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Only 2% of city managers are African American: Grand Rapids' city manager working to change that

Posted at 8:08 PM, Feb 08, 2022

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Mark Washington, Grand Rapids city manager, discovered he wanted to work in municipal government decades ago.

In 1999 his mentor, the first Black city manager of Fort Worth, Texas, had him write down what he'd do in his first 90 days if he ever got the chance to lead a city.

“If not for the opportunity to see a person of color being a city manager, I perhaps would not have been inspired to do the job I do today,” Mark Washington said.

In 2018, the most diverse Grand Rapids City Commission in city history made another historical move: appointing their first African American city manager.

“It comes with a lot of scrutiny. A lot of pressure. There are some people who are critical, who will sometimes unfairly say the only reason you got the opportunity is because you’re African American. There are others who, because I’m African American, expect more from me in terms of policy consideration for people of color,” Washington said.

Washington would go on to appoint the city's first-ever Black police chief, Eric Payne. Both Eric and Mark would help the city through a difficult 2020.

“I think the timing of our leadership coinciding together during a period of which there was such racial tension in our country, and social unrest, and after the murder of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, that resulted in our civil unrest here, I think having both Chief Payne and me here was very purposeful," Washington said.

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But for Washington, it's about creating a legacy that will last after he is gone. His mentor in Fort Worth was the first and only African American city manager. Washington is working to ensure the next generation of leaders know that their voice in government is essential.

“I just started mentoring a young graduate from Grand Valley State University, an African American man. I think many more people of color need exposure to this profession,” Washington said.

One of his first moves as city manager was for the city to start a local chapter of the National Forum of Black Public Administrators.

He says he's proud to hold the job, and proud of the work he's been able to do.

“We’re making progress. Look at the things we’re doing around equitable economic development, making sure it is intentional in our budget. Over $25 million to invest in equitable programs in our budget,” Washington said.

Washington has been a vocal supporter of Cure Violence and reforms within the city's police department.

“As I continue to work, I think about the historic opportunity to be first. But I definitely don’t want the legacy to be first and only,” Washington said.

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