Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
“Now is the time,” says Lynn Ward Gray, who is seeking to become only the second African American female to hold the Mayor’s office in Battle Creek.
“It is long past time for our city to reflect at the top position the diversity of our community and knowing that I have the experience to go along with being a representative of our community, I felt that now was the perfect time to pursue the mayoral race.”
Lynn Ward Gray has been re-elected every election since 2009. The Ward 2 City Commissioner, poses for a photo taken by her husband. Gray is seeking to become the city's third African American mayor.
Gray, a Development Officer with the Battle Creek Community Foundation, has represented Ward 2 on the City Commission since 2009, serving as Vice Mayor during one of those years.
“The public has its first opportunity to elect their mayor and I feel that this is an opportune time for me,” she says. “My service to the community has been widespread anyway and I am very visible in supporting events, organizations, and residents throughout the city. This feels like a natural progression in my servant leadership here in Battle Creek.”
If elected to the city commission’s top spot, Gray will be carrying on a legacy begun by Maude Bristol Parry who was appointed mayor in 1984, making her the first African American woman to hold that office in the 160 years since the establishment of a commission-manager form of government in Battle Creek. Bristol Parry also was the first African American member of the Calhoun County Board of Commissioners.
She was preceded by Donald Sherrod who served as the city’s first African American mayor in 1979 and again in 1980. He was elected to the city commission in 1970.
Bristol Parry's and Sherrod’s combined service as mayor represent three years out of the city’s 160-year history of a commission-manager form of government that a person of color has held the top elected spot.
There also has been a lack of gender diversity in the mayor's seat. Gray says women have been appointed mayor for only seven out of that 160 years.
“I think women in elected positions change the dynamics and the rules. We come with such a depth and breadth of experiences, especially women of color, and sometimes those gifts and assets are not able to shine,” Gray says. “Sometimes I do feel that the status quo and the majority are not as welcoming with open arms as I wish they were as far as welcoming us to that table.”
She says the city’s history speaks for itself with regard to the lack of diverse representation.
“What I’m saying is not meant to diminish the contributions that various men have made to our city, but when women and people of color have the opportunity to lead, they deliver, and they bring a unique perspective that benefits all members of the community. If they’re not heard and seen, our entire community misses out.
“When that diversity of leadership is missing, it hurts us all. I know we can rise to that occasion.”
Learning, leading by example
Gray, who was born and raised in Battle Creek, says service is in her DNA. Her parents were both very involved in many areas of the community and volunteered their time to ensure that life would be better for their sons and daughter. In her youth, Gray began volunteering in different capacities following the example her parents started.
“God gives me a heart for community and I was asked to answer the call and I pick up the phone every single time,” she says.
With the exception of 20 years spent pursuing her education and career interests in human resources and health on the east side of the state and in California, she has lived in Battle Creek.
With her parents both deceased, she decided to move back to Battle Creek in 2001 because she wanted to be closer to her brother who lives in Kalamazoo. One year later, she married Sam Gray who she calls “the love of my life” and together they raised his two daughters from a previous marriage. The couple lives in the house Gray inherited from her parents.
“I’ve always said that Battle Creek is a wonderful place to live and raise a family. Family was the reason I came back,” Gray says. “It’s that small-town feel that everybody knows each other and cares about each other and that’s what drew me back.”
While settling into her new life, family, friends, and members of her sorority – Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. began talking with her about embracing a higher level of service to the community. She says her sorority sisters, in particular, were really encouraging her to have a seat at the table because they wanted someone who looked like them to have the opportunity to set policy and put things in place that would have a long-term impact on the community.
In 2007 she ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign and came back two years later to win a seat on the City Commission.
“When you do things for the moment, you can have that canned food, personal products, or blood drive, or that symposium on really tough topics and all of that is really good, but that long-lasting impact is what I was hoping to have,” she says.
Her consecutive re-election since 2009 is a reflection of her constituents' satisfaction with the job she has been doing to represent them, Gray says. She uses tools including email blasts, town halls, and Lattes with Lynn to keep herself and residents informed. Since 2012, she also has had a weekly show airing on Public Access television that gives residents opportunities to learn more about city government and how they can access various departments and services.
Ward 2 is predominantly African American, but she says there are too many conversations from an African American perspective that the city commission and community as a whole aren’t addressing.
She cites the increasing anxiety levels caused by the ongoing deaths of African American men and women at the hands of police officers throughout the United States as one of the most pressing issues of our time.
Although nothing of that magnitude has happened in Battle Creek, Gray credits fellow city commission candidate Jenasia Moore with starting the dialog between the city’s young people and police about ways to ease ongoing tensions and establishing better relationships.
“Taking a look at policies and making clear how policing works in the city is critical to our African American community and how they’re being served,” she says. “They want to feel like they’re being treated fairly and equitably in their dealings with police. I will certainly continue to champion those efforts.”
If elected, I will...
Although she is in the midst of developing her platform, Gray says she has identified areas that are among her top priorities. These include: greater economic development for the city that will make it a destination for businesses of all sizes; decreasing the number of shootings and homicides and violence in general; leading by example and bringing more young people into the conversations and giving them a seat at the table; moving people from being homeless into quality, affordable housing; and creating more opportunities for families to thrive and achieve self-sufficiency through the creation of good-paying jobs.
She looks at all of this through a lens of caution created by the COVID19 pandemic.
“COVID19 has not been kind to local governments and municipalities all over the country,” Gray says. “We are fortunate here to have reserves to be able to present a balanced budget for this upcoming fiscal year, but that will certainly be a challenge going forward. We certainly want to bring all of our employees who have been furloughed and are so vital to a well-run city back.”
The virus also has impacted the way that candidates will have to conduct their campaigns. But, she says, “The show must go on.”
“Door-to-door campaigning is still the number one way to reach voters and I think we can still do that by having a mask on and physical distancing while we’re interacting,” Gray says. “We’ll definitely have to make sure that we have a presence on social media so that people can interact with us that way to maintain their safety.
“I want people to know that voting has been made a lot easier and I encourage everyone to exercise their right to vote and that voting absentee is the safest way to cast their ballot.”
She says she hopes this will encourage people who feel like they’ve been disenfranchised or marginalized to let their voices be heard and feel confident that they have the power to elect leadership that looks like them.
“I’ve known so many commissioners of color who have served in the past that would have made fantastic mayors,” Gray says. “I’m baffled and stumped as to why that didn’t happen, but I hope that the community embraces the idea that equity and representation matters and that those voices really do make our community richer in the end.”