Making history as the first female mayor of the city of Flint, Michigan, Dr. Karen Weaver proves that anything is possible. In 2015, Mayor Weaver walked into some major issues, including Flint’s devastating water crisis that began in 2014. Five years later, Mayor Weaver’s faith, drive, and adoration for her city beams as she shares the progress of the community, despite its setbacks. From working professionally as a clinical psychologist to governing a city, Mayor Weaver shares her journey to public office, being a woman in politics, and the future of Flint.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got your start in politics.
Flint is my home! I was born and raised here. And I’m actually a clinical psychologist professionally. That’s what I was doing for the last 25 years before I got into politics. To be honest, I’ve never been involved in politics. I was asked to volunteer on someone’s campaign that was running for mayor, and I agreed to help out. So, I started volunteering a couple of times a week. When I really started seeing what was going on in my hometown I became very involved and I ended up volunteering every single day trying to help somebody else become mayor because I wasn’t happy with what was going on in my city. So, I stayed involved and people began saying that they needed me to run for mayor. I really didn’t take them seriously at first because I wasn’t a politician. So, from me volunteering on someone’s campaign, I ended up being the mayor.
How did you and your family feel about you running for mayor?
If someone had said to me just a few years before I became mayor that I was going to become mayor I would’ve said ‘You must be dreaming!’ Being mayor is not like a 9-to-5 job, and it’s a job that takes your whole family’s time, energy, and commitment. Initially, my husband said absolutely not! I was over behavioral services at Mott Children’s Health Center for about 18 years, and from there I went into a center for children where I was the COO. I was doing well in my career as a psychologist. Before I decided to run, my husband and I sought out people we knew and whose opinion we really respected, including our pastor, to see if this was the right thing to do and if we could make a difference. After receiving such great support, I decided I was going to run. I never thought this was where the Lord was going to lead me, but I knew that He would have my back and the back of our city.
Being an “outsider” in the political realm, did you feel like you had to prove yourself?
I knew I was worthy enough to be in the position because the city put me there. I think it was helpful not being a career politician because we were tired of the same old thing. I knew how our community had been emotionally traumatized, and I understood the lack of trust. I wanted to be a voice for the community and do the best that I could to make sure that their voices were heard. When I first got involved, the cost of water was an issue because we were paying eight times the national average, and our rates had been raised illegally. And then to find out that our water had been poisoned with lead, being a clinical psychologist was very helpful for me because I knew both the mental and physical health damages first hand. But, I was born and raised here, my mother was the first black teacher in the city of Flint, and my dad was the first black elected to the Board of Education. I was a stranger to the political world, but Flint is my home so I wasn’t necessarily a stranger to the community.
What do you love most about Flint and the people who live there?
What I think is noteworthy about us is that we’re strong. We’re resilient, we’re fighters, we don’t quit, we don’t take no for an answer, and I love that. With all those characteristics we’ve been able to rebound and show people around the state and the country that we’re on the move. People have been surprised about what we’ve been able to accomplish out of such a bad situation. We took a water crisis, a public health crisis, an infrastructure crisis, and we were able to get the country to listen and start having conversations about water quality standards, aging infrastructures, how to take a crisis, make economic opportunities happen, and truly turn a city around.
In what way do you see a need for more women to enter politics?
Well, we’re half the population and are to be represented that way in making decisions about ourselves and for our families. We’re underrepresented in various professions and our voices need to be heard because it’s always bad when others make decisions for you and about you, and you’re not a part of the decision-making body. As women, we see things differently from men. That doesn’t mean that their way or our way is wrong, it means that we just see things differently, and it’s a way to get to the same conclusion. We should be at the table beside them, making decisions with them, while appreciating what they have to offer and they appreciate what we have to offer while trying to move ourselves forward.
I understand that you own a hair and skin care line! Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Yes! I own the Shea Lavelle Boutique that sells shea butter, mango butter, argan oils, and different kinds of natural products for hair and the body. It’s funny because I actually started selling natural hair, skin, and body products kind of by accident like becoming mayor…It was unexpected. I started getting into natural products and did a lot of research. So, my brother and I began selling shea butter at the flea market which led to opening up a store. That was something I never thought I would be doing. One of the things that has been taking off big here in Flint is the entrepreneurship. We have a host of pop-up shops that are downtown and that is where my boutique is located now. It works great for me because after I became mayor I couldn’t be in the store every day!
As a mother, mayor, entrepreneur, and woman who wears many hats, how do you balance personal and work life?
It can be difficult to find that balance. Sometimes I have to tell myself to just stop and go home. And there are times when your body will tell you! I also have three grown children that will keep me in line, so I appreciate that. To them, I’m just mom so my kids definitely keep me grounded. Flint has been through so much and we’ve made so much progress addressing issues and challenges, even though we’re not completely out of the woods yet. It’s nice to be at a point now where you can look back and be thankful for the progress that we’ve made and recognized that my family is still the priority.
What is a quote, scripture, or motto that you live by?
Philippians 4:13, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
What advice do you have for current and future female leaders, business owners, and politicians?
When I was thinking about opening up a store and running for mayor, I didn’t want to regret not doing it. I would rather do it than wonder what would’ve happened. Don’t underestimate yourself. As women, sometimes we put boundaries and limits on ourselves. Sometimes we think we’re too young or old to try something new. There’s enough people that are going to try and limit us so we certainly shouldn’t do it to ourselves. We have to recognize that we have an inner strength. It’s also really important for women to be in leadership positions so that we can encourage and support each other. When we come together we can accomplish so much.
You were sworn into office being handed the huge water crisis and other major issues. What was that like and how did you get through it?
I prayed a lot. I didn’t know what to expect because we were dealing with a crisis unlike one we’d ever seen, so I really had no expectations. Having that kind of national attention and being in the spotlight like that was something that I never imagined. Some of it was just so overwhelming that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. There were times when I had to go off by myself and reflect on some of those things. It’s so important that you surround yourself with smart people and people that you trust. I knew there were certain areas that I didn’t know how to do, so I had to become comfortable with asking for help. But, I definitely did a lot of praying and had some prayer warriors out there for me.
Looking ahead, what is your focus for the future of Flint and where do you see the city in the next 4 years?
One thing is that we will have the pipes changed which is a great start, and we’re really happy about that. We’ve had so many positive things happen in the city of Flint and I want to continue on the path that we’ve already laid. Economic development opportunities are really happening in the city. General Motors recently announced that they are investing another $150 million into the truck plant letting us know their commitment to the city of Flint, while also bringing great jobs so people can earn a decent living wage and take care of their families. Lear just built a new factory here, and we haven’t had one of those for over 30 years. Our culinary school just opened up downtown. A new hotel is being built downtown. A new school is going up. New housing is going up. Entrepreneurship is booming, and if things continue down this pathway, then we’re in a great place. This is going to be one of the greatest comeback stories ever, and the best is yet to come for the city of Flint.