An illustration of a woman wearing a superhero cape

This year’s Women’s History Month celebrates women who advocate for equity, diversity, and inclusion. Local government has no shortage of such women, so why stop at celebration? To make government work better for everyone, we can learn from those who are already up to their elbows in this work and apply their lessons to our own roles.

So how do these leaders navigate complex, stubborn bureaucracies to advance equity and maintain their own wellness in the process?

These questions led me to connect with scores of public servants to write Herocrats: A Guide for Government Workers Leading Change. My research revealed three common traits that leaders leverage for systems change: courage, connection, and creativity. I call these traits superpowers, and one story shows how I’ve tried—and sometimes failed—to use them in my own work.

When the head of our local transit agency asked me to launch the organization’s first equity program, I almost said no. It was a big job, and I wasn’t sure I was the right person to lead it. So, I took stock of my values and got clear on my expertise, comparing that inner inventory to the needs of the role. Connecting with myself gave me the courage to jump in.

Figuring out where to focus was the next challenge. Which of the many transportation barriers and workplace inclusion issues would we tackle first? I connected with other employees in the organization, setting up one-on-ones with anyone who’d shown interest in equity. I listened to them, documented their ideas, and identified themes.

I knew that any solutions had to center the people we served. Drawing on previous roles in community engagement, I visited community leaders and listened. This grounded my understanding of how far we’d come as an agency, as well as the remaining gaps.

Having learned a lot and surfaced many allies, I sent an agency-wide call to join the equity team. Creative, passionate people responded from all corners of the organization—mechanics, financial analysts, police officers, janitors. We formalized their equity team roles through detailed MOUs with their supervisors. Together, we discovered that advocating for equity is really a big community organizing effort within an agency, and that every connection counts.

Using the depth and strength of these connections, over several years we did more than just raise organizational awareness and inclusion. We also updated and launched policies, including a new low-income fare program and a more humane stroller policy on buses—real wins for our community and tangible steps toward a more equitable system.

As our momentum grew, so did our opposition. Internal hostilities took a heavy toll on me and my team. So, when my request for a short unpaid leave got denied, I made the hard decision to move on. It takes courage to prioritize self-care, and if you don’t, you risk everything. After a period of rejuvenation, I began a new chapter that has led to more opportunities and greater impact than I’d thought possible.

Let’s face it: leading equity work is often confounding, lonely, and exhausting. Sometimes we’re tempted to delay bold action until we secure more budget, earn that next credential, or develop a big plan.

And as great women have shown us, sometimes leadership means working to improve conditions for others before our own conditions have improved. No matter where you’re at, you have what you need to take the next step. Just draw on your superpowers of courage, connection, and creativity, and keep making history.

Allison Bell


ALLISON BELL was a 2005 ICMA Local Government Management Fellow for San José, California. Since then, she’s worked in local and state government across the country, both as an employee and a consultant. Find out more at

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