for women, we’re actually designing for everyone.”
Lee Chilcote is executive director of The Land.