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By Sharon Grisby, Dallas Morning News

April 17, 2019

Left to right, Anna Clark, Yulise Waters, Michelle Kinder, Alia Salem and Joli Robinson are the peer coaches for the 2019 Public Voices project in Dallas.  (Ryan Michalesko/Staff Photographer)

My mailbox, like yours I’m sure, is stuffed every evening with advertisements from the many folks competing to be Dallas’ next mayor. But the message that hit me hardest in this campaign wasn’t from a candidate — rather, it was from a handful of local women still grappling with whom to support.

They want to know how the next mayor will deal with the disgraceful Dallas reality: that the long straw so many of us enjoy is directly related to the short straw left to others in our city.

That sentiment came up again and again as the five peer coaches for the 2019 Dallas Public Voices group shared their “Dear Mayoral Candidates” thoughts in an informal conversation they asked me to sit in on just days before early voting begins Monday.

As Michelle Kinder, former director of the Momentous Institute and its Oak Cliff school, put it, “I’m worried that the clock is running out on Dallas in terms of trying to build a great future on sand.”

These five women are smart and engaged citizens, yet only one of them has a good sense of which mayoral candidate will get her vote.

They are united in wanting a mayor who will be the connective tissue for all of Dallas’ citizens. They hope for a leader willing to step out of his or her comfort zone and into the gap on behalf of those who will never come to speak before the City Council, never call 311 and never vote in a municipal election.

These women deserve our attention this spring because, while they might not be on the ballot, they represent true leadership in our city.

The local Public Voices initiative, which brought together the five peer coaches, is part of the national OpEd Project effort to lift up underrepresented women’s points of view. While the coaches don’t speak for the almost 100 women in the Dallas program, all the participants are invested in social change in North Texas.

While most of the mayoral candidates say the right things, the women I talked with are mostly unconvinced that any of them will put those words into real action. Their overriding concern is the need to rid City Hall of race-based policies — baked into the social and economic structure of the city for decades — that have yet to dissolve.

Dallas’ shortage of affordable housing is a prime example. These women want to hear the candidates talk specifics about working with developers, City Council members and other local government agencies.

Yulise Waters, local program director for the youth-focused Lone Star Justice Alliance,  said that too often, leaders talk big about the housing divide.  But when it’s time to make the change, the dialogue stops.

“It comes down to people in certain areas not wanting other people to live in their area,” said Waters, a southeast Dallas resident and former assistant city attorney. “Until we have a city leader willing to address that core issue, we will continue to struggle with the issue.”

Joli Robinson, who is in charge of community affairs and youth outreach at the Dallas Police Department, pointed out that affordable housing is a challenge not just for those at the margins, but  for new college graduates, teachers and city employees such as cops and firefighters.

“They, too, should have the opportunity to live in this city,” said Robinson, who lives in Oak Cliff and lost a City Council race last year.

While the candidates know affordable housing is a hot topic, Robinson said voters deserve proof that the mayoral hopefuls have real ideas on how to solve the problem.

Anna Clark, co-founder of the Inclusive Economy Consortium with the Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity at SMU, said her conversations with the other Public Voices mentors have increased her understanding of the city’s staggering economic and quality of life divides, “especially between those of us in the north versus those of us in the south.”

Clark, who lives in East Dallas and works in public relations, acknowledged that she is “one of those voters who have been part of the problem” because until recently she wasn’t well-informed on Dallas’ lousy past and present on equity and inclusion.

Clark said this mayor’s race is profoundly important to her family because they want to remain a part of Dallas, not flee to the suburbs like so many people have. “But that means I want not just inclusion, I want safety and already-good schools to improve for everyone.”

Alia Salem, who is involved in social justice work and leads the nonprofit FACE, which investigates abuse by religious leaders, said she is looking for sincerity that transcends money and politics.

“How do they really show up? Can they be a unifier?” Salem asked. The northwest Dallas resident told us that when her colleagues joke that “You are looking for a unicorn,” she pushes back with certainty that “that person exists.”

Whether that person exists in the current mayoral field is an unanswered question for many of these women. But they do know they want to see courage. In Kinder’s words, the next mayor should have “the courage to tell the truth about our past and let that filter inform their work.”

Waters partly defines courage as “keeping things real.” Because so much of a community’s perspective is based on fear and misinformation, she said, a mayor must engage in a way that gives him or her proximity to constituents.

The women said that means making sure that the everyday folks who will be impacted — or left behind — by policies are at the table from the beginning, not just as speakers at public hearings or council meetings.

“I’m talking about the meeting that happened before the meeting before the meeting before the meeting,” Waters said to cheers from her colleagues.

Robinson’s emphasis on courage stems from her concerns that leaders too often are “beholden to those who donate to you and those who will vote — which is a powerful group in a city with a horrendous voting percentage.”

If those are the people who have a leader’s ear, how does the mayor serve everyone? That’s the question posed by Robinson, an east Oak Cliff resident and co-chair of the Dallas Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation work group.

Kinder responded, only half-jokingly, that perhaps the solution is to wipe the term “weak mayor” out of our conversations. Yes, she knows Dallas relies on a city manager form of government, but she believes a strong mayor is actually someone who can change the hearts of people who hold power.

“I would love to see someone understand they can step into that job and totally transform the climate of the city if they chose to stand in that fire,” said Kinder, who lives in northwest Dallas.

Regardless of whether the city’s next mayor lives up to this group’s aspirations, Kinder noted that none of us is off the hook. We can all look around the table — every single time — to see who is there, who is not, and asking “why is that the case?”

“There’s a clock on our future and it will require courageous leadership and a lot of introspection on the part of all of us to step into the future we could have,” Kinder said.

Waters acknowledged that the group’s message sounds like nothing short of a call for world peace.

“But if a mayor can’t courageously represent all the people of Dallas, then I don’t know that we’re focusing on the right tasks for that job.”