Is it possible to be both an activist and a statesman?

Is it possible to be both an activist and a statesman?

Former Mayor of Flagstaff Coral Evans discusses whether it is possible to be both a statesman and an activist.

As someone who has held the roles of “activist” and “elected official,” I believe there is a difference between the two. While the skills needed for each may overlap, the roles are fundamentally different. Given my 20+ years’ experience in each, I do not believe one can be an activist and a statesman simultaneously.

If our society is going to produce the caliber of elected officials needed to address the issues facing the public, the respective roles of “activist” and “statesman” need clarification. Since the end of the twentieth century, more community leaders, women, and racial/ethnic minorities have been elected to public office than ever before although there is still much more to do to ensure equity and access for these groups (Brown & Atske, 2021). These grassroots politicians have ushered in a new era of political engagement to address vexing issues of personal and community empowerment. Many politicians are elected to office because of their activist backgrounds and activities; however, statesmen are not, nor should they be, activists.

I spent over 20 years as an activist on the front lines directly organizing and agitating in three of Flagstaff’s most challenged neighborhoods. I helped plan the next sit-in or walkout, wrote letters to the editor, and organized city council campaigns. I have marched on city hall, stopped traffic, blocked building entrances, and run Sharpies dry preparing for hours standing on the corner. As an activist I did this to fight for equality and justice. Time and time again, I have refused to yield my seat or silence my voice due to my passion for those in need—our community’s most vulnerable women, children, the undocumented, those who are gender fluid, and others whose voices are often unheard, and when heard, are quickly dismissed. I believe climate change is real, water is a finite resource, and dark skies have value. I know until Black Lives Matter, the ability for all lives to freely pursue life, liberty, and happiness is threatened.

At this very moment, somewhere at the bottom of my purse, I know there is a black Sharpie (or its replacement), which has been transferred, from bag to bag, throughout my life and many different careers, both as an activist and as an elected official. One is always on hand just in case a makeshift sign is needed on the spot, to agitate, activate, and empower the people. Over the years my communities won major battles, created change, and advanced good policy. However, these same communities also lost critical battles accelerating gentrification, weakening communities, and resulting in a deteriorating quality of life for our most vulnerable residents. Amidst these victories and defeats, I was an activist. I did this because while I know material security and economic fairness are important, other values are important besides economic gain. For example, the right to choose a certain healthcare procedure, the wellbeing of your family, and the character of your neighborhood have intrinsic value.

After 20 years as an activist, I took on other leadership roles. I ran for city council in 2007-08, becoming an elected official, politician, and in 2016 became the first Black woman elected mayor to a city in Arizona. As an elected official I spent almost 13 years working directly to address Flagstaff’s most complex and difficult issues. As a council member and mayor, I adopted policies, enacted ordinances, set forth rules and regulations, and ultimately made laws. In my capacity as an elected official, I had to focus on each issue and situation based on its specific merits and technicalities within the larger context related to the broader community, an often-hidden connection.

Ultimately, I was constantly working to balance the city’s physical and social infrastructure needs with its economic vitality, global consciousness, and moral compass. There were competing considerations and thoughtful negotiations. Rarely were there simple, straightforward, or uncomplicated solutions. It was here the importance of understanding the system and its interrelated and interdependent parts became apparent to me.

Clarifying the use of the word Statesman

As a woman of color, I understand, and am very aware of, the role gender and racial identity play in our society, as well as within my chosen career path of politics. I also wish to acknowledge those who are nonbinary, gender fluid, and nongendered. Given there will inevitably be questions as to why I have chosen to use the word containing “man,” which may seem exclusionary, let me explain why I do not believe the term is objectionable.

First, I do not believe “statesman” is gender specific in nature. It is a title, much like “chairman.” I am not the only woman in politics who prefers to adopt honorifics containing “man” effectively making them gender neutral rather than male. For example, former Coconino County District 2 Supervisor Liz Archuleta, who identifies as a woman, preferred to be addressed as Chairman Archuleta. Moving from local to global, when you search for “famous statesmen” online, women such as Margaret Hilda Thatcher, are returned near the top of the results. Thatcher served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 and Leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990. Here Thatcher demonstrates this term is equally suitable for men, women, binary, or nongendered persons. Thus, the first reason I use statesman is because women from a variety of political backgrounds have chosen to embrace titles including the word ‘man’ without limiting the genders to which those names apply.

The second reason I chose “statesman” is because the terms “policymaker” and/or “decision-maker” are too limiting in nature to describe the role. While elected officials make decisions and enact policy, so do many other people who are not elected officials, such as individuals who are appointed to various city, county, and state boards and commissions. A statesman describes an elected official who understands policy, big picture implications, and importance of compromise when appropriate. This was the premise of my research and work.

The following statement, used to describe both Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and myself, best explains the nuance I envision a statesman: “A statesman is a respected, skilled, and experienced political leader or figure. In most respects a statesman is the opposite of a politician. Politicians are thought of as people who say or do anything to get elected or to gain power. A statesman is someone who does everything for the common good of the people or community that they represent.” In general, to call a person a statesman is a mark of high regard for that person's integrity. To call someone a politician usually implies the person is worthy of little esteem. An elder statesman is a term often defined as an older politician or advisor who is thought to be above normal politics (“Statesman facts for kids,” 2021).

The current dictionary definition does not entirely align with the understanding I developed based on my work with focus groups and through one-on-one conversations.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a statesman as:

1: one versed in the principles or art of government especially: one actively engaged in conducting the business of a government or in shaping its policies; and,

2: a wise, skillful, and respected political leader (Merriam-Webster, n.d.b)

Modernizing the definition of Statesmanship

For the purposes of this research, I used the following working definition for statesman pulled from conversations I had with focus group members of former elected officials, and one-on-one interviews:

A statesman is someone who acts for the common good of the people they represent, with the understanding that their primary responsibility is to address and solve issues affecting citizens. This means seeking out the voices of those not often heard. A statesman is well versed in the area government (including the business of such and/or in shaping its policies). A statesman understands that hate, emotionalism, and frustration are unstable foundations on which to build public policy. Instead, a statesman makes informed decisions after assessing the totality of the event or request, including the risks, using a comprehensive approach that considers the entire system in a way that can be widely understood.  The question, “How does the decision made address the change sought and further the overall goal(s) of the community” is answered as part of their decision-making process. A statesman understands alliances can be formed around issues, even when ideologies differ greatly, and that to solve problems, one must be willing to listen, make difficult discussions and compromise when appropriate. ‘Is my community in better shape than before?’ is the question a statesman is constantly asking themselves.

“There is no activism in statesmanship.”

Will I be the community activist or the statesman? I had thought, somehow, I would be both, but, as I moved further into the process, I found it was not possible. The two worlds, although they intersect often, are vastly different. I tried to combine these roles. Then, after realizing I could not, set out to explain why.

When acting in my capacity as an elected member of the city council, I looked at things from a macro perspective, from a 30,000-foot view. I dealt with policies affecting the entire city, often for many generations to come. As mayor my worldview was social constructivism with a touch of pragmatism. However, when out in the neighborhoods advocating for change, I looked at things from street level; the way people live their lives day to day. My worldview recognizes the importance of advocacy and participatory engagement, so I often analyze policies and their outcomes from a perspective of postmodernism and critical race theory. My struggle with this issue is not new or revolutionary. I believe many people deal with similar issues daily. There have been occasions when, as a member of an elected board, I had to vote against something I had advocated for on a neighborhood level. An example being whether the City of Flagstaff should sell either reclaimed or potable water to the Arizona Snowbowl for making artificial snow.

As a community activist, I understood jobs would be created directly benefiting residents and businesses in neighborhoods I served in my activist role. Yet, a site being considered sacred to sovereign Indigenous nations surrounding our community outweighed job creation benefits. As a city council member, I understood using potable water for recreation purposes would be irresponsible because city water engineers have told us that, within 20 years, the northern Arizona region will face severe water shortages. Additionally, I had to consider the cost of approximately $500 million to break the contract with the Arizona Snowbowl originally signed by a prior council. As an elected official responsible for the city’s combined/cumulative financial resources, I had to consider what, even if the City had $500 million to break the contract (which it did not), was the highest, best, and most appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.

Another issue I had in choosing which hat to wear involved timing. When I started this process, I was halfway through my first four-year term in council. In politics, re-election is never guaranteed; the political climate in Arizona is uncertain at best. At that time, in the City of Flagstaff and greater Coconino County, there were only two elected officials who were not registered Democrats (I was an unaffiliated candidate). Some groups viewed me as a conservative (for example, I was endorsed by the Northern Arizona Homebuilders Association and the Northern Arizona Association of Realtors) while other groups considered me to be very liberal (endorsed by the Sierra Club in the same election). In truth, my political ideology is most closely a centrist. I vote on the issue, not the party or the special interest group. While this platform got me initially elected to office, there was no guarantee I would remain in office. There were people who felt I needed to pick a side, and who did not like that my decisions are not predictable based on a single line of thought. Some people and groups in the community were supportive of my pursuit of a doctorate in sustainability education, while other individuals and entities (e.g., the Chamber of Commerce) worried my interest in sustainability would mean I was not committed to business success and economic vitality.

As a council member, I had access to information regarding governmental policies and procedures I lacked access to as a layperson or activist. There was simply no guarantee I would remain a politician throughout the tenure of the doctoral program. I was concerned that if I decided to approach my research question as a politician then lose reelection, I might be unable to complete the task without starting over. I had been a community activist and organizer for over 25 years so my mindset when I started this journey was, “I may not always be an elected official, but I will forever be a community activist.”

Over time, and four election cycles, my mindset changed. I have evolved as a person and no longer identify as a community activist. Instead, I identify as an elected official and understand being an elected official depends on a successful outcome in an election every two years; I continue to wonder if I will win the next election. Despite this very natural concern, it does not drive my policy decisions. I always tried to act as a statesman, putting the needs of my community and its citizens first. I believe there is real value in exploring the distinct differences between activists and statesmen, and how they map to the differences between activism and the creation of sound policy.

The Creation Story of an Activist—the Story of Coral Jean Dorsey

When I was young, I remember listening to my grandparents, my mom, and other family members and their friends talk about THE PAST, about how things had gotten better, better than before, better than the way they used to be. They would talk about how lucky my brother Ben and I were to have been born when we were. When you are a child, sometimes you don’t know the difference between the past (meaning time) and the past (an actual place or location). I can remember sitting at the kitchen table (in the house where I currently live) helping pick and clean pinto or green beans, and hearing the stories about fear, about hate, about sadness, and tears. Even today, I can remember thinking to myself, no matter what…no matter what, I never wanted to go visit that place called THE PAST because THE PAST seemed truly terrifying. When I was about 10 years old, I came home from school one day and told my mom I had decided to become an Air Force test pilot when I grew up (about the time the movie “Top Gun” came out). I wanted nothing more in life than to fly a plane. My mom, in the kitchen with my grandma cleaning string peas, started laughing. She told me I would be a good pilot, BUT she felt I would make a much better lawyer because I liked to argue so much.

During our conversation, it came out that she had always wanted to be an attorney. Being a child, I asked why she decided to be a schoolteacher instead. I have never forgotten her answer:

I was born in 1938, a black woman, poor, on the Southside of the tracks. It was never expected for me to finish high school. When I did graduate, two years early, (the youngest high school graduate in Flagstaff at the time), I wanted to go to law school. In THE PAST, the only choices I had were to get married and raise a family, become a housekeeper, or become a teacher. So, I became a teacher.

That's the way it was in THE PAST. My mother was a great teacher. She taught kindergarten through 3rd grade for 15 years, until walking across the newly-waxed floor in her classroom (in the 2-inch heels female teachers were required to wear at the time) she slipped and broke her back. She was permanently disabled and never taught again.

I tell this story because, when she told it to me, it was the first time I began to realize THE PAST my grandmother and mom talked about was not a place in some far away land, but experiences, true experiences, LIFE experiences. They were things that had happened to them personally, they had witnessed or seen, and were limitations placed on them, as women, by society. I have never forgotten what she said to me that day and think that single conversation with my mom is what shaped my worldview and beliefs about equality, democracy, fairness, and justice (or the lack thereof). Today, I live in the house where that conversation took place, the house my grandfather built on the southside of the tracks in a historically segregated neighborhood in Flagstaff, AZ, at the base of the San Francisco Peaks, the land of the Hopi, Dińe, Havasupai, Zuni, and Apache People. A land sacred to 13 indigenous tribes. When I grew up, I became an activist, a community builder, and advocate; a rebel with a cause and a passion to change the world.

The Activist Me

My mother was tenacious in her attitude that her children (my brother and I) would grow up to be successful. This contradicted society’s labels and norms of the time for children who came from broken, single-head-of-household families growing up in poverty. I remember her sitting with Ben after an incident and declaring she was “not raising a black man for the white man’s prison.” Her philosophy was, “there was nothing I could not do in life and whatever I chose to do I needed to do with conviction, fully focused on its achievement with all my heart and soul.” Along with that belief, she and my grandparents imprinted on me the notion that no one makes it in life solely on their own, without the help of others and the community in which they live. They taught me everyone, even those thought to be the most successful, had help to get to where they were. My grandfather instilled the belief that personal responsibility was important and includes not only to oneself (actions and behavior) but also to one’s community. My hockey coach furthered that ideal with his insistence that a team is only as strong as its weakest player. As a community organizer, and as mayor, I strongly believe my city is only as strong as its weakest neighborhood. It is from these influences, my grandparent, mother, and coach, I tend to think of personal, social, and community development in terms of “we,” “us,” and “team” rather than “me,” “you,” and “them.” I actively seek out ways to create teams whether it is for my own personal development or the (re)development of a neighborhood. I find the strength of everyone combined equates to a higher level of success in most endeavors.

The Politician Me

First elected in 2008 as a City of Flagstaff Council member, I was re-elected to the City Council in 2012 and appointed Vice-Mayor. In 2016, I ran for Mayor, was elected, then re-elected as Mayor in 2018. In 2020 I ran for the State Representative in Legislative District 6 (LD6 encompasses four Arizona counties: Apache, Coconino, Gila, and Navajo) but lost because Coconino County votes were split between two candidates: one endorsed by the Democratic Party (myself), and the other running as an Independent. Together our votes could have unseated an incumbent who many considered to be obstructionist and out of touch with voters in my district. It was a difficult lesson to learn, but serendipity intervened, and I was selected to be     the Northern Arizona Director for U.S. Senator Mark Kelly. Now I serve  and support the four Arizona counties in District 6, in addition to Mohave County. In some respects, it is hard to determine exactly where and how I made the shift from community activist to politician. So, I can’t help but wonder if they, activists and former colleagues, are right when they say the way I look at issues has changed.

During the summer of 2020, I was asked if I thought office and lobby sit-ins, such as the ones young people were using on Capitol Hill, create change. Ironically, I sadly responded, “no, not as much as you might wish to think.” I once used the exact same tactics because I was taught to believe they did create change. Now I am not so sure. I wonder whether the world has a continued need for old school activists, such as I used to be? What is the role of such a person now, in a world that seems to believe clicking “like,” sharing a meme, or verbally assaulting someone of a different belief on Facebook is a form of protest or an action? I am often told “it’s all about technology” and “social media is the tool that will save the world.” When I counter these tropes, I feel old and outdated.

I have always considered myself an activist, a community builder (a term made popular by former President Obama), a guardian, so to speak, of my street, my people, my neighborhood, and my town. Since being elected Flagstaff Mayor in 2016, I have contemplated whether that vision of myself is more a distant memory than actual reality. When asked to comment on the behavior and actions of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a newly elected councilmember, both young, dynamic politicians who clearly define themselves as activists first and politicians second, I say, “in general, they are ineffective at moving the conversations they bring to the forefront, going from hashtag to impactful public policy.”

Defining the Personality Types

The Activist

The first-recorded mainstream use of the word “activist” that I found appeared between 1905 and 1910 when used to describe the activities of those advocating Sweden’s abandonment of neutrality during World War I. The word “active” was combined with “ist” thus creating the word activist (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.). Used as a noun, the definition of an "activist" is: “an especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause, especially a political cause” (, n.d.). Learning For Justice (n.d.) (formerly Teaching Tolerance) defines an activist as, “a person who works to change a community, aiming to make it a better place.” Some believe the word was also used by philosophers much earlier in the century, extending the usage beyond politics. In general, when the word activist is used to describe someone, it is in the context of passionately advocating for or opposing a cause or issue that is political in nature. It might be, given the political climate both nationally and abroad, we gravitate toward an assumption that everything is political; and therefore, as a society, view most "activist" activity in a political light. It is important we pause to acknowledge there is nonpolitical activism (activity by individuals) taking place at a very basic, organic, grassroots level. It is also important to mention the word activist is often considered a pejorative term in the United States and other countries.

Non-Political Activism – the story of Eugenio Urbino

While this discussion and my question are focused on political activism, I wanted to highlight Eugénio Urbino and his work as an example of nonpolitical community activism. Nonpolitical community activism is not something often thought about or noted by our society.

An immigrant from Mexico, Eugénio has been in the United States for 30 years. Twenty-seven of those thirty years Eugénio has lived in one neighborhood, the Sunnyside neighborhood in Flagstaff, AZ. Despite his longevity in the community, he only became actively involved in the area about seven years ago when asked to help during the remodeling of a building to function as a neighborhood, micro-entrepreneurial, incubator project. He and his partner were asked to install the tile flooring in the facility. He transformed from openly stating that he did not care about his neighborhood, to admitting his neighborhood was important to him throughout the project. He has continued to volunteer with the project beyond the initial request to assist with the floors stopping by the building weekly to check if any maintenance work is needed, helping with plumbing and painting. The help he has provided at the incubator could be considered political, as the model promotes small business ownership to eliminate generational poverty. Still, he is unequivocal that he is not an activist of any kind. Indeed, it would appear the word activist has a negative connotation for him. He says, "I am helping my community," rejecting any attempts to label the work he is doing, his actions, or motives for helping.

When activism is noted and talked about, it is most often framed as political. I felt it necessary to mention this type of community engagement and involvement, which is not political. I believe there are others like Eugénio, who directly engage in the betterment of their communities who do not use a political lens to do so. I believe we need to acknowledge not every act of activism is related to a change in a governmental policy or is tied to voting. Sometimes all that is needed is for someone in the community to assist with changing conditions at the grassroots level.

The Politician

“Politics is a way societies compromise, negotiate, share in dialogue, and comprehend past and present behaviors while preparing for the future for a very broad and diverse citizenry of people” (Flores et al. 2021). Putnam (2016) described political involvement as attending a public meeting, participating in a rally or speech, or joining a local organization. As one gets more deeply involved in the democratic process, one learns organizing skills, gains institutional knowledge, and understands how their voice can influence issues. The Merriam-Webster (n.d.a) definition of politician is: “someone experienced in the art or science of government, especially one actively engaged in conducting government business and/or a person engaged in party politics as a profession.” While the definitions provided by Flores et al and Merriam-Webster are not precisely the same, all three contain a root similarity; they point to engagement, organization. All three definitions seem to imply the work being done is on behalf of people or communities, not conducted solely for oneself.

Where does “Statesman” fit in?

The titles “politician” and “statesman” are sometimes used interchangeably but typically are thought of as different things. While Merriam-Webster (n.d.b) defines a statesman as “one versed in the principles or art of government especially one actively engaged in conducting the business of a government or in shaping its policies and/or a wise, skillful, and respected political leader" as mentioned in Chapter 1, I have developed a modernized definition of statesman.

Working in politics, I see the differences between the two—differences the public sees also. When I asked Joe Ray, Board Chair for the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association of Flagstaff, Inc. (SNA), if there was a difference between the two, he said “politicians are worried about elections and statesmen about the future.” Óscar Arias was also clear about the difference, saying, “A typical politician is that person who tells people what people want to hear, while the statesman tells people what people need to know.”

General Systems Theory

The general systems theory (GST) is the study of systems in an interdisciplinary fashion, all parts of the system, natural or human-made, and its interrelated and interdependent parts. Systems theory comes from the term general system theory, which originated from Dr. Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy (Market Business News, n.d.; ScienceDirect, n.d.), an Austrian biologist, who formulated the idea of interacting components, which was applicable to biology, cybernetics, and other fields. His ideas were widely accepted and continue to be used in mathematics, psychology, biology, game theory, and social network analysis.

General system theory, therefore, is a general science of wholeness. ... The meaning of the somewhat mystical expression, ‘The whole is more than the sum of its parts’ is simply that constitutive characteristics are not explainable from the characteristics of the isolated parts. The characteristics of the complex, therefore, appear as new or emergent.

— Ludwig von Bertalanffy, circa 1950 (“Introduction to Systems Theory in Social Work,” 2020)

I believe statesmanship requires an individual to have a world-centric view, which requires balancing four areas. One must have their basic needs met (food, water, shelter) and be grounded or rooted in a sense of the community they serve or seek to serve. The individual should have a relationship with the community (including the people within it) to better understand the heart of the community's issues and concerns. The individual should recognize the difference between the community's needs and its wants as well as what the community considers to be core values (what is non-negotiable) and why. Understanding a community's interior and exterior influences is also important as is how those might change depending on the issue at hand.

It struck me that there is an issue in governance, particularly in the elected office, that goes largely unnoticed, one of pay. I thought back to a conversation I had had with a previous mayor regarding the hardship she was experiencing in meeting her basic needs. She was trying to fulfill Flagstaff's desire (and need) to have a full-time mayor. However, when contrasted with the cost of living, the mayor's salary could not allow someone only to work one job. In researching the individuals who had filled the role before her, it soon became apparent they had all been retired with a sustainable source of income, which, with the mayor's salary, allowed them to serve in a full-time capacity. Shortly after that conversation, she returned to the private sector as an attorney, no longer focusing solely on mayoral duties. I experienced the same issue upon becoming mayor, the need to meet the community's expectation of a full-time mayor while being paid an unlivable wage. I performed contract work for a nonprofit that could be done at home during "off hours," supplemented by employment at a bar from 9 pm till 3 am. The mayor working in a bar was not an idea everyone was supportive of and some felt inappropriate. Yet, some of the same individuals who were unsupportive of raising the salary for the mayor and Council were the same activists championing the need for a local $15 an hour minimum wage. The necessity of raising the compensation for the mayor and Council is something I was outspoken about, insufficient pay, not paying a fair wage for the work, means the ability to govern (lead) is not accessible to all. Only the independently wealthy or those with income from other sources, such as spouses or pensions (e.g., retired from corporate jobs), can run for council. Those individuals do not reflect the diversity of the community they represent. I view this as a fundamental problem with the structure of governance in this country. As an activist, I often commented on the lack of diversity (in race and ethnicity but also lived experiences, previous work experience, formal and informal education, and the neighborhoods in which our city's leadership came from). It was not until being elected I understood at least one reason why diversity was lacking.

Flagstaff's Proposition 414 Initiative for a Living Wage

The minimum wage has become a topic of particular interest for Flagstaff voters and residents in recent years, sparking much debate and discussion. It represents a complex issue involving multiple stakeholders, including Flagstaff voters, employees, business owners, the City Council, citizen interest groups, and the state legislature. This case study provides an overview of Flagstaff's minimum wage by reviewing the timeline of relevant events and contextualizing the actions and reactions of the various stakeholders involved.

The case study found the minimum wage issue highly emotional. As someone who grew up in poverty, I was unsurprised: money is an emotional topic. Minimum wages are complex, especially for a city with a cost of living approximately 150% above the national average and a housing shortage. Other items intersecting with the minimum wage conversation included general economic health and trends, sales tax, affordable housing, and workforce development.

I was a city councilmember running for mayor when the community first initiated the discussion whether to raise the minimum wage and to what level if raised, $12 or $15 an hour, came up several times during the debate. I supported workers being paid fairly; however, given the complexity of affordable living in Flagstaff, I did not favor a minimum wage higher than the rest of the state. I felt a $15/hr minimum wage would negatively impact individuals who could least afford it. In speaking with the activists leading the effort to raise the minimum wage (including a council member at the time), I questioned how the group arrived at $15.00 per hour in relation to what was needed to live in Flagstaff. I even felt the proposition's name was misleading as it contained the words "living wage" when $15/hour is not a living wage in Flagstaff, AZ; prior studies indicated $25-$28/hour was a living wage for Flagstaff. I noted the Federal and state poverty-level guidelines needed to be adjusted before raising the minimum wage as people would no longer qualify for the government assistance they would still need, especially for housing, food, education, and healthcare. The activists were impatient, not wanting to raise the poverty-level guidelines before changing the minimum wage. The response of the council member leading the effort for the local minimum wage was, "in every war, there are casualties we just need to accept." I responded, "the casualties were people who looked like me and not her. People like me, who had been working since the age of 13 to help their families to pay rent.” She had no response while other activists accused me of not caring about minimum wage workers and forgetting about where I came from due to my stance on the issue. In general, most people who spoke up against the local minimum wage increase were targeted as “anti-worker” and supporting local poverty. Activist groups targeted local small-business owners who spoke up against it, primarily independent restaurants owners, holding demonstrations and encouraging people to boycott.

I was elected mayor in the same election in which Prop 414 was voted into law. The state minimum wage changed to $12, and locally to $15. What ensued has been challenging to experience and watch. Given issues with both citizen propositions passing simultaneously, the city council furthered the local proposition, increasing the local minimum wage to 15.50 per hour and extending the timeline for full implementation. Had the council not taken that action, the city’s minimum wage would have increased by $6 in six months. Since passage of the local minimum wage increase, rents have steadily risen annually with most landlords pointing to the increased cost of labor associated with the minimum wage rise. The average cost of a two-bedroom apartment in Flagstaff is $1,800. Food is also more expensive. Most small businesses have fewer employees and many employees report having hours cut to part-time (24 hours or less a week).

While larger companies (e.g., Walmart, Target, etc.) had been turning to automation to address the increase in labor costs, the advancement of such practices was accelerated in Flagstaff according to managers at those businesses. This equates to fewer jobs and fewer hours for those who are employed. Headstart, which provides free preschool for low-income families, reports some families no longer qualify for services by being $20 above the income guidelines when private preschool in the city costs between $280 and $400 a week per child. The State of Arizona refuses to reimburse disability-service providers at the higher rate due to the increase in the minimum wage leading at least five group homes to relocate to other cities, taking their clients away from the community they grew up in. There is also an issue of compaction. As the minimum wage went to $15.50, many smaller organizations and businesses, nonprofits and "mom-and-pop" shops, were unable to raise the salary of current workers. Most "middle income" workers did not get a pay increase yet face an increased cost of living in the community.

[new title]

Because of my work on behalf of the neighborhoods, the neighborhood residents asked me to run for office, the residents who I helped organize put me in office. During my first term the perception was I only cared about neighborhood concerns. I had to continually educate others on the council that neighborhood concerns included water rates, small business matters, workforce issues, housing, the paving of streets, and how police treat all residents, not just those who lived in a particular neighborhood. During my first term on council, I identified and functioned as an activist. I refused to use my title of councilmember primarily because actions at the statewide level, such as SB 1070 and others, I found to be anti-community and embarrassing. I discovered if you introduced yourself as an elected official, the reception was very different than if you introduced yourself as an activist or a community builder. It seemed activists and community builders were trusted when elected officials were not.

At the beginning of my second term on council, I had the opportunity to be part of a statewide, civic-leadership fellowship. After discussion with others from around the state, I then decided to start leading with my elected official title. I made the shift because I, along with the others who had been part of the conversation, decided to model the behaviors we expect from those elected to serve us. Doing so would show people there were elected officials who heard, understood, and cared about the community; that not all elected officials in Arizona functioned like Sheriff Joe or Governor Brewer. During this time, I realized that, while I had been successful as an activist in changing conditions in the neighborhoods I supported, I was not experiencing the same success while serving on the council. I had managed to stop some things from happening, but I had not managed to change policy in the way I had wished. I started watching my fellow council members and soon observed some were very effective in advancing thoughts and ideas into policies resulting in systemic change when others were not. The successful ones were not approaching the problems in the same fashions as the activists. This difference caught my attention in 2014 with the proposed Arrowhead Trailer Park Rezoning Case. Indeed, as an activist, I helped the community stop a developer, but the park was ultimately closed and families displaced, which moved me to run for mayor. I decided then I would not move forward as an activist but as someone who would consider the issue at hand in its totality, seeking to make the best decision for the community, the community as a whole, I was elected to serve. I committed to my colleagues and the community publicly, the night I was sworn in as mayor, I would listen with the intention of understanding and always be the last to speak during discussions at the dais. My promise of always being the last to speak at the dais was set aside only twice in four years when I spoke first at council's request.

I believe activists are a critical part of society’s ecosystem. They work on specific issues often affecting a particular group with a specific outcome in mind. Their work in calling attention to and addressing society’s inequities and faults is invaluable. The world needs more people dedicated to addressing an issue and committed to seeing it managed to completion.

However, through my lived experience as both an activist and an elected official, I have learned, while activists and elected officials use many of the same tools, there is no activism in statesmanship. Indeed, an elected official should not and cannot do their job using the lens of an activist, and when they choose to do so, they do so to the exclusion of the whole and at the expense of those for which the assistance is being sought. I think successful and effective activists do, at times, use statesman-like strategies, for example, negotiating and compromising when appropriate. We compromised and negotiated with city, council, and state leadership in the work of Sunnyside and Southside neighborhoods. We established long-lasting relationships with police officers. Still, we held fast to our belief that our voices mattered and we had a right to be heard. As a prior activist, I have to say there is something powerful and beautiful in being part of or witnessing a group of people who believe in something so completely that they refuse to yield, bend, or compromise. At the same time, having been a part of such a group, I can tell you rigidness has, at times, had disastrous results. It comes down to knowing when to compromise and negotiate, and with whom, and when not to.

Having served in both roles, I would say there is a difference in the power structures experienced by activists and elected officials. As an activist, I did not have all the information, often I only had one side of the story. I did not know why something was the way that it was, I only knew it was wrong or did not work favorably for those whom I was fighting for. Often activists do not know there is a state or federal law prohibiting something or why the local government is slow to enact a change demanded by their local community. It is fair to say activists do not have all the information, but in saying that, we need to acknowledge elected officials have relatively easy access to the information required to form a complete picture of a situation. Elected officials often have a team of staff, including a city manager and other leadership members, various subject matter experts, who know the history of the issue and attorneys who can provide legal insight and help with understanding the framework in which decisions need to be made. In general, activists do not have that, they only have their lived experience, current conditions, and what is happening right now. As an elected official, I was on camera every Tuesday with the opportunity to make a statement instantly picked up by the press assigned to follow me. As an activist, I had to march, conduct sit-ins, and hold rallies to bring attention to my cause. I think activists and elected officials have very different tools at their disposal, which is most likely the primary reason why they do things differently. I had to learn that once I became an elected official. While I could hold a rally to bring attention to an issue, it was much quicker for me to bring it up at the dais, garner the support of fellow councilmembers, and move it forward that way.

Lastly, in reflection, I want to say there is a nuance I believe key in understanding the differences between the two roles, empathy. As an activist, I had tremendous sympathy for the group or issue I was supporting. In each case, I was directly impacted by or a member of the afflicted group. It was personal to me. I had no tolerance or empathy for differing opinions, no matter how well versed, well-meaning, knowledgeable, or articulated. I was focused on a specific outcome and determined to achieve it. Being sympathetic to a cause often equates to behaviors the mayors and vice-mayors mentioned, for example, the burning of bridges that might be needed later. Statesmen do not operate from a sense of sympathy, but rather empathy. By understanding what those standing before you, and those not at the meeting, are experiencing and how the broader society views the issue, one can make decisions for the good of the entire community. That is the critical difference between activism and statesmanship and why it is rare, if at all, one person can successfully be both. Although skills and practices may overlap, the roles of activist and statesman are fundamentally different, for good reason, and both are needed. Generally, activists seek to change a condition while statesmen seek to understand why the need exists and address it to the benefit of all. Activists typically focus on a specific topic or particular issue, while statesmen look at the whole.

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Through my course of study, I learned that within the ecosystem of society's governance, the activist, the politician, and the statesman are all necessary. The relationship between the activist and politician is often intertwined and blurred making it difficult to separate the two. Individuals who understand how to use a foundation including elements of both the activist and politician seem to transcend to the level of a statesman. It is as if the first two can assist in creating the third. This realization created more questions I would like to explore. Why do some leaders, those considered exceptional activists and politicians, never fully evolve into statesmen? Can a society grow a statesman or can it only happen in an organic sense?

As my research found, there is a nuance at the heart of the fundamental difference between the role of activist and statesman, empathy (Kisling, n.d.). What was clear is, to be a statesman one must be able to empathize with others, even those you might not agree with, align with, or may never have met. Sympathy is the ability to understand something through your perspective, usually by firsthand personal knowledge and experience. Empathy involves seeing oneself in the shoes of the other and actively seeking to understand why they are feeling or behaving a certain way. It is about wanting to know the root cause of the situation. Sympathy is rooted in judgment; empathy is not. As such, I am now interested in the concept of empathy and whether it can be taught. I question if empathy is an innate skill or one that can be developed? If a developable skill, how? Through a series of events, exposure to different types of diversity, or simply over time? Is this the reason why we have so few statesmen?

Brown, A. & Atske, S. (2021, January 22). Black Americans have made gains in U.S. political leadership, but gaps remain. Pew Research Center. Retrieved February 10, 2021, from

Flores, W., V., Rogers, K. S., Bush, N., Alger, J. R., Bensel, T., Bezette-Flores, N., Boyte, H. C., Buberger, A., Carcasson, M., Casale, F. M. M., Creighton, S., Cruzado, W., Dastmozd, R., Decatur, S., Drumm, K., Goldberg, A., Gonzalez, A., Lawrence, W. Y., Lee, O., . . . Wilson, D. (2021). Democracy, Civic Engagement, and Citizenship in Higher Education: Reclaiming Our Civic Purpose. Lexington Books.

Putnam, F. W. (2016). The Way We Are: How States of Mind Influence Our Identities, Personality and Potential for Change. Ipbooks.

ScienceDirect. (n.d.). General Systems Theory. Retrieved January 16, 2021, from

Statesman facts for kids. (2021, July 16). Kiddle Encyclopedia. Retrieved December 28, 2021 from

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