Interview with Tennessee Alderman Michele Mitchell
Get Over It, Get Elected, and Get to Work
Aundrea Y. Wilcox generously contributed an interview with a leader for her participation in VoteRunLead’s web clinic Deciding to Run: 10 Things You Need to Know on May 23, 2016. Here is her interview with one of the leaders she admires most, Alderwoman of Kingsport, Tennessee, Michele Mitchell.
Michele Mitchell has lived in the Kingsport area for over 40 years. She and her husband Mark, have been married for 23 years and have two grown children. Logan, 22 and Connor, 20. Michele attended East Tennessee State University, where she studied Surgical Technology. After a couple of years working in the field at Holston Valley Medical Center, and becoming a new mother, Michele was diagnosed with breast cancer. This event in her life shaped her to take more action.
In 2015 Michele campaigned and won an alderman seat in her home town of Kingsport, Tennessee.
Q: What inspires you? What are you passionate about?
A: Seeing people living lives that are valued, and knowing that they are significant—and being empowered by who they are. Our family shares a vision of living a life of significance by adding value to others. It inspires me when I am with a group of people who share that belief and are confident in that, and hearing their dreams, and knowing that by networking together we are making those dreams come to life. I enjoy watching groups come together to achieve something greater than what can be done alone in silos.
Q: Do you have a political hero?
A: I do. Actually this question is an interesting one. It has changed over time. Margaret Thatcher comes to mind easily. I love that she is known for being the Iron Lady. She started down her career path fairly young. Whether people liked her or not, they respected that she was fearless in her answers—even if she rubbed some people the wrong way. She has been a hero of mine for a long time.
However, with the recent work that I have done in the mission field around the Chicago area in particular (Dolton, Illinois), Mayor Riley Rogers stands out. Mayor Rogers has taught me to see prosperity in everything. He doesn’t see problems, he sees possibilities. Dolton has a population of around 30,000. Like many communities, they were booming until the recession hit. With hard times came blighted areas, crime and gang activity. Rather than blame the communities’ problems on external issues, Mayor Rogers decided the people deserved belief and started “Project Connect” and a “My Beloved Community Campaign,” which consisted of a series of conversations and coffees with the Mayor and hometown residents. He opened himself up to conversations with the public. That is what struck me, and I was lucky to be a part of that. With the momentum of these programs, I started networking and pulling some of the local nonprofits together to help. Once I got to work, I saw great things happening to the people and surrounding areas. I realized that my passion was truly community development.
This localized hands on experience with real people changed my perspective and my definition of what is a hero. Heroes are local people just like you and me. When we see something wrong, we set out to fix it.
Q: What was the biggest hurdle that you faced running for office?
A: At first, I created my own hurdles. I told myself repeatedly that I didn’t have all of those “things” that my political heroes had. And, since I hadn’t been a part of every initiative, perhaps I was not qualified or equipped to take on such a high-profile, high-responsibility role. Ultimately, however, I realized that I had every reason to run for office. I was smart, I had real-world experience in many walks of life, and I wanted to add value to people. I looked myself in the mirror and questioned whether I had a desire to change my community and a real passion for people. Suddenly, my mind was made up. Next, I turned my thoughts into action, and now I am making a difference and walking in my gifts.
I realized that I had every reason to run for office. I was smart, I had real-world experience in many walks of life, and I wanted to add value to people.
Another hurdle was getting the public engaged—making them care enough to want change. If I wanted to win, I knew I had to get over any reluctance to go door-to-door. Once you admit it to yourself (that you want to run), you have to convince others to get out and vote for you. You are not going to accomplish that sitting behind a desk. You have to get out in the community. You have to speak in public. You have to take a stand and be able to articulate your position.
Simply put: you have to get over a lot of self-doubt and get elected, so you can get to work.
Q: How did you assemble your team?
A: I had a great team. That was because of being engaged and doing life with other people. Being an active part of the community has been a way of life for so long. A lot of people on my team have known me for 15 plus years, and they themselves are very involved in the community. They knew both sides—from community member to difference maker. They knew what the needs of the community were, and several of them are business owners—which provides another entirely different perspective. My pastor was part of my team. He knew the spiritual undertone of our city and its appetite for transformation. My team fully knew my strengths and passions, but they also knew where I was weak. So, when they helped me develop my campaign, it was very authentic, and from the core.
Q: What was your fundraising strategy?
A: Most of us are doing this for the first time. I did have a couple of coaches and mentors that I sought counsel from—these people were experienced fundraisers. I also met with quite a few of our past elected officials and asked their advice and experience. What worked with me and my personality wasn’t about trying to find the two or three heavy-hitters. I love engaging with people. So, I would much rather have a meeting with you and talk about how your small five dollar donation could help my campaign. I had several people say that they believed in me so strongly they wanted to take care of signage, so I would not have to worry about that. Others wanted me to have everything I needed for the campaign and asked me specifically what help I needed. I learned that every dollar I raised was like getting a vote, which increased my confidence and belief in myself and what I was doing. Before I ran for office, I hated to ask for money. You can’t be afraid to ask. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Some people even became upset that I did not ask for money, and questioned whether I truly believed they supported me. Receiving contributions was the ultimate affirmation I needed.
You have to get over a lot of self-doubt and get elected, so you can get to work.
Q: What do you think of the VoteRunLead event you attended?
A: I wish that I had had that type of learning and support when I ran for office. My team had to dig deep and really start from scratch. VoteRunLead would give any woman running for office a running start. It took me weeks to figure out things that the VoteRunLead organization shared in three hours and one night. For example, VRL shared an easy formula for crafting a convincing elevator pitch, and how to ask for financial support without feeling guilty.
Not only did VRL share how to’s, the event brought together like-minded women from across the region. I believe there is strength in numbers. The environment VRL created was supportive, resourceful and action-oriented. The women were empowered and inspired—and it wasn’t temporary. VRL is the first place I will refer women who ask me what their next steps should be.
My team fully knew my strengths and passions, but they also knew where I was weak. So, when they helped me develop my campaign, it was very authentic, and from the core.
Q: What do you want to accomplish while in office?
A: Well, it’s been a year and I am still learning. And that’s okay. A city is so complex and there are so many moving parts. No one expects you to know everything immediately. It’s important to know who you are as an individual, so you can figure out where you fit in and truly make the biggest impact. Foremost, I try to maximize the things that we already have. I’ve spent this year just trying to be a part of as many activities as I can. In the short term, I have done a lot of listening and learning. Every city is different.
The environment VoteRunLead created was supportive, resourceful and action-oriented.
For the long term, I would like to see those relationships continue to be cultivated between the multiple diverse groups within our city. I believe the citizens are the biggest asset a community can have, and a strong foundation is the way to create the opportunities for a thriving, healthy and vibrant community. More than anything, I would like to see value created for the current generation, as well as for generations to come.
Q: What are you enjoying the most right now?
A: You can say the word city and you can say the word community, but what makes these up are the people. I have enjoyed getting to know people and how they got here. We have so many stories of people here that we really don’t know. I have just enjoyed that part of my work. Each of us (the Aldermen) are assigned to particular areas. I happen to be assigned to downtown, which I love. That’s where I like to go out to eat. I like the walkability. I have been very excited to work with our Downtown Kingsport Association, and to also partner with PEAK, our young professionals organization. I watch what they are doing and I want to make sure that they are equipped and prepared for the future. I rely on them for feedback and ideas about our future direction.
Q: What are your future plans, beyond being Alderman?
A: I strongly believe in continuing education. Although I’ve already been elected, I plan to go back to school very soon. Because I was diagnosed with breast cancer early on, it precluded me from finishing school at the time—and one great opportunity after another kept coming my way, which took me down another path. I recently visited our academic village, and I have acceptance letters from several institutions to consider. I love this opportunity, because I can see for myself how our system works for nontraditional students and adults who are choosing to return to school. No matter what I’m doing, I will continue to learn new things and be an impetus for change and improvement.
VoteRunLead thanks Aundrea Wilcox and Alderman Michele Mitchell for this interview. See the Web Clinic that inspired Aundrea Wilcox here: