Faith comes up all the time in Phyllis Dickerson’s work as the CEO of the African American Mayors Association.
“There’s hardly a meeting where we don’t have prayer as part of the agenda,” she said.
The organization for Black mayors presents an opportunity to network and learn from other voices to solve problems across America’s cities, and Dickerson sees faith as a crucial part of that network.
She recalls talking to one frustrated mayor and giving him a word from Gideon in the book of Judges. He needed encouragement, and Dickerson offered some from the Bible.
“Most people forget that mayors are real people. They’re exhausted. They lost family and friends during COVID too,” she said.
Dickerson worked as staff for two U.S. presidents before her role at AAMA and served as the first woman and African American chief of staff for the mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas.
Before AAMA’s annual conference this year, she spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the organization and its role in providing a crucial network for Black mayors in the U.S. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: How did the African American Mayors Association come about?
Phyllis Dickerson: This particular organization was established in 2014 under the leadership of then-Mayor Kevin Johnson, who was the mayor of Sacramento, and Stephanie Mash Sykes, who was the co-founder with him. Sykes was working for him at the time, and then she came over to be the first executive director and legal counsel for the organization. And she’s now with the [White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs].
F&L: How many members do you have, in how many states?
PD: We represent about 500 mayors across the U.S. We advocate for policy, we do some training for our mayors, and we share best practices between our cities. We have the ability to highlight some of the stories through either our newsletter or our podcast, or even just our convening of meetings. Our upcoming conference is at the end of April in D.C.
It is a membership-based organization. The mayors pay dues based on their population. And only mayors can join. So no vice mayor, no city council member, unlike some of the other organizations. It is only for Black mayors. Our president right now is Mayor Sylvester Turner, who is the mayor of the fourth-largest city in the U.S., Houston, Texas. And our incoming president in April, when we have our conference, will be Mayor Frank Scott Jr., who is the mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas.
F&L: How do you think you’ve seen Black mayors be able to change the communities they are serving?
PD: So, for instance, some of the things that are dear to me are policies of no-knock warrants and chokeholds. In many of our cities that are led by Black mayors, they’ve been able to eliminate those kinds of things. And that’s sometimes because they see it through a different lens.
In Texas, Mayor Turner has been able to advocate for voters rights, where it’s currently a big issue. And in Little Rock, Mayor Frank Scott has been able to advocate for what they call community schools, which have wraparound services that try to serve the entire network that the student is in. He’s been able to identify some of his underserved areas and have wraparound services, not just for the students, but for their parents also.
Then in D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser did Home for the Holidays, where she provided affordable housing for hundreds of families. That was an amazing milestone — to have permanent housing.
F&L: What is the network like in the African American Mayors Association?
PD: It’s so funny. It always feels to me like a family reunion. For the last two years, they haven’t been able to see each other. They’ve been in their cities fighting COVID, fighting homelessness, fighting all the issues on the ground without having that one-on-one with other mayors. And they’ve picked up the phone and called each other.
Some of them, especially some of the younger mayors, have text message chains and things like that; they talk to each other on text message or a group text. But a few of them got to see each other at the U.S. Conference of Mayors. You could just tell they were so excited. And this round, we had the opportunity to have a lot of new, first-time Black mayors in our organization, like Mayor Elaine O’Neal in Durham or Mayor Eric Adams in New York and Mayor Justin Bibb in Cleveland. And you could just tell they were so excited to see other Black mayors and learn from them and then share information. They shared each other’s contact information and that kind of thing.
F&L: How does having this network help Black mayors?
PD: Not being alone is the main point for AAMA. When we talk about sharing those best practices, they literally pick up the phone and say, “Can I have Mayor Cantrell’s number, because I want to talk to her about this and this.” She’s the mayor of New Orleans, and she’s a little bit more seasoned.
I notice that our seasoned mayors, like Mayor Michael Hancock in Denver or former Mayor Steve Benjamin in Columbia, South Carolina, the ones that have 12 years under their belts, they are excellent mentors to pick up the phone and call and bounce things off of. It means a lot when that person on the other end is actually going to answer the phone.
When we talk about some of our policy issues, like say, for instance, climate change, sometimes you need to bounce ideas off a person in your region, as opposed to reaching across the country. In Denver, when it doesn’t snow, it affects your economic development, because now you have the tourism issue, because people come to Denver to go ski. In the South, climate change can come through floods and hurricanes and tornadoes. So it looks different, but it’s still an issue, and it’s helpful to have someone in your region that can give you insight.
Whereas other times, like under public safety, everybody right now is having the same issue: increase in homicides during COVID, mental illness cases. That has been at the top of the priority list for mayors around the country. I don’t care if they’re rural or urban or suburban cities; they’re all talking about the same thing.
There is no crystal ball answer for the issues that we’re having right now. The issues are so tremendous that all mayors are having economic development issues, having COVID issues, having climate change issues. There’s no city with a crystal ball for that. If you know of one, point it out to me.
F&L: How do you think pastors can be helpful to Black mayors across the country?
PD: I can only speak to the Black church, because that’s what I grew up with and that’s what I know. The Black church has always played a role in everything we do in our urban communities and in our rural communities.
Before I came to AAMA, I had a contract with the Arkansas Department of Health to implement vaccinations in majority-minority areas around the state of Arkansas. When I was working in Arkansas, I went to the mayors of those cities, and I said, “Listen, I’m going to come on such-and-such day. I’m going to bring in this number of vaccinations. I need to get your people registered.”
When people don’t have devices and they don’t have internet, then how are they supposed to register online? I had those mayors in those particular cities pull together all the Black ministers in their area. Those churches created a hotline, and they registered everybody in their community that wanted to get vaccinated. We would have lines wrapped around the building!
They also helped us with volunteers and that kind of thing. In some communities, you have a problem with people that can’t read, so how do they fill out the consent form?
It’s all in the little pieces, and the Black church has always played a role in how we get it done. And while there is a separation of church and state, there’s not a restriction on the spreading of the right information or speaking on what’s right.
In some instances, even for the vaccinations, we used churches. We’re like, “OK, how many people can we vaccinate on this small gym floor? 500? OK, let’s do 500.” Or, “Do you have a big parking lot? Can we do a drive-thru?”
Sometimes in the Black community, we have to be a little bit more innovative, but we’re used to doing that.