Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer and Rev. Liz Walker engaged with attendees of the Women Elected Municipal Officials Leadership Symposium on Jan. 21.

In a virtual fireside chat during the MMA Annual Meeting on Jan. 21, Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer joined the Rev. Liz Walker to discuss topics ranging from Spicer’s childhood experiences and interests to her position as the first popularly elected African-American woman mayor in the state, and her thoughts on the vital role women in elected positions have to play in advancing racial equity.

“In all of my personal life experience, it has been women at the forefront, and I stand on the shoulders of so many women,” Spicer said during the Women Elected Municipal Officials Leadership Symposium. “I have a responsibility to pass that baton on to other women.”

Spicer recalled meeting Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, in Brooklyn, New York, when she was 6.

“Our congresswoman came to visit our classroom,” Spicer said. “She said, ‘I help people, and I help children like you have a better life.’”

Noting the way black and brown families lived where she grew up, Spicer could see that Chisholm was making a difference. She also had the opportunity to see, in the late 1960s, a Black woman in a position of leadership.

Prior to entering local government, Spicer spent 16 years as a science and technology educator in Framingham and Newton and 10 years at the Museum of Science. She served as a Town Meeting member in Framingham and on the Standing Committee on Ways and Means and the Human Relations Commission, but her youthful aspirations did not predict a political career.

“I was always very curious about the world around me and how things work,” Spicer said of her early interest in science and engineering.

She recalled an at-home experiment of taking apart and reassembling a blender as a moment that illustrated her parents’ support of her interests.

“Your parents are your first teachers, and both of my parents were very inspirational and always made me feel as if I could do anything,” Spicer said. “And I was never told otherwise.”

She did experience being the only girl or child of color in the science or engineering classes and events she took part in, but she said it didn’t phase her.

“I’m here,” she said, reflecting on the experience. “I’m taking up my space, and I’m going to do me.”

Asked about influential voices outside of her family, Spicer listed the church and the civil rights movement, noting that she was born before the 1965 Voting Rights Act explicitly outlawed barriers that were used for a century to suppress voting by African-Americans.

“My mother would always remind us to never take the right to vote for granted,” she said.

She said it is important to understand the historical roots of race in this country — “a 400-year-plus issue” — noting that there is long and arduous work ahead.

She said “acknowledging that we all come with baggage” is key to having the critical conversations to unpack the baggage and find the common ground.

Walker, who was the featured WEMO speaker in 2017, noted that the country has had moments of reckoning before, and asked what would make this time different. Spicer said that the number of women and women of color who are now in seats of leadership would make the difference. They see things differently.

“If people of color are not at the table, if women are not at the table, then their voices are never heard,” she said.

She also gave young people credit for their role in the Black Lives Matter movement. On matters like racial justice and climate change, “they don’t want to step back and wait their turn.” Spicer said she sees Black Lives Matter as a mechanism for bringing visibility to the lives of black people.

Spicer also spoke about racial challenges in Framingham, including “microaggressions” that exist even in a community of roughly 70,000 people, 30% of whom identify as being people of color and where many residents value being in a diverse community.

Spicer calls those willing to roll up their sleeves in support of Black Lives Matter accomplices, as opposed to allies.

“Throughout my life and career, it is those accomplices that have made the difference for me,” Spicer said. “I grew up with love and hope and spirit and faith and I carry that into the work today, to be compassionate, understand the community and lead with integrity.”

“Elected women in general can do so much,” she said, encouraging attendees to look at who is sitting at their professional and personal tables.

“When you sit and eat a meal, does everyone around the table look like you? If so, your table is not big enough.”

“You have to be very deliberate in your actions,” she said. “Create the spaces that allow for you to get to know the diversity in your community, and just keep asking who is not here that I know lives in this community.”

Spicer said women are particularly good at bringing in new and different voices and looking at what others might need.

Spicer said she was horrified by the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, but the inauguration two weeks later restored hope — particularly watching the first African-American woman take the oath of office as vice president, Kamala Harris. As a woman who brings “many lenses,” along with her knowledge and experience, Harris is uniquely qualified to face this time in history.

Asked how attendees could encourage more women, especially younger women, to stand for election, Spicer said part of nurturing young leaders is giving them the space to grow and add to the conversation.

Spicer said Framingham is taking specific actions to address issues of racial injustice and inequity, such as hiring its first diversity, equity and inclusion officer and taking part in the Racial Equity Municipal Action Plan (REMAP) pilot program to develop an equity plan, as well as addressing intersections of racial justice and the pandemic and looking at school curriculums.

Asked about the national political climate, she said listening lies at the core of understanding.

“Sharing power with those who do not look like you does not diminish your power, but expands the power of the whole nation,” she said.

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