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Forging a path for next generation of local government women

by Sean Meyer, Municipal World
in Governance, Leadership, ONLINE FEATURE
November, 2023

Jyoti Gondek: Women of Influence Honourable Mention

Jyoti Gondek made history in 2021 when she was sworn in as Calgary’s 37th mayor. She also became the first woman to ever serve as mayor in the city’s nearly 150-year history. One would think she has become accustomed to the spotlight.

But the spotlight is just where she found herself after being named of one of two honourable mentions for the 2023 Women of Influence in Local Government Award. Gondek joins Velma Morgan, chair of Operation Black Vote Canada, as 2023 honourable mentions. This year’s award recipient is Brampton, Ont., Coun. Rowena Santos.

“Oh my goodness. I’m humbled,” Gondek said. “I can’t believe out of everyone that you could have selected that I was privileged enough to get this honour.

“It’s a good news story to see so many women rising up through the ranks in municipal affairs and doing municipal work. So I am happy to be in such great company.”

Being a Woman of Influence

Being considered a woman of influence is a recognition Gondek calls “a very big responsibility.” But it is also something she has been accustomed to.

It is “absolutely a privilege,” to serve and to do good work in the public sector, Gondek said. Her honourable mention is something she said will serve to reinforce her commitment to speaking up for the change that needs to happen. This includes addressing the housing crisis, building inclusive cities, staying committed to downtown revitalization, and focusing on the creation of a more sustainable city.

Gondek said she never thought of herself as a woman of influence. She does take her mayoral responsibilities “very seriously.” She sees it as both a responsibility and an obligation to keep driving forward the issues she cares about.

Although not focused on her own honour, Gondek said it is important that people – women in particular – are recognized for their accomplishments in the local government sphere. Today’s political climate is not what it was 10 or even five years ago.

A lot of people have taken on significant roles at a time of “incredible uncertainty and a time of incredible polarization.” And these jobs, she said, take a lot out of people. In a world that is so divided, Gondek said celebrating the good work people are doing gives them reason to keep going.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, anytime you have an opportunity to tell someone they’ve done a good job,” she said. “You need to keep telling people that they’re on the right path and that you stand with them and that we can get through this together. That’s ultimately what’s going to build a great society.”

Mentorship of the Next Generation

While celebrating achievement is important, Gondek is perhaps even more enthusiastic about mentoring the next generation of women leaders. When someone comes to her looking for mentorship, or advice, Gondek is eager to share her thoughts.

One of the most important things Gondek said must happen is to normalize the activities and emotions that go along with doing a job in the political realm, as well as having other responsibilities in one’s life.

Gondek said most women are primary caregivers. This applies to older family members or the children in their lives. Most women tend to have many roles that they have to play at any given time. And a lot of times those roles come into conflict with each other.

Gondek said women need to be OK with saying, during a council meeting, that they need to step aside to take a call because they need to care for a parent or a child. Once those types of moments become normalized, women can see a place for themselves.

It is never easy to say that you are fearful of something, Gondek said. In fact, she said women are taught to never say that. They are supposed to be strong. But if women do not come out and say that when they are targeted that it makes them fearful, and that somebody needs to do something about it, things are not going to change.

“When you have to hide the other parts of your life, you’re not going to be an effective leader,” Gondek said. “And I don’t think we will get enough women running and doing really great work if we don’t normalize these things and the emotion that comes with it. It’s hard to wear your heart on your sleeve. It’s hard to push through all of this every day. But the more of us that do it now, I’m very hopeful that generations that come after us won’t have to.”

Trouble in the Public Space

Gondek has found success in several areas over the years. Not only is she a former city councillor, but she is also a successful business owner. Given her own experiences, Gondek knows how difficult the public spaces can be for women. Still, she ran a successful consulting practice for many years before moving into the local government sector.

People often ask her how she finds balance. Her answer has often shocked people. People need to know that, in a role like hers, there is no balance. Women entering the political realm must come to terms with the fact, Gondek said. They need to know they will not have all the time they want for themselves, for their family, for their friends, or for all the things they want to do.

There is not even enough time, Gondek said, to do all the things that someone needs to accomplish as part of the role. So people must learn to prioritize. They must learn to let things go. And the most important perspective she can offer is to always find something in every day that brings you some kind of joy.

“You don’t have the time or the luxury to carve those moments out for yourself,” she said. “So, enjoy the things that you’re doing to the best of your ability.”

Future of Local Government

Gondek sees this as “a very interesting time” in the world of local government. For one thing, she is seeing municipalities rally together in a way she has not seen before.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Big City Mayors’ Caucus has been united in its messaging that municipalities need new funding and financing models. She is seeing that same sense of unity within Alberta, too. Alberta municipalities have rallied together to talk about things that are common to everyone – putting aside longstanding differences to focus on creating stronger communities.

Gondek is also hopeful about answering the big problems facing nearly all municipalities. Whether it is the housing crisis, the opioid epidemic, or the growing issues of affordability, Gondek said she has seen how progress can be made to finding solutions.

She also said people need to look no further than the COVID-19 pandemic to get a sense of hope.

No one expected the pandemic to come when it did and to last as long as it did. And no one had the answers to the many questions being raised during the pandemic. There was “a lot of hesitation,” Gondek said, from provincial governments about how to best proceed. But it was the municipalities that carried the day.

“We were the ones that said, look, the science is telling us that masking right now is going to be important to reduce the spread,” Gondek said. “So it was municipal governments that brought in mask mandates to start with to protect people. And so if we were able to do it with a situation that we were handed completely unexpectedly … if we could do that, then yes, we can make all kinds of incredible positive changes happen.”  MW

Municipal World Executive and Essentials Plus Members: You might also be interested in Sean’s other article: Municipal World honours 2022 Women of Influence.

Sean Meyer is Digital Content Editor for Municipal World.

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