Conviction to serve drives GR’s first Black city manager

Black History Month

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington is now in his third year as the highest-ranking appointed official in the city. He is the first Black person to hold the office.

His passion for public service started decades ago, when he learned firsthand of the impact government policy can have on lives. He recently dug into his old photo albums to help tell his story.

They show him growing up in public housing.

“We were the recipients of government services,” Washington said, looking at a picture of the apartment he lived in as a child growing up in Port Arthur, Texas.

They show mentors who stoked his passion and showed him the path to follow that passion.

“I stand on the shoulder of many people,” he said, sharing photos of the people who supported him early on.

And they show him being raised by his mother after his parents divorced. Even with public assistance, she often worked two jobs.

“She wasn’t just someone who was totally dependent on the government. We were working poor,” Washington said. “I was very sensitive to people having to depend on public services. Growing up, my mother instilled a moral ethic in me and a conviction to be helpful to other people, and I always saw myself doing something that could not only change the circumstances in my own life, my family life, but so many people that grew up like me.”

She also instilled in her son the work ethic to always arrive early, work hard and stay late.

After college, Washington landed a job in the streets department for the city of Fort Worth, Texas. He moved up through the ranks and eventually moved to Austin, where he rose to become assistant city manager.

Among the people he credits for making it possible are those who came before and mentored him, including Fort Worth’s first Black city manager, the late Bob Terrell.

“Twenty-six years later, here I am in Grand Rapids, making similar history to what he did in Fort Worth,” Washington said.

Washington’s conviction to serve, as he calls it, continues outside of City Hall. He’s also an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He is quick to say his religious convictions don’t influence city policy, but rather guide him on a personal level.

“It grounds me. It humbles me. It offers resiliency, because this is not an easy job,” Washington said.

He was named Grand Rapids’ first Black city manager in 2018. At the time, the city was already working on new policies aimed at improving equity. Goals included making affordable housing more available and improving relations between the Grand Rapids Police Department and the minority community.

“I thought we were doing some pretty amazing things in terms of keeping our foot on the accelerator, this is prior to the riots,” Washington said.

No one could have predicted the roadblocks ahead. First, the pandemic struck, exposing racial disparities in its effects. Then in May, George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police. On May 30, outrage over his death spilled over onto the streets of Grand Rapids when a riot broke out.

Washington sees the issue not as personal but as global. He said people are frustrated over the slow pace of change, even with the appointment of the city’s first Black police chief and city attorney, as well as policy changes aimed improving GRPD’s relations with the Black community.

“We wrestle with the issue of making sure the department is appropriately funded and there’s this contingency that continues to want to see reduced resources in policing, reallocated to other parts of the organization or the community,” Washington said. “So it is a continuous improvement process. And every day you go home and you feel like you’ve accomplished enough and the next day you come back (and) you feel like it’s not enough.”

He has been placed in a unique position.

“There are some people who see me as the city manager and there are some people that see me as the Black city manager. So Black consciousness is always with me,” Washington said.

With that comes the delicate balancing act of running a city for all residents but also recognizing the changes needed so that all can benefit. Washington said it’s a struggle for him.

“We try to have balance in everything that we do. And in doing that … just like the bell curve, there’ll be about 80% of the people there in the middle, and you’ll have 10% on either end that are either extremely pleased or extremely upset,” he said.

Perhaps as important as the public policy portion of his job, Washington also wants to pay it forward, much in the same way his mentors encouraged him. He believes if you can see what you can become, it makes it more achievable.

“I think to see people of color and to see different people of gender, of color, of national origin, diversity, makes it seem possible for other people who aspire or perhaps who didn’t even know there was a possibility to serve in that capacity,” he said.

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