By Sherri L. McLendon
In 2005, at age 33, Asheville native Terry Bellamy was elected the youngest mayor in her hometown’s history. In so doing, she became the city’s first African-American mayor and only the second female to hold the office, sitting the council since 1999. When I met Terry in 2007, I was a former journalist and middle school teacher discouraged by the bleak picture of my financial and professional future. In a brief, inspiring exchange, she encouraged me to broaden my horizons and step into my purpose and passion. Her influence was one of the touchstones on my path of returning to my love of writing and opening the door to my work with women, money and spirit. Terry graciously consented to this interview about her own experiences with the great glass ceiling.
At the time—I was 33 when I first got elected—at that time, I was the youngest mayor Asheville ever had, having beat the previous youngest mayor by 9-10 months, and I was the first African-American and second female.
Asheville’s home to me, and as a native, there were issues I thought were very important and I could help bring them to the forefront, to create awareness, to move our community forward. I was passionate about my hometown, and what I could do, and I wanted to do more. I was sitting on the council and thought we could be doing more as a community, more as a council.
So it was the issues which drove you forward, and not a desire to break the glass ceiling? What kinds of issues drove you forward?
I was interested in pursuing affordable housing, lowering the crime rate in public housing, increasing Asheville’s visibility in the state, working on the water system, and building relationships with elected officials and business leaders. I was thinking about doing a good job, being effective.
Is the glass ceiling still there, or has it broken into millions of pieces?
It’s shattered. In our community, women have an opportunity to take leadership roles, and they’ve taken them. The president of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce is a woman (Kit Cramer; see our profile of her here), the president of University of North Carolina-Asheville is a woman, the UNC-A athletic director is a woman, the Asheville vice mayor is a woman, the Buncombe county manager is a woman. Also, there are a lot of female directors of nonprofits.
Asheville should be proud of herself. Asheville is known to have a legacy of women being successful. The first female elected to the North Carolina state house was Lillian Clement, a 26-year-old woman from Asheville, who was elected in 1920—before she could even vote for herself. (Editor’s Note: Lillian Clement was the first woman to serve in any state legislature in the South. And see WNC woman’s article about her here.)
It’s exciting to note we have a lot of strong women who are successful who are from Asheville.
What advice would you give other women who want to see positive change in governance or otherwise during this time?
It’s vitally important that women support other women. I think when women support other women candidates, we all win. Of course, women candidates work just as hard if not harder than men, they have a lot to do. They also tend to be more balanced in their approach and more willing to hear difference in points of view.
When women support other women, it pushes communities forward. When women take a chance and apply for positions, we make it better, and we give it our all.
When I think about women-owned publications, women-owned businesses and ventures … women have said I’m going to do this, and put my voice out there. Often times as a woman, our voice isn’t heard either in the public or private sectors, but in Asheville, we’ve changed that.
Would you say that collaboration is on the rise where women are concerned?
I’m proud of the collaborations that Asheville has had. If you look at our numbers for 2012-2013, we’ve grown more jobs per capita than any other city in North Carolina. That’s due to the city, chamber, and county in partnership, with women in key leadership positions. Isn’t that telling? Not that men didn’t do a lot of work, they do. But isn’t it telling? I think it’s important. For example, consider Suzanne DeFerie with Asheville Savings Bank and her work
as a board chair with United Way. (See
our profile of her here.) As a banker, she does not stay in her office; she chooses to be a good corporate citizen and collaborate in our community. That speaks volumes. If you look at student internships in the City of Asheville, it’s collaboration.
How can we enhance the quality of collaboration with other public entities and non-profit organizations?
Women who have “made it” may often mentor younger women. Have you had mentors who encouraged you along the way?
I’ve had great female mentors. I recently mentioned Janet Combes, the athletic director at UNC-A. She’s very inspiring. She, like myself, is in a field dominated by males. There are very few female athletic directors in the country, she has volumes of personality, and is a motivating force. She recommends books for me to read, or events for me to attend. That’s an excellent way to help me get to another level of personal development as well as professional development.
How do you spot your mentors?
I look at their level of achievement, their willingness to support me … and consider if they have time to assist me.
Do established women still see younger women as competition?
I don’t think so. A lot of young women are doing remarkable things. I don’t see much competition, I see younger women growing in their field and craft, see opportunities. If mentees are willing to hear me, I’m willing to inspire them to take their career to the next level.
Is there anything important you’d like to add for WNC Woman readers?
One of the things we talk about is taking the limits off how you see yourself and your future. Don’t allow other people to dictate or define what you can do. Find people who believe in you and your dreams and latch onto them. Write out your dreams on a piece of paper, put them before you, look at them on daily basis and work toward them. Don’t allow fear to dictate to you what you can or cannot do. Fear comes. But do it afraid.
Sherri L. McLendon, M.A., owns and operates Professional Moneta International, specializing in mindfulness approaches to marketing public relations and feminine leadership.