headshot of marc ott, icma executive director and ceo

The last time the ICMA Executive Board gathered in Washington, D.C., they toured the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, a 30-minute walk from the ICMA headquarters. The founding director described the museum as telling America’s story through the lens of African American history and as a museum for all Americans. Though the museum has mostly remained closed to the public during the pandemic, more than 7,000 visitors a day have come to the museum from across the United States, the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and Asia to celebrate the achievements of African Americans, but also to recognize the brutal struggle that continues today. Like me, the board members described the visit as a profound experience.

We recently began looking at ICMA’s story through the lens of our own African American history for a project brought to us by a group of Black leaders who were among the first to serve our cities and counties as chief administrators. The December issue of PM featured an article that chronicles the beginnings of the association’s transition in the late 1960s and ‘70s to a more activist role to “correct injustices and eliminate inequalities,” as the president at the time said. In the upcoming February issue of PM, we share a retrospective of articles about Black local government leadership over the years, including one from Sylvester Murray, "On Being a Black City Manager," written in 1972. It’s stunning to think that the first Black city manager was appointed only five decades ago.

The first African American ICMA president wasn’t elected until 1983 and the National Forum for Black Public Administrators (NFBPA) was founded that same year. That was right around the time I began my career in local government. When I first became a member of ICMA as a young administrative assistant, there were very few Black members and even fewer Black managers. I would attend state and national meetings and find the folks of color often clustered together in a small group and socializing separately.

The significance of being the “first” truly hit me when I became the city manager of Austin, one of the largest cities in the country and the capital of one of the largest states in the nation. I felt it again when I was appointed ICMA’s first Black executive director in 2016, more than 100 years after the organization was founded. I felt almost overwhelmed by love for the profession and public service, but also by the great responsibility I have to all our members and especially to the young career professionals of color.

These relatively recent milestones bring into sharp focus how alive history is and how we are creating it at this very moment. I believe we all have been particularly conscious of that this past year. As we look at the toll the pandemic has taken, we have the chance to change the course of history. Black Americans are dying at nearly three times the rate of whites, and Black-owned businesses have closed at more than twice the rate of nonminority firms since the start of the pandemic. Armed with this data we can finally reverse the health and economic disparities that have existed since the founding of our country as we restore our communities.

Last June, when America reached an historic tipping point in confronting racism, millions of protesters of all ages and races marched for change. The ICMA Executive Board chose to be on the right side of history and condemned systemic racism. They issued a statement and outlined the moral and ethical obligation we have, to stand up and make our voices heard, as well as use our voices to amplify others. In addition, the association has formed a Racial Equity and Social Justice Team to support members with resources and tools.

As I began writing this column, I watched in horror as a mob waving confederate flags and Trump banners stormed the Capitol. That dark day will live forever in infamy as many have noted. In watching these events unfold, I choose to believe that this atrocity will mark a new beginning for America; when people with the strength of character to lead ethically and courageously will work to finally put an end to the injustice and racism that has held this great country back for so many years. My sincere hope is that this turning point will be remembered as the day a new society built on equity emerged—a landmark day in Black history and in American history.

Editor’s note: This column will also appear in the February issue of PM magazine honoring Black leadership in local government.

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