Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, March 31, 2017

Mayor’s Council gives ‘oxygen’ to varied ideas

Attorney Katie King was working as senior counsel at EPB Fiber Optics in 2015 when she heard that Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke was organizing a new taskforce to delve into feminist issues.

“As an in-house lawyer for a city agency, I always felt it was really smart to be helpful when asked,” she says. “But I never really involved myself much in local politics or anything that was going on at City Hall.

“I just never felt that was appropriate. I always kind of held myself back. But when this came up, I said, ‘I want to be a part of this. I can’t sit this one out.’”

Launched by Berke soon after his 2015 State of the City Address, the Mayor’s Council for Women is modeled after a long-running state program.

Carol Berz, a Chattanooga attorney, civil rights advocate, and District 6 city council representative, served as chair of the Tennessee Economic Council for Women, which researched and published a number of white papers about pertinent issues and addressed the state legislature at policy hearings.

In 2015, when the state abolished the Council, Berke asked Berz and State Representative JoAnne Favors to establish and co-chair a local Mayor’s Council for Women that would advance the status of women and their families in the Chattanooga area.

Berz and Favors set up six committees – economic opportunity, education, health, history, justice and leadership – and put a call out for female participants from diverse backgrounds, professions and neighborhoods.

“We didn’t know where it was going to take us. We had oxygen and it was time to breathe,” Berz says.

“We asked women to sign up for their areas of interest. We were bipartisan and we didn’t care whether you were Republican, Democrat, tea party or Mickey Mouse Club. We just wanted to deal with women’s issues.

“And there’s never been any discussion of politics. There’s been discussion of issues, which has been just a dream.”

No topic is off-limits, Berz points out.

“We are not beholden to the mayor. We can do anything we want. There is no issue that is forbidden.”

In one of the Council’s first projects, the justice committee urged the Tennessee Legislature to reconsider a law that allowed landlords to evict not just the perpetrator, but the victim, in domestic violence situations.

Working in conjunction with The Women’s Fund of Greater Chattanooga, an advocacy group, the committee was successful in altering the law, enabling victims of partner abuse, who are usually female, to remain in their homes after a domestic assault incident.

In another project, the economic opportunity committee invited women from all walks of life to talk about equal pay, working conditions, the availability of STEM jobs, affordable day care, financial literacy, and other career issues.

One discussion in particular jolted her committee, says committee co-chair King.

“The biggest thing that all of us were taking for granted was transportation, and how much transportation can affect your ability to get a job, to get to work, to keep a job, if you don’t have your own car, or it doesn’t run very well. That led to a whole new committee looking at how we can improve Chattanooga’s transportation system.”

In other matters, the Council’s education committee has focused on the economic, educational and social toll of teen pregnancy and reexamined the topic of sex education – not just abstinence – and healthy relationships in both public and private schools.

Other committees are looking at ways to deliver services to tenants at Patten Towers, researching alternatives to predatory lending and studying court sentencing options for women with mental illnesses.

More than 200 women now participate in the Council. “It’s open to everybody,” says Berz. “We’ve got attorneys. We have physicians. We have steel workers. We have union members. We have stay-at-home moms. We have all ethnic backgrounds—you name it. We have all religions, all races, all sexual orientations.

“They’ve taught me that there’s a beautiful gamut of women in our community and they’re of great value, and that I limit my own life if I don’t get to know and learn from them.

“These meetings are so fun because I get to see bright women of all backgrounds sit and talk, and come up with a succinct issue and then go for it. It’s wonderful to see.”

What’s more, Berz adds, “It is working. I heard the mayor say a lot of these organizations get started and everybody’s rah-rah, and then it dwindles to 40 [participants] and then it dwindles more.

“But this thing’s growing. I think it’s because I’ve put no constraints on them, because the mayor put no constraints on us.”

For King, being a Council leader has allowed her to stretch her mental and creative “muscles.”

“It’s been a great experience for me to get to know my city a little better, to be of service, and to see how that messy, democratic process works,” she explains. “It’s also, frankly, given me a lot of hope in what I think is a time of great fear and uncertainty, politically. I don’t care who you voted for, there’s still a lot of chaos and uncertainty. Even if your [presidential] candidate won, these are still scary times.”

King credits the Mayor’s Council with giving her the confidence to start her own law firm in 2016. “I’m part of a group of over 200 women who are much more than the label put on them,” she says.

“I’ve been able to work with women who I know don’t vote the way I vote, but we can come together to work hard for the good of our entire community, for everybody’s kids. That’s an incredibly valuable and empowering experience.”