ICMA Executive Director Marc Ott Wraps Up Black History Month: Opening Doors Benefits Everyone

Past ICMA President Sylvester Murray brought visibility and mentoring to local government administrators.

By Marc Ott, ICMA executive director | Mar 1, 2021 | BLOG POST
ICMA executive director Marc Ott

Last Monday, I had the privilege and honor of hosting a conversation with Sylvester Murray. Among the many firsts that Sy can claim is that he was ICMA’s first Black president. It was fascinating to hear him speak about how that moment might never have happened. As city manager of Cincinnati, he was nominated for the role of president but encountered an opposing candidate who was elected instead of him that year. Undaunted, Sy ran the following year unopposed and was elected ICMA President in 1983.

When I asked Sy about his accomplishments as president, his answer was “visibility” to the burgeoning numbers of Black administrators entering the profession and the hundreds of Black students in public administration.  Modestly, Sy indicated that he wasn’t sure if he had moved the needle. I looked around at the tiny video boxes of the many participants and the names appearing in the chat and assured him, he did move the needle, if for no other reason than his presence said “If you can, I can.”

I remember the first time I saw Sy and several other Black leaders at a Michigan Winter Institute in Ann Arbor, where Sy eventually became the city manager. It was at a time when our profession did not have many people of color and we were fortunate to be able to watch those few trailblaze the paths we later traveled.

If you question the importance of visibility and mentorship, you need to look no further than the comments that appeared during the session. Here are just a few we collected:

  • Sy is the reason I am a city manager today. He is one of my most trusted professional advisors and showed me that I could be what I couldn't see. Tanisha Briley, city manager, Gaithersburg, Maryland
  • One of the greatest parts of his legacy is all of the students he has mentored and the many city managers he has groomed to follow in his footsteps. Kimberly Richardson, deputy city manager, Evanston, Illinois
  • Sy is the reason I am in the profession today, 37 years later. Carl Harness, chief human services administrator, Hillsborough County, Florida
  • Sy's massive influence also has global reach. He continues to mentor and guide leaders in several African cities. Benjamin Manyindo
  • Thank you, Mr. Murray, for recognizing talent and helping to cultivate that talent. Tonya David Johnson
  • Sy brought me into the profession in Inkster. Have been thankful ever since. David Williams

Earlier this month we announced the inaugural class of the Leadership Institute on Race, Equity, and Inclusion, where the participant roster reads like a “Who’s Who” of up-and-coming leaders who will continue to transform this profession. Where it might have been the exception in Sy’s day to see a Black manager, it is now more commonplace, and I am proud, especially as ICMA’s first Black Executive Director/CEO, to know that ICMA has had a hand in that.

Throughout February, we have honored a long line of heroes—the courageous leaders who were willing to step into the void and become “the first.” We have stood on their shoulders and now we lift up those who come after us. The exciting thing about opening doors is that it benefits everyone who serves and wants to lead local government—all Americans, including women, Latinos, Asian Americans, and those who identify as LGBTQ. Regardless of race or gender, courageous leadership celebrates those who are willing to disrupt the status quo and lead by their very presence, and I am impressed with the number of next generation professionals willing to do just that. Let’s keep that momentum going.  In the words of President Obama, “We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar.”

Addressing Racial, Structural, and Systemic Inequities is one of the topic tracks at the upcoming ICMA Regional Conferences. Hope to see you there.


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