Rita: Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, Good morning, I am Rita Moore and I am representing JO Magazine. We thank you for granting us this much anticipated interview with the first female African American mayor of the city of Gary, Indiana. The first question is what is your motivation for even wanting to be the Mayor of the City of Gary?
Karen: Well, I had a number of motivations. One was you know it’s hard to see an issue and know that you might be in a position to make a difference and not do that.
I saw so many of the challenges that we had and I have been blessed to have a number of experiences that I could likely utilize here and so it motivated me to try to bring all those experiences together and run for Mayor.
Rita: Okay, I know you have run for Mayor a couple of times before, so it was obvious you had that stick-to-itiveness , and you went forth and did it again, and we’re better for it, the City of Gary is better off for it.
Karen: Well, I certainly appreciate that. To be frank, I was pretty much sure I was not going to run a third time; was pretty clear on that. Had an experience, I went to the Woman Thou Art Loosed Conference for the first time.
Rita: The Bishop T.D. Jakes conference?
Karen: Yes. Bishop T. D. Jakes and Cindy Trimm preached a message about Deborah, but her topic was: Why are you sitting by the tree waiting for something to happen?
And I took at that as a message that I should stop sitting by the tree and while I had pretty much determined that I was not going to run, that was something that I needed to do, I guess the truth of that message was that it had been easier this time, the third time than all the others time than in the past and that was clearly a message from God.
Rita: Who has been your mentor(s) in the past or do you have any at this time?
Karen: You know, I have been very fortunate to have a number of mentors. Of course, one my earlier mentors was my mother because she was always doing something in the community, whether it was the NAACP or through her job at Gary Neighborhood Services, or whether it was a variety of social clubs that had community missions, so that was an early influence on me. Then during my professional life I had an opportunity to encounter Pam Carter, she was a tremendous mentor to me. She was the first African American Attorney General in the state of Indiana. She also worked in the Bayh administration and she encouraged me to work in the Bayh administration. We have been friends for the entire time and I have always been able to run things by her.
Rita: Let me share this with you. When you were in Indianapolis serving as the Attorney General, my son was at Ball State in Muncie, IN and I was looking for some advice, which you freely gave me and you offered to meet him and talk to him personally. (You did not know me, we had never spoken before, and all you knew was that I was a Gary resident) I have never forgotten that.
Karen: I think it’s important to share because you know we all have challenges in life. I have a daughter in college now and I would hope someone would help her in a time of need.
Rita: If you had an opportunity to meet someone famous or not so famous to the rest of us, who would that be living or dead and why? I must tell you I would love to meet Nelson Mandela.
Karen: What an interesting question. Great question. It would be Barbara Jordan. She is one of my favorite persons in history. I think the way she was able to navigate the Texas political arena and then the national political arena is very admirable and I would just like to talk to her.
Rita: Okay, Mayor thank you for that answer. Inquiring minds want to know, especially fans of this feature of the magazine called, ‘Testify’ which can help JO Magazine readers in our walk of faith and that question is … How has your faith played a part in what you have done in the past and what you are doing right now? I know there are days when you have to say, ‘Help me Jesus.‘
Karen: ‘Absolutely, most days, everyday.’ My faith is sort of the basis of what causes me to make the decisions I make. ‘You can’t do it without faith.’ You can’t undertake a challenge like this one, because on a daily basis there are people telling you that you can’t do this, you can’t do that, you’re never going to be able to change anything, they’re not going to allow us to do that etc. and it requires faith to respond to doubters in a way that is not harsh, but is firm. It also requires faith to continue to persevere in the face of those who do not believe it can be done.
Rita: Is there any situation that you care to share where you really had to use your faith?
Karen: We are in the process of tearing down the Sheraton and there are a lot of people who understand it is a very costly undertaking, but they were convinced that we would not have the money and then it seemed as if out of nowhere once we announced that we were going to do it and I initially said we would ask people to donate their services, we realized that was not going to work, but after working with the federal government we were able to come up with the money, it seemed almost effortless so that ‘s really . . .you’re talking about over a million dollars.
-The Sheraton is a dilapidated hotel that has been an eye-sore standing in downtown Gary, unoccupied, unusable for over 20 years-
Rita: Wow! Do the people of Gary know that?
Karen: Well, you know we have shared it in some venues, but once we get ready to knock it down we are going to tell the whole story and people will understand that?
Rita: Now here’s the question, are there any aspirations for Washington?
Karen: Absolutely Not! In fact, I spent five years working in Washington and that is not a functional environment and so the thought of going back to that is not a good idea from my perspective. I enjoy seeing things happen, getting things done, seeing the results of your labor, getting a chance to talk to people to find out what their needs are. When someone comes to me and says the light is out in front of my house and I can make a phone call or write an email or talk to a representative inside or even outside the city and get something done, then you feel like you have accomplished something. Certainly, when you see the Affordable Care Act out of Washington, that’s something that is accomplished but it’s not the same sense of accomplishment from my perspective. While the Affordable Care Act is a major thing, the fact that someone has a light in front of their house also means something and I prefer the light verses the policy.
Rita: Well, I guess we can stop the rumor mill that our Mayor is going to be leaving for Washington.
Karen: Yes, I know it’s out there but I have no plans for Washington.
Rita: As an African American woman, especially involved in politics, what would you say about where we were and where we are now? How we are received?
Karen: There are times when I say we have come a long way; especially when you look at women like Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordon, and Maxine Waters, you know that we have more numbers; but the numbers are at certain levels so you have more African American women in Congress than you did previously, but when you look at Mayors you have fewer; so it is sort of an ebb and flow and what I
would like to see is the day where this is the norm and not the exception but the rule that is just as easy for an African American woman or man to get elected as it is for a person who is not of color. I think that we have a long way to go both as a country and certainly as a state.
That doesn’t mean we ought to stop trying and what I try to do is inspire younger women to get involved and I’m talking about teenagers and young women to get involved. It’s not just going and knocking on doors, but its money, you have to have the right literature, you have to have the right message and those are the things I try to instill in younger women so they can get involved.
Rita: So what kind of response do you get?
Karen: Very positive. You know my daughter is one and her peers they are interested. She knows a lot more about public policy than I ever knew at her age, she’s 19 now and that’s the way that we can ultimately have an impact.
Rita: Let’s talk about family. I know that you are married and you have a daughter and maybe other family members that have poured into your life.
Karen: Yes, family is extremely important to me. I am married, my husband and I just celebrated 22 years of marriage and we have a 19 year old daughter. We are empty nesters for the first time. Our daughter is a freshman at Howard University. I’ve been so blessed because my mother had five brothers and sisters; three of them are living now but they have had a tremendous influence in my life, from everything as a kid growing up, in fact my father was dead by the time I married so my uncles walked me down the aisle, from that to just helping me with my mom who is bed-ridden in our home.
When I am away from home during the day my aunts take care of my mom and it makes it that much more easy for me. We support each other. Every time I have an opportunity to support my aunts, uncles, cousins I do and they support me. We’ve always been a close knit family and that’s because of my grandparents who have always instilled in us the importance of family.
Rita: And your immediate family members are?
Karen: My mother is Delores Freeman, My father is Travis Freeman, my daughter, Jordan and my husband’s name is Carmen Wilson.
Rita: The last question I have for you. Give us an ‘ah ha’ moment . . . You know the light bulb came on, what would that be?
Karen: Goodness gracious! You know I‘ll tell you what my ‘ah ha’ moment was and it had to do with running for the election. I had run the two times before and I was almost baffled, I said clearly, ‘I am more qualified than the other candidates, I’ve had this wide range of experience, educated at the best institutions, what’s the problem?’ And then ‘I had this epiphany. I was spending so much time telling people how much I knew, they did not understand how much I cared.’
So people have to understand that not only did I have the knowledge and the expertise, but that I cared about what happened; and really this occurred when I went through the experience of caring for my mother, when I became a caregiver and had to negotiate the health care system and had to work with individuals; I think we refer to them as the working poor, but people who had challenges in terms of where they were going to live and what they would eat and the cost of those things.
After getting a birds-eye view of that and experiencing it firsthand it made me more compassionate even though I had always considered myself to be a pretty compassionate person. I served in the community but it is not until you go through something like that, that you really realize how blessed you are and how challenged some others are.
Rita: I know I said that was the last question, but this really is. Tell us something funny, something along the trail that made you laugh.
Karen: She says, “Goodness gracious” again (as she and her assistant laugh) There have been so many. There is not a day that passes that we don’t just fall out laughing about something. I’m trying to think (and Ms. Whittington chimes in with a pretty humorous reminder) ‘Oh yes!’
You know every year the Red Hat Society has an event, well they made me a hat and I’m not a real hat wearer, so this hat is like this box, a pill-box hat, a modified version of a pill-box hat, it’s a beautiful hat but it looks funny on my head (and Ms. Whittington agreed as evidenced by her continual laughing, still envisioning the look) That was last year.
Now they’re coming up on their time in April and the thought of having to wear that hat is just enough to make you laugh. I guess the other thing is somebody made me this jacket and it looks like a gang jacket, I mean it’s spray painted and it’s got like an almost RIP (rest in peace) logo and that was very thoughtful and I was very appreciative but that jacket was really something.
Rita: I did not get to see you when the Harlem Globe Trotters were at the Genesis Center downtown, but I guess you suited up with them. My husband and our son did and they said, “Yeah she really did.”
Karen: I did. I did. It was fun.
Rita: Thank you very much for taking the time to share with JO Magazine readers a little bit about Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, the Mayor of the great City of Gary, Indiana.
Karen: Well, thank you to JO Magazine for the opportunity. This was an enjoyable interview.
Rita: Praise God and I pray for you often.
Karen: Keep praying, it’s working. I tell people often I am probably one of the most prayed for Mayors and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.