By Pam Davis
Before We Begin
There are a couple things you should know about me and my perspective before reading the article about my mission to advance inclusive local government by empowering LGBTQ+ leadership.
One. I am a self-proclaimed local government evangelist who believes in the power of cities with my whole heart. I have worked in municipal management for my entire professional career, and while I know firsthand that our local governments have a lot of room for improvement, I also believe that we are in the best position to do better for our communities.
Two. I happen to be super gay. That part of my identity is inextricably linked to how I move through the world and my career, what I choose to write about, and how I advocate. However, as you read my words, I ask that you think of your own story, whatever that may be. This is only partly about my identity and the needs of LGBTQ+ professionals; it is also about the ways in which all of us are called to be leaders and how we lift others up with us.
The combination of those two facts led to my lifelong commitment to become the leader I wished I had when I was younger and lead a national organization called CivicPRIDE.
The Origin Story
I work in government as a direct result of my experiences coming of age as a gay woman in the early 2000s. I came out as a high school junior with the support of family and close friends in an environment that was less than friendly to me. To combat the social isolation and bullying that followed, my best friend and I worked together to form a Gay-Straight Alliance, an extra-curricular club committed to providing a safe and supportive space for LGBTQ+ students and their allies and promoting a more inclusive school culture.
When our school administrators tried to prevent us from forming the club, I was able to point to the Equal Access Act, a federal law that compels federally funded public secondary schools to provide equal access to extracurricular student clubs including our own Gay-Straight Alliance. This simple protection, and the joy and safety the club then brought to my life, turned me into a government fan for life. The idea that my own life could be made better thanks to public policy inspired me to become a part of the system that had the power to increase equity and access for all people in our communities.
Long before I knew I would pursue a career in government, I felt the power of government systems to either prohibit or enable my dreams. On one hand, I was empowered to start a club at my high school to connect with others like me. On the other hand, I did not believe I would ever be able to marry someone I loved or have rights protecting my ability to parent. I keep that lesson close to my heart as I grow in my local government career, because administrators and policy makers must not lose sight of the impacts—intended or otherwise—that our work has on individuals’ daily lives.
I went on to finish college and as I began my graduate studies in public administration, the most frequent advice I received was to find a mentor in the profession. I was particularly interested in connecting with someone with whom I could safely be open—ideally an LGBTQ+-identified city manager. Basic statistics told me that there must be a contingent of out LGBTQ+ public administrators. Except… where were they? None of my classroom guest speakers shared that part of their identity if it was there, and I did not feel comfortable at the time broadcasting what I was looking for out of fear that I would face discrimination before my career even started. The problem was not that I did not benefit from the wisdom and experience of many other fantastic public administrators, it was that I had no frame of reference or model for what being an out LGBTQ professional in local government looked or felt like. While I had chosen to be unapologetically out since I was a teenager, I wanted the assurance there were others like me having successful careers.
In 2014, a few years into my career, a magazine article changed my life and laid the foundation for organizing the LGBTQ+ local government professional community. The International City/County Management Association’s Public Management magazine included a first-of-its-kind article about the experience of LGBTQ+ public administrators written by a now dear friend of mine, Phil Smith-Hanes. Finally, there was proof of the small but mighty presence of people like me working in local government! I immediately contacted Phil to connect and began a conversation about how we might start networking with more LGBTQ+ colleagues and enhance our visibility within the profession. That conversation turned into a happy hour with several other interested folks at a conference the following year, and the idea for CivicPRIDE was born.
The Work Continues
Over the past seven years, a small but mighty group has transformed the idea of CivicPRIDE into an established nonprofit professional association for local government leaders at all stages of their careers.
To meet our mission, we:
P – Provide an inclusive space and networking group for LGBTQ+ local government professionals and their straight allies.
R – Recognize the accomplishments and experiences of LGBTQ+ local government professionals.
I – Inspire LGBTQIA+ individuals and encourage them to apply to leadership roles in local government.
D – Diversify local government organizations by advocating for LGBTQ+ individuals and their inclusion and advancement in these organizations.
E – Educate local government professionals and organizations on creating an inclusive culture for LGBTQ+ employees and community members.
These simple actions have a disproportionately positive impact on, not just our members, but also our communities. While we first aim to support and expand connections among LGBTQ+ professionals, we do it to strengthen the diversity of public administrators to lead to more inclusive policies, programs, and services in our cities and counties. We believe that over time our work will have a positive and compounding effect on people and government alike even while other forces seek to endanger and oppress LGBTQ+ communities across the globe.
Visibility, empathy, and connection are crucial to the progress of LGBTQ members in our professional associations and communities. Although we have made progress over the past two decades, our profession can do more to ensure that all of us are protected and celebrated for the diverse perspectives we bring. If we want to promote civic engagement, community building, racial equity and inclusion, collaborative problem-solving and democratic governance, we need to start by intimately understanding the experiences of those we serve and take action to achieve better outcomes. While there are thousands of distinct local government jurisdictions across the country with their own leadership and missions, a professional association like CivicPRIDE can lift them up together by creating a common network, conversation, ethical standard, and vision for public service. I sleep better at night knowing that the next young, gay, local government evangelist nerd with a dream to change the world may have just a little bit warmer welcome to begin their career.
Pam Davis is Assistant City Manager for the City of Boulder, Colorado, and a graduate of the Leadership Institute on Race, Equity and Inclusion sponsored by ICMA, the Kettering Foundation and the National Civic League.