To mark International Women’s Day, a panel at Harvard Kennedy School explored the experiences of women city leaders. Hosted by the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University and co-sponsored by the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership (CPL) and Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP), panelists discussed effective public governance amidst gender-related challenges. 

The panel featured Judith Tukahirwa Tumusiime MPA 2018, former deputy executive director of Kampala, Uganda, Michelle De La Isla MC/MPA 2023, former mayor of Topeka, Kansas, and Carmen Yulín Cruz, former Mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, who reflected on navigating highly charged governance situations—environmental disasters, political corruption, and racially-motivated violence—while remaining focused on solution-oriented leadership. Hannah Riley Bowles, the Roy E. Larsen Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Management at the Kennedy School and co-director of CPL and WAPPP, moderated the discussion.  

The event was also marked by two important announcements: the launch of ambitious new research in partnership with leading scholars from 8 universities to investigate violence against women leaders in the United States, and a new set of teaching cases featuring women city leaders.  

Judith Tumusiime.

“When you’re doing the right thing, you’re not scared.”

Judith Tumusiime

The panelists discussed barriers to organizational trust, power distribution, and the narrow margin for error afforded to public leaders, and especially women and people of color. 

Tumusiime, who shut down Kampala’s biggest factory after discovering extensive water pollution, talked about her decision to stand firm against pressure from elements of the national government, other politicians, and business leaders who, she argued, were prioritizing financial gain over public health and safety. “The institutions that were supposed to be managing the pollution failed because of political interference,” she said. For Tumusiime, the experience was a lesson on moral leadership. “When you’re doing the right thing, you’re not scared,” she said. Her decisions are explored in the teaching case “A Difficult Lady.” 

De La Isla, who was elected as Topeka’s first Latina mayor in 2018, recalled how the COVID-19 pandemic and 2020 murder of George Floyd eroded public trust in local government and sowed division among community members with polarizing views on interventions to end police brutality. “There was a lot of scar tissue created in the community,” she told the audience. “In situations like this there are no winners. We talk about George Floyd and his death like ‘Oh my God, that happened’ but it has been happening in Black communities in this country always.” 

Panelists smiling and posing for a photo.

As an alumna of the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, as well as of HKS’s mid-career program, De La Isla recalled how she incorporated training on cross-boundary collaboration and lessons from her early career in community organizing to promote unity among groups. “The greatest act of leadership is the selflessness of understanding that you don’t have to be the star.  You have to be willing to give people the power and the tools in order for them to shine. Your job is to be earnest enough to know what you don’t know, lean on the people that do, and let them go. Then magic happens in your community.”   

She also noted the pressures of leading as a person of color and the fragility of advancements in representation. “As women of color we carry an understanding that if I mess up, I mess up for women who look like me because everyone is judging the rest of us by the first of us,” De La Isla said. 

Cruz negotiated response and recovery efforts to lead San Juan through two hurricanes—Maria and Irma—in 2017, as well as two earthquakes in 2020. The teaching case “The Center of the Storm”  allows students to examine her decisions.  

Reflecting on the importance of engaging community members in her rescue agenda, Cruz shared, “You have to trust people because you can’t be everywhere at once. I had to learn the humbling lesson that I wasn’t ‘it.’ I was in service of the people that were it.”  

Carmen Yulín Cruz.

“You have to trust people because you can’t be everywhere at once. I had to learn the humbling lesson that I wasn’t ‘it.’ I was in service of the people that were it.”

Carmen Yulín Cruz

Cruz also spoke about leveraging cultural and situational awareness in leadership. “Puerto Rico is a machista society, but when there’s a crisis, women rule,” she said. She recalled visiting affected communities and asking young men who was in charge. “It would [often] be an older woman, and not a finger would move unless she said it would move. I learned very quickly that I could be mayor of San Juan, but she was the mayor of that place,” Cruz joked. 

In their closing remarks, the panelists prompted audience members to view leadership as an ethos as well as a position. 

“When an opportunity arises, show up,” asserted Tumusiime. “Leadership is at every level. Make that influence at any level.” 

“Be relentless in pursuit of what you think is right. Your future is what you carve with tools you’ve been given,” shared Cruz. 

“Leadership is a journey of service. Be who you are, lead loudly and take the chance,” De La Isla challenged. 

Despite their varied leadership crucibles, the panelists were unanimous in their final plea to audience members: run for office. And an unabashed addendum from Cruz: “when you run, run to win.” 

Michelle De La Isla.

“The greatest act of leadership is the selflessness of understanding that you don’t have to be the star. You have to be willing to give people the power and the tools in order for them to shine.”

Michelle De La Isla

The event also served to announce two important initiatives. While women’s leadership in local governments has reached unprecedented levels, women elected officials in the United States are three times more likely to experience harassment than men, with disproportionate effects on women of color. Globally, women seeking elected office also face heightened risk of targeted attacks. The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative will lead research into violence against women leaders in the United States. Located at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative is a yearlong program which equips mayors and city leaders to tackle complex challenges for their residents.  

Bloomberg Center Director Jorrit de Jong explained that the research “will fill a major gap in scholarship about the nature and scale of violence against women mayors and the effectiveness of interventions to mitigate it.” Among the Initiative’s research partners are two Kennedy School faculty members: Assistant Professors Justin de Benedictis-Kessner and Yanilda González. 

The Initiative also launched a teaching case set featuring women leaders. The cases, several of which feature panelists Tumusiime and Cruz, highlight public management triumphs from diverse and often overlooked protagonists, including people of color and leaders from the global south.  

Women City Leaders: Success and Challenges | Panel Discussion

Event photography by Hannah Osofsky

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