By Edwin Buggage
Making “Herstory” the Story of Mayor LaToya Cantrell
Throughout her years in this city, LaToya Cantrell has shown great courage, resilience and selflessness. She’s risen to the occasion, helping to save her community post-Katrina as a leader in her Broadmoor Community which was slated to become green space. Later, she won against better funded candidates to become the Representative of City Council District B. And with her latest triumph, she emerged victorious in a crowded field of nearly 20 candidates. And today, she is making history by becoming the first woman to serve as Mayor of the City of New Orleans.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell has come a long way from being a young girl arriving in New Orleans from Los Angeles, California, riding the St. Charles streetcar then transferring to the Louisiana bus to attend Xavier University. During those daily rides she saw the multitude of inequities within the city and developed a passion for helping the underdog and fighting the righteous fight; further nurturing the seed that was planted in her by her maternal grandmother. This has become her life’s purpose and she has taken this spirit into City Hall.
Now, her goal as Mayor, is to attempt to build those bridges of understanding and reconciliation, in addition to empowering the powerless. On this hot day in July we enter City Hall to interview Madam Mayor on day 72 of her administration. It is Data News Weekly’s Publisher Terry Jones, our photographer Kichea Burt and myself who enter the office and are greeted by The Mayor who is sitting at her desk, staring into a laptop computer. She is dressed summer chic in a seersucker suit and pink blouse. We have interviewed her many times throughout her career, so there is a familiarity as she gets up to greet us and to speak about her vision for the city and initiatives they are working on.
A New Approach to Leadership
In the nearly three decades she’s lived in the New Orleans, she’s become a true New Orleanian in every way. She exudes a spirit that is warm, welcoming and engaging in her interactions with people. She seems to truly enjoy people and care about their welfare and in a larger sense, that all people matter regardless of their zip codes.
Speaking of her time in office, Mayor Cantrell says she has a larger vision, her approach is to look at the big picture and take a holistic approach to solving problems the city faces. “It is going well; it is day 72 we have spent a lot of time working on things we inherited and looking for solutions,” says Cantrell engaging myself and Publisher Terry Jones.
“We are prioritizing spending on our infrastructure, so within 3 weeks of our administration, we were able to allocate $11.9 million in the Pontilly area in Gentilly as well as Mid-City that are damaged due to flooding from rain water,” she says indicating the importance of this issue as we are in the middle of Hurricane season.
Since Hurricane Katrina and even more recently, there are still problems at the Sewage and Water Board, flooding as well as the city’s infrastructure. Cantrell feels that these problems must be dealt with in new and innovative ways, “We have been assessing the situation as it relates to the Sewage and Water Board. Also, we are really embracing infrastructure as not being one dimensional but multi-dimensional.”
Continuing she remarks, “Of course we must address the issues with sewers and drainage, but it is also the streets. We must begin to think about them and then we will implement creative solutions to collect rain water on both public and private property. We have to slow it up and it can prevent flooding in areas because rainwater if not captured properly becomes someone else’s flood water.” Her voice suddenly lowers in tone and pitch, filling with compassion and care she says, “One of the lessons we know, is that we live in a city that floods, so we need to think in multidimensional ways so that we can protect our people and property.”
The Essence of Leadership: Building Partnerships and Leading with Empathy and Compassion
The Essence Music Festival recently came to the Crescent City bringing in 510,000 people to the city and 250 million dollars in economic impact. This year was the first year with Cantrell captaining the ship, and the fest seemed to have a renewed vigor and a level of engagement between the city and the festival like never before.
The Mayor was part of a panel of with other women mayors from across the country and was interviewed by NBC’s Lester Holt. Reflecting on these historic times for women she says, “It was a great opportunity having been at all 24 of them and being an African-American woman,” she says pausing for a moment measuring her statement for impact. “I tell you being mayor of the city at the time of Essence was really empowering. I had the opportunity to invite over 10 of my sister mayors throughout the country. We hosted them right here in the City of New Orleans and we were able to have a panel where we just acknowledged what our leadership means to be a Black women over urban cities.”
Mayor Cantrell notes that there is a need for cities to partner with other municipalities using their synergy to build greater capacity and grow the collective economic pie. The reality is there are challenges with getting federal funds to address all the issues in a city, so I believe the solution lies in building partnerships with our neighboring cities and that has to be a priority. And that is something we were focused on in our panel. Also, how this surge of women and Black women at the stage our country is in and of itself empowering.” Shifting gears, she goes into what she calls her win-win approach to shaping public policy, “We have the ability to think of our people, thinking holistically and meeting them where they are and focusing on youth and families as a whole. Not leading with an ego but leading with empathy and compassion and it seems the common denominator on the stage and in the room with my sister mayors.”
Making Black Dollars Make Sense
Black women are making strides in unprecedented ways. In the “State of Woman-Owned Business Report” published in 2015, it stated that Black Women were the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs; leading the way in numbers and growth. Hence, Essence being a brand dedicated to women have been able to bring opportunities for African-Americans business owners to benefit. Additionally, under new ownership Essence owner Richelieu Dennis has launched New Voices Fund, which is a 100-million-dollar investment fund aimed to pump capital into businesses owned by minorities.
This is an important development as the City of New Orleans is in the beginning stages of renegotiating its contract with Essence that expires in 2019. For this is not only an opportunity to continue to be aligned with a festival that fuels a quarter of a billion dollars into the local economy, but also provide additional opportunities to local entrepreneurs.
A point not missed by Mayor Cantrell, l who is on the frontline engaging in keeping the festival in New Orleans. “We are hitting the ground running to keep the partnership going to benefit the city, our citizens and our local Black owned businesses. It was started here, it grew here, and it’s been developed and reached its highest heights right here in New Orleans. The 25th Anniversary is next year, and we are so excited about planning it. There is no reason I believe they will not want to continue this relationship. They have indicated there is no better place in the world to host this event. It has become the largest music festival for African-Americans in this country. We saw some of our businesses see a large boom because it was a deliberate effort and being intentional in directing visitors to these establishments. It was a step in the right direction and we will continue that path.”
All People Matter: Inclusion and Equity Essential to New Orleans Having a Successful Future
New Orleans has been a tale of two cities both pre and post Katrina. 13 years after the storm, it remains 60% African-American with 44% of working age Black men unemployed according to the U.S. Census. This is a recipe for problems that includes, crime, violence and the disruption of families, neighborhoods and quality of life. It is essential that bridges are built for opportunities, job readiness programs and for African-American owned businesses to be able to access city contracts as well.
According to Cantrell, there are 559 registered DBE’s (Disadvantaged Business Enterprise) with the city. Her administration is looking for sectors where there are a small number of companies but the demand for work is there, and to seek out minority-owned companies and help them build their capacity to be able to compete. “I want to be able to articulate where the gaps are; where the needs are and push more of our businesses in these other areas of concentration, so they can take a real interest in, and benefit from, the opportunities we have in the city.” To illustrate her point she says, “There was an issue that came up a week ago as it relates to software equipment and it got me looking and if we do not have any DBE’s we should really be highlighting where the needs are and pushing our businesses in the areas of demand.”
Also, as the city finds itself in the midst of a renaissance; growing in some ways, others are unfortunately still being left behind and the income and wealth gap is widening. This is something that the Cantrell Administration wants to do something about. “If we are attempting to grow the economic pie, we have to work on a way for more resources get in the hands of people who need it the most. We have a host of issues, from affordable housing, crime and inequality. We must do a better job and as I have worked to alleviate these problems as a community leader and as a member of the City Council I plan to do this as Mayor.”
Mayor Cantrell on Creating a Better City: The Win-Win Approach
In politics, it is often a zero-sum game, with clear winners and losers. Today it is worsened, as we find our national politics more polarized than ever. But Cantrell is optimistic about New Orleans and believes there is a rational middle and approaches politics from a win-win perspective.
She believes that success in politics and public policy is measured by the positive impact on people across the board irrespective of background. She believes that the things that connect us are greater than the things that divide us. While she is the Mayor, Cantrell believes that all are stakeholders and effective governing is bigger than one person and that it must be her partnership between she and the citizens. Harkening back to her campaign, she offers the theme that inspired a city and catapulted her to its highest office. “To our people, the way we move forward and how we do it, is together. One of the things I would encourage our citizens to do is to help me and work with me to help clean up our city. We must get the trash out of people’s eyes and know that we deserve better in all areas of our lives. Also, realize that we all matter, and it is best when we all have a seat at the table when decisions are being made. When we do that, working together coming up with solutions, we can create a win-win. And when we all are doing better, the whole city benefits and we are a better New Orleans.”