Shani Penn on Black Women in Politics

f you are a woman interested in politics, then Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, the late Dr. Maya Angelou, Shirley Chisholm and congresswoman Barbara Jordan are a few names that should come to mind. Black women have had a strong influence in politics, even when their roles were seemingly small.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, but it was Rosa Parks that got that protest started when she refused to give up her seat to a White person. And Malcolm X's political prowess is undisputed, but he sought out Dr. Maya Angelou's help in starting a new organization focused on African-American unity.

The courage and commitment of Black women like Parks and Angelou indirectly paved the way for other African-Americans to pursue political positions. And because of their efforts, Coleman Young became Detroit's first Black mayor. L. Douglas Wilder became the first Black person elected governor since Reconstruction. And Barack Obama, the first African-American elected president of the United States, is serving a second term as the leader of a nation where the possibility of a Black president seemed impossible not long ago.

As senior strategy advisor to current Gov. Rick Snyder and chief of staff to outgoing Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr, I have a larger role in politics and policies than most Black women. I am often criticized, scrutinized and polarized for being a Democrat that serves under a Republican. But at the end of the day, I am always confident I made a sound decision, because the aforementioned women would want me to be here regardless of my partisanship.

Participating in the political process is important to me because my parents have always been politically informed and involved. As a kid growing up in Russell Woods on the west side of Detroit, I listened to my parents tell stories about how they organized political sit-ins at Western Michigan University while my mother was in school.


When I think about how far Black women have come in politics, I know it is a direct result of how far we have come as a people and-more importantly-how far we still have to go.

My father is a UAW guy who was elected to various positions during his 44 years at Chrysler. My parents campaigned hard to get my mother's WMU classmate, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, elected to the Michigan State House of Representatives in 1978. They also campaigned for the first Black mayor of Detroit, Coleman A. Young.

Because I am a Democrat, accepting the appointment of chief of staff to Detroit's emergency manager was difficult. However, I was able to help make many positive changes, including improving city services related to trash collection, property tax reassessments and securing $52 million in federal funds for blight remediation. After achieving such success during 18-months, I know I made the right choice. Now, I see Detroit on its way to a successful bankruptcy, which would allow the city to have a clear balance sheet that will provide funding to improve our police and fire departments.

I deal with the criticism, scrutiny and separation, because my parents taught me that I can help shape the community in which I live through political awareness and involvement. In addition, it is important for Democrats and Republicans to work together. Bipartisanship is critical to our success; diversity of thought in government-and in other areas-generates better solutions to shared problems. And, as a native Detroiter, I want to be involved in making decisions that will affect the future of the city I love. 

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