Karen Freeman-Wilson is about to embark on one of the biggest challenges in her life – one that embodies the service and commitment she has made a cornerstone of her career. She will soon be inaugurated as the next mayor of her hometown of Gary, Indiana. And the first Black female one at that.
Freeman-Wilson is a graduate of Harvard University, earning both her bachelor and law degrees from the school. She committed herself to service in Indiana from the time she graduated from Harvard in 1985 and headed back home. Prior to taking the city’s top job, she served as a city judge, state’s attorney general, and the director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission.
As mayor, Freeman-Wilson takes helm of a city that is a mere shell of its former self during the height of the steel industry. At one point, Gary was home to about 200,000 residents. Now it only claims roughly 80,000 people. The city struggled with economic issues long before “recession” became a national buzzword in the past five years.
“I know about the good things and the good places. It’s irresponsible to know about the good, to know about the potential, and not do anything about it,” Freeman-Wilson said in an interview with The Atlantic Cities.
As the first Black female mayor of an Indiana city, Freeman-Wilson knows that all eyes will be on her work ahead. However, leading her hometown may bring bigger challenges since she is familiar with its issues and knows a considerable amount of people in the city and its inner workings.
It seems that Freeman-Wilson plans to take office with a strategy that has served Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker well during his time in office. She plans to focus on getting the basics right in her city first. This means extra attention to the not-so-glamorous parts of an already troubled area — such as potholes and street lights.
One of the other major changes she hopes residents will see immediately is better access to contacts at City Hall. Gary residents have long complained of long wait times or unreachable contacts within city leadership. The strategy at the outset is the simple stuff first. But, how well that does in this economic climate is a mystery.
Freeman-Wilson knows that Gary has got to rebuild itself from the ground up. Her other goals of securing a major hotel downtown, improving the city’s sewer system and staying tough on crime are not far-fetched. But, they are not easy either.
The mayor-elect plans to spend much of the first weeks and months in office focused on Gary’s issues. The notoriety that comes with being the state’s first Black female mayor is not on her priority list.
“I have to dig in early on, and that is not going to lend itself to speaking around the country,” Freeman-Wilson said regarding her initial work plan.
Freeman-Wilson will assume the role of mayor on Saturday, January 7.