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Follow the Data Podcast: The Innovative Mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson

Mayor of Gary, Indiana, Karen Freeman-Wilson believes resident engagement is integral to effective governance. Highlighting the important role residents play in helping Gary care for public spaces, Mayor Freeman-Wilson seeks to collaborate with the community:

“Not only tell citizens what you’re doing but make them a part of it.  We’ve seen that with our comprehensive city plan which we’re engaged in right now.  We’re allowing citizens to plan it with the guidance of the professionals… But, by the end of the process, it will be the citizens of Gary’s comprehensive plan.”

Bloomberg Philanthropies has enjoyed a deep relationship with Mayor Freeman-Wilson, and this episode of Follow the Data presents a conversation with the Mayor and James Anderson, who leads Government Innovation at Bloomberg Philanthropies. They sat down at the Engaged Cities Award Summit earlier this year, which was hosted by the national nonprofit Cities of Service and recognized creative ways city leaders are harnessing the power of people to solve problems.

They discuss engaging residents, making local government more nimble, and how participating in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative over the past year helped the Mayor sharpen her skills as a consensus builder.

We hope you enjoy this episode of The Innovative Mayor. You can listen to the podcast and past episodes in the following ways:

Follow us on Twitter @BloombergDotOrg for information about our next episode. Until then, keep following the data!


KATHERINE OLIVER: Welcome to Follow the Data, I’m your host, Katherine Oliver.

Citizens define the essence of cities. Those people who choose to live and work in cities are stewards, capable of improving and sustaining their communities.  Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary, Indiana believes in engaging citizens, and that their involvement is integral to successful city governance.

In a conversation with Bloomberg Philanthropies Government Innovation program lead, James Anderson, the Mayor highlights the important role residents are playing to help Gary care for public spaces.

Mayor Freeman-Wilson and James spoke at the Engaged Cities Award Summit earlier this year. The summit was hosted by the national nonprofit Cities of Service, which recognizes creative ways city leaders are harnessing the power of people to solve problems. Bloomberg Philanthropies is a proud supporter of Cities of Service.

In addition to discussing resident engagement, Mayor Freeman-Wilson and James also discuss making local government more nimble and how participating in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative over the past year helped sharpen her skills as a consensus builder. Bloomberg Philanthropies and Harvard welcomed a new group of 40 mayors into the program this summer.

We hope you enjoy today’s episode as Follow the Data presents: The Innovative Mayor with James Anderson.

JAMES ANDERSON:  Good afternoon everybody.  Welcome Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.

MAYOR KAREN FREEMAN-WILSON:  Thank you, it’s always a pleasure to be with you.

ANDERSON: To kick this off, a little background about the mayor.  She has been in office for the better part of two terms – seven years.  If you had to put a sort of thumbprint on what I think the Mayor has brought to her great city is the spirit of responsiveness. She ran on that mission and she has fulfilled on that mission over the past seven years, creating a local government that when it sees a problem, it fixes a problem.  When it hears from a citizen, it addresses what the citizen is, speaking to.  And we’ll talk a little bit about that today.  And the context of citizen engagement.  So, we first got to know the mayor when she won one of the most competitive programs that we put out into the world, the Bloomberg Philanthropies public art challenge.  We did it a couple years ago, hundreds of cities applied and the mayor came up with an incredible idea that completely captured our imagination.

MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON:  Well, not me, the team.  I get to take credit for it of course.

ANDERSON:  So, tell us a little bit about Gary’s ArtHouse.

MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON:  Well, the ArtHouse is our collective baby.  It’s a recognition that Gary didn’t have a whole lot of restaurants.  We wanted to cultivate more restaurants.  At the same time, we understood the value of entrepreneurism in a community.  And so, we wanted to cultivate that.  Of course, everybody loves food.  We also had a building that had been a restaurant that was not really performing well.  It wasn’t what it could be for the community.  So, we put all of those together with the idea of public art.  Welcome to the team, an amazing artist.  Internationally renowned artist, Theaster Gates.  And the collaborative that we already had going on with the University of Chicago.  And we developed a winning team.  And you know, we’re so excited because it has really activated not just the building but it has really activated, not just the building, but it has activated our downtown community. Initially there was a fear that there would be these outsiders if you will, coming in and developing something in Gary.  But, the entire community owns Arthouse.  And we’ve had at least 20 to 25 food related businesses to grow organically out of that arthouse experience.

ANDERSON:  That is amazing.  So, the entire community owns an idea that didn’t start in the community.

MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON:  That’s correct.

ANDERSON:  How do you make that happen?

MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON: It really is about community engagement. We spent a long time — we had even community dinners where we talked about the idea. Engaged citizens at every step of the process from choosing the artist who would be involved to looking at the potential artwork to looking at the programming.  Citizens were involved in every step of the way.

ANDERSON:  The Mayor is a member of our inaugural Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership class. One of the things that you said that program has sort of affirmed for you is the value of collaboration and legitimacy in public decision making.  I think you’re speaking to that here.  Can you say a little bit more?

MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON:  Well, you know, I am a consensus builder as a rule.  I will ask everyone their ideas, their opinions about something, particularly something that is very serious.  And that’s not only members of our team inside city hall but members of the public.  Members of the business community.  Sometimes people get frustrated by that because it takes you a little longer.

ANDERSON:  Come on Mayor, make up your mind.

MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON:  Just make your mind up, right.  But, I found that to be very valuable.  Then, with the Bloomberg Harvard project that was validated because there is a lot of consensus building.  There is a lot of discussion of how do you develop ideas as a committee of the whole?  There’s also a feeling of being back in school.

ANDERSON:  Do you do your homework?

MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON:  Well, I try to do it as much as I can but there have been a couple of occasions when I forgotten and it’s like, oh goodness.

ANDERSON:  We do a virtual classroom and you can kind of tell the mayors that have done their homework.  They’re sitting up and they’re raising their hands.  And then the ones you can tell are listening but they’re kind of…

MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON:  Hiding, hoping not to get called on.

ANDERSON:  So, the Mayor is very active, Mayors get dinged when they travel but she’s a big believer that you travel to learn.  You travel to bring in resources.


ANDERSON:  And she’s very engaged in the community of Mayors.  Leadership positions with the U.S. Conference with the National League of Cities.  You’re a part of the Bloomberg Harvard program.  Do mayors talk about resident engagement?  How does this issue land on the collective, worry scale or opportunity scale for mayors?

MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON:  Well, just over the brief time that I’ve been in, seven years.  Although, it makes me kind of a veteran oddly enough.  I’ve seen the profile of that conversation really raised from this side bar to something that mayors are increasingly understanding is a necessity if we’re going to govern effectively.  We understand that citizens are inherently skeptical about government.  And so, how do you remove that skepticism?  Not only tell citizens what you’re doing but make them a part of it.  We’ve seen that with our comprehensive city plan which we’re engaged in right now.  We’re allowing citizens to plan it with the guidance of the professionals.  With the assistance of the professionals.  But, by the end of the process, it will be the citizens of Gary’s comprehensive plan. We are so excited about that and citizens are excited about that. They’re telling people, hey, I’m involved in this process.  So, they will own it and they will own the implementation.

ANDERSON:  Going back to this moving from a nice to have for many mayors to something more central and more necessary.  How do you explain that?  I mean, I don’t think mayors just wake up one day and say, “wow citizen engagement: necessary.” What’s changed in the environment that you think is making this more urgent?

MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON:  Well, I think that one thing is that mayors are seeing how their colleagues who have citizen engagement as a hallmark of their governance are becoming much more effective.  They win awards.  Everybody wants to win an award, right?  But more importantly, I think that with citizens beginning to use social media to question government.  To demand transparency, it has become a necessity on our part to say, “Yes, we want you involved, yes your opinion matters and yes, we want to hear what you think and what you need from us.”

ANDERSON:  Has the national conversation effected the local vibe?  And the way that citizens interact in your own city?

MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON:  Oh absolutely. Unfortunately, from my perspective, the national conversation makes people more hostile towards government.  Because of what’s happening at the national level and not necessarily from a partisan standpoint, but just the discourse.  The negativity of the discourse.  The fact that it’s discourteous.  You know we were all raised or at least most of us, to be courteous.  To treat people the way you want to be treated.  To talk to them in a respectful manner. When you see that it’s not happening at the national level.  Then people are less likely to treat local government in a respectful, courteous manner and they really think its okay because at the national level they see government reacting to citizens and to each other.  More importantly, in a certain way.

ANDERSON:  The Mayor said, “You know, I’ve got big problems.  Blight is hard, affordable housing is hard.  Disinvestment is hard but changing apathy, that’s very hard.”

MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON:  It’s very hard because when you talk about blight, when you talk about the finances.  You can put enough minds in the room to really look at resolving those things and setting benchmarks and making progress.  But, when you talk about changing people’s attitudes, so much of that is not related to you or the team.  It’s related to the person and their willingness to look at things another way.  A willingness to be open about looking at government in a different light.  The best thing that I have tried to do and our team has tried to do is when we say we’re going to do something, we try to do it.  And I have this saying, when people say, “well you’re not going to do that.”  Or “I don’t believe this is going to happen.”  I say, “I can’t wait to prove you wrong.”

ANDERSON:  That’s great.  So, you mentioned a citywide plan.  What are some of the other areas where you’ve really gotten excited about the way you’re engaging citizens?  I hope one of them that you mention is your expat homecoming initiative.

MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON:  I am so excited about our homecoming.  This really started because there were many instances where people who were from Gary, who were excited about things that were happening in the city wanted to offer their help.  In fact, we had a guy from Austin, Texas say, “Hey, I’m a professor in marketing and customer service.  I’d like to come home and teach a customer service class at my own expense.”  And, you know, I said, “of course.”  And so, he came, he did two classes for our folks who work in government to talk to them about customer service.  We’ve had people volunteer in IT in a variety of ways. I said, “You know, I think we have something here.”  We have scheduled for September 21st, a homecoming.  And it’s connected with reunions at some of our larger schools.  But that Friday, we’re going to have a conference if you will of ex-patriots who want to help the city, who live in other places, who have developed expertise.  We’re so grateful for the foundation that was laid for them in Gary.  And, who want to come home and bring that expertise home and to just, have us present.  This is what we’re doing, this is where our gaps are, and this is where we think you can be helpful.  We are excited about that.

The other thing is with local citizens, there are so many citizens who have their own expense, using their own equipment, help to eliminate blight in their neighborhoods.  About two years ago, I started cutting grass.  As a way to get out in the community to really send a message because I would see these lawns where you’d have two neighbors; one on either side of a vacant or abandoned house.  And that’s one of our greatest problems.  We have 6,800 vacant or abandoned houses in the city of Gary.  The neighbors would keep their properties pristinely, but they wouldn’t cut the grass in the middle.  I’m just like, well, gee, if you cut this grass in the middle, it makes your property look better.  So, I said, well maybe if I go out and cut the grass in the middle.  Maybe someone may keep it that way.  And to a person, I never have to ask.  As they see me cutting, they will come out and say, “Well Mayor, if you cut it then I’m going to maintain it that way”. I used to do it every other week.  Now, I do it about once a month.  I don’t have as much time to do it as, because I really enjoy it.  But, the other thing it allows me to do is to really hear from citizens.  There have been citizens who have come out with their own equipment to work with me.  There have also been citizens who have said, “Would you take a look at this in the neighborhood?”  Or would you think about that in the neighborhood.  That has been another way of engaging the community.  But, even in places where I’ve not been involved, there’ve been citizens who’ve taken responsibility for entire blocks of the community.  Because, that really is one of our biggest challenges.  Along with the vacant and abandoned homes, the blight elimination, the overgrown areas.  And the reality is that we had at one time, 150 people who were responsible in our department of public works for caring for public spaces.  We now have 27 people.


MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON:  The size of the city has not changed.  We still have 54 square miles.  And quite frankly, the requirements have increased because you have those vacancies.  Our team works hard every day.  We couldn’t get it done without engaged residents.

ANDERSON: You were telling me the great story of the Mayor of Glen Ryan.  Maybe you can share a little bit about the work you’re doing to engage seniors and envisioning senior services in your city.

MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON:  We have been so encouraged, by our partnership with the AARP.  As we look to serve the experienced class.  And the mayor of Glen Ryan is Mr. Cobb.  And Mr. Cobb sent me a letter and, it was almost heartbreaking when he talked about the feeling of disrespect that came from younger residents.  And the fact that he was working so hard to maintain his property, to maintain the neighborhood.  And they were parking on their lawns.  They were not cleaning up around their homes and he just thought that city ought to do more.   I said, “You know Mr. Cobb,”, “Rather than have the city come out in a very heavy-handed way, why don’t you try this first.  Try talking to folks about how you all do it in Glen Ryan.”  That is one of our most engaged, most responsive communities in the city.  Tell them how you do it in Glen Ryan.  That you don’t park on your lawn.  I said, “And do it in respectful manner, nobody wants to hear a lecture.  But do it so that they feel like they’re moving not just into a house but into a community.  In a neighborhood.”  In those instances where people are not as open to that then call us in and we will help you.  We will undergird you there.

But, what it also gave rise to was my sense that Mr. Cobb wasn’t the only person that was feeling this way.  And so, we had our first senior summit – our senior health summit. As a result of that, one of the ideas. That came out of that is one of the seniors came up to me and said, “This is great, this is great.  So, the next thing I want to do is a city-wide chair exercise demonstration where we’re going to be in the Guinness Book of World Records.”  And I was like, okay, that sounds like a great idea.  I didn’t know how many people it would take.  Turns out it’s about 500 or 600.  So, for our national night out, that’s going to be one of our activities.  To do, a senior chair exercise which is perfect because historically the national night out has been geared towards kids.

ANDERSON:  What I love about the mayor of Glen Ryan’s story is it speaks to a capacity within your government to be responsive. To allow citizens to take up some space before government dives in making room for government and for citizen action as a first response.

MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON:  Yeah, you don’t need the sledge hammer of government in order to get things done.

ANDERSON:  Shifting government to be able to flex in or flex out on a case-by-case basis is really something.  So, maybe now we can talk about how you as the CEO of the city have worked to make that shift.  How have you, brought that sensibility or elevated that sensibility within the bureaucracy?  How are you working to create that culture amongst the team?

MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON:  I think that our team understands that I don’t just want to solve the problem that’s presented.  I always want to look and find out why something occurred.  Recently, we had a situation where one of our rape victims was concerned because the interview had not occurred very quickly. It had taken 10 days for her to be interviewed by law enforcement personnel.  I initially asked the question to our team and they said it was because she was a minor. The County Special Victims Unit was not available.  And I said, but that doesn’t tell me why that happened.  I said, I know the folks in that unit and they are as concerned as we are about making sure that they’re not victimized over and over again.  So let’s walk through this process and find out why this happened.  And so, they know that I’m always going to ask those extra questions. They ask them before I do so that they can now say, this is why certain things are going on.  This is why this is not being effective. Our 311 system is an example.  And LaShawn Brooks who handles that is an integral part to our team.  And she said, this isn’t working because there’s a bottle neck.  What do we need to do to address this bottle neck so we can serve citizens better?  It’s all about service at the end of the day.  That’s why we’re cities of service.

ANDERSON:  When you look at seven years in office and driving an agenda around customer service and responsiveness.  And when you think about the gains you’ve made on the citizen engagement front where do you want to go next?  How do you take the practice of citizen engagement and push it further into the DNA of your organization?

MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON:  I think that really is the next step.  To make it a given.  And, I think now that, you know there used to be a time when I would email or call citizens back and they’d say, “Oh you’re calling me back.”  And I’m like, isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?  So now people expect to be called back.  So, it shouldn’t just be me now.  It should be everyone who works in government.  You know, people are busy.  Our team does more with less.  It’s a matter of helping people to develop those tools to get back to folks in a way that people feel like we’re all responsive.  Not just the mayor, not just department heads but everyone who works in government is responsive to citizens.  I think that’s our next step.

ANDERSON: One of the things I hear from mayors a lot is that, bureaucracies develop patterns and those patterns have been with us for a long period of time.  When you think about deepening that culture of citizen engagement and you look at the patterns of your bureaucracy; how do you shake it in?

MAYOR FREEMAN-WILSON:  You really do have to dissect things.  And I did that this morning.  There was something that got hung up and it’s still hung up in our system.  And I said, okay, I want everybody on the phone.  You can do that in a smaller city right?  It’s hard for Mayor DeBlasio or some of the other mayors, Mayor Garcetti to say, okay I want everybody on the phone. But I can say, I want everybody involved in this process on the phone.  And we’re going to walk through how this got hung up.  And, more importantly, how to use it as a learning experience.  A teachable moment.  So that it won’t happen, not just in this department but in other departments again.  It’s not just me because obviously I can’t be on every phone call.  But its department heads, its managers who have to understand that in order to be very effective, we have to be willing to stop. Peel the onion back to determine, why is this happening?  How can I prevent it from happening?  And what are the next steps?  We’re going to have to work twice as hard.

ANDERSON:  It’s an incredible moment for citizen engagement I’m hearing that from more and more communities around the country.

What a terrific talk.  Thank you for sharing your wisdom and insights with us.  Everyone please give a big round of applause to the mayor.


KATHERINE OLIVER: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Follow the Data. Many thanks to Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson for joining us.

If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to Follow the Data podcast. This episode was produced by Electra Colevas, Christian Nwachukwu Jr., Ivy Li, music by Mark Piro, special thanks to David Sucherman. As our founder Mike Bloomberg says, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. So until next time, keep following the data. I’m Katherine Oliver, thanks for listening.