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Gary’s first female mayor delivers leadership lecture

Haleigh Ehmsen | Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Karen Freeman-Wilson, the first female mayor of Gary, Ind., and the first African American mayor in Indiana spoke about her leadership experience in a lecture at Saint Mary’s Monday evening.

Junior Brooke Fowler and her classmates in an Intercultural Leadership Development course invited Freeman-Wilson to speak as part of an assignment to reach out to an influential female leader.

“In class we talk a lot about leadership styles. The style I most admire is servant leadership in which the leader focuses directly on the needs of the people and places [herself] among the people to serve and work towards a common goal,” Fowler said. “This is what Karen is doing.”

Freeman-Wilson is currently in her second term as Gary’s mayor. She said it was not her successes but rather her failures that got her to where she is today.
“I have a firm belief that God puts where he wants you to be,” Freeman-Wilson said.

Despite having lost more city elections than she has won since 1987, Freeman-Wilson said she successfully gained the mayoral seat after a group of people urged her to run again.

“I ran in 2003 and 2007 unsuccessfully for mayor of the city of Gary and after my loss in 2007, [I] decided that the voters [were] not interested in [my] service,” Freeman-Wilson said.

 “So in 2011 when some guys came to me and said ‘we have a poll that shows that you’re the only person that can beat the incumbent and we think that it’s your time,’ I said no, but they kept pressing the issue … It was the easiest election I had.”

Freeman-Wilson said she wanted to talk about her failures because it’s something that few leaders highlight. She learned that it’s important to show people how much you care.

“People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care,” she said. “Without fail, I believed I had the best credentials in the races that I lost, but it was only when I became a caregiver that realized the importance of compassion in leadership.”

Freeman-Wilson said after her mother suffered from multiple strokes their relationship was changed and her mother depended on her for care. This experience taught Freeman-Wilson the importance of service especially in public office.

“[Public service] means that in every decision you that you make, when you have been given the public trust, that you make it with the people in mind,” she said. “I know that every time I make a decision it isn’t always the right one, because none of us are infallible, but what I can tell [the public] … is that every time I make a decision it is for the right reason, [and] I can walk you through my thinking as to why I thought that decision is in the best interest of the majority of the city.”

Perseverance, patience and good teamwork are important qualities all leaders should possess, Freeman-Wilson said. However, she said working together as a team will get students further than any individual effort.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about you,” she said. “It’s not about us as individuals, but it’s about what our legacy is and what our service is.

“It’s been said that service is the rent that we pay for our time on earth and I believe that.”

Freeman-Wilson said women have a unique quality that lends itself to  leadership.

“[Women] always want to find a win-win … we want everybody to be okay with the resolution, where they feel comfortable with it, and that’s not always the case with men,” she said.

Being comfortable with responsibility and authority are important in leadership Freeman-Wilson said. She urged students to be confident in themselves and recognize the importance of their own leadership skills.

“I’m counting on you all to continue the effort that we started and the only way you can do that is if [leaders] set an example,” she said.

Freeman-Wilson said she hopes that her work as mayor is setting that standard for what citizens of Gary should expect from their public servants.
“I understand there is a generation behind me that can do better than me,” Freeman-Wilson said. “And I’m cool with that.”

Contact Haleigh Ehmsen at hehmse01@saintmarys.edu