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Annise Parker
Mayor, Houston

Alyson’s Perspective: Why We Selected Mayor Annise Parker

Starting in December of 2014 Zach and I began working on the development of the Arts and Cultural Plan through the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs (MOCA) for our practicum placement.   After seeing Mayor Parker from afar during Council Sessions, press conferences, and official appearances, I was very intrigued to learn more about her.  Being a brand new Houstonian, I did not know much about her background, politics, or leadership style. However, as she was a woman in such a powerful office, I sensed there would be valuable lessons for me to learn about being a leader in Houston. 
Zach’s Perspective: Why We Selected Mayor Annise Parker

After spending a year working on our practicum placement in the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs at the City of Houston, when asked to select a leader in the arts in Houston in seemed fair enough to go to the top and interview the Mayor of Houston, an ardent supporter of the arts in Houston. As Alyson mentioned, throughout the planning process we saw glimpses of the Mayor, but solely observational settings. By leveraging several situations, such as the fact that we had volunteered collectively nearly 600 hours of our time towards the Arts and Cultural Plan, the fact that we were graduate students, and because of the personal and professional connections we made in the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, namely Radu, we were able to access Houston’s highest-ranking official.

Circumstances

As we came to the culmination of the planning process and were editing drafts, we asked Radu Barbuceanu, Administrative Assistant in the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs, if he had any thoughts on how we might meet with Mayor Parker and interview her for this project in conjunction with our status as interns for the City.  Without a moment’s hesitation, he contacted her assistant and arranged for us to not only interview her, but do so on the next episode for the Arts and segments they had been producing on HTV. This particular segment was to feature the Arts and Cultural Plan.  In addition to our time spent in the studio, Mayor Parker was very generous in answering several follow up questions we submitted that went more in depth regarding her thoughts on leadership. 

This was an exciting opportunity, especially in that it aligned with the conclusion of the planning process for the Arts and Cultural Plan. Additionally, this experience allowed us to weave what we were learning about in class with the Plan in formulating our interview questions. The end result was a well-rounded experience that connected theory and practice.

Transcription of HTV Interview on October 5, 2015

Alyson

You received the National Award for Local Arts Leadership by the US Conference of Mayors and the Americans for the Arts.  How would you personally describe the role a Mayor should play in the leadership and supports of the Arts in a community like Houston?

Mayor Parker

A mayor is the public face, the voice, of a city.  A mayor needs to be able to articulate the big picture for her citizens.  Part of the big picture of Houston is that we’re a wonderful, vibrant arts community and we need to embrace that and support the arts. Now arts are big business- arts and an important element that the creative young people that we want to move to Houston are interested in.  And the arts are something that enhances the experience for everyone who lives here but also for the people who visit here.  So for all of those reasons it is important to have a strong and vibrant arts community and the mayor has to support the arts but understand the impact of the arts in that particular city.

Zach

The city is in the process of undergoing and wrapping up multiple plans- a general plan that most people are probably pretty familiar with as well as…

Mayor Parker

We’re kind of doing a frenzy of planning: a bike master plan, a cultural plan, a general plan- the first ever general plan.  Well now we had a cultural plan and we’ve had a bike plan.  The general plan was brand new and we just passed the general plan- thank goodness!

In a city that is so quickly growing and so sprawling and no zoning- planning is essential which is why the general plan is so important.  I think we need a general plan more than in cities that have strict zoning rule.  But we also have a library master plan we have a major thoroughfare master plan.  Planning tells us…well you have to know where you want to go and planning helps you get there.  And so when you update a cultural plan like the city of Houston we started from where do we want to go?  Let’s have the conversation with the community.  And there have been some previous looks at deficits in our arts funding across the City of Houston…actually I am going to wind that back.  I don’t want it to be about arts funding about the arts.  And when we started formally drafting the new cultural plan I said from the beginning “don’t talk about funding- talk about where you want to be. Talk about the vision.  And then you figure out how to do the funding.”

But what we saw is that we have some great large arts organizations that are supported by amazing philanthropists and they are fairly rich.  And we have a very vibrant small arts- individual artists’ community- not much in the middle.  Not a real clear path for organizations to grow.  And because the state of Texas has really stopped funding arts education in our schools- not a lot of places for young people who are really excited by the arts to go and get that education.  

And then we also heard from the neighborhoods of the city and the council members of the desire to – we want more arts in the neighborhoods.  It shouldn’t be about downtown and the big concerts – the concert halls- and the big organizations. The arts should be for everybody. And so this new cultural plan takes all of those different ideas and seeks to weave them together into a comprehensive plan that helps us then move forward.

Alyson

How do you think the plan- you spoke on it just briefly about all the different components to it but- how do you really think this plan reflects our community and its unique needs? Houston is very unique as they say.

Mayor Parker

We are arguably the most diverse city in the United States and so our cultural plan- it’s an arts and cultural plan I should say.  We keep talking about the cultural plan- we talk about the arts plan- and I keep mentioning the arts, but it’s an Arts and Cultural Plan.  And when you are such a diverse city, part of what you have to offer is respect for the various cultural and artistic traditions of an amazingly diverse population from all over the world. So there has to be a place for that. You have to have a place for the things that unite us as a country: our special events and our 4th of July celebrations and things like that.   And then you have to have a place for the classical arts- visual and performing.  And it all has to work together.
So previously I said it’s not about the money we want to do the big plan and the vision ultimately it comes back to the money because budgets are moral documents.  Budgets are priorities and how we allocate the arts spending we have here doesn’t just support what we have today but it determines what we have in the future.  And so ultimately- part of what we…here’s where we’re going.  Here’s how we are going to get everybody to get there.  Then you have to fund it.  And that is going to be an important element.  We do direct funding for the arts as a City but only through our Hotel Occupancy Tax.  Many other cities use general fund dollars and there is just not a history of that in Houston but we have made up for it by amazingly generous philanthropy.  And I don’t know that we will be able to depend on that forever.  We’re going to have to, as a community, have a discussion about whether we want our tax dollars to go to the arts.  

Transcript of Additional Interview Questions

It’s clear from your dedication to the people of Houston you are a strong leader.  What are your views on leadership?  Would you like to share any lessons learned or personal truths?

There are many attributes of leaders, but I would rank courage, integrity and ability to compromise most highly.

What would you consider are your major accomplishments in the arts?

  1. Increasing HOT funding and creating the % for Art funding on our capital projects.
  2. Advocacy!  Vocally and visibly participating and promoting the arts.

What is your view on navigating change and overcoming obstacles?

Change is a fact of life, and I have chosen a career where confronting new obstacles is almost constant.  I manage it by maintaining control of my personal space.  My home and garden are my sanctuary.

Our Graduate program, the MA in Arts Leadership at UH believes that artists and artistic training cultivate fundamental skills that can be applied to all areas of leadership.  Evolving from writer to entrepreneur to the corporate world to Mayor, did you find that to be true?  What do you believe are those fundamental/transferrable skills that have informed your career?

Being able to communicate clearly and effectively both verbally and in writing is an invaluable skill and can be learned.  It has been helpful to me to be able to process large amounts of data quickly and to try to view any problem from multiple angles.

You’ve mentioned a personal interest in the literary arts: you helped establish Houston’s first poet laureate and one of your original pieces was read at her inauguration.  How do you see the arts playing a part of your life once you have let City Hall?  Any plans to write?

I’d like to compile the stories I’ve recorded during my time as mayor, but currently have no plans to do so.  I look forward to having a quiet mind so that I can write poetry once again.

Alyson’s Conclusions and Final Thoughts

I found Mayor Parker to be a fascinating person, both with her personal history and leadership style as Mayor. It was extremely interesting to see her in a variety of environments: City Council Chambers, Advisory Committee Meetings, in her home hosting a reception for the planning participants, and one-on-one for our interview. There were subtle differences to her demeanor depending on the situation, but one thing remained consistent: a steel-hard resolve and sense of conviction. It is evident she is not afraid to take things on that are difficult, or unpopular, if she feels it is the right thing to do: “If I’m not making people a little bit uncomfortable or a little bit unhappy, I’m not pushing hard enough…making people angry should be part of the job but not every public official believes that.”

She also radiates being completely at ease with herself. She is strong when she needs to be but also can be vulnerable- showing fatigue in the quiet moments, which we saw at the start of our interview. I recognize how exhausting her job must be and that she needed that time to disengage. I think that, as a leader, it is important to put on the ‘show’ when you must but then allow yourself the time to breathe and re-group in the quiet moments.

 During my time working at City Hall, I often reflected on how to achieve a work life balance as a civil servant.  After meeting Mayor Parker I wondered how she manages her responsibilities to both the people of Houston and her family. In one interview she stated, “I don’t really balance my work and family life….I recently married my companion of 24 years…we have 3 adopted children.  There is no balance.  Most of the time my job consumes everything.  And so the one thing that I do is when I come home and I shut the door, I turn off the phone; I unplug everything and completely focus on my family. I don’t think there is such a thing as work life balance. What happens is one aspect of your life becomes ascendant and then another becomes ascendant. It depends on the crisis of the moment which one becomes more important.”  Her point of view has given me much to think about- I truly appreciate her blunt candor about NOT having a balance.  It reminded me of the article written by Anne-Marie Slaughter where she also stated women can’t have it all: “I strongly believe that women can “have it all” (and that men can too).  I believe that we can “have it all at the same time.”  But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured”.    I truly appreciate the candor of these women and it has definitely impacted my views on how I can balance my career and having a family.

Zach’s Conclusion and Final Thoughts

In reflecting on the research undertaken for this assignment, as well as our interviews, the key ideas that stood out to me about Mayor Parker is her strong presence as a leader despite being an introvert and also her insight on dealing with change.

In a 2015 video profiling Mayor Parker on MSNBC titled “The Leading Lady of Houston,” she noted of her childhood, “I was painfully shy. I was a science nerd. I couldn’t speak in public.” Parker is a self-professed introvert; yet, I noticed how when she is in the room she has a very strong presence. She is very focused and listens intently on the conversation and provides well-crafted and thought-out responses. Her communication is typically very direct, without embellishments. As a somewhat introverted person myself, I appreciate that her quiet intensity still has the ability to hold space in a room and have a strong presence.

Mayor Parker, in response to one of our question, discussed how she focuses on “maintaining control” of her personal space as a way of navigating change. I found this very interesting, yet it makes a lot of sense. In a situation that you cannot control, leaders must seek control and stability elsewhere. For Mayor Parker, she mentions her garden and house as her “sanctuary.” Comparably, as arts leaders, in tumultuous and unstable situations where a substantial amount of change is occurring, we must root ourselves where we find comfort and control to balance out those situations we cannot. This may take the form of activities such as gardening, exercise, or other undertakings, however, perhaps more relevant would be to continue creating art.